In May of this year, the German government unveiled a memorial to gay men killed in the Holocaust, set in Berlin's central Tiergarten Park, opposite the Jewish Holocaust Memorial. This week, that memorial was vandalized for the second time. The repeated attacks on the Tiergarten memorial speak to German society's unresolved relationship to the experience of gays in the Holocaust.
The Berlin memorial consists of a four meter-tall block of concrete with a small window on one side. Through the glass, visitors can see a black-and-white film of two men kissing (a still from that film is the image accompanying this article). An inscription says, "A simple kiss could get you in trouble." Earlier this week, the glass protecting the film was smashed in. In August of this year, the same act of vandalism was enacted against the memorial, indicating, in a no-doubt unintentional act of irony, the truth of the inscription.
The Holocaust's impact on the Jewish population of Europe is better known than the fate of gays under the Nazis, but Hitler's regime was profoundly homophobic, and gays were relentlessly persecuted. In Nazi Germany, gays and lesbians were registered on police lists, called "pink lists"; as many as 100,000 men were registered as gay, and of those as many as 15,000 spent time in concentration camps. How many died there is a matter of dispute, but estimates circle around 10,000.
The problems for Germany's gay men were far from over after Hitler, however, a fact that the Berlin monument acknowledges. A plaque in front of the monument gives both an overview of Nazi persecution of gay men, and an account of Paragraph 175. Paragraph 175 made homosexuality illegal in 1871; it was broadened under Nazism to allow deportation of gay men to concentration camps. The law was separately revised in East and West Germany, but persisted in both states. It was only completely revoked in 1994 after German reunification. In 2002, the German government formally pardoned all gay people convicted by the Nazis and in 2003 approved the plan for the Berlin memorial.
The Berlin memorial is not Germany's only monument to gay victims of the Nazis, but it is one of the most symbolically potent. At the memorial's unveiling in May, the International Gay and Lesbian Association (ILGA) issued a statement pointing out the importance of the monument's location: "It is in the centre of the city from where decades ago the policies of extermination of homosexual people along with such groups as Jews, gypsies, Jehovah's witnesses and political dissidents, was conceived and the deadly orders were given." This central placement was an effort to end the traditional peripheralization of the stories of gay victims of Nazi atrocities, who continued to be persecuted after the war, and who are largely left out of traditional historical accounts of the Holocaust. As Berlin mayor Klaus Wowerit, who happens to be the city's first openly gay mayor, pointed out when the memorial was first opened, the placement of this monument in the center of Berlin was meant to form a contrast with the Nazis, who were "a society that did not abolish unjust verdicts, but partially continued to implement them; a society which did not acknowledge a group of people as victims, only because they chose another way of life."
Clearly the symbolic placement of the memorial is viewed negatively by some, who persist in vandalizing it. Still, as a solid block of concrete the memorial also symbolizes the solid strength and persistence of those who refuse to be beaten down by bigotry, no matter how often it appears.