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There are still important lessons to be learned from Nazi persecution of gay people

Benjamin Cohen January 27, 2022
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Holocaust Memorial Day gay prisoners pink triangle

Homosexual prisoners at the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, wearing pink triangles on their uniforms, are marched outdoors by Nazi guards on December 19, 1938. (CORBIS/Corbis via Getty)

On Holocaust Memorial Day 2022, we revisit PinkNews CEO Benjamin Cohen’s powerful reflection on the persecution of gay people by the Nazis.

If I was alive 80 years ago and living in Berlin and not London, my outlook would not have been looking good and not just because I’m Jewish. Like some of those who found themselves in concentration camps, I also have a disability, I am member of a trade union and perhaps more pertinently, like many of the people reading this article, I am gay.

More than 80 years ago, Hitler ordered the creation of a list of homosexuals, who would later find themselves persecuted. In total, during their time in power, the Nazis arrested 100,000 people for homosexuality, imprisoning half of them including up to 15,000 in concentration camps. Many of those imprisoned died, some after sickening experiments by scientists trying to find the ‘cure’ for homosexuality.

Unfortunately, when the allies liberated the concentration camps, many of the gay people who were imprisoned were not set free. Instead they were transferred to prisons, then under the control of the Allied forces. Their crime, homosexuality, something outlawed before the Nazis took power, remained on the statute book until 1968 in East Germany and 1969 in West Germany.

The Nazi’s rule of terror was an era that witnessed the single worst example of misery that humanity has ever inflicted on itself.

Unlike other victims of Nazi persecution, they were not offered reparations and it took until 2002 for the German government to officially apologise for the Nazis’ crimes against gay people. Today memorials to the Nazi persecution of the gay community are found in Berlin, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Sydney and Tel Aviv.

Holocaust Memorial Day reminds us that unchallenged prejudice can escalate

Holocaust Memorial Day, marked today, is the opportunity to remember all of the victims of Nazi persecution. The Nazi’s rule of terror was an era that witnessed the single worst example of misery that humanity has ever inflicted on itself. Today in my view, also provides moment of reflection for what happened still in our collective lifetimes and an opportunity to galvanise us never to allow the same persecution of minority groups happen again.

A huge "We Remember" banner handing on a fence flanked by police officers during a demonstration against the killing of gay man in February 1990 on Staten Island, New York
A huge “We Remember” banner handing on a fence flanked by police officers during a demonstration against the killing of gay man in February 1990 on Staten Island, New York. (Thomas McGovern/Getty)

I believe that as a community, should use Holocaust Memorial Day as an opportunity for us to consider, given how many countries around the world continue to criminalise or discriminate LGBT+ people, how unchallenged prejudice can quickly and dramatically escalate into unimaginable brutality.

The Nazis drew on deep rooted, latent homophobia within the population to stigmatise gay people.

What happened during the Holocaust also stands to us as a warning to all of us that societies can go backwards as well as forwards. In the 1920s, Berlin was one of the gay capitals of the world, where Germany’s prohibition on homosexuality was widely ignored by the police and a large, open, flourishing gay community was in existence.

Just before the Nazis took power, the German legislature was poised to repeal the legal ban of male homosexuality. It took a political climate that had nothing to do with gay people to radically alter the treatment of this minority group. The Nazis drew on deep rooted, latent homophobia within the population to stigmatise gay people to justify to ordinarily rational people the single largest act of persecution on the basis of sexuality that the world has ever seen, just as it engulfed the largest single act of anti-semitism on the planet.

There’s still a long way to go towards achieving equality

What worries me is that eight decades on, as some countries such as Britain have moved forward so much with gay equality, other countries are moving backwards or have yet to move at all. Russia, which legalised homosexuality more than 20 years ago, has in recent years introduced draconian laws that severely clamp down on the rights of gay people and their families. Poland and Hungary are following similar trajectories, and just this week, the Council of Europe condemned the UK over “virulent attacks” on LGBT+ people.

It seems incredible that today, 71 countries around the world would either imprison me or put me to death simply for being gay.

As a gay man, there are though, far worse places where I could live than Russia. In many Commonwealth countries, including some where our Queen is head of state, homosexuality is illegal and can result in life imprisonment. Even worse, there are five countries that routinely execute people for being gay.

It seems incredible that today, 71 countries around the world would either imprison me or put me to death simply for being gay, something that I chose no more than the accident of my birth than means that I am a Jew. It is clear that when it comes to gay people, at the least, there are still many lessons from the past that need to be learnt.

More: Holocaust, Holocaust Memorial Day, Nazi

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