Comment: A tribute to Axel Axgil, 1915-2011

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Peter Tatchell remembers Axel Axgil, the Danish gay rights activist who has died aged 96. As part of his legacy and the struggle for LGBT rights, Axgil also encouraged the exposure of Danish Nazi war criminal, SS Dr Carl Vaernet, who experimented on gay prisoners as Buchenwald.

Axel Axgil led a life very well lived, for five decades with his partner, Eigil Axgil. Together, in 1989, they became the first same-sex couple in the world to receive marriage-like legal recognition and rights under a national law – Denmark’s trail-blazing registered partnership law.

A true LGBT pioneer, Axel co-founded the Danish LGBT movement in 1948 and the International Homosexual World Organisation in 1954. He remained an active campaigner until his late 80s. He was a modest, warm-hearted, generous, intelligent and pioneering humanitarian.

There is one aspect of Axel’s many extraordinary achievements that is little known.

With the particular help of Hans Christian Thaysen, and also Axel’s support, I was able to campaign from 1994-2000 to posthumously publicly unmask the Danish Nazi war criminal, SS Dr Carl Vaernet, who experimented on gay prisoners in Buchenwald concentration camp and who escaped justice at the end of the Second World War with Allied connivance (possibly because they mostly saw nothing wrong with Vaernet’s bid to ‘cure’ homosexuality).

Vaernet lived openly in Argentina, with the knowledge of successive Danish and Allied governments, until he died in 1965. There was never any attempt to put him on trial with the other Nazi doctors.

Axel was in his late 70s when he contacted me about the Vaernet case, with just a few vague, sketchy details. But he had a very sharp, forensic mind, and gave me some useful suggestions.

As a result of his encouragement, and especially the substantive evidence collated and passed to me by Hans, I did further investigations.

In 1998, I wrote to the then Danish Prime Minister, Poul Rasmussen, to demand full disclosure of Vaernet’s war crimes and the post-war cover-up by the Danish authorities.

These letters led to huge media coverage of the Vaernet case, parliamentary questions and a public outcry in Denmark.

Eventually, this resulted in the release of top secret files on Vaernet, the naming of 31 Danish war criminals (including Vaernet) and exposure of the six decade-long cover-up and collusion by the Danish Justice Ministry (from 1949 to 1999).

In 2004, three Danish journalists published a book on Vaernet and how he was protected, pursuing the evidence that we’d uncovered and expanding it.

I could have never unearthed what I did without Han’s and Axel’s help and encouragement. I thank them.

Axel Axgil deserves great admiration from all LGBT people, Danes and humanitarians. A true hero, I salute him. He will live on through his extraordinary contribution to LGBT human rights. I feel very fortunate to have worked with him.