Up until 2000, homosexuals were blocked from pursuing a career in the Bundeswehr. Now the minister apologizes.
Solemn pledge by naval soldiers in Berlin Photo: Mika Schmidt
BERLIN taz | The Bundeswehr destroyed Dierk Koch’s dreams in autumn 1964. The Hamburg native, then in his early 20s, wanted to become a seaman. In the navy he had signed up as a regular soldier, after having passed a course he was to be transferred to the frigate Emden shortly. “There was a rumor that Emden would soon accompany the Gorch Fock to the Olympic Games in Tokyo. I was on cloud nine, ”he recalls.
But nothing came of the trip, and neither did the career plans: Shortly before the transfer, the site commander informed the prospective seaman that he was not going to the frigate after all, but to the office. A few weeks later he was finally informed that he was being demoted to a seaman and dishonorable discharge from the Navy. He had to leave the barracks within 48 hours. The reason for all of this: a brief affair with another soldier.
“Can you imagine how I felt?” Asks Koch almost sixty years later. “I just didn’t believe it.”
Koch talked about the weeks in autumn 1964 on Thursday evening during a panel discussion in the Berlin Ministry of Defense. It is not an isolated case: For decades, homosexual, especially gay soldiers in the Bundeswehr were institutionally discriminated against. The event in the presence of Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and high-ranking generals will be about their fates. The occasion: the publication of the study “Tabu und Toleranz”, in which the lieutenant colonel and military historian Klaus Storkmann examined the treatment of homosexuals from 1955 to 2000.
The practice that this study describes is shameful, says Kramp-Karrenbauer right at the beginning of the event. “The Bundeswehr’s stance on homosexuality was wrong, even if it was in line with the zeitgeist of the time.” To make amends, she announced a draft law: She wanted to overturn military court judgments for consensual homosexual acts. Those affected by institutional discrimination should be rehabilitated. Anyone who was disadvantaged because of their homosexuality should receive a lump sum compensation payment.
No career until 2000
The practice of discrimination was divided into different phases, which the Bundeswehr study describes in detail on the basis of archive research and interviews with contemporary witnesses. Until 1969, a total prohibition of sexual acts between men was still in force in West German criminal law under Paragraph 175. Analogous to this, according to the study, “until the late 1960s, those homosexuals who ‘had become conspicuous’ were generally discharged from the armed forces”.
Even after paragraph 175 was relaxed, military courts initially still condemned gay soldiers for consensual sex with one another. Until 1979, homosexuality remained a general reason for withdrawal. Due to a lack of personnel – the low birth cohorts met an increasing number of conscientious objectors – the Bundeswehr then relaxed this rule as well. Those affected were still not allowed to pursue a career in the army: up until the year 2000, homosexuals were considered useless for training or management tasks. Gay officers had to hide their sexual orientation.
“Many contemporary witnesses also report that regardless of the regulations (…) the tolerance in the troops was actually much greater,” writes Storkmann in his study. In fact, his research testifies to a certain ambivalence in everyday life: on the one hand, contemporary witnesses tell of stupid sayings, insults, taboos and games of hide and seek. It is said of a gay soldier who began his basic military service in 1998: “He, who otherwise lives so self-confidently gay, did not want to be known in the barracks as a gay. The mimesis went so far that he stuck posters of naked pin-up girls in his locker. “
On the other hand, Storkmann also collected examples of tolerance and solidarity among soldiers. For example, the report of a gay soldier who was promoted to sergeant in the 1970s, “although his homosexual orientation in the company and battalion (…) was generally known”. He had “never experienced discrimination in six years in the Bundeswehr, nothing, nothing at all: no insults, no punishments, not even bad words”. He was insulted homophobically only once in the dining room. His comrades would have defended him immediately, first with words, then with their fists.
Scharping gave in
However, external impetus was needed to end the discrimination. In 1998 a train driver was withdrawn from his post because of his homosexuality. He went to court and filed a constitutional complaint, the Federal Constitutional Court asked the red-green federal government to comment. The first draft of the reply, in which the decision was justified, met with skepticism in individual departments of the Ministry of Defense as well as in other ministries.
Times and values had changed, and at the European level there were also initial judgments in favor of homosexual soldiers. After initial hesitation, Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping (SPD) finally gave in, anticipating a ruling from Karlsruhe and announcing the full opening of the Bundeswehr to homosexuals – and, as the study shows, against the will of the military leadership.
Twenty years later, the attitude has also changed at the top of the Bundeswehr. In the Defense Ministry, Inspector General Eberhard Zorn said on Thursday that the Bundeswehr is now “institutionally well positioned” when it comes to homosexuality. Now it is a matter of “the superiors at all levels implement these things” and “also show tolerance to the outside world”.
“A lot has happened”
Since 2016, the Ministry of Defense has had its own staff unit for diversity and equal opportunities. The Bundeswehr tries to present itself as an attractive employer for homosexuals. Coming to terms with one’s own history of discrimination is part of these efforts. The QueerBW working group, an association of LGBTI people in the Bundeswehr, is very satisfied with this development. “A lot has happened in the last few years,” says Sven Bäring, chairman of the organization, on the podium.
The 25-year-old says he has only heard discriminatory sayings twice in seven years of service. But he can also understand how gay soldiers were doing up until the year 2000: Even in basic training he thought it made more sense to keep his homosexuality to himself. “I went through that in the basic training,” says Bäring. “That’s a lot of pressure.”