Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals: An Exhibit
by Jeffrey Kassel
WHEN I WENT to high school in the 1960s in New York City, history classes did not teach us that the Nazis persecuted gays. In fact, I remember being taught that the Nazis were homosexuals. I also remember seeing a U.S. government propaganda film, produced with the facilities of Hollywood during World War II and shown to American moviegoers, that included a description of the Nazis as homosexuals. It was not until the 1970s that I came across writings that told of the persecution of gays by the Nazis, and then, in 1980, Martin Sherman’s Broadway play Bent displayed this history on stage.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in New York City, has now opened an exhibit, “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945.” A traveling exhibit from the United States Holocaust Museum, part of a series of shows about lesser-known victims of the Nazis, it will run in New York until October 2, 2015.
The Nazi aim was to eliminate “degeneracy” in Germany and to increase heterosexual propagation for their New Order. About 50,000 gay men were sentenced to prison. Some were sent to mental hospitals. Some were castrated. Some were sent to concentration camps. It is estimated that between 5,000 and 15,000 gay men were confined in the camps.
THE EXHIBIT OPENS with a history of section 175 of the criminal code, imposed in 1871, that criminalized homosexual relations by men. (It was never illegal to be a lesbian). After World War I, many gay Germans gravitated to Berlin, where there was a prodigious underground gay community and culture. The most prominent figure of that time was Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a gay Jewish sexologist who was founder of the Institute of Sexual Science. The notorious Nazi book-burning of 1933 was started with Hirschfeld’s library and institute.
The Nazis were concerned with the decreasing German birthrate as well as what they considered un-Aryan behavior of homosexuals. They also believed that while men might not be able to change their behavior, lesbians could still be forced to produce children for the Reich. The Nazis did, however, revise Section 175 to expand the definition of homosexual behavior to the point at which a mere glance or touch could result in prosecution. Many gays were turned in to the authorities by neighbors, coworkers, and even relatives, often on simple suspicion.
As is well known, Ernst Rohm, the leader of the Sturmabteilung (S.A.), or Brownshirts, and his close circle were homosexuals. There is some debate concerning why they were executed in 1934 on Hitler’s orders, but the exhibit suggests two reasons: Hitler and Himmler considered them an embarrassment, and they were no longer needed as the Nazis consolidated power through the Schutzstaffel (S.S.) and began their rule.
During the war years, 1939-1945, gays were conscripted along with all other men. There were about 7,000 men arrested for homosexual acts while in the military. Some were sent to penalty-battalions, where they faced certain death in battle. Others were sent to concentration camps. An interesting note: As the Nazis expanded their territory across Europe and Africa, they did not expand the persecution of gays outside ‘Greater Germany.’ As far as the Nazis were concerned if non-Aryans were homosexual, that meant less procreation for “inferior races.”
Those sent to concentration camps not only faced Nazi persecution, but also the wrath of fellow prisoners. Homosexuals were given the distinguishing pink triangle, and faced brutal treatment and isolation from others. They were often given impossible workloads that would quickly kill them. Some were experimented on in the surgical wards by Nazi physicians. Another note: While lesbians were not persecuted per se, they were forced into the closet in order to survive. There is only one known case of a lesbian sent to a concentration camp, and she was a madam in a prostitution ring, so was given the black triangle of the habitual criminal.
AFTER THE WAR, the Allies repealed many laws promulgated by the Nazis. However, they left the Nazi version of Section 175 on the books in West Germany. So little is known about those persecuted, and so little ephemera exists, primarily because gays were still considered criminals. Some with the pink triangle were not released in 1945 and had to serve the remaining years of their sentence in prison. Most remained closeted for the rest of their lives and never told about their persecution by the Nazis.
In 1956, the West German government ruled that homosexuals in concentration camps were not entitled to reparations, as they were criminals. It was not until 1990 that the reunified Germany ‘pardoned’ gays who were arrested from 1933-1945.
To learn more about memorials to the gay victims of Nazism in cities around the world, click here.
Jeffrey Kassel is a retired civil service worker who a founder of his union, the Public Employees Federation, and served as a union officer for twenty-eight years.