A history lesson from Berlin

Originally published in FUSE, February 2010

On recent travels through Europe I made a stop through Berlin. One of biggest reasons people visit Berlin is explore the history of and pay their respects to the victims of the Holocaust. Yet, when doing so one can notice something missing in the stories of this terrible crime.

In the centre of Berlin there is a massive monument; the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’. The monument is the biggest holocaust memorial in the city and attracts thousands of visitors every day.

Across the road lies another monument; that to the murdered homosexuals during the holocaust. This memorial is small, obscure and receives very few visitors. Memorials to the murdered Roma people, Jehovah’s witnesses, black people etc. are similarly obscure, non-existent or just being developed. This is common throughout Europe. When it comes to the Holocaust what has been called by some a ‘hierarchy of victims’ has been created; where the suffering of the Jewish population is placed above that of other victims. Not only do non-Jews get less coverage, in most cases their suffering is simply written out of the history.

Ensuring that the holocaust it is a fully Jewish story is in part done to help garnish support for the Israeli state. It breeds guilt about what occurred and therefore makes people more accepting of Israel. As a state created directly after the Holocaust it is important for Israel’s support that the Holocaust is remembered solely by Jewish suffering. If not, people may question why for example a Jewish state exists, but no queer or Roma state.

Yet, this is not the only reason non-Jews have been forgotten from the Holocaust. Whether it is persecution or the positive role played in society, all oppressed minorities have had to fight for recognition of their history. This is no different for queers.

Reading about the role of queer people and queerness in our history books is a rare thing and when it does occur, it normally focuses on gay men, leaving even further behind the stories of lesbians, bisexuals, trans*, intersex and other queer people. This creates a history in which queer people simply didn’t exist and a feeling that ‘queerness’ is a new phenomenon.

Bending history like this is a systematic part of the heteropatriachal society. In an unequal society the dominant structures not only have dominance in the present but are also given dominance of the past. In doing so, it is easier to re-enforce these structures and give them the legitimacy they require to survive. This gives these structures the perception of being both the only long lasting structures, but also the only ones to have had a (positive) real effect.

However, this does not mean that other stories are not there, nor that they shouldn’t be told. Just as other groups are fighting for their place in history so should queer people. This means not only discussing the fact the queer people, along with many others, died in the Holocaust but also investigating the role of queerness and the queer movement within our own society. These sorts of stories exist all around the world. Knowing and telling them can provide one way to help break the back of the heteropatriarchal society. As long as we let the heteropatriachy dominate our history it will be harder to stop it dominating our future.

There are many organisations and groups documenting, discussing and educating people about queer and other minority people’s history. The Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, a volunteer organisation, documents Australia’s queer history. You can visit them here: http://home.vicnet.net.au/~alga/

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