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The Irish Times, March 29, 2000

Germany remembers the pink triangle men

Germany is finally beginning to acknowledge the gay men who suffered and died in concentration camps, writes Denis Staunton in Berlin

GERMANY: In a small ceremony on Sunday at the former concentration camp at Sachsenhausen near Berlin, politicians, dignitaries and historians remembered the fate of Hitler's forgotten victims, the men who wore the pink triangle.

Fifty-five years after the defeat of fascism, Germany is at last beginning to acknowledge the gay men who suffered and died in Nazi concentration camps, and to make amends for their shabby treatment after the end of the second World War.

The Bundestag agreed last Friday to consider a government proposal to overturn all criminal convictions for homosexuality handed down during the Nazi era and to apologise for the continued use of Hitler's anti-gay legislation until 1969.

Now a new exhibition documents the persecution of homosexuals in the Third Reich and tells for the first time the individual stories of 700 gay concentration camp inmates.

"We want to give the gay victims of the Nazis their names back, to present their lives as far as possible and in this way to liberate them, symbolically at least, from the dehumanising barbarity of the Nazi terror," said Mr Andreas Sternweiler, the curator of the exhibition at Sachsenhausen and Berlin's Gay Museum.

The fresh interest in Hitler's gay victims is also reflected in a new film about the gay rights pioneer, Mr Magnus Hirschfeld, whose Institute for Sexuality in Berlin was shut down and ransacked by the Nazis shortly after they came to power in 1933.

The Nazis clamped down on Germany's gays almost immediately, closing down homosexual organisations and shutting gay bars, of which there were over 100 in Berlin alone.

Two years later they toughened the law governing homosexuality, Paragraph 175, so that it was no longer necessary to prove that sexual relations had taken place between two men to convict them.

Between 1935 and 1945, 50,000 gay men were prosecuted and an estimated 10,000 were sent to concentration camps such as Sachsenhausen, where they were identified by a pink triangle.

Isolated from other inmates, they ranked among the lowest in the camp and were subject to regular harassment and the possibility of sudden death.

"The guards had a game where they would throw an inmate's cap on to the perimeter pence or across a line on the ground and tell the inmate to fetch it. If a prisoner crossed the line, he was accused of attempting to escape. If he didn't, he was disobeying orders. Either way, he was shot," according to Mr Karl-Heinz Steinle, who helped to research the exhibition.

In one incident at Sachsenhausen, 90 gay inmates were taken to a brick works in the camp and shot dead but, because of their isolation, few other inmates of the camp were aware of their fate.

After Germany's defeat, gay concentration camp inmates were liberated along with other victims but received no compensation, and their criminal convictions re mained in force.

A Swiss gay paper, Der Kreis, documented two cases of former inmates who appealed to have their convictions overturned after the end of the war.

The appeals were rejected, and the former inmates were told to compensate the state for the time they had spent in concentration camps at the state's expense.

The Nazi version of Paragraph 175 remained on West Germany's statute books until 1969 and was not repealed in full until 1994. As a result, most gay victims of the Nazis kept quiet about their experience for fear of further prosecution, and it is only now that their stories are finally being told.

The government's proposal to legally rehabilitate Hitler's gay victims and to apologise for the continued persecution of homosexuals is almost certain to become law.

But Mr Zastrau believes that Berlin should compensate gays for their suffering, not just individually but collectively, too.

"The government should compensate the entire gay movement for the damage done to the community as a whole. They could start by reconstructing Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexuality which the Nazis destroyed when they came to power," he said.

"Persecution of Homosexual Men in Berlin 1933-45" is at the former concentration camp at Sachsenhausen and the Gay Museum in Berlin until July 30th.

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