BERLIN (AP) — Germany commemorated the victims of Nazi persecution on the 78th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, placing a focus Friday on people who were incarcerated and killed because of their sexual orientations and gender identities.
Thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were arrested and thrown into camps during Adolf Hitler’s 1933-1945 dictatorship, based on anti-homosexuality laws that preceded and outlasted the Nazi era.
The speaker of Germany's parliament, Baerbel Bas, said the Nazis broadened Article 175 of the German penal code, which was introduced in 1872, to criminalize “kisses, touches, even glances” between people of the same sex, leading to accusations against tens of thousands of men.
“That was often enough to ruin their social existence,” Bas told lawmakers during the solemn ceremony held annually by the Bundestag to mark the liberation of Auschwitz.
More than half of the individuals prosecuted for homosexuality were convicted, and many received lengthy prison terms or were sentenced to forced labor. Some were forced to undergo sterilization or driven to suicide, according to the Bundestag speaker.
Those who were sent to concentration camps found themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy, forced to wear a pink triangle that signified their supposed crimes. While the law didn't explicitly apply to women, they also faced persecution for “asocial behavior” that resulted in a similar fate during the Nazi period.
“Many were abused for medical experiments,” Bas said. “Most died after a short time or were murdered.”
Men who were gay or suspected of being so continued to face oppression after the war ended, she added, noting that West Germany kept Article 175 on the books until 1969.
Karl Gorath, a gay man, was first convicted under the law in 1934. He was sent to the Neuengamme concentration camp and later to Auschwitz, where he survived until its liberation by the Soviet Red Army on Jan. 27, 1945.
In 1946, more than a year after the end of the war, Gorath was prosecuted again. During a court appearance, the same judge who had convicted him during the Nazi era greeted him with the words: “You’re here again.”
Gorath was sentenced to five years in prison and later spent decades battling to undo the injustices done to him. His Nazi-era conviction was annulled shortly before his death in 2003. Post-war convictions were only annulled in 2017.
Bas noted it was important to continue upholding the memory of all victims of Nazi persecution and to remain vigilant to ongoing discrimination and violence against minorities, citing a fatal attack on a trans man at a gay pride event in Germany last year.
“It is dangerous to believe that we have learned enough," she said, adding that attempts to deny the singularity of the Holocaust, which saw 6 million European Jews systematically murdered, also need to be opposed.
Bas noted that Holocaust survivors in Ukraine were among those who have suffered and died due to Russia's invasion of the country. Moscow has sought to justify the war in Ukraine as a crusade against resurgent Nazism.
“It is an unbearable mockery of the victims of National Socialism to compare the Russian war of aggression (in Ukraine) with the liberation of Germany" during World War II, she said.
Among those speaking at this year's commemoration in Berlin was Rozette Kats, a Dutch Jew who whose parents gave her to a non-Jewish couple in 1943, shortly before they were deported and she was 8 months old.
Kats said that until a few decades ago, some survivors had tried not to uphold the memory of LGBT victims.
“I think that's wrong,” she said.
“Everybody who was persecuted then deserves a respectful commemoration. Everybody who is persecuted today deserves our recognition and protection," Kats said.