Until 10 December 2023 Kazerne Dossin in Mechelen is showcasing the temporary exhibition ‘Homosexuals and Lesbians in Nazi Europe‘. As the title straightforwardly gives away, the exhibition recounts the woes of gay and lesbian people in a continent torn by two wars, the rise of fascism and nazism and how victims of nazi (inspired) persecution fared after May 1945.
This exhibition, created by the Shoah Memorial in Paris and completed by Kazerne Dossin, was produced under the scientific direction of the historian Florence Tamagne.
Although it has been the focus of first-rate historical research for about 30 years, the fate of homosexual men and women during this period, long a taboo subject, is still unknown to the general public. After World War II, few homosexual men and women spoke up about their experiences under the Nazi regime. In Germany, paragraph 175 of the Penal Code criminalizing sex between men remained in force after 1945, denying them the status of victims.
It was only with the rise of the gay and lesbian liberation movement in the 1970s that this chapter in history came out of the shadows, raising many questions. What was the nature of the persecution? How many people were affected? Were all homosexuals targeted? What was the fate of lesbians? What places were affected? What are the best ways of honoring the victims’ memory?
Through a variety of documents, most of which have never been presented in Belgium before, the exhibition aims to answer these questions while placing the persecution of homosexual men and women under the Nazi regime into a long timeframe and a wide geographical context. The situation in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and France will receive the most attention.
The early 20th century saw the blossoming of homosexual subcultures in the major European capitals like Berlin and Paris as well as the emergence of the first activist movements.
Yet homophobic prejudice, drummed up especially by the religious and medical establishments, remained deeply entrenched. Many countries criminalized male – but more rarely female – homosexuality. Nazi ideology took root in this fertile ground before being implemented in an increasingly radical and repressive system reaching into every corner of society.
The exhibition lays out the various steps and methods involved in this process.
Homosexual men and lesbians met with different fates. Some chose exile; others led a double life. In Germany, around 50,000 of the nearly 100,000 homosexual men in the regime’s files were convicted. Between 5,000 and 15,000 were sent to concentration camps, where most of them died, although their fate could vary widely depending on the camp and the date of internment. With the exception of a few places, such as Austria, lesbians remained outside the purview of the law. Some were deported as ‘asocials’ or ‘communists’.
Paragraph 175 applied only to Germans and people living in annexed territories, such as Alsace-Lorraine. The fate of homosexuals in countries allied with Germany, such as Italy, or under its occupation, could differ significantly.
Life stories will shed light on this dark chapter in all its complexity, for it has many facets. Homosexual men and women could also be Jews, members of resistance movements, even Nazi sympathizers.
One section in the exhibition charts the slow process of recognition, from the commemorative memorials and plaques that began to appear in the 1980s to institutional measures, which have set a process of rehabilitation and compensation in motion.
The exhibition is French, so besides an emphasis on Germany, there is also an emphasis on France. But Kazerne Dossin added information, stories and artifacts from Belgium and the Netherlands.
The panels look at personal stories from Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, but also paints a picture of gay and lesbian life and culture before 1933, after 1933, during the war years and in the aftermath.
For visitors who know little of this queer history, it’s very educational. I did know of gay Berlin, dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and his Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (WhK), Pierre Seel and Rudolf Brazda. But I knew next to nothing about Suzan Daniel, Yvonne Fontaine or Roger Vertongen.
Peculiar is the panel about music hall songs with a queer twist. Examples from 1908 to 1963 (!) with Coccinelle illustrate how songs talked about queer life but also reinforced stereotypes.
The exhibition is very insightful on how gay and lesbian people were persecuted according to their nationality, status, religion, passport etcetera.
Honestly, a must-see exhibition for anyone interested in human rights as a subject.
This exhibition was created and developed by the Mémorial de la Shoah (the Holocaust Museum in Paris, France) under the scientific supervision of Florence Tamagne. It was first presented in Paris in 2021. The content relating to Belgium and the Netherlands was developed and added by Kazerne Dossin. To this end, Kazerne Dossin collaborated with historians such as Judith Schuyf, Wannes Dupont, Bart Hellinck and Marc Verschooris.
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An important exhibition. Could I repost your article on Discovering Belgium Timothy please?
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Indeed Denzil. Yes, be my guest to repost.
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Wish I could visit the exhibition. The 1997 film version of the stage play “Bent” — starring Clive Owen and Ian McKellen and set in Berlin — offers an interesting spin on this topic/period in time.
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Indeed. Actually, a clip of ‘Bent’ is shown.