IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Gays persecuted by Nazis get memorial

Germany unveiled a memorial Tuesday to the long-ignored gay victims of the Nazi Regime, a monument that also aims to address discrimination today .
Image: Memorial for homosexual victims of persecution by Nazi regime
The memorial for homosexual victims of the Nazis is a deliberate echo of the slabs that make up Germany's memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.Michael Sohn / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Germany unveiled a memorial Tuesday to the long-ignored gay victims of the Nazi Regime, a monument that also aims to address discrimination today 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 — is a deliberate echo of 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.

Berlin's openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit, said at Tuesday's opening that "another part of our work of commemoration is becoming reality."

Its designers included in the pavilion-sized slab a small window that lets visitors see a film of two men kissing.

"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, inaugurating the memorial alongside Culture Minister Bernd Neumann.

Nazi Germany declared homosexuality an aberration that threatened 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," Ingar Dragset, a Berlin-based Norwegian who designed the memorial along with Danish-born Michael Elmgreen, told AP Television News.

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 knew of died in 2005.

Wowereit echoed his regret at the time it took to honor the Nazis' gay victims.

"That is symptomatic of a postwar society which simply kept quiet a group of victims, which itself contributed to these victims being discriminated against twice," he said.

Continuing stigma
Few gays convicted by the Nazis came forward after World War II because of the continuing 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.

The German parliament in 2002 issued a formal pardon for homosexuals convicted under the Nazis. One reason the pardon 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 Nazis." In 2001 Jewish and Gypsy leaders backed a public appeal from Dworek's group for a monument to the gay victims.

After lawmakers approved its construction, a jury picked the design by Dragset and Elmgreen 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.

A love scene
The designers' original plan, which was to feature only a video with two men kissing, then ran into criticism that lesbians were left out. Last year, a compromise was reached under which the film will be changed every two years, allowing for lesbian couples also to be shown in 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 said. "You can get whatever rights, 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."