By Geir Moulson
BERLIN — Germany’s main national history museum on Wednesday launched an exhibition tracing 150 years of gay history in the country, including the first uses of the term “homosexual,” the brutal Nazi-era repression of gays, and gradual moves toward legal equality starting in the 1960s.
The exhibition at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, which is staging it together with the capital’s privately run Gay Museum, has been four years in the planning but is opening amid a new debate in Germany over whether to allow full-fledged marriage for same-sex couples. They have been able to enter civil partnerships since 2001 but much of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party is reluctant to go further.
Culture Minister Monika Gruetters said at the show’s presentation that it “puts the current debate about legal equality into a historical context.” She said it shows “how hard-fought the progress we can speak of today was, not just legally but also in society’s perceptions.”
The show, “Homosexuality—ies,” opens to the public Friday and runs through Dec. 1, featuring photo and film material, artifacts including an electric shock device used for “aversion therapy” in the 1950s and an “A to Z” section exploring issues ranging from gay marriage to censorship.
One of the earliest exhibits is a handwritten 1868 letter from Vienna-born writer Karl Maria Kertbeny to a German advocate of legal reform, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, which is believed to be the oldest written record anywhere of the words “homosexual” and “heterosexual.”
It also features the work of scientists such as sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld, whose pioneering Institute for Sexual Research was shut down and looted shortly after the Nazis took power in 1933. The Nazi regime toughened the 1872 law criminalizing sex between men; West Germany changed the so-called “paragraph 175” to decriminalize it only in 1969.
Nazi Germany convicted some 50,000 homosexuals as criminals. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 gay men were deported to concentration camps. A room in the exhibition titled “In the Pink Triangle” explores the stories of men and women caught up in Nazi persecution.