If I had been alive 75 years ago and living in Berlin, not London, my outlook would not have been good and not just because I’m Jewish. Like some of those who found themselves persecuted, I also have a disability, and perhaps more pertinently, I am gay.
This year, 2014, marks the 80th anniversary of the creation of a list, ordered by Hitler, of homosexuals, who would later find themselves persecuted. During their time in power, the Nazis arrested 100,000 people for homosexuality, imprisoning half of them including up to 15,000 in concentration camps. Many of those imprisoned died, some after sickening experiments by scientists trying to find the “cure” for homosexuality.
Unfortunately, when the Allies liberated the concentration camps, many of the gay people who were imprisoned were not set free. Instead they were transferred to prisons, then under the control of the Allied forces. Their crime, homosexuality, something outlawed before the Nazis took power, remained on the statute book until 1968 in East Germany and 1969 in West Germany. Unlike other victims of Nazi persecution, they were not offered reparations and it took until 2002 for the German government to apologise officially for the Nazis’ crimes against gay people.
Today, memorials to the Nazi persecution of the gay community are found in Berlin, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Sydney, and since last week, in Tel Aviv.
Holocaust Memorial Day, marked on Monday, is the opportunity to remember all of the victims of Nazi persecution. Their rule of terror was an era that witnessed the single worst example of misery that humanity has ever inflicted on itself.
Prejudice can escalate quickly into brutality
The day also provides a moment of reflection for what happened in our collective lifetimes and an opportunity to galvanise us never to allow the same persecution of minority groups to happen again. I believe the day provides an opportunity for us to consider, given how many countries around the world continue to criminalise or discriminate against gay people, how unchallenged prejudice can quickly and dramatically escalate into unimaginable brutality.
What happened during the Holocaust also stands as a warning to all of us that societies can go backwards as well as forwards. In the 1920s, Berlin was one of the gay capitals of the world, where Germany’s prohibition on homosexuality was widely ignored by the police and a large, open, flourishing gay community was in existence. Just before the Nazis took power, the German legislature was poised to repeal the legal ban of male homosexuality. It took a political climate that had nothing to do with gay people to alter radically the treatment of this minority group.
The Nazis drew on deep-rooted homophobia tojustify the single largest act of persecution on the basis of sexuality that the world has ever seen, just as it engulfed Europe in the single largest act of antisemitism in history.
What worries me is that eight decades on, as some countries such as Britain and indeed Israel have moved forward so much with gay equality, other countries are moving backwards or have yet to move at all. Russia, which legalised homosexuality 20 years ago, last year introduced draconian laws that severely clamp down on the rights of gay people and their families.
Being gay is something that I chose no more than the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust did, by being born to a Jewish mother.