Andrea Rottmann with input from Nina Reusch and Benjamin Bauer

The conference Späte Aufarbeitung. Lebenswelten und Verfolgung von LSBTTIQ im deutschen Südwesten (Coming to Terms with the Past, Belatedly. Life-worlds and Persecution of LGBTTIQ in the German Southwest), which took place on June 27-28, 2016 in Bad Urach, Germany, served as a showcase for the promising beginnings being made in the field of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTTIQ) history in Germany. Putting the country’s southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg at its center, the conference explored queer regional histories. It thus contributed to an expansion of German queer history beyond the story of gay Berlin, whose place continues to be important, but is certainly not representative. At the same time, the conference served as a stark reminder of the glaring research gaps in the field and the urgency to collect and preserve this history from and for those who lived it.

Former attorney general Manfred Bruns' contributions, informed by his legal expertise and his personal experience, were some of the highlights of the conference. (Photo by Ute Weller, AusZeiten Feminist Archives Bochum.)
Former attorney general Manfred Bruns’ contributions, informed by his legal expertise and his personal experience, were some of the highlights of the conference. (Photo by Ute Weller, AusZeiten Feminist Archives Bochum.)

Bridging academic history and public history, the conference’s discussions focused on two issues: First, the continued need to research the regional history of gay men’s persecution under Germany’s notorious Paragraph (§) 175, the law prohibiting sex between men, and the legal repercussions for its survivors who are still alive today. Second, the necessity to look beyond §175 for a more complete LGBTTIQ history, one that is attentive both to the histories of lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, intersex, and queer people, and to narratives that explore queer life-worlds rather than just persecution. Significantly, the conference also included hands-on workshops on how these issues could be incorporated into research agendas, school curricula, memorial sites, and rehabilitation efforts for the victims of §175.

In A Queer Time and Place?

It is itself noteworthy that a conference devoted to German LGBTTIQ history took place at all. The country has been excruciatingly slow to recognize the plight of queer people persecuted by the state through much of the last century. Its historical profession has refused to take seriously the history of homosexuality, let alone queer history, until very recently. (It was not until 2014 that the Historikertag, the profession’s biennial conference, featured a panel on the history of homosexuality for the first time in its history.) What was remarkable about the conference was not only the prominence of the institutions involved—the Institute for Contemporary History, the University of Stuttgart, the Federal Magnus Hirschfeld Foundation, the Regional Center for Political Education, and the regional LSBTTIQ Network—but also its focus on both research and education, and its call for academic and non-academic participants. Finally, convening the conference in Bad Urach, an idyllic spa town in the Swabian Alps in Germany’s prosperous, long-conservative state of Baden-Württemberg, seemed an odd choice of location for the contentious topic. What changed?

The Context: Changing Politics in the German Southwest

The conference was a direct result of the 2011 political sea change in Baden-Württemberg, when voters ended the uninterrupted 58-year rule of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), and elected a government coalition of the Green Party and Social Democrats (SPD). In October 2014, the state parliament issued an apology to the men prosecuted under §175 after 1945. Simultaneously, it moved to formally rehabilitate them, that is to revoke their sentencing, clear their police records, and research the history of their persecution, even making funds available to begin this research. While the SPD is no longer in power following the March 2016 state election, the Green Party now heads the state government with the Christian Democrats as junior partner. The two parties’ coalition treaty continues to include an explicit commitment to researching the state persecution of homosexuals, despite the conservatives’ often homophobic, and at best ambivalent, position toward LGBTTIQ rights in the past.

Activists and Academics: Tensions of Knowledge Production

While the 2011 change in government brought funds and political commitment to LGBTTIQ history, the current projects build on the mostly unpaid work of non-affiliated historians and activists, as Ralf Bogen, Kim Schicklang, and Claudia Weinschenk of the Network LGBTTIQ Baden-Württemberg reminded the conference. One of the network’s projects is a memorial at Hotel Silber, Stuttgart’s Gestapo headquarters and the site of the prosecution of gay men until 1969. The network’s new online project, an interactive map of the state, will provide biographical information about the gay men persecuted by the Nazis, make visible the invisibility of lesbian women, and discuss specific questions related to the regional history of sexual and gender minorities.

Kim Schicklang of the Network LGBTTIQ made a powerful plea for taking queer people’s knowledge about themselves seriously. (Photo by Ute Weller, AusZeiten Feminist Archives Bochum.)

The Network presenters’ eloquent critique of the exclusion of grassroots voices in academic history resonated throughout the conference. Activists’ expertise has not been recognized adequately by academics, they suggested, who all too often fail to take seriously queer people’s knowledge about their own histories. Research outside of universities has not only been hampered by lack of funds, but also by a difficult relationship with academic institutions. Tensions exist within the movement, too, as gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals sometimes lack understanding of the particular issues of transgender and intersex people.

§175 and Beyond: Two Major Research Projects

Presenters introduced two other major research projects at the conference: the University of Stuttgart’s “LGBTTIQ in Baden and Württemberg” and the Federal Magnus Hirschfeld Foundation’s “Archive of Other Memories.” The Stuttgart project studies the regional history of queer people during the Nazi era and the first postwar decades. Martin Cüppers, who directs the project, described some of its many research emphases: exploring queer life-worlds and everyday history, as well as patterns of resistance; determining perpetrators within the police and justice system; and identifying the roles played by religious, medical, and psychiatric institutions. The main thread running through these research interests traces the continuities and ruptures in the persecution of queer people from the period of Nazi dictatorship to West German democracy. But as members of the audience pointed out, lesbian, transgender, and intersex histories have barely been researched in the state so far. Because discrimination and persecution worked differently for each group, their investigation requires different research questions and strategies.

The Archive of Other Memories is devoted to collecting the memories of gay, lesbian, and transgender people in Germany who came of age before the decriminalization of gay male sex in 1968/69. Daniel Baranowski’s poetic presentation served to illustrate how oral history grasps aspects of human experience, such as emotional histories, that are often inaccessible through other methods. He emphasized the need to treat the interviews as belonging to two different genres: historical sources and literary texts. Decoding them thus requires interdisciplinary methods.

Daniel Baranowski’s poetic presentation spoke to the emotional richness of oral history. (Photo by Ute Weller, AusZeiten Feminist Archives Bochum.)

New Research in Lesbian History

Kirsten Plötz shared early results of her current research project on the discrimination of mothers in lesbian relationships in West Germany from the 1970s to the 1990s. Looking at the files of child custody trials, she found that custody of children had been taken away from women in same-sex relationships until the 1990s. Even though the EU Parliament had recommended ending the discrimination of lesbian mothers and gay fathers in 1981, German family courts only began recognizing the reality of their existence in the mid-1990s. Plötz suggested that the different situation in East Germany (GDR) may have contributed to the change in legal practices in unified Germany since the mid-1990s. In the GDR, many women married and had children at an early age. When they began dating women later in their lives, they brought their children into these relationships. Lesbian mothers were thus both more numerous and more accepted in the East German State. Plötz ended her presentation with a plea to look beyond §175 in the history of the discrimination of homosexual people in Germany.

Kirsten Plötz’s paper focused on the discrimination faced by mothers in lesbian relationships. Their custody for their children was routinely taken away until the 1990s. (Photo by Ute Weller, AusZeiten Feminist Archives Bochum.)

Bringing Queer History into the World: Public History, Ethics in the Archives, and Rehabilitation for the Victims of §175

The second half of the conference was devoted to three hands-on workshops. In the first of these, participants discussed how to bring queer history into schools and out to the public via memorials. Teachers, representatives of the State Educational Agency, and the local chapter of Parents of Homosexual Children worked together to create the job description for a new position of Diversity Counselor in the Agency. The position’s responsibilities are to include both facilitating the teaching of queer history and counseling schools on how to become safe spaces for queer people. Other participants brainstormed what the state’s memorial sites to the victims of National Socialism can do to address questions of queer history, and also to attract a queer audience. Re-reading survivors’ testimonies archived at the sites for traces of non-normative gender and sexuality can bring queer voices and life stories to the fore that have so far been neglected. Memorial sites can address current instances of hate crimes and discrimination in the region, and link them to historical examples of persecution told in their exhibitions. Offering unisex bathrooms at the memorial sites helps make them safe and welcoming spaces for visitors of all genders. In the second workshop, historians and archivists came together to discuss juridical and ethical problems in LGBTTIQ history research, and to develop strategies to index archival materials and make them more accessible. The third workshop focused on rehabilitation and reparations for men persecuted under §175. Discussions centered on the recommendation for rehabilitation issued by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Office this year, which favors a collective financial settlement rather than a case-by-case review, and which does not include convictions after 1969.

Queer history in Germany extends far beyond Berlin – that was made clear at this conference. The national and international importance of the capital to queer history has long overshadowed histories from across the rest of the country. These are waiting to be told, but local researchers have thus far had little support. In Baden-Württemberg, this is beginning to change. Hopefully, activists and academics, educators and administrative leaders, and national and local organizations will be able to sustain the energy, enthusiasm, and cooperation they have shown at this conference, and continue to queer German history.

A more detailed report on the conference in German can be found on the German history portal

Andrea Rottmann is a doctoral student in the Germanic Languages and Literatures Department at the University of Michigan, interested in the transnational histories of sexuality, sexology, and the LGBTQ movements in Germany and the United States in the 20th century. She thinks about questions of representation, identity, and recognition, particularly as they are negotiated in museums and exhibitions. She is continuously intrigued by the relationship of the past and the present and about the ways in which history is being told inside and outside of academia. Andrea is a member of the 2013/14 Museum Studies cohort. She came to German Studies with a Master’s degree in North American Studies and in History from the Freie Universität Berlin. She tweets from @andrea_rottmann

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