Gay History: Gay Men In Nazi Germany, And The Holocaust

On June 30, 2017 Germany said “yes” to gay marriage in a landmark vote that saw the Bundestag (German Parliament), pass a bill that allows same-sex couples to have equal marriage rights. This is an achievement milestone for the countries LGBT community following attempts of extermination only decades prior.

While Adolf Hitler, and the Nazi’s attack on the Jewish population is well documented, it was not until the 1980s that the government even acknowledged the role of gay men in Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust – and another several decades until an apology was issued to the gay community in 2002.

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In February 1933, the Nazi Party increased their active work in dismantling homosexuality by launching a purge of homosexual clubs in Berlin, outlawing sex publications, and banning organised gay groups. As a consequence, many gay people began to flee Germany.

The following month of March, 1933, Kurt Hiller, the main organizer of the Institute of Sex Research, was sent to a concentration camp. The Institute was a non-profit foundation that campaigned on the grounds for gay rights, as well as advocating for; sex education, contraception, womens rights, and the treatments for STD’s, pioneers in the call for civil rights across the world.

On May 6, 1933, Nazi Youth of the Deutsche Studentenschaft (German Student Union) carried out an organised attack on the Institute, and a few days later on May 10, the Institute’s library and archives were publicly hauled out and burned in the streets of the Opernplatz (a public square in Germany’s capital city). Around 20,000 books and journals, along with 5,000 images, were destroyed. While rummaging, the group seized the Institute’s extensive lists of names and addresses of homosexuals.

Ernst Röhm was a gay Nazi, whose homosexuality was known to Hilter, and whom the latter initially protected from the parties strong anti-LGBT policy. However, as time passed, Hitler began to see Röhm as a potential risk to his influence and during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 (a purge of those whom Hitler deemed threats to his power), he had Röhm murdered, using his homosexuality as justification. After solidifying his power, Hitler included gay men among those sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust.

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Chief of Police, and one of Hitlers most trusted advisors, Heinrich Himmler, made the party’s intentions clear: 

“We must exterminate these people root and branch; the homosexual must be eliminated.”

Following the purge, a special division of the Gestapo (German police) were instituted to compile lists of gay individuals for assimilation. In 1936, Himmler archived the information by creating the Reichszentrale zur Bekämpfung der Homosexualität und Abtreibung (Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion).

Of the gay men living in Germany, over one million were targeted, of this at least 100,000 were arrested with 50,000 serving prison terms as “convicted homosexuals”, and hundreds castrated under court order. Anyone who could not be “fixed” and found guilty of “chronic homosexuality” were sent to a concentration camp

The anti-LGBT propaganda was upheld due to the Nazi belief that German gay men were against the plan of creating a “master race” and sought to force them into sexual and social conformity. Gay men who would not change, or more accurately feign a change, in their sexual orientation were sent to concentration camps under the “Extermination Through Work” campaign.

This campaign was essentially turning prisoners into slave workers, worked to their death. The working conditions were characterised as: no remuneration of any kind; constant surveillance of workers; physically demanding labour; excessive working hours ; minimal nutrition; lack of hygiene; poor medical care; and insufficient clothing.

If the workers did not pass away due to the harsh working environment they were also to torture, and both mental and physical abuse.

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Definition of homosexuality
Paragraph 175 read, “An unnatural sex act committed between persons of male sex or by humans with animals is punishable by imprisonment; the loss of civil rights might also be imposed.”

The Reichsgericht (Imperial Court of Justice) ruled that a criminal homosexual act had to involve either anal, oral, or intercrural sex between two men. Anything less than that was deemed harmless play, and unpunishable. Due to the ambiguous nature of this law, proving homosexual activity had occurred was next to impossible meaning there was a lax attitude prior to World War I, and the rise of the Nazi formation.

After the Night of the Long Knives, the Nazis amended paragraph 175 themselves to remove any possible loopholes. The most significant being a change from “An unnatural sex act committed between persons of male sex” to “A male who commits a sex offense with another male.” This expanded the acts of homosexuality to kissing, mutual masturbation and love-letters between men, meaning proof was no longer necessary to make arrests, just reasonable doubt.

Pink Triangle
Prisoners held at concentration camps were labelled with badges as their identifiers. The badge for homosexuality was a downward facing pink triangle. After camps were liberated by the end of the second World War, in the 1970s, the pink triangle was inverted and reclaimed by the LGBT community as a symbol for gay rights. 

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Once sent to concentrations camps, the homosexuals were considered to be the lowest of the low in terms of hierarchy. They suffered unusually cruel treatment having their testicles boiled off by water, and being sodomised by officers with foreign objects. The pink triangles they were forced to wear were used for target practice, and they received fatal beatings administered by both guards, and fellow prisoners due to the wider homophobic attitudes present in German society.

An estimated number of gay men imprisoned in concentration camps during the Holocaust, range from 5,000 to 15,000, with a large majority never leaving however a lack of official records as to the specific reasons for internment are non-existent making it hard to pin an exact number.

During World War Two, experiments were conducted on homosexuals in attempts to isolate the “gay gene”, as the Nazis called it, with hopes of using it to find a ‘cure’ for homosexual behaviour. Once these experiments were finished, the victims were castrated.

In the years since, homosexual concentration camp prisoners were not acknowledged as victims of Nazi persecution. Reparations and state pensions available to other groups were refused to gay men, who were still classified as criminals — the 1935 Nazi-revised version of Paragraph 175 remained in full force in West Germany until 1969 when the Bundestag voted to return to the lighter pre-1935 definition. Paragraph 175 was not repealed entirely until 1994.

Holocaust survivors were forced to serve out their terms of imprisonment, regardless of the time spent in concentration camps and could be re-imprisoned for “repeat offences” as well as being placed on the modern lists of “sex offenders”. 

The Nazis’ anti-gay policies and their destruction of the early gay rights movement were not considered suitable subject matter for Holocaust historians and educators. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that the mainstream began to explore the tragedy, with Holocaust survivors writing their memoirs, such as Bent, and more historical research and documentaries being published about the Nazis’ homophobia and their destruction of the German gay-rights movement.

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Since the 1980s, some European and international cities have erected memorials to remember the thousands of homosexual people who were murdered and persecuted during the Holocaust. In 2002, over seven decades since its inception, the German government issued an official apology to the gay community.

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