Following years of controversy, German dignitaries this week dedicated a memorial to the tens of thousands of gays and lesbians who were persecuted and killed in Nazi Germany.
[The photo to the right shows a man looking at a video screen inside the memorial.]
This month marks the 75th anniversary of the series of raids and public book burnings in May 1933 with which the regime of Adolf Hitler began its crusade against homosexuality.
Photos of Nazi stormtroopers hurling books onto bonfires stem largely from the book-burning rally which occurred outside the offices of gay-rights pioneer Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science, which was ransacked in May 1933.
But authorities in Germany are going to great lengths to ensure that Tuesday’s monument dedication ceremonies remain low-key so as to avert neo-Nazi violence.
Only a hand-picked number of dignitaries, led by Berlin’s openly gay Mayor Klaus Wowereit, will be on hand for the ceremonies at Berlin’s Tiergarten park, half a block from Brandenburg Gate.
That location—directly across the street from the Jewish Holocaust Memorial – has also been a matter of controversy over the years.
The construction of both monuments was delayed in part by a debate over whether homosexual concentration camp inmates should be included at the Holocaust Memorial.
In the end, it was decided to give gays their own memorial directly across the street.
The monument itself, designed by Danish-Norwegian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, is a simple grey rectangular stone some four metres tall. In a bid to deter vandalism, the monument is devoid of any sort of ornamentation.
“This is a happy/sad compromise solution,” says Albert Eckert, head of the gay holocaust memorial committee. “We are happy because this monument is ready in time for the 75th anniversary of the raids on Magnus Hirschfeld’s institute which signalled the beginning of the persecution of gays under Nazism.
“But we are sad because it has taken this long to come this far. Gays imprisoned by the Nazis were still in prison well into the 1950s and ’60s because of anti-gay laws which were not repealed until 1969,” Eckert says.
“There are still no anti-discrimination laws in Germany, despite the fact that we have a watered-down federal law that allows same-sex couples to register their partnerships, albeit without much in the way of benefits,” he adds.
“And neo-Nazi violence is still a very real threat to this day. But at last we have a monument to those who suffered and died under the Nazis,” Eckert notes.
“We are also very happy that the dedication nearly coincides with Magnus Hirschfeld’s birthday and day of death, since he was born May 14—and died a broken and bitter man in exile in the south of France on his birthday in 1935,” Eckert says.
A Jewish homosexual, Hirschfeld was a medical doctor who dedicated his life to the scientific study of homosexuality and to lobbying the German government to repeal laws outlawing all same-sex behaviour even amongst consenting adults in private.
Hirschfeld spent the majority of his career writing and lecturing around the world on the nature of homosexuality and other “intermediate” sexual types, including cross dressers.
The word “transsexual” was coined by Hirschfeld to describe the phenomenon that he argued was a natural extension of human sexuality.
For his work, the Nazis targeted Hirschfeld as an example of decadent Bolshevistic/Jewish influence infecting the purity of the German people, luring the Aryan race into impure and destructive perversity.
His institute was ransacked and his books were burned in rallies on May 10, 1933.
In another ironic twist, homosexual members of Ernst Roehm’s SA Stormtroopers hurled these books to the flames in 1933—and would themselves face persecution and death when Hitler turned against Roehm only a scant year later during the “Night of Long Knives” in June 1934 when Hitler decided that blatantly homosexual Roehm had become a liability.
“Within a few months of those book burnings 75 years ago this month,” says Eckert, “gay men were being rounded up and sent to mental hospitals or concentration camps. Many agreed to ‘voluntary’ castration after being told that might result in leniency.”
But there was no leniency for them.
“We have no idea how many thousands died in concentration camps because many were also Jewish or were Communists. We know that many were left in prison after the war when post-war courts upheld the Nazi jail sentences against them,” Eckert says.
“Anyone who was gay was automatically a criminal. This monument is for all of them.”
BERLIN (AP) — Germany unveiled a memorial Tuesday to the Nazis’ long-ignored gay victims, a monument that also aims to address ongoing discrimination by confronting visitors with an image of a same-sex couple kissing.
The memorial — a sloping gray concrete slab on the edge of Berlin’s Tiergarten park — echoes the vast field of smaller slabs that make up Germany’s memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, opened three years ago just across the road.
The pavilion-sized slab includes a small window where visitors can view a video clip of two men kissing.
Berlin’s openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit, said the monument was a reminder of the ongoing struggles that still confront gays.
“This memorial is important from two points of view — to commemorate the victims, but also to make clear that even today, after we have achieved so much in terms of equal treatment, discrimination still exists daily,” Wowereit said as he inaugurated the memorial alongside Culture Minister Bernd Neumann.
Nazi Germany declared homosexuality a threat to the German race and convicted some 50,000 homosexuals as criminals. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 gay men were deported to concentration camps, where few survived.
“This is a story that many people don’t know about, and I think it’s fantastic … that the German state finally decided to make a memorial to honor these victims as well,” said Ingar Dragset, a Berlin-based Norwegian who designed the memorial along with Danish-born Michael Elmgreen.
The commemoration “unfortunately comes too late for those who were persecuted and survived in 1945,” said Guenter Dworek, of Germany’s Lesbian and Gay Association. “That is very bitter.”
He said the last ex-prisoner that his group knows of died in 2005.
Wowereit echoed his regret over the time it took to honor the Nazis’ gay victims.
“That is symptomatic of a postwar society which simply kept quiet about a group of victims, which … contributed to these victims being discriminated against twice,” he said.
Few gays convicted by the Nazis came forward after World War II because of the stigma attached to homosexuality. The law used against them remained on the books in West Germany until 1969, and Dworek said there were 50,000 convictions under the legislation after the war.
Not until 2002 did the German parliament issue a formal pardon for homosexuals convicted under the Nazis. One reason it took so long was because the legislation had been linked to a blanket rehabilitation of 22,000 Wehrmacht deserters — a move many conservatives opposed.
The effort to get a memorial built started in 1992, and a 1999 parliament decision to build the memorial to the Holocaust’s 6 million Jewish victims also called for “commemorating in a worthy fashion the other victims of the Nazis.” In 2001, Jewish and Gypsy leaders backed an appeal for a monument to the gay victims.
After lawmakers approved its construction, a jury picked the winning design in early 2006 out of 17 design proposals.
The federal government financed the $945,660 building costs, while Berlin’s city government provided the site.
The designers’ original plan to feature only a video of two men kissing ran into criticism that lesbians were left out. Last year, a compromise was reached to change the memorial’s video every two years, allowing lesbian couples to be shown in the future.
The first film — a repeating clip of two men kissing, shot at the site of the memorial before it was built — was done by photographer Robby Mueller and directed by Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg.
“It was quite important to have a direct imagery of a love scene, a passionate scene … because that is the main problem in homophobia,” designer Elmgreen told AP Television News. “You can get acceptance on an abstract level, but they don’t want to look at us.”
Germany has allowed gay couples to seal their partnerships at registry offices since 2001, although the law stops short of offering formal marriage. Berlin has a large gay community, as do other major German cities, such as Cologne and Hamburg.
The memorial to the Nazis’ Jewish victims and the new monument will soon be joined by a third memorial honoring the Roma and Sinti, or Gypsy, victims. Some 220,000 to 500,000 Gypsies were killed during the Holocaust.
Work begins this year on that memorial, also in Tiergarten park.
“We stand stunned before the brutality with which the Nazis threatened, persecuted and destroyed all those who did not correspond to their inhuman ideology,” Neumann said.
“The experience of war and Holocaust, state terror and tyranny, puts on us Germans a special responsibility to protect freedom and human rights.”