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Victims of German anti-gay law finally get their day in the Bundestag

On Friday, Germany's parliament begins debating whether to rehabilitate and compensate homosexuals convicted under the notorious paragraph 175. It's a symbolic gesture, but one that victims appreciate.

One man touching another man's thigh - it's scarcely credible today in Germany that this could be a serious crime. But not so long ago it was. 74-year-old Heinz Schmitz remembers being sentenced to six months in prison for such physical conduct.

"Today the things I was punished for seem inconceivably ridiculous," Schmitz says. "The first charge read: 'On the day in question, Heinz Schmitz was sitting in a movie theater, when a man sitting next to him brushed his thigh in salacious fashion, which he reciprocated.'"

The incident was no laughing matter in 1961. Then just 19 years old, Schmitz was brought up on charges of violating West Germany's draconian anti-homosexual paragraph 175. Although the sentence would be suspended and he would only spend a handful of weekends in jail, Schmitz lived in fear that his sexuality would be his undoing throughout his young adulthood.

"I had no idea what would happen to me, whether I'd be sent to jail - I was trembling with fear," Schmitz recalls about his court date. "And all those years I was afraid of being found out. It damaged my life, my soul, everything. It wasn't nice. I wasn't allowed to experience things in those very years of life when you develop yourself."

Schmitz is one of 50,000 men convicted under paragraph 175 in the Federal Republic. Some 5000 of them are still alive and could claim compensation, if the two houses of the Germany's parliament approve the rehabilitation legislation introduced by Germany's Justice Ministry. Most are the victims of a very repressive period in West German history in terms of social mores.

Berlin - Heinz Schmitz - Opfer des antihomosexuellen Paragraphs 175 (DW/J. Chase)

74-year-old Heinz Schmitz will be a guest of honor in the Bundestag

A remnant from the Third Reich

Paragraph 175 in its harshest form was written in Nazi Germany, where homosexuals were persecuted and murdered, and the Federal Republic retained it unchanged after the war. Communist East Germany was far more permissive and tolerant toward homosexuals.

Schmitz was unlucky to have attracted the notice of authorities during the only period (1957-1961) when Germany was governed solely by the conservative CDU-CSU. West Germany's two conservative parties, both of which have the word "Christian" in their names, wanted to see paragraph 175 enforced as strictly as possible. And many judges who sat on the bench in the Federal Republic began their careers in the Third Reich.

"In the early Federal Republic, a democracy based on respect for civil rights, the same number of homosexual men were put on trial and found guilty as under the Nazi dictatorship," says Michael Schwartz of Munich's Institute for Contemporary History.

Germany's criminal code was reformed in 1969, but paragraph 175 wasn't completely stricken until 1994, four years after German reunification.

Justiz Deutschland, historische Unterlagen Anklage Verstoß gegen §175 (DW/J. Chase)

Schmitz was charged, among other things, because another man brushed his thigh

The end of careers and social lives

Schmitz's sentence was suspended for two years, and he went on to marry, have children and make a career as an industrial salesman for a textiles company while hiding his sexual orientation. Someone once tried to denounce him anonymously, he recalls, but luckily his boss was on vacation at the time, so he suffered no professional disadvantages from being a convicted homosexual.

Most others were not so fortunate.

"In the main, it meant that everything was over professionally and socially," says Jörg Litwinschuh, the operative chairman of the Magnus Hirschfeld Foundation. "All it took was for the police to show up at work and take someone away for questioning for that person to lose his job, regardless of whether he was ever put on trial. People were denied the right to get higher degrees and were dismissed from universities, police forces and the civil service. That deprived them of their professional lives, which is why most of the men we locate today exist in poverty." 

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"I'm happy to hear that (Mr. Schmitz) was so lucky with his employer - that was by no means automatic," Schwartz says. "We just examined a comparable case of a young man who was training to work in the civil service in Baden-Württemberg and was denounced to the Stuttgart mayor's office. He as immediately fired from the training program. That happened at nearly the same time (as Schmitz's case)."

The actual number of those adversely affected by paragraph 175, Schwartz adds, was far higher than 50,000, since mere suspicion of homosexuality could bring devastating consequences, and police rarely tried to conceal the fact that they were investigating someone. Some of those people - no concrete statistics exist - committed suicide as a result.

"This persecution by a democratic state that was supposed to respect civil rights wasn't without actual casualties," Schwartz says.

Deutschland Hamburg Homosexuelle beim Tanzen in der Roxi-Bar (Staatsarchiv Hamburg)

1950s and 1960s West Germany was anything but tolerant toward homosexuals

Satisfying, symbolic restitution

The legislation under debate by the Bundestag would compensate all those convicted under paragraph 175 with 3000 euros ($3270) plus an additional 1500 euros for every year, partial or full, served in prison.

Compared with the damage done, the sums involved are merely "symbolic," admits Litwinschuh. But he says he's satisfied by the proposed law, which restores dignity to the victims of discrimination and acknowledges their suffering.

Schmitz - who uses a pseudonym after family members received threats following the first time he told his story publicly - clearly agrees. His hands shake with emotion when he contemplates the proposed legislation becoming law, as is expected.

"I'll feel satisfaction, satisfaction that I helped get this accomplished," the pensioner says. "I feel great satisfaction that as a small, individual person I was able to do something. Joy, pride, satisfaction - call it what you like."

On Friday morning, Schmitz and four other men convicted under paragraph 175 will accompany German Justice Minister Heiko Maas to Berlin's Memorial to Homosexuals persecuted under Nazism. They will then head to the Bundestag to watch lawmakers debate legislation that would offer them full legal rehabilitation.

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