Renowned Montreal artist Peter Flinsch would barely escape Nazi Germany with his life after the 18-year-old German arts student was conscripted into the German anti-aircraft artillery of the Luftwaffe in 1938.
When he was spied kissing another man following a Christmas party in Berlin in 1942, he was sentenced to serve in a disciplinary unit made up of criminals whose job was to clear mines on the front lines – which basically amounted to a death sentence.
"In those days you always had to be very careful not to be caught [with another man]," Flinsch recalls today. "Just being gay was a crime."
By the time Flinsch was a teenager, of course, Germany’s burgeoning gay movement embraced by the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic had been all but crushed under Paragraph 175 of the archaic German penal code. Over 100 gay bars and political organizations had been wiped out in Berlin and Himmler himself later boasted the Nazis had killed a million gay men between 1938 and 1944.
After the war, gay people throughout Europe were still seen as criminals by their Allied liberators, and their persecution would continue for another 50 years. In fact, it wasn’t until 1998 that Germany pardoned those rounded up under Paragraph 175.
So Flinsch moved to Paris, then Vancouver where he co-founded the Vancouver Ballet, and then, in 1952, Montreal where he was a costume and set designer for Radio-Canada for 33 years.
Then, after I first interviewed Flinsch in this column six years ago, he was brought to the attention of Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press by David Leddick, author of the great photograph anthology The Male Nude (Taschen Books), which compiles photos from the world’s greatest physique photographers, including my old friend Herb Klein.
"Then Arsenal offered me a book and I didn’t have to kiss their asses!" Flinsch laughs.
Flinsch recruited local gay historian and fab author Ross Higgins, co-founder of the Quebec Gay Archives, to write the book.
"A major theme throughout Peter Flinsch’s career has been the urban gay world that he inhabited," Ross writes in the just-published Peter Flinsch: The Body in Question. "His work in this series shows men in various locations in Montreal’s gay scene, including the YMCA, taverns, beaches and streets. In these pictures, Peter offers a sympathetic but slyly ironic commentary on the fashions and foibles of cruising."
|Flinsch in his Montreal studio, circa 2008
photo: Richard Burnett
"Ross went through all my work – he knows me better than I know myself," Flinsch told me this week. "He had free reign to choose any work he wanted to put in the book, though I did have a veto."
Flinsch, now 88, has lived in the same downtown Montreal apartment for 40 years, surrounded by works of arts – oil paintings, sculptures and piles and piles of sketches.
"I am very grateful to have this book about my work published at this [late] stage of my life and career."
Flinsch is also remembered back home in Germany. He returned to Berlin for a month last year, visited old friends and saw his work permanently exhibited in that city’s Schwules Gay Museum, a private institution dedicated to preserving, exhibiting and discovering homosexual history, art and culture.
"It’s an honour," he says softly, fidgeting with his cane.
Since he’s been gone, another openly gay man, Klaus Wowereit, was first elected mayor of Berlin in 2001.
And, in a landmark public ceremony this past May, Wowereit inaugurated a Berlin memorial to the gay victims of the Nazis, located on the edge of Tiergarten Park across the street from the memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Wowereit also led a protest after vandals smashed parts of the gay memorial this past Aug. 16.
Some things, evidently, have not changed.
But Berlin has been rebuilt and Flinsch – who has never returned to his hometown of Leipzig in the former East Germany since his parents passed away in the late 1970s – is happy his country is finally moving on.
"After the war, the liberation was fabulous for everybody, me included," Flinsch recalls. "When I returned last year I found Berlin had redeveloped in the most amazing way. It is the place to be in Europe."
Then Flinsch smiles slyly. "Paris, eat your heart out!"
Essential buttplug Join Peter Flinsch and Ross Higgins at Librairie Ménage à Trois (1672 Ste-Catherine E.) for the launch of Peter Flinsch: The Body in Question, which at press time had been moved from Sept. 17 to Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. Some of Flinsch’s work is also being exhibited at the Galerie Dentaire (1239 Amherst) beginning on Sept. 17.