Sunday, January 24, 2010

I don't know their names but I know what happened to them

I visited Berlin in 1994, where I took these photos. In a picturesque suburb is the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, operated by the Nazis from the 1930s until its liberation shortly before the war's end in 1945. Sachsenhausen was a small camp: It held high-profile political prisoners like German Communist leader Ernest Thallmann and other members of the opposition, as well as random other people criminalized by the Nazi regime, including many many gay people. There were many executions there, and deaths by starvation, overwork and cruelty; the majority of inmates there were murdered by a forced evacuation out of the camp in advance of the approaching Soviet Red Army. Which is to say unlike the camps further east, it was not really an extermination factory, per se, just an unspeakably monstrous cog in the machine of Nazi repression.

"Killed and Silenced, the homosexual victims of Nazi persecution" reads this memorial plaque.

It was a beautiful late autumn day when I went there: the air was damp and thick with the smell of rotting leaves and woodsmoke. The once electrified barbed-wire fences still standing testament and giving a lie to a chilly, tranquil suburban afternoon.

It's good to see such places where awful things happened. The evil of these places is not announced like Mt. Doom in "The Lord of the Rings": Sachsenhausen is not surrounded by lava pits, flames and flying monsters but by the same mundane residential neighborhood that surrounded it only 65 years ago when some very bad regular people were in charge and some other regular people looked the other way.

I know this is all very Godwin's law of me, but it behooves us to ponder how these terrible things happened before. The freedom and relative legal equality enjoyed by gay people today in Europe and America owes a debt to those pink-triangle-wearing heroes who suffered under the Nazis. The teabagger lynch mobs in today's America who puff themselves up in defense of "traditional marriage" and in opposition to the extension of certain civil rights to gay citizens are reaching into the same arsenal of hatreds as those who have been defeated before. Let us resolve to defeat them again before they're telling us once more that "Work makes you free."

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