Friday, June 6, 2008

New Holocaust Memorial in Berlin - For Homosexuals

In the 1970's gay activists established the pink triangle as a pro-gay symbol in the United States. Its history came from WWII when known homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps were forced to wear pink triangle badges as an identification/classification system very much the same way that Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David.

Men wearing this triangle were at the bottom of the camp social system and given even more harsh treatment than the other prisoners, if that could be conceivable. It was this impetus which caused the activists to appropriate the symbol of the pink triangle as a symbol of humiliation into one of solidarity.

Within the last week a memorial to the thousands of gay men who died in Nazi concentration camps was dedicated here in Berlin. The two meter tall memorial was erected opposite the main Holocaust memorial for Jewish victims in Tiergarten Park in Berlin at a cost of 600,000 EUR.
Yes, it's crooked... NEVER STRAIGHT! :)

Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen designed a gray concrete slab fashioned very much like the slabs used in the memorial for the Jewish victims, with a window to allow visitors to view a video. The video inside shows two men kissing and will eventually rotate to two women kissing and back again.
One frame of the video shown within.
The video was shot on the very spot that the memorial stands today.

From the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "The Nazi campaign against homosexuality targeted the more than one million German men who, the state asserted, carried a "degeneracy" that threatened the "disciplined masculinity" of Germany. Denounced as "antisocial parasites" and as "enemies of the state," more than 100,000 men were arrested under a broadly interpreted law against homosexuality. Approximately 50,000 men served prison terms as convicted homosexuals, while an unknown number were institutionalized in mental hospitals. Others—perhaps hundreds—were castrated under court order or coercion. Analysis of fragmentary records suggest that between 5,000 and 15,000 homosexual men were imprisoned in concentration camps, where many died from starvation, disease, exhaustion, beatings, and murder."

To add insult to injury, after the war gay men were not recognized as victims of the Holocaust and many were re-imprisoned by the authorities because of their sexuality.

The survivors were then denied the reparations and state pensions available to all other groups. In 2002, the German government formally pardoned homosexuals imprisoned by the Nazis but of course the great majority were long since deceased.

Thursday I went to an event in the Tiergarten, the Team Staffel 5X5 running event. One of the main entrances wound around a path going directly past the memorial itself. Since N. and I had been in the area on Sunday (we took the pictures on that day - it would have been impossible on Thursday with 40,000 people in the area ), it was a great place for the both of us to meet up.

The plaque outside of the area looking into the memorial itself.

As I waited for N., I could watch the long line of people slowly filing past the huge gray box. Some of them looked inquisitively at it, obviously not knowing what it was all about. Others stared with curiosity for a moment or two and then you could see the spark when they figured out what they were looking at. The most interesting folks were the ones who turned on my Gaydar... they were obviously looking at the memorial with interest and recognition, but most people had another agenda... they were supposed to be running soon, so they passed by continuing to look as they went on their way. One or two people stopped and walked up to the window to see the video inside, but that was a very small minority of those in the area. In my ten minutes at that position, I saw 5 people total approach the memorial... and another 200 or so walk by it.
Click the picture to read the inscription (German/English)

In school they never taught us about the homosexuals being persecuted by the Nazis. We learned about the Jews of course and the mentally ill and I even remember hearing about the gypsies, but we certainly weren't taught about the gays.

About ten years ago I went to see the play, "Bent". It really had an effect on me, opening my eyes to the whole sordid affair. One of the two main characters manages to survive by "trading up" his pink triangle badge for a yellow Star of David.

Later on I read some great books, one of which explained how the Nazis were able to find and persecute a great majority of the gay men... because they were actually on a LIST. The years between WWI and WWII fostered a rather open society. The bohemian lifestyle was simply more accepted and so gays and lesbians felt more empowered than ever before, 'coming out of the closet' in droves, so to speak. Berlin began to harbor a large gay community and there were many outlets for this newfound feeling of solidarity. At this time there were several very important sexual studies taken, at least one of which had compiled complete information on the men including their addresses and sexual partners. This list was later used against these men as proof of their homosexuality, eventually leading a great majority of them to their deaths.

Of course there can be no ignoring that the Nazi Party itself had many homosexuals within its ranks, some were even highly placed such as the leader of the SA (precursor to the SS), Ernst Röhm. "The Night of the Long Knives" was the end of Röhm's reign however. He and his henchmen, many of whom were gay, were summarily executed or jailed for what was perceived as a possible power play between the SA and the SS.

OK, enough of the history lesson.
What did I think of the memorial? I didn't like that it so closely mirrored the Jewish Memorial with it's huge cement block. It struck me a bit funny that it doesn't sit in the ground straight... there is something very humorous about that bit.

The idea of the two men kissing on the video isn't such a big deal to me as I see it often. It is my assumption that the idea is to be a little "in your face" about the gay issue, and that people can't ignore it. Gays and lesbians often get acceptance on an abstract level, but straights rarely can deal with the thought of seeing us.

Evidently there was a bit of a dust up that lesbians were not initially included in the video portion of the memorial. This lead to the inclusion of a video of a pair of lesbians kissing being added in the second year. I'm not sure if this was the right thing to do. Lesbians weren't really singled out as a group by the Nazis... as observed throughout history, to the Nazis the more scary part of the homosexual community was the gay men. But politics being what they are... inclusion is the name of the game.

The whole thing didn't effect me very much at all. This is strange because places like the Vietnam Wall often produce a feeling of reverence in me, sometimes bringing me to tears with the thought of the events that lead to the building of the memorial. I didn't FEEL much in this place at all. Not even on Sunday morning when there wasn't another soul around. But then the Jewish Holocaust Memorial here in Berlin is much the same for me. I don't get it. And judging by the hundreds of people I see using the place as a fun and crazy maze, there are lots of other people that feel the same. To be fair I haven't been in the underground section of the Jewish Memorial. If anyone would care to accompany me there, just let me know.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Quoted from the plaque at the new Holocaust Memorial for Homosexuals.
"With this memorial, the Federal Republic of Germany intends to honour the victims of persecution and murder, to keep alive the memory of this injustice, and to create a lasting symbol of opposition to the enmity, intolerance, and the exclusion of gay men and lesbians."


cliff1976 said...

you said, "but straights rarely can deal with the thought of seeing us."

I hate
(a) generalizations like that
(b) that I can't refute that
(c) both (a) and (b)

Gotta roll with (c) on this one. Just please don't let that "rarely" gradually slide into a "never."

kthxbi >-- just a pun, not an outing

Snooker said...

Good point Cliff... you are absolutely right. It was a silly (although sometimes quite true) generalization. As for me I myself have on occasion turned my head at the sight of straights AND gay men snogging... it just isn't something I really want to see either. :)

Jess said...

LOL @ snogging :P

This was a great post, I'd read about the memorial, but had not seen pics. Thanks!

I've added you to my reader. I will definitely be back!


Anonymous said...

Don't know if you'll ever see this comment, as I found this post 6 months after you wrote it. I'm a historian of modern Germany (and a Jew) who teaches a course on "Modern Germany through Berlin." I took my students to Berlin for two weeks in Spring 2007 and we went to a huge number of monuments and memorials. Even if this one is not the most compelling ever, I think its existence means a lot, because it becomes a reference point for people looking at this era. I also think it's beneficial that it's near the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (and not far from an abstract, obscure monument to the victims of Aktion T4 against the disabled--an almost unintelligible monument, sadly).

On the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, I find it very effective if you let yourself get lost, isolated, and bewildered in it. However, the young people playing games does ruin the effect, sadly. The museum underneath is actually fantastic and I strongly recommend you go to it. It combines a brief but multifaceted history of the Holocaust with several rooms that effectively convey the individual human suffering of victims, the immensity of the scale of death, and the geographical physicality of the Holocaust. It is the most effective Holocaust-related museum, in my opinion, but I may see things differently as a historian of this subject.

Elun Gabriel

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