German parliament spotlights Nazis’ LGBTQ victims for first time

The German parliament on Friday dedicated its annual Holocaust commemorations for the first time to people killed for their sexual or gender identity, and acknowledged decades of post-war persecution.

LGBT holocaust memorial
Wreaths laid in front of the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism in Berlin. Photo: STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

Campaigners worked for two decades to establish an official ceremony for LGBTQ victims of the Nazis, saying their experience had long been forgotten or marginalised.

Bärbel Bas, president of the Bundestag lower house, said queer survivors of the so-called Third Reich “long had to fight for recognition” of their

She noted that gay men were murdered, castrated or subjected to horrific “medical” experiments in concentration camps where they formed the “bottom rung of the prisoner hierarchy”.

READ ALSO: German parliament to commemorate LGBT victims of Nazis

Thousands of lesbians, transgender people and sex workers were branded “degenerates” and also imprisoned at the camps under brutal conditions.   

“We remember all people who were persecuted by the National Socialists – robbed, humiliated, marginalised, tortured and murdered,” Bas told the chamber of the glass-domed Reichstag building where Chancellor Olaf Scholz, his cabinet and MPs gathered.

Germany has officially marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day – the anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation – since 1996 with a solemn ceremony at the Bundestag and commemorations across the country.

The event traditionally focuses on the Holocaust’s six million Jewish victims, although, at the first ceremony, then president Roman Herzog did also pay tribute to gay men and lesbians murdered under Adolf Hitler.

The Bundestag commemorates victims of the Holocaust.

The Bundestag commemorates victims of the Holocaust. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

READ ALSO: LGBT Catholic officials stage mass coming-out in Germany

 ‘Living in hiding’

Dutch Jewish survivor Rozette Kats, 80, told the Bundestag that she welcomed the expansion of Germany’s culture of remembrance to include LGBTQ victims.

“If certain groups of victims are categorised as less worthy than others, it means Nazi ideology lives on,” said Kats, who lived out the Holocaust in hiding in Amsterdam while her parents were killed at Auschwitz.

Dani Dayan, chairman of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, said that while Jews were the Nazis’ primary target, it was essential to recognise other groups.

“The Holocaust was an onslaught against humanity: LGBTQ individuals, Roma and Sinti, mentally disabled persons, but especially against the Jewish people,” he told AFP on a visit to Berlin this week.

“We respect and we honour all the victims.”

Actors read out the stories of Mary Puenjer, a lesbian from Hamburg who was gassed at the Ravensbrueck camp in 1942, and Karl Gorath, a gay man who survived Auschwitz only to be sentenced again for homosexuality in West Germany by the same judge who convicted him during the Nazi period.

Klaus Schirdewahn, who was found guilty in West Germany in 1964 of a sexual relationship with another man under a Nazi-era law still on the books, spoke of the shame he endured for most of his life.

“I am doing all I can so that our history will not be forgotten, especially at a time when the queer community is again facing hostility worldwide and also in Germany,” said Schirdewahn, 75.

Pink triangle

Section 175 of Germany’s penal code dating from 1871 outlawed sex between men.

For years it was rarely enforced and cities such as Berlin during the Weimar Republic had a thriving LGBTQ scene until the Nazis came to power.

In 1935 the Nazis toughened the law to carry a sentence of 10 years of forced labour.

Some 57,000 men were imprisoned, while between 6,000 and 10,000 were sent to concentration camps and given uniforms emblazoned with a pink triangle designating their sexuality.

Historians say between 3,000 and 10,000 gay men and an unknown number of lesbians and transgender people were killed or died of mistreatment.

Bas said it was a “disgrace” that queer people still faced state persecution after the war.

“By the time there were reparations, many (victims) were no longer alive,” she told AFP.

Section 175 was finally dropped from the penal code in East Germany in 1968. In West Germany, it reverted to the pre-Nazi era version in 1969 and was only fully repealed in 1994.

In 2017, parliament voted to quash the convictions of 50,000 gay men sentenced for homosexuality and offered compensation to victims.

Henny Engels of the German Lesbian and Gay Association rights group called Friday’s commemoration an “important symbol of recognition” of “the suffering and the dignity of the imprisoned, tortured and murdered victims”.

By Deborah Cole

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Why is the German flag black, red and gold?

The German flag's distinctive black, red and gold stripes date back to the 19th century. We look at the history around the colours, what they represent and how Germans feel about their flag.

Why is the German flag black, red and gold?

In some countries around the world, flying the national flag is a source of joy, in others it is associated with far-right movements. Overall though, flags of nations can represent all sorts of things. 

It’s fair to say that Germans have a complicated relationship with patriotism, and their flag.  

Due to World War II and National Socialism, many people have struggled with their attitude to national symbols such as the German flag. 

However, these feelings have eased in recent years and Germans have got more comfortable flying the flag, especially at sporting events. 

So where does the flag come from, and what does it represent?

According to the German government, the exact origins of the black, red and gold colours are not certain. 

What is clear is that the colours were used by the liberal national movement of the 19th century during a time when the question of German unity dominated the agenda.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What I was asked about in my German citizenship test

“The patriotic German Students’ Association founded in Jena in 1818 chose these colours in the belief that they were the colours of the old empire,” says the government in an article on state symbols. 

There is some debate over whether the red-trimmed black uniforms of the Lützow Free Corps from the wars of liberation (1813-1814) were part of this choice.

German flag St Paul's church

A man wears a black-red-gold tie at an event at St. Paul’s church in Frankfurt am Main. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa POOL | Sebastian Christoph Gollnow

The tricolour featuring black, red and gold, was really established at the Hambach Festival back in 1832, which was a gathering of around 40,000 students and professors who supported liberalism and democracy and were against conservatism and censorship.

During the March revolution of 1848 the states of the German Confederation at that time designated a flag with the black, red and gold as the official federal colours. These colours were said to represent liberalism, democracy and coming together through a national movement. 

But after the revolution failed to unify Germany, the flag also disappeared as a national symbol. 

New flag colour surfaces

Another flag came about during the North German Confederation era from 1867 to1871. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck is said to have ordered the creation of a new black, white and red tricolour as the flag of the navy and the merchant marine. It was adopted as the national flag of the German Empire in 1892.

However, when the Weimar Republic was formed in 1918, the original flag colours of ‘Schwarz-Rot-Gold’ came back into action and was adopted as the national flag. 

Black, red and gold were recognised as the Reich colours and enshrined as such in the constitution. The aim was to embrace values of democracy, republicanism and liberalism in a new era.

But a special carve-out was made for the merchant flag, which was allowed to remain black, white and red and have the Reich colours in the upper inside corner. “From this compromise it was clear that the issue of the flag was still unresolved and remained on the political agenda,” says the German government. “It developed into an ongoing dispute that even brought down the Reich government in 1926.”

When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, the flag changed once again. In 1935, under the Reich Flag Act, the swastika flag was declared the national flag. 

After World War II came to an end in 1945, the Federal Republic of Germany adopted the old colours of the flag from the 1848 revolution and the Weimar period. Black, red and gold came to be world renowned as Germany’s flag. 

READ ALSO: Schwarz-Rot-Gold: A nation’s history in colour

German football fans before the start of a match.

German football fans before the start of a match. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AAP | Darren England

According to the German government, a speaker in the Parliamentary Council said: “The tradition of black, red and gold is … unity in freedom. This flag should serve as a symbol to us that the libertarian idea of personal freedom should be one of the foundations of our future state.”

What happened when Germany was divided?

During the separation, East Germany kept the black, red and gold tricolours, but added the hammer and compasses emblem. 

But after reunification, the black, red and gold tricolour once again represented unified Germany. 

At midnight on October 3rd 1990, when the two countries united once against in the form of the Bundesrepublik, the flag was hoisted in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin.