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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FACT CHECK: Are people punished for using Nazi slogans in Germany?

After a video clip of people chanting Nazi slogans on the German island of Sylt went viral, many are waiting to see what consequences the perpetrators will face. The Local takes a look at how German law handles cases of hate speech.

FACT CHECK: Are people punished for using Nazi slogans in Germany?

Last week, a video clip showing people chanting “foreigners out” and “Germany for Germans” to the tune of “L’Amour Toujours” by Gigi D’Agostino spread rapidly online, and sparked calls for consequences for those involved.

Since then a series of similar incidents have been reported at various events across Germany, including: men seen singing the racist lyrics at ‘Schlagermove’ in Hamburg, two men arrested at Erlangen’s ‘Bergkirchweih’ festival for the same action, and in Stuttgart supporters of the Turkish football club Galatasaray Istanbul erupted in bouts of the chant celebrating their team’s victory.

In all of these incidents police reports were made. 

Regarding the Sylt incident, public prosecutors have already opened investigations on the suspicion of incitement to hatred for several of the people involved.

READ ALSO: Outrage after partygoers filmed shouting racist chants on German island of Sylt

Many of them have reportedly lost their jobs over the incident, and public protests have popped up against far-right and racist behaviour. But it could be a while before prosecutors officially decide if charges should be brought in this case. 

For foreigners living in Germany, the incident brings an interesting question to mind: in which cases exactly is racist or xenophobic speech illegal in Germany?

The Local takes a look at the German laws around hate speech, and what actions are punishable by law.

What is considered hate speech according to German law?

In general, Germany places high importance on the freedom of speech. This is why all kinds of groups, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum, can speak, rally and protest freely in this country.

However, given Germany’s history, when current laws were written, some rules were put in place that were meant to prevent people from targeting minorities with hateful speech. Additionally, glorifying the Holocaust, or denying the fact that it happened, is a punishable offence.

Specifically, incitement to hatred (Volksverhetzung) is illegal, according to section 130 of Germany’s penal code.

Here it is written that, “Whoever, in a manner that is likely to disturb the public peace, incites hatred against a national, racial, religious or ethnic group…”, can be imprisoned for up to five years.

Additionally, a person can face up to three years in prison for either creating or disseminating content that incites hatred along the same lines.

Further sub-sections of the law clarify that either approving of crimes committed by the Nazis, or denying or trivialising them, in a manner that disturbs the public peace can also be punished with jail time up to five years or a fine. The same goes for creating or sharing content that delivers a message along those lines.

One well-known case against a Holocaust denier was held in 2007 when Germar Rudolf was sentenced to two and half years in prison for publishing “research” meant to disprove the Nazi’s use of gas chambers in concentration camps, among other things.

How is the law applied in practice?

While Germany’s hate speech ban sounds like an obvious and simple rule in theory, things quickly get a bit more complicated when it comes to enforcing it.

Whereas it is quite easy to identify racism or xenophobia as soon as you see or hear it, whether it qualifies as criminal conduct, according to the law, can be tricky to determine.

“This is the case if a statement violates a specific prohibition under criminal law,” Sonja Eichwede, legal policy spokeswoman of the SPD parliamentary group, told The Local. “For example, anyone who uses slogans of anti-constitutional organisations, calls for or condones criminal acts or incites hatred against certain groups of people will be prosecuted.”

Such was the case in the recent trial of Björn Höcke, a far-right AfD politician in Thuringia, who was fined €13,000 for closing a political speech with the rallying cry, “Everything for Germany”, which is a slogan known to have been used by the Nazi party.

READ ALSO: Hitler or Höcke? Regional AfD boss cuts short German TV interview

German law books in front of prosecutor

The German Criminal Code (StGB) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (StPO) stand next to a federal prosecutor in the courtroom. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Oliver Berg

What consequences could those seen at Sylt face?

The slogan heard at the incident at Sylt – “Germany for Germans, foreigners out” – is a chant that was used by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, and has also been used by the far-right National Democratic party.

So it is possible that the people who disturbed the peace by saying these phrases on camera could be charged, and face hefty fines or even a prison sentence. But whether or not the law has been broken will need to be determined by prosecutors.

According to Eichwede, whether or not charges can be brought is reviewed on a case by case basis: “When this limit is exceeded can only be determined according to the specific circumstances of each individual case.”

She added: “Racist motives are given special consideration by the courts when determining the sentence and lead to a higher penalty.”

Short of using language known specifically to have been used by the Nazi party, or a terrorist organisation, incitement to hatred becomes trickier to establish.

But use of any language which targets a minority group, or which assaults someone’s human dignity based on their belonging to a certain religious or racial group, can be charged.

Other laws that have been applied against hate speech

Beyond the basic protections established in Section 130, there are a few other German codes that have been used to prosecute Holocaust deniers and fascist propagandists.

Similar to slander or libel laws, Germany’s Chapter 14 prohibits malicious gossip against citizens or defamation against politicians. It also includes a ban on defiling the memory of the dead.

In 2007, Holocaust denier and publisher of neo-Nazi propaganda, Ernst Zündel, was convicted of violating the memory of the dead. This charge was included in a broader incitement to hatred case, and he was sentenced to five years in prison.

Crucially, these kinds of insult-law cases can only be brought with the consent of the victim or the victim’s family.

Sections 86 and 86a ban online or offline distribution of “flags, insignia, uniforms, slogans and forms of greeting” that are known to belong to political parties and organisations that are considered unconstitutional by the Federal Constitutional Court, including Nazis and neo-Nazis.

Finally, the most recent addition to Germany’s legal protections against hate speech came in 2017 in the form of the Network Enforcement Act.

According to this law, social media companies are responsible for deleting hate speech on their platforms in Germany, and face up to €50 million in fines if they don’t.

Following a series of far-right terror attacks carried out by perpetrators who had been radicalised on the internet, the act was tightened in 2020.