Carl Bruns and Heinrich Roth died 1945
Carl Bruns and Heinrich Roth were two ordinary gay German men who became victims of Nazi Germany.
The gay pogrom in Germany started just over 70 years ago, in the summer of 1937. The Gestapo launched a systematic crack-down in the mid-1930s, actively entrapping gay men. The Nazis created a vicious protection racket that allowed gay bar owners to remain in business, on condition that they handed over names of customers on a regular basis.
Landlords were bribed to inform on tenants. If someone at work didn't like a bachelor co-worker, all he had to do was to go to the Gestapo and suggest a sexual advance had been made, and the next day the co-worker would be gone. It mattered little whether there was any truth to the allegations.
In the city of Hamburg, Gestapo men in leather trench coats entered the city's most famous department store, the Alsterhaus, during business hours and rounded up about 40 gay employees, who were hauled off in vans waiting out on the street.
The Alsterhaus department store raid was just the beginning. Raids occurred with growing frequency in the late 1930s.
What followed were weeks and months of 'protective custody' and transfers to mental asylums for 'curative treatment' and eventual sentencing to imprisonment in concentration camps. Many were 'offered' castration, with a vague promise of leniency, as an alternative to imprisonment.
This photo shows homosexual prisoners in Buchenwald concentration camp, recognisable by the pink triangles on their striped prison uniforms.
After German unification, hundreds of thousands of case histories were released and historians have spent the least few years sifting through them. Their findings are still just being published, and have shocked even those historians who knew that atrocities had occurred, but were surprised by the extent of them.
With Prussian thoroughness, the Nazis documented every detail of the lives of those they rounded up. Those documents provide chilling insights into a hitherto unknown story.
One such story was that of Carl Bruns and Heinrich Roth, a gay couple who ran an upmarket men's clothing shop in central Hamburg, right across the street from Gestapo headquarters.
Bruns and Roth were arrested in 1940 and, after months of pre-trial detention, they were sent to concentration camps near Hamburg. By some miracle, both men survived until spring 1945, when the camps were being liberated by Allied forces.
But it was then that the final tragedy struck.
Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army in early 1945, and the pictures of skeletal camp inmates shocked the world. In response, Heinrich Himmler issued an order to all camp commandants that they were to ensure that no camp inmates should ever fall into the hands of Allied forces. He didn't specify what they should do, leaving it in the hands of camp commandants.
Some commandants at Dachau and other camps began gassing all surviving inmates so that none would be left alive. Others began evacuating their inmates.
Thus Bruns and Roth were forced to leave their camp near Hamburg on a forced march to the Baltic Sea, 100 kilometers (62 miles) away, where the converted cruise liner Cap Arcona was at anchor.
The Allies were advancing on all fronts. Everyone knew that the war was over. All the inmates had heard the news. British forces had dropped leaflets saying they would be in Hamburg within hours.
And yet these men were sent on a death march to the sea. Stragglers were machine-gunned to death. Others collapsed and died of exhaustion. Bruns died along the way. Roth made it to the Baltic Sea docks where the Cap Arcona was waiting and he was herded aboard along with thousands of other inmates. Two other ships were also used in this way, the Thielbek and the Athen.
The British RAF was conducting intensive air raids to pave the way for ground forces, which were only a few miles away. RAF fighter-bombers had been told that Nazi officials were seeking to flee Germany aboard a big ship disguised as a refugee vessel.
On 3 May 1945, four days after Hitler's suicide but four days before the unconditional surrender of Germany, the RAF planes came in and bombed and strafed the Cap Arcona, setting it ablaze and sending it to the bottom. Those inmates who managed to dive into the water were either killed by the bombs and strafing from the planes or else were machine-gunned by Gestapo men as they tried to climb ashore.
A handful found shelter in reeds along the shore and were found shivering in the water by British soldiers a few hours later. Roth was not among them.
There were 4,500 prisoners on board the Cap Arcona, 2,800 prisoners on board the Thielbek, and 1,998 prisoners on board the Athen. 350 were rescued from the Cap Arcona, 50 were rescued from the Thielbek and all the 1,998 prisoners from the Athen survived. A total of 7,500 people were killed in the air-raid. The British who were seen as potential rescuers by the concentration camp prisoners turned out to be their unwitting excecutioners. Although there is evidence to suggest that the SS planned to sink the Cap Arcona, and the other two other ships, to 'destroy the evidence' and remove potential witnesses to their atrocities.
According to documents at the Dutch Institute of War Documentation (NIOD), the government of Sweden had warned the British government that prisoners were aboard the ships. The British government is keeping its documents relating to the attack on the three ships closed until 2045
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