Wednesday, May 15, 2013


No one much wants to talk about or has ever talked about the Nazi extermination campaign waged against the homosexual population of Germany and Europe.

Now, someone is and has South Africa where treatment of gays is a long way from swell.  Currently on display at the Durban Holocaust Center until the end of the month, an exhibition of archival photographs, testimonies and video clips  "In Whom Can I Still Trust" explores this largely untold history of the persecution of gay people by the Nazis.

Developed by IHLIA (Homodok/Lesbisch Archief Amsterdam), the exhibition has been redeveloped for South Africa.  According to

...organisers say that in light of continued discrimination, homophobia and prejudice towards members of the lesbian and gay community in South African society, the exhibition has considerable relevance to the country. 

Through additional panels, the exhibition will highlight these challenges and the progress that has been made in protecting sexual minorities in South Africa.

Videos from the new ‘It Gets Better South Africa’ project will form an important part of the "In Whom Can I Still Trust exhibition."  A diverse group of high profile individuals have teamed up with students from the University of Cape Town and University of Pretoria to create a collection of videos that discourages homophobic bullying.  Amongst those inteviewed in the videos are  struggle hero Ahmed Kathrada to track superstar Oscar Pistorius. 

Richard Freeman (director of Cape Town Holocaust Centre)  tells Searchlight:

 “This exhibition tells a specific narrative... of a group of people who were targeted during the Nazi area simply because they were homosexual. They were seen in Nazi terms as not worthy of love.

“Through the exhibition and the Holocaust centres, we are able to take history out of numbers and personalise it and we are able to honour victims. When I first saw this exhibition, it was in Dutch and I thought if we could relate it to South Africa, it would be great. There are so many murders related to homosexuality happening in real time in our country,” Freeman said.

“I felt like we needed to bring this exhibition here in order to engage with our own issues, since it talks about the consequences of prejudice and talks about society.”

The Cape Times reports about the murderous persecution of gays in Nazi Germany:

No one wanted to talk about it. It was considered the past. So is it any wonder that many people, including Mueller and Professor Pierre de Vos who made the opening speech at the exhibition, were unaware of the fate of homosexuals during the Third Reich until well into adulthood?

One can only wonder at the trauma of never being able to speak of what happened after surviving eight years first in prison and then a concentration camp just because of your sexual orientation.

The background to the exhibition In Whom Can I Still Trust? is this. After World War II, homosexual survivors were still considered criminals and there was no compensation for them, unlike other survivors.

It was only in the 21st century that they were finally recognised as survivors of Nazi atrocities. And in the form of an internalised homophobia, they sometimes blamed themselves for atrocities perpetrated against them.

It must be pointed out that before the rise of Nazism, most homosexuals considered themselves Germans first and homosexual second, in the same way that many German Jews felt. Nazism grew in stark contrast to the enlightened Weimar Republic where women could vote and homosexual society flourished. Berlin was considered the gay capital of the world – think Christopher Isherwood’s perspicacious and decadent Berlin stories.

The Nazis considered homosexuality a contagious disease to be corrected in concentration camps as it deprived the German nation of children. And although they were never put into gas chambers, homosexuals were systematically destroyed, worked to death, experimented on and castrated. Of the 100 000 homosexuals arrested, between 10 000 and 15 000 died in camps. And paragraph 175 was revoked a mere 44 years ago.

Just last month gay rights advocates decried the deaths of three teenage boyus who were tortutred to death in a so called "conversation camp" in South Africa.  The teens died after being starved and tortured at a camp designed to turn them into ‘men’.  One of the teens,  Raymond Buys, died two weeks after being put on life support two months into a three-month "training course" provided by Alex de Koker's Echo Wild Game Rangers camp. The 15-year-old Buys had brain damage and a broken arm and bruises at the time, and had emerged severely malnourished, dehydrated and covered in cigarette burns.

This despite the fact that in South Africa, not only is homosexuality allowed, but lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders (LGBT) also have had the right to marry and adopt children for years.  To this day, it is still the only country in Africa to allow such freedoms.  Still gay bashing attacks are common in the country.

In a report from the Voice of America, it is written,

Discrepancies between the legislation and the reality within South African society can be explained by the context in which the current South African constitution was drafted, says Noel Kututwa, Southern Africa director for Amnesty International.

After the white-minority rule ended in the 90s and Nelson Mandela's party took power, a new constitution was drafted with a core focus on equality for everyone, with no exception.

"And as part of the fight for freedom, justice and equality that South Africa went through, the African National Congress, then led by former president Nelson Mandela, was anchored around human rights," said Kututwa.

Kututwa says South Africa's LGBT community was included in that concept of human rights, or rather, was not excluded.  The debate about their rights came later on, when the constitution was already adopted. 

"At the time that it was adopted, it was really futuristic," said Kututwa. "It was even going beyond what even the country was even ready for at that time.  And that [became] quite clear when one looks at gay and lesbian rights, that it is a contentious issue.  There are certain sections of the society with the South African society who don't accept those rights."

Organized by Amnesty International and the local LGBT rights organization Ekurhleni Pride Organizing Committee (EPOC) a memorial day for those murdered for their sexual orientation was held this April 24.  That day marked the two year anniversary of the murder of LGBT activist Noxolo Nogwaza.  She was raped, stoned, and stabbed to death in 2011. Two years after the 24-year-old’s death, the investigation into her murder has made no progress, and her killers remain at large.

South Africa has recently seen an upsurge of what appear to be hate crimes, targeted at people because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. 
Last week, police announced the murder of a ninth gay man in the region of Gauteng – the same area Nogwaza was raped and murdered in 2011. 

The following is from a story last February on the exhibit printed in the Daily Maverick.

‘In Whom Can I Still Trust’: The Holocaust’s pink triangle


rebecca gay holocaust.jpg

An important new exhibition at Cape Town’s Holocaust Centre reminds us of the sometimes under-acknowledged persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. ‘In Whom Can I Still Trust’ serves a second purpose, too: to highlight the gulf that exists between South Africa’s liberal constitutional provisions for gay people, and the lives of fear and danger that many still endure. By REBECCA DAVIS.

An estimated 100,000 homosexuals were arrested during Adolf Hitler’s regime in Germany. Of these, about half were convicted and sent to prison, to atone for their “crime” through hard labour. Some were released after their prison terms, but between 10,000 and 15,000 – the ones suspected of having seduced more than one partner – were promptly dispatched to concentration camps. There, they wore a pink triangle on their sleeve to mark them out as homosexual. Around 60% of them died.

Today, the pink triangle has become a mark of gay pride, reclaimed as a symbol of defiance and unity in a way that would be far less likely for, say, the yellow star that denoted Judaism. Speaking at the exhibition’s launch on Tuesday night, curator Klaus Mueller argued that the reason why a Nazi invention could become a symbol of gay pride was that there are so few concrete facts or memories about homosexuals in concentration camps in the public understanding. Very few people can call the names or faces of those affected to mind today.

This is largely because homosexuality remained a deeply contested identity long after Hitler was dead. Despite post-Holocaust “Never Again” pledges, homophobic legislation remained on both West and East German statutes until 1969. Homosexual survivors of the camps received neither recognition nor compensation. One survivor, the exhibition records, had his application for compensation rejected because “he was not a victim of nation-socialist injustice”. There have only been three written testimonials published by gay survivors.

As such, an exhibition like “In Whom Can I Still Trust” is clearly necessary to flesh out the missing historical record. At the launch on Tuesday, Holocaust Centre director Richard Freedman said that it had been a “long dream” of the centre to mount such an exhibition. And indeed, because much of the information is not well known, it makes for fascinating reading.

The exhibition was developed by IHLIA, the Homosexual/Lesbian Archive Amsterdam, and it incorporates photographs, archive documents, and testimonies: some of which were given personally by survivors to curator Muller. Chronologically, the exhibition explores the treatment of homosexuals in Germany (and, less extensively, Holland) from the early 20th century to the end of World War II. Under the Weimar Republic (1918 – 1933), we learn, Germany adopted a raft of social reforms, including introducing voting rights for women. And gay people had it pretty sweet, at least compared with what was to come. The world’s first gay film, Anders als die Anderen (“Different from the others”) was made in Germany in 1919. Berlin, at that time, had more than 100 gay bars.

But within 15 years, all was to change. In 1933, homosexual organisations were dismantled, and gay bars and magazines were banned. In 1934, Hitler ordered the execution of Ernst Rohm, a known homosexual who was leader of the SA (Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary brown-shirts). After this, a special department was set up within the Gestapo to focus exclusively on targeting male homosexuals. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 made it possible to arrest men merely on the suspicion of homosexuality. Lesbians had it a little easier, because they were regarded as invisible. But, as Mueller pointed out on Tuesday, central to Nazi ideology was an emphasis on motherhood and traditional gender roles. Consequently, many lesbians entered fake marriages with friends in order to escape detection.

By 1936, homophobia had become a firmly entrenched national-socialist policy, ratified by the foundation of the Reich Central Office For Combating Homosexuality and Abortion. Young students were particularly affected: after being convicted, they could not return to study at any reputable institution. Some were even stripped of PhDs. Over the next three years, well over 20,000 men would be convicted for homosexuality.

How did they manage to make so many arrests? Because the public was all too ready to turn in suspected homosexuals. “The persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany was possible on such a large scale because of the ready complicity of society,” the exhibition records. Mueller said that 62% of investigations in Berlin came after tip-offs from friends, family or colleagues. The exhibition includes excerpts of letters sent to the Gestapo: “We have lived in the same house for 12 years but in all that time he has never been out with a girl. Obviously I cannot say anything for certain, but it strikes me as very suspicious.”

Two of the survivors featured in the exhibition ended up emigrating to Cape Town. Wilhelm Tagg, born 1894, was convicted in 1936 and sent to Dachau, and then Buchenwald. He was one of the lucky ones who got out. In the camps, forced castration could also be ordered by commanders. For homosexuals in the SS or the police force, the camps weren’t an option: they faced an immediate death penalty.

The exhibition is fairly small: one is left wanting more, though it tells its story concisely and effectively. Even at this scale, though, what is clear is the extent to which pursuit of homosexuals became a Nazi obsession. The exhibition notes: “In February 1945, while whole neighbourhoods in the centre of Berlin lay in ruins, the Berlin police unit on homosexuality still had 12 civil servants working on tracing homosexuals.”

If only the same diligence that went into tracking homosexuals in Nazi Germany was devoted to protecting homosexuals in present-day South Africa. The exhibition attempts to pair the two contexts, though the union is effected slightly uneasily. While you might expect an overview of Apartheid persecution of homosexuals, the South African resources amount to not much more than a board featuring recent newspaper articles about attacks on gays and lesbians here, and the “It Gets Better” video campaign, where local (mainly straight) celebrities give messages of support to gay teens . A chilling feature, however, is a simple list of all recorded LGBTI murders in the country in the last few years. It is extensive, yet almost certainly drastically incomplete.

UCT Law Professor Pierre de Vos (and Daily Maverick opinionista) spoke to the South African context at Tuesday night’s launch. Noting that the Constitution is a “historic, inspirational” document, he nonetheless stressed that its promises to gay people have not yet been fulfilled, even though privileged people may sometimes feel like they have. “It is often not safe to be any kind of ‘other’ in South Africa,” De Vos said.

He compared the Constitution to a “prophylactic” to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated, pointing out that in the Constitutional Court, the Apartheid past is often invoked by way of comparison. “This exhibition reminds us that when we remember the past, we run the risk of doing so selectively,” De Vos said. “We need to discover an uncomfortable past in which some of us were both oppressor and oppressed” – for instance, everyone who was both white and homosexual.

Speaking of the “moral amnesia” that often settles on societies after trauma, De Vos quoted Evita Bezuidenhout, who once made the point that in South Africa, the future is certain, but the past unpredictable. “We must all confront our unpredictable pasts,” said De Vos, “and not retreat into shame and silence.”

The importance of the “In Whom Can I Still Trust” exhibition, other than shining light on an often obscured part of Nazi history, is the evidence it provides of how fundamentally liberties may be eroded over a relatively short period – particularly in the name of cultural purity. In 1919, Germany was a bastion of liberalism for homosexuality. By 1939, gays were being rounded up and arrested. It’s a stark reminder not to take our freedoms for granted – and to keep an eye firmly fixed on the Constitution. DM

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