Berlin. 24 August 1961. Two days ago, the East German government allowed border police to shoot dissidents; the Berlin Wall, and with it the Iron Curtain, has been raised less than two weeks ago and is still in its provisional state.
A young man of just 24 leaps into the Berlin-Spandau Ship Canal, separating East and West Berlin. From the railway bridge above him, police officers yell for him to stop, firing off warning shots.
He won’t make it to the West.
Günter Litfin was the first East German citizen shot when attempting to flee into the West and the second one to die at all – two days before him, an elderly woman died when she tried to jump into the West from her flat in Bernauer Strasse.
He was killed by a single, reportedly well-aimed, shot to the back of his head, 20 meters from the harbor’s West German bank.
His body remained in the water for three hours before East Berlin’s fire brigade pulls him out, under the watchful eyes of hundreds of West Berliners.
Litfin’s family, wondering where their son and brother had vanished to, received the notice of his death two days later, through a West German news program.
At this point, his younger brother Jürgen had already spent a whole night being interrogated by the ministry for state security; on the same day, officers search their mother’s flat without giving her a reason.
A week after Litfin’s death, citizens in the West protested his shooting and hung a banner declaring ‘Berlin will never turn red’. At the same time the German Democratic Republic (GDR or just ‘Communist’ ‘East Germany’) official state newspaper Neues Deutschland published an article accusing him of being gay and working as a prostitute.
Referring to the young man as Dolly – ‘the clear nickname of a homosexual know in respective circles in West Berlin’ – they used Litfin’s alleged sexuality, and the fact the Wall ‘kept him from his lovers’ offering him ‘no chance for business’ as the reason for his escape.
After World War Two and Germany being split between the Allied and Soviet Forces, the lives of LGBTIs continued to be shaped by persecution.
Both the GDR, ‘the East’, and the Federal Republic of Germany, ‘the West’, held onto the Nazi’s law criminalizing homosexuality – Paragraph 175.
In fact, especially in the West, many of the newly instated judges had held high ranks under Hitler; one of them, Dr Kurt Romini, was infamous for his desire to make an example out of homosexual men.
The fear of his strict rulings drove six men to suicide.
But while in the West opinions were split – some judges didn’t see the need to punish homosexuality, so handed out sentences resembling a slap on the wrist, if anything – the East was adapting at a different speed.
Hope for gay men in the GDR came in the form of Dr Rudolf Klimmer, a psychiatrist and sexologist from Dresden.
In 1947, amid the effort to rebuild the war torn country, Klimmer submitted the application to scratch §175 from East German law – unsuccessfully.
He didn’t stop, though, even when the GDR changed §175 back to its considerably milder, pre-Nazi version.
In 1953, he tried to organize an expert panel to discuss homosexuality; a year later, Klimmer wrote to Walter Ulbricht, General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany and the chief GDR’s chief decision maker, demanding he addressed the question.
Ulbricht never replied.
Building the socialist republic, the government emphasized masculinity and traditional family values.
Homosexuality was seen as weak and decadent, contradicting what healthy communist workers should aim for.
In 1957, despite refusing to discuss the matter or accept homosexuality as natural, the GDR’s police force ceased to prosecute homosexuality.
But a lack of persecution didn’t mean gay men and women were suddenly free of any discrimination or didn’t have to fear any repercussions.
Things were just elevated to a different level.
Censorship laws meant it was impossible to present homosexuality in the media – including books, magazines and electronic media imported from the West – effectively suffocating the LGBTI community’s attempts to reach the public.
And it wasn’t just censors who had their eyes on the community.
East Germany actually decriminalized homosexuality in 1968, a year before the West. But despite that new freedom, gay activists faced a threat from within their own ranks.
The Staatssicherheit, or Stasi, the GDR’s secret police, were brilliant at infiltrating groups, organizations and even families. They spied on activists in the East, using their sexuality to keep regime opponents repressed and in line.
Support for LGBTIs came from a rather unexpected ally, who extended their arms, offered meeting spaces and helped with setting up ‘working groups’.
As centers of resistance themselves, churches, most of all the Protestant Church, offered organizational support to the community from the 70s onwards.
But the Stasi was watching. And working. The aim? Keeping gay liberation as small a movement as possible to protect the communist regime.
A group of lesbians planned to lay a wreath for their lesbian sisters who had suffered in Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp to mark the 40th anniversary of the camp’s 1945 liberation by the Soviet Red Army.
But they found themselves followed and interrogated by Stasi members.
As it turned out, their florist – who said they had been ‘unable to print’ the wreath’s message – had informed the Stasi, who in turn accused the group of wanting to stage what they called an ‘unauthorized riotous assembly’ at the commemoration service.
But times would eventually change.
On 11 August 1987, the GDR’s Supreme Court ruled homosexuality ‘represents a variant of sexual behavior’.
It should be as much part of a socialist society as heterosexuality, the ruling said, and members of the community should be granted the same civil rights as everyone else.
In the following year, East Germany lifted the follow-up law to §175, thus lowering the age of consent for same-sex relationships to 14, the same as for straight couples, while the West kept it at 18.
Even after the reunification, the (legal) divide remained in place until 1994 – when the former West finally scrapped §175 in its entirety.