The Irish Times, March 29, 2000
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
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
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
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