The German government Wednesday approved plans to quash the convictions of 50,000 men sentenced for homosexuality under a Nazi-era law which remained in force after the war, and offer compensation.
The measure marks a triumph for activists after a decades-long struggle to clear the names of gay men who lived with a criminal record under Article 175 of the penal code.
An estimated 5,000 of those found guilty are still alive.
The legislation was passed by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet and will soon head to parliament, where her ruling right-left coalition enjoys a large majority.
“Article 175 destroyed careers and ruined lives,” Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement. “The few victims who are still alive today deserve to finally have justice.”
The measure follows Britain’s so-called “Turing Law” approved in October, which offered pardons to thousands of men convicted of homosexuality before its decriminalisation in 1967.
The legislation was named after World War II hero Alan Turing who was prosecuted under the law in 1952 and forced to undergo chemical castration treatment. He committed suicide two years later at the age of 41.
However the British measure, unlike Germany’s, only automatically pardoned dead people while the living must still make an individual application to have their names cleared. It also failed to provide compensation.
– ‘Contrary to nature’ –
Germany’s Article 175 outlawed “sexual acts contrary to nature… be it between people of the male gender or between people and animals”.
Sex between women was not explicitly illegal.
Although the law dated from 1871, it was rarely enforced until the Nazis came to power, and in 1935 they toughened the legislation to carry a sentence of 10 years of forced labour.
More than 42,000 men were convicted during the Third Reich, and sent to prison or concentration camps.
In 2002, the government introduced a new law which overturned their convictions, and also applied to those convicted of desertion during Nazi rule.
But that move didn’t include those convicted after the war when Article 175 was still in force.
It was finally dropped from the penal code in communist East Germany in 1968.
In West Germany, it reverted to the pre-Nazi era version in 1969 and was only fully repealed in 1994.
The compensation scheme under the new legislation includes a one-off payment of 3,000 euros ($3,200) for every man convicted and an additional 1,500 euros for each year spent in prison.
If the person in question has already died, his family may put in for the certificate to clear their relative’s criminal record.
Convicted under the law as a teenager in 1957, Fritz Schmehling, 74, said time was running out for victims to see justice.
“I don’t want to die with a criminal record,” he told AFP in a recent interview at his Berlin apartment.
“I’ve had cancer twice and was operated on but maybe I will still get to enjoy the moment my name is cleared. As sad as it is, in the time it takes, many of the older ones among us are going to die.”
– ‘Guardians of virtue’ –
Noted historian of the Nazi period Wolfgang Benz said in a 2016 book that, although it was less brutal, the subjugation of gays continued seamlessly after the war.
“The authorities and other guardians of virtue in the post-Hitler era differed from the Nazis in that they tended to believe people were seduced (into homosexuality) rather than being born that way,” he wrote.
“But their rage against the unwanted minority was no smaller.”
Gay rights groups had long pushed for the post-war convictions to be annulled.
But until now, their demand had been refused on the grounds that the sentences were handed down by a court in a democracy and confirmed by a federal tribunal on appeal.
Justice Minister Maas, a Social Democrat (SPD), spearheaded the legislation and fought for its passage before a September general election.
Merkel’s main rival, SPD candidate Martin Schulz, who is enjoying a surge in the polls, has vowed to campaign on a gay rights platform.
Germany has permitted gay and lesbian couples to enter into civil unions since 2001 but Merkel’s Christian Union bloc has opposed same-sex marriage with equal treatment on matters such as adoption.
A poll commissioned by the federal government last month showed that 83 percent of Germans support marriage equality.