Monday, November 9, 2009

“The Shared Labor of Relational Mourning:” Watching and Witnessing the Trauma Imposed by Germany’s Paragraph 175

Paragraph 175 is a documentary film researched and tenderly presented by Klaus Müller and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. It chronicles the experiences of the 100,000 men as well as the women who were persecuted under this criminal code. This was the third film in the Fears of Difference: Diversity of the Holocaust Experience Film Series.

Tamara Zwick, Ph.D. an Assistant Professor of European History at the University of South Florida provided the historical context in which to view the film. Paragraph 175 was the anti-sodomy ordinance with origins dating back to 1871, the year of German unification. In Berlin, the ordinance was not enforced as the liberal climate was welcoming of gays and lesbians. Berlin was considered the Gay Eden.

As political and economic instability increased in the Republic, the enforcement of heterosexual norms increased through enforcement of the code and through the protonatalist movement women's behavior was tightly regulated. Women would find it harder to have abortions and contraception and would be given prizes for procreating.

Mental Health Counselor, William Spell’s comments are below.

Audience questions and comments included the following:

One audience member was curious about the reception Dr. Zwick’s students give to the film when she screens it in class. She uses it to introduce failures in humane treatment in historical periods and some students are hostile and don’t see the importance of using such a film in an instructional context. Mr. Spell added that the film allows viewers to join with the tellers in finding solace in community.

Another audience member brought up the recent documentary Outrage illustrating the viciousness of closeted homosexuals. Mr. Spell noted that 13 states continue to have Sodomy laws. And Florida is the only state that does not allow gays to adopt. More and more states are outlawing gay marriage and the continuation of hate crimes such as the one committed against Ryan Skipper in Winter Haven, FL constitute negative trends in becoming a more inclusive nation. Yet, other audience members noted that there is a balance. With young people’s attitudes reflecting more acceptance of sexual difference and the increase in anti-discrimination laws, progress is happening.

One audience member asked about the meaning of the film for the gay movement. The audience discussed this question in regard to how education helps change attitudes. One response is to keep Foucault’s explanation in mind that educational institutions defined and made certain sexualities normative in order to pathologize some. Education should teach us to open our minds and hearts to the multiplicity within ourselves.


Tamara Zwick, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of European History at the University of South Florida where she offers courses in European and German social and cultural history, gender history, and Holocaust historiography. Her major research focuses largely on the intersections of kinship, gender, and class in northern Germany. She is currently at work on a manuscript titled Writing Between the Lines: Women, Kinship, and Bürgertum in Early Nineteenth-Century Hamburg. She has previously published articles on memory at the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau and on bourgeois culture as a written practice.

William Spell received his B.A. in Sociology and Religion from the University of Florida. He received his Masters of Arts in Mental Health Counseling, (M.A.) from Rollins College and currently is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Private Practice in Winter Park, FL. From 1992-2004 William worked as a School-Based Family Counselor for the Citizen's Commission for Children, Orange County, FL. He considers his recent and ongoing study of psychoanalytic theory and practice to be an opportunity for enhancing personal and professional growth. Currently he is a member of the International Association of Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, a Member of Florida Organization for Relational Studies (FORS), and a Corresponding Member of Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society. He is an Allied Professional Member of the American Psychological Association's Division of Psychoanalysis (39) and serves on the Committee on Sexualities and Gender Identities which sponsors program development at Division meetings.

Picture: Heinz Dörmer, 1928, age 18. Dörmer was 10 when he joined the German Youth Movement in 1922. He eventually became a group leader before his troop was forced by the Nazis to join the Hitler Youth.
Photo courtesy of Schwules Museum, Berlin

1 comment:

Michael Poff, MA, MSW said...

The following entry is part of a chain of correspondence between film series discussants Michael Poff MA, MSW and Edward Kissi Ph.D and is included here by permission.

"My question following Chapter 175 was specifically about psychological factors that may have blinded the German (and the international) community to the realities of what was unfolding around them when all the indications were explicit in what Hitler had published already by the mid-twenties: In what way might Berlin society – gay and strait alike - have defended against the effects of trauma, loss and humiliation post-WWI? To a lay-person this question may appear strange in relation to sexuality but not to any clinician who has treated trauma. This was not a question about morality or homosexuality and I took pains to emphasize that in both communities there was evidence of a pressured quality to the excitement/sexual atmosphere of Berlin’s ‘golden years’ - much like the manifestations of the ‘roaring twenties’ around the world. I take this to be a post-traumatic phenomenon, in part. The entire world was wishing to forget what it had just survived and Berlin - a center of German culture and society – and the entire German people - had been particularly traumatized by the impact of loosing ‘The Great War’ and were continuing to suffer further humiliation, inflation and poverty consequent to the effects of the Versailles Treaty. Seasoned clinicians will recognize psychological defenses against emotional fragmentation and signs of unmanaged grief, loss and terror and will also know that exaggerated excitement or a compulsive turn to sexuality is a common means of warding off painful emotions or assaults to the self. The first person to be interviewed in Chapter 175 could not have been more eloquent on this reaction when he expressed: “We had to [have sex on that bus in the moment the terror had begun.” As you can imagine, this engages idealization and the denial of internal and external realities that, when left unaddressed, can put the person at even further risk. Clarifying this is different but closely related to the task of identifying and calling out insipient violence and dehumanizing trends that precede atrocity like stereotyping or othering, as you have rightly named these. The fact is that Berliners along with the rest of the world ‘roaring’ blindly toward WWII who believed that they were in the midst of golden years were only too human to have hoped that this could be true. In desperation we wish whatever glitters to be gold. But where adaptations to trauma heightened the risk for repeating trauma and repeating history the irony becomes tragedy. I fear that this is as true today as it was in the Twenties and the Thirties."

Correspondence from Michael Poff to Edward Kissi