A Train to Sachsenhausen

HomomonumentIn the Netherlands and Europe on May 4th the victims of World War II are commemorated with a Day of Remembrance. At the Amsterdam Homomonument a special ceremony is held to pay tribute to gay and lesbian victims of Nazi persecution, as well as those who have suffered discrimination in any form, worldwide, since the war.

In April 2000 I took a train to Sachsenhausen, a Holocaust memorial Sachsenhausen Gatesite just north of Berlin, to view an exhibition by the Schwules Museum about the persecution of homosexuals during the Nazi regime. The program I made for the Radio Netherlands series Aural Tapestry was honored with the 2001 Seigenthaler Excellence in Audio Award from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association in Washington DC.

(The following is based on research gathered during the making of the program A Train to Sachsenhausen.)

Magnus Hirshfeld“Magnus Hirschfeld was one of the first sexologists ever,” explained Berlin gay activist and filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim, director of The Einstein of Sex. “And after 200 years of sexual repression by the church he stood up and said I’m fighting for gay rights. As a doctor, as a scientist, as a respected person in society he was close to losing everything and making a lot of people very angry. But he managed in his very humanistic way to convince people who were trying to change the law known as Paragraph 175.”

Stamping Out Perversion

Part of German law since 1871, Paragraph 175 was used mainly to keep control of the gay community and, in 1929, Hirschfeld’s long-sought effort seemed within reach. A Reichstag committee approved repeal of the law by a narrow margin, supported by both the Communists and Social Democrats. But Hitler’s official newspaper gave an ominous response:

“We congratulate you, Mr Hirschfeld, on the victory in committee. But don’t think that we Germans will allow these laws to stand for a single day after we have come to power… These efforts are nothing but vulgar, perverted crimes and we will punish them by banishment or hanging.”

When the Nazis came to power, they not only prevented the repeal of Paragraph 175 but strengthened its enforcement, as reported on the front page of the New York World Telegram on 17 December 1934:

“Adolf Hitler’s secret police, aided by the Elite Guards, began a nationwide drive today to purge the Reich of sexual abnormality. They threw into jail between 500 and 700 men accused of perversion. In recent conferences of the party, Herr Hitler emphasised a determination to stamp out sex perversion among all Nazi organisations. It was recalled that after his ‘purge’ of June 30, he made a pledge ‘to German mothers that their sons would never be contaminated if they joined his Storm Troopers’.”

Shoe Testing, Target Practice

Oranienburg, just north of Berlin, could be any town in northern Europe. The streets are quiet and the homes well-kept. But it was there, in those years before and during the Second World War, that most of the homosexuals arrested in Berlin were taken – to a concentration camp known as Sachsenhausen. Most of them did not survive the experience.

Sachsenhausen Prisoners

Prisoners were forced to run in heavy, often ill-fitting, boots. ‘Shoe testing’ it was called. In reality it was a brutal exercise in torturous endurance. The track was covered in different surfaces: asphalt, stones, sand, mud. The prisoners ran hours upon hours carrying heavy loads on their backs. They were beaten if they fell. Some prisoners were forced to build a wall for target practice – and became targets themselves. Any prisoner who attempted escape was hanged in front of the whole camp. But the worst assignment of all was the Klinkerwerk, or Brick Works, about 2 km away.

“We learned that we were to be segregated in a penal command and the next morning would be transferred as a unit to the Klinkerwerk,” remembers Sachsenhausen survivor L.D. von Classen-Neudegg. “We shuddered because these bone mills were more dreaded than any other work detail. Guarded by staff sergeants with machine guns, we had to sprint in lines of five until we arrived… They kept beating us with rifle butts and bullwhips… To shoot someone ‘trying to escape’ was a profitable business for the guards. For everyone they killed, they received five marks and three days’ special furlough…”

Paragraph 175 PosterLiberation and Imprisonment

The gay men ‘lucky’ enough to be liberated from Sachsenhausen at the end of the war were then imprisoned for the remainder of their sentence. They were, after all, still guilty of committing homosexual acts. In December 2000, the German parliament officially apologized to gays and lesbians who were persecuted under the Nazi regime. They also expressed regret for the ‘harm done to homosexual citizens up to 1969′ for it was only then that Paragraph 175 was repealed.

A Train to Sachsenhausen was originally broadcast in June 2000 as part of the Radio Netherlands Worldwide series Aural Tapestry. (A link to the audio can be found HERE.) Three months later, the award-winning film documentary Paragraph 175 was released, bringing the story to a much wider international audience.

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