Germany is finally clearing thousands of gay men convicted of breaking a Nazi-era law

Many German still have criminal records for being gay.
Many German still have criminal records for being gay.
Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter
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Germany seems to be trying to clear up some legal hangovers from the past. Last month, Berlin announced it would abolish the 1871 lèse majesté law that recently empowered the Turkish president to prosecute a German citizen for insulting him.

Now, the country is finally overturning the convictions of thousands of gay men who still have criminal records based on a law that was struck from the books in 1994.

The original German law criminalizing homosexuality, Paragraph 175, was created in the 19th century, but it was the Nazis who seized on it and ramped up sentencing. An estimated 100,000 men were charged with homosexuality between 1933 and 1945, and tens of thousands were sent to jail or to concentration camps.

Paragraph 175 lingered on after the war, leading to the conviction of another 50,000 men in West Germany between 1946 and 1969. It wasn’t officially abolished until 1994—despite homosexuality being decriminalized in Germany in 1969—but even then the convictions remained on people’s records.

The head of Germany’s federal anti-discrimination agency Christine Lüders said partnerships and families had been destroyed (link in German) by the law. “The victims have had to endure the fact that their convictions have never been lifted,” she said.

Justice minister Heiko Maas said yesterday (May 11) that a study by the anti-discrimination agency concluded there was no legal reason why these men shouldn’t be rehabilitated. Maas announced a blanket annulment of the convictions and a compensation fund for the victims, though details on the fund remain unclear.

“The burden of guilt lies with the state because it made the lives of so many people so difficult,” he said.

The Gay and Lesbian Association demanded that the government should sort out compensation before the general election next year, saying “time is short” for the remaining victims of the law.