Bent, Not Broken 

Human touch at times lacking in Nazi exhibition

From its title to its content, Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945 at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum is the kind of conventional, educational exhibition designed to present the facts -- and just the facts, ma'am -- in an orderly and coherent manner.

Perhaps too orderly and too coherent.

Historical exhibits beholden to documents and text often have a bloodless, bone-dry quality that, in this case, makes it hard to connect to the men and women who suffered the terrible crimes documented in this exhibition, packaged by and traveling from Washington, D.C.'s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Breman has, thankfully, taken some steps to counter such didacticism while it hosts the exhibit.

Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945 displays reproductions of political cartoons, quotes from Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, mug shots of men sent to concentration camps, and other images from the time. For the exhibition's Atlanta stop, the Breman adds artifacts from its own collection, appreciating the importance of giving a physical, three-dimensional gravitas to the history-book presentation.

One vitrine, for instance, displays a Nazi calendar from Dauchau while in another, a 1938 Mother's Cross recognizes the centrality of reproduction in the life cycle of a good German. Gay men thus became doubly suspect for their "cliquish" lifestyle and refusal to participate in the reproductive destiny of the Motherland.

The Third Reich mercilessly singled out other groups for persecution: gypsies, the disabled, Jehovah's Witnesses and political dissidents whose stories all will be told in upcoming exhibitions at the Breman.

The exhibition presents most of its information on freestanding placards. They show, in chronological order, the existing German discrimination against gay men imposed by an 1871 criminal law, "section 175," which declared "indecency" between men to be "punishable by imprisonment." Eventually the Nazis enacted the code by interning from 5,000 to 15,000 homosexuals in concentration camps.

Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945 documents both the rise of Nazism and the increasing persecution of homosexuals after the let-it-all-hang-out days of the Weimar Republic, when gay bars proliferated and some 30 journals were devoted to gay life. "It's okay here!" Berlin's Eldorado club saucily declared, though the Nazis quickly declared Weimar grooviness to be verboten.

While the horrors of Nazi Germany are familiar to most people, some of the exhibition's most captivating aspects document lesser-known aspects of German life, like the photographs and documents that chronicle the subculture of gay and lesbian life in the swinging Weimar years.

The Nazis destroyed an astoundingly innovative, progressive culture defined by men like Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, the Alfred Kinsey of his day. Berlin sexologist Hirschfeld founded the Berlin Institute for Sexual Science, and declared homosexuality "neither an illness nor a crime." A triple threat, Hirschfeld was a Jew, a socialist and a homosexual, and thus became public enemy No. 1 by the time the Nazis took power. Proof that the inverse of sex is the law, the Nazi Association of Jurists and Lawyers eventually replaced Hirschfeld's sex institute.

The Nazis produced some of the most body-centric imagery on record -- embracing, shirtless, joyously butch volk as homoerotic as anything by queer artist Tom of Finland. Nevertheless, the fascists invoked Paragraph 175 to prosecute any sexual interaction between men. By 1938, even "simple looking" and "simple touching" were suddenly grounds for imprisonment, a frightening indication of the web of suspicion and fear that overtook German society with the rise of fascism.

Amazingly, the Nazi rewriting of Paragraph 175 remained on the books until 1969, when the decriminalization of homosexual relations between adult men took place. Testifying to the deep and lingering prejudice against homosexuality, some gay prisoners had to serve out their imprisonment even after the Allied liberation of the camps.

Some sense of personality eventually enters the exhibition in one of the final sections, with the reproduction of drawings created by artist Richard Grune, who was incarcerated by the Nazis from 1940 to 1945 at the Sachsenhausen and Flossenbürg camps. Reminiscent of political artist Sue Coe's work, Grune grimly documents sadistic camp guards and prisoner misery in the kind of distinct, individual hand that so forcefully conveys the brutal reality of discrimination taken to a noxious extreme.

The Breman's organizers seem to acknowledge the limitations of the rather stilted and didactic wall-bound presentation by making the smart decision to include the 2000 documentary Paragraph 175, which loops on a small television monitor in the gallery.

Narrated by actor Rupert Everett, the documentary includes numerous interviews with gay survivors of the Nazis who add a needed human, personal dimension to the abstractions of history. Understanding the extent of the Nazi crimes is crucial, but making history real through individual experience provides a fundamental cornerstone to that understanding.

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