Last edited: July 11, 2004

‘Paragraph 175’: The Nazis’ Victims of Shame

Washington Post, October 19, 2000
1150 15th Street NW, Washington, DC, 20071

By Chip Crews, Washington Post Staff Writer

Heinz F. is very old, seemingly past the age of shame, but still he doesn’t want us to know his full name. His awful story, however, is something he will share, and on camera: the long years in the concentration camps, the deaths of so many friends, the loneliness that was itself a kind of endless sentence. But not just yet — look, his ancient eyes are dancing. He is gazing back across a million yesterdays, past that terrible time and all the way to the distant shores of youth.

"Today it’s hard to imagine how wild it was in Berlin after the 1914-to-1918 war," he says, a mixture of naughty-boy pride and embarrassment on his face. "Everything went topsy-turvy. Men danced together and so did women. . . . Then there was so much joy and even more screaming."

Heinz is one of the first people we meet in "Paragraph 175," a straightforward and compassionate new documentary about the Nazi persecution of gay men. It’s screening tonight at 7 at the Lincoln Theatre as part of the 10th annual Reel Affirmations film festival.

The film takes its title from an entry in the German Penal Code of 1871 prohibiting "an unnatural sex act committed between persons of the male sex or by humans with animals." (Nazi logic was that lesbianism was both temporary and curable, so with few exceptions women were spared prosecution.) The law was ignored by most in the heady, who-cares days and nights of Weimar Berlin — a city that was known throughout the world as a "homosexual Eden," narrator Rupert Everett tells us. But the rise of the Nazis changed everything.

"Paragraph 175" is the inspiration of Klaus Muller, a U.S. Holocaust Museum representative for Western Europe. Muller had come to feel that as a gay German of postwar vintage, "I did not have a past at all," and he set out to meet and interview as many of his remaining "gay grandfathers" as he could.

He was almost too late. The film, produced and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, tells us that in their attempt to eliminate homosexuality from the national bloodline, the Germans arrested close to 100,000 men, of whom 10,000 to 15,000 were sent to concentration camps. Most of the latter group were Christians and therefore not condemned to the gas chambers; instead they were marked for slave labor, medical experiments or castration. The great majority of them perished.

By the time Muller began trying to find camp survivors, fewer than 10 were known to be alive, and not all of them wanted to talk to him. At least one encounter is testy. Pierre Seel, a Frenchman in his seventies, meets him at a subway entrance. "I’m here, but let’s make it short," he says curtly, later adding: "I swore never to shake hands with a German again. And here you are."

It is telling that by the early ‘30s the Nazis and their opponents were trading charges of homosexual sympathies as evidence of unfitness for rule. An opposition cartoon from the period contemptuously depicts a cadre of round-bottomed Nazi troops, alluding perhaps to the fact that Ernst Roehm, one of Hitler’s chief lieutenants, was known to be gay. (Though the Fuehrer initially stood by Roehm, in the end the man was put to death by the Third Reich.)

The film makes no effort to answer any imponderable questions about the Holocaust, instead leaving us alone with them. One of the starkest is this: Having lived through this monstrous time, do these men owe us the debt of talking about it? Seel is given the last word here. He shares what he can share, but finally it is too much. Angrily, he describes an unprintable injury that left him disabled for life, and he shouts, "Do you think I can talk about that? That it is good for me? This is too much for my nerves, Klaus! . . . I am ashamed for humanity."

The ordeals of these men came to an end many years ago, except of course they didn’t. Injuries like theirs don’t heal, and their stories suggest that the postwar world regarded stories of Nazism’s gay victims with brusque indifference. Toward the end of the film, Heinz F. remarks that all told he spent more than eight years in various camps. When he was finally released, he returned home to work with his brother in the family store. He felt ashamed, he says, and never spoke of his ordeal to anyone, not even his mother. He received, in turn, "not even one word from her" about it.

Muller then asks whether he would have liked to talk with somebody, and the old man’s jaw tenses. "Maybe, maybe with my father," he says before breaking into tears.

It’s a haunting image, the face of this 92-year-old man who long ago was wounded and stayed wounded and wishes he could have talked to his dad about it. In fact the pain of all these men is beyond us, and we can only be grateful to them for sharing it with us. Through their courage, they have found a way not just to survive their own suffering but to outlive it.

The Reel Affirmations X festival continues through Sunday at the Lincoln Theatre and D.C. Jewish Community Center. For information call 202-326-0401 or contact

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