Burning the Library
Dutch government destroys gay archive, vows mass arrests
The Guide, February 2001
In Berlin in 1933, a Nazi mob dealt the archive of homosexual rights pioneer Magnus Hirschfeld a speedy death by bonfire. The Nazis said they wanted to protect children and public morals. Last year, Dutch police seized the core of the Brongersma Foundation archive for the same reasons-- but instead of burning the documents, Dutch authorities are poring over them, compiling a list of people around the world to shame, arrest, and prosecute.
In late October, police made their second raid on the Brongersma Foundation-- headquartered in a mansion in a fashionable part of Harlem, near Amsterdam. The raid came shortly after a Dutch court sanctioned a police seizure made at the archive a few months earlier, in which authorities carted away dozens of boxes of personal histories and photographs. An advisory board appointed by the prosecutor found that the material had [no -webm Ipce] scientific value. But on October 5, a court allowed its seizure in a ruling that split hairs: at the time Brongersma collected the material, the court said, the foundation was not a serious scientific enterprise, even if it is so now.
After examining the writings and photographs, prosecutors announced they had identified hundreds of men who had been involved-- mostly years ago-- in homosexual relationships with boys, and that they had evidence to launch some 40 prosecutions. Raids and arrests in the Netherlands and-- with the likely help of Interpol-- around Europe and beyond are expected to follow.
Patrician in prison
For decades, Dr. Edward Brongersma had solicited documentation of pederastic relationships so that they might be better understood by posterity. Brongersma had established his foundation some 20 years ago with a library that grew to some 20,000 volumes, and an endowment to fund research.
Scion of a prominent family, Brongersma had been elected to the Dutch Senate in 1946. In 1950 he was jailed for nine months for sex with a 16-year-old youth. His public rehabilitation and return to the Senate marked the growing Dutch tolerance for gays. He went on to serve in the Senate for 18 years, and became chair of its Justice Committee. Later he worked at the University of Utrecht's Criminological Institute, and in 1975 was knighted by the queen.
Brongersma was 86 when he died in 1998-- as it turned out, in a medically-assisted suicide He was despondent over the death of a longtime friend and the drubbing he received on Dutch television when he argued the distinction between sexual violence and consenting relationships in the wake of public outrage over Belgium's Dutroux scandal-- a case involving the kidnap, rape, and murder of four teenage girls. After his TV appearance, neighbors stoned his home, breaking windows.
At Brongersma's death, control of his foundation passed to a three-man board, which soon set to squabbling. There were disputes over recordkeeping and finances. But the rub was the desire of two board members to destroy the archive's most sensitive-- and unique-- material: personal histories and documentation that Brongersma collected over decades from contacts around the world. Boardmembers Fritz Wafelbakker, a pediatrician formerly with the Ministry of Health, and Cees Straver, former head of the Netherlands Institute for Sexological Research, worried that the histories-- many replete with photographs-- might violate a new Dutch law banning possession of sexual images of minors, and another law, which Wafelbakker helped author, requiring doctors and other professionals to report illegal sex with minors to the police.
As a chartered educational foundation, there was reason to think Brongersma's archive might enjoy immunity. In any case, the third board member, Lex van Naerssen, chair of psychology at the University of Utrecht, opposed the destruction, seeing it as a betrayal of Brongersma's wishes and an affront to historical preservation. He reportedly blocked his fellow board members access to the archive. Straver and Wafelbakker voted Van Naerssen off the board, and in 1999, he went to court to contest his ouster. The court battle alerted Dutch media and authorities to the archive's erotic trove.
Police entered and sealed off the archive in August 1999, and prosecutors laid the groundwork for the raids last year.
For now, the Harlem prosecutor says he will not lay charges against board members, on the shaky grounds that they did not know what was in the archive. But the seized sexual histories, which police are now computer-cataloging, have put them on the trail of many "predators and victims."
It remains to be seen how successful will be any prosecutions stemming from the seizure. In most cases, the relationships described are many years old, so that if anyone had felt victimized, they'd have had plenty of time to complain already. But depending on local laws, non-cooperation of long-ago non-victims may pose no obstacle to sex police.
Meanwhile police are poring through the diary Brongersma maintained since he was a teenager, releasing salacious details of his own private erotic jottings to the media. Brongersma's daily contacts over decades are recorded in his diaries, sometimes in code, and police have vowed to decipher it. They believe they can track hundreds of people in the Netherlands and thousands worldwide who claim were part of the Brongersma "conspiracy."
In a curious twist, the doctor who prescribed Brongersma's fatal overdose in 1998 was brought up on charges in October that psychological suffering was not sufficient grounds to aid a suicide. The doctor was found not guilty, a ruling seen as further expanding the already liberal standards for euthanasia in the Netherlands. Would the decision have come down that way in the case of a person who hadn't just been publicly vilified?
The Brongersma Foundation still exists, though without its collection of personal histories. Sources say that it will divest itself of the mansion and its remaining library, and devote its funds to research on youth sexuality. The money available depends on whether Dutch tax authorities certify the foundation as scientific, but could range upwards of $4 million, though the foundation's scope for action in the wake of the scandal is unclear.
Van Naerssen has been removed from the foundation's board, and he has since suffered a stroke.
Lining up at the guillotine
A letter to the editor in Trouw, a Dutch daily, noted that when sodomites were burned at the stake in the middle ages, their court docket was burned with them-- depriving future generations of an understanding of the deed. The Brongersma raids raise the question whether sexuality that is judged criminal can be documented for posterity. But the letter-writer was among the few voices raised against the archive's destruction, which has been met by a general silence among Dutch historians and preservationists.
With the Dutroux scandal still reverberating, "there's a sense there that if you stick your neck out on this issue you'll get your head cut off," says one activist.
"I don't think that the state should be the sole judge of this," contends Dan Healey, a historian at the University of Swansea who has written about the destruction of psychiatric records in the Soviet Union. "In principle, if some academics have recognized the scientific value of the material, then it should be retained. Because sexual practices are socially constructed and change over time, it's important to adopt assessment criteria for material that don't excessively reflect the sexual prejudices of our own era."
"Documenting of minority sexuality is very important because it tells you something about the larger organization of sexual society," agrees Brian Pronger, a professor at the University of Toronto's Sexual Diversity Studies Program. "Sexuality of is not just of prurient interest. To erase the record of that part of life is to erase a major part of reality."
As the Dutch brace for what could be a season of serious witch-hunting, vindication in the fullness of history may be the best they can hope for.
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