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Two new tributes unveiled in Germany to gay-rights activist persecuted by Nazis

by Franziska Scheven
Wednesday May 7, 2008
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BERLIN _ Seventy-five years ago, the Nazis ransacked the offices of German sex-researcher and gay-rights activist Magnus Hirschfeld, seizing hundreds of books that were burned in a towering pyre four days later.

To mark the day Tuesday, Berlin dedicated a stretch of the Spree river to Hirschfeld, while the city’s Charite hospital opened a new exhibition of his work called "Sex Burns.’’

The tributes to Hirschfeld are "a clear acknowledgment for gays that a persecution has taken place and that reparation is necessary,’’ said Alexander Zinn, head of Germany’s Lesbian and Gay Association, at the dedication ceremony.

"That is a first step in the right direction’’

Nazi Germany declared homosexuality an aberration that threatened the German race and convicted some 50,000 homosexuals as criminals. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 homosexuals, mostly men, were deported to concentration camps, where few survived.

Work is also under way in Berlin on an overall memorial to the Nazi’s homosexual victims, which will be located in Berlin’s Tiergarten Park, across from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

The euro600,000 (US$932,000) memorial, designed by Danish-born artist Michael Elmgreen, features a gray concrete slab with a window allowing visitors to view a film inside of same-sex couples kissing.

Hirschfeld was a pioneer of research into sexuality and is seen as one of the most important figures in Germany who defended homosexual rights. Persecuted by the Nazi regime, he ended up in French exile where he died in 1935.

He was out of the country on May 6, 1933, when the Nazis plundered and shut down his Institute for Sexual Research, and seized his books and other items.

Urged on by the Nazi leadership, students around Germany burned many of those books and thousands of others deemed to be "un-German’’ on May 10. The event was a foreshadowing of the state censorship and iron-handed control of culture to come.

A bust of Hirschfeld was also tossed by the Nazis into the flames, and the Berlin chapter of Zinn’s organization is currently collecting money to try to recreate it.

"Magnus Hirschfeld constantly tried to free the public from negative homosexual prejudices...’’ said German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries at the dedication of the downtown riverbank.

"His life work and his own fate show clearly how much aggression, injustice and prejudice homosexuals have had to deal with in Germany.’’

The exhibition at the Charite hospital features the work of seven artists, each of whom focus on a different facet of Hirschfeld’s research.

Their exhibits feature parts of Hirschfeld’s collection of notes, photographs posters and other material.

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