Gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians, were two of several groups targeted by Nazis during the Holocaust.
The rise of Nazism
Prior to the Third Reich, Berlin was considered a liberal city, with many gay bars, nightclubs and cabarets. There were even many drag bars where tourists, heterosexuals and gays would enjoy female impersonation acts. Adolf Hitler decried cultural degeneration, prostitution and syphilis in his book "Mein Kampf" blaming at least some of the phenomena on Jews.
Berlin also had the most active LGBT rights movements in the world at the time. Jewish doctor Magnus Hirschfeld had co-founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee, WhK) in Berlin in 1897 to campaign against the notorious "Paragraph 175" law that made sex between men illegal. It also sought social recognition of homosexual and transgender men and women. It was the first public gay rights organization.
In 1919, Hirschfeld had also co-founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sex Research), a private sexology research institute. It had a research library and a large archive, and included a marriage and sex counseling office. In addition, the institute was a pioneer worldwide in the call for civil rights and social acceptance for homosexual and transgender people.
The advancements of the gay community were soon erased, however, with the coming to power of Hitler's Nazi Party.
Nazism declared itself incompatible with homosexuality, because gays did not reproduce and perpetuate the master race. For the same reasons, masturbation was also considered harmful to the Reich, but treated lightly. There was also a fear among Nazis of a "gay gene" contamination.
Hitler believed that homosexuality was "degenerate behavior" which posed a threat to the capacity of the state and the "masculine character" of the nation. Gay men were denounced as "enemies of the state" and charged with "corrupting" public morality and posing a threat to the German birthrate.
Nazi leaders such as Himmler also viewed homosexuals as a separate people and had Nazi doctors experiment on them in an effort to locate the hereditary weakness many party members believed caused homosexuality.
Some leaders clearly wanted gay people exterminated, while others wanted enforcement of laws banning sex between gay men or lesbians.
Ernst Röhm, a man Hitler perceived as a potential threat, and the leader of Sturmabteilung, the Nazi Party's first militia, was discreetly gay until 1925 when he was outed by a Social Democratic newspaper that published a number of love letters written by Röhm, as were some other top leaders of the SA, such as Edmund Heines. After 1925, Röhm was quite open about his sexuality and was a member of the League for Human Rights, Germany's largest gay rights group.
German Jews played a prominent role in the gay rights movement in Germany. The German-Jewish arts and film community had a large concentration of homosexuals.
German Jews like Magnus Hirschfeld were heavily criticized. They were demonized for their controversial ideas which were shocking to many people in Europe. Even though Sigmund Freud had nothing to do with the gay rights movement in Germany (since he was an Austrian Jew), he was targeted because he was Jewish and had controversial ideas about sexuality. Anyone who promoted controversial sexual ideas was thought of as a deviant by German society and especially by the Nazis. Freud was particularly criticized for some incestuous concepts like Oedipus Complex and the Electra Complex in which he claimed were psychodevelopmental phenomena where children developed sexual feelings toward the opposite sex parent.
Purge of Homosexuals
In late February 1933, as the moderating influence of Ernst Röhm weakened, the Nazi Party launched its purge of homosexual (gay, lesbian, and bisexual; then known as homophile) clubs in Berlin, outlawed sex publications, and banned organized gay groups. As a consequence, many fled Germany (e.g. Erika Mann, Richard Plaut). In March 1933, Kurt Hiller, the main organizer of Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute of Sex Research, was sent to a concentration camp.
On May 6, 1933, Nazi Youth of the Deutsche Studentenschaft made an organised attack on the Institute of Sex Research. A few days later the Institute's library and archives were publicly hauled out and burned in the streets of the Opernplatz. Around 20,000 books and journals, and 5,000 images, were destroyed. Also seized were the Institute's extensive lists of names and addresses of LGBT people. In the midst of the burning, Joseph Goebbels gave a political speech to a crowd of around 40,000 people.
Hitler initially protected Röhm from other elements of the Nazi Party which held his homosexuality to be a violation of the party's strong anti-gay policy. However, Hitler later changed course when he perceived Röhm to be a potential threat to his power. During the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, a purge of those who Hitler deemed threats to his power took place. He had Röhm murdered and used Röhm's homosexuality as a justification to subside outrage within the ranks of the SA. After solidifying his power, Hitler would include gay men among those sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust. Many of these gay men were also Jewish and this is a major reason that they were so heavily targeted by the Nazis.
Himmler had initially been a supporter of Röhm, arguing that the charges of homosexuality against him were manufactured by Jews. But after the purge, Hitler elevated Himmler's status and he became very active in the suppression of homosexuality. He exclaimed, "We must exterminate these people root and branch... the homosexual must be eliminated." (Plant, 1986, p. 99).
Shortly after the purge in 1934, a special division of the Gestapo was instituted to compile lists of gay individuals. In 1936, Heinrich Himmler, Chief of the Schutzstaffel, created the "Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion."
Gays were not initially treated in the same fashion as the Jews, however; Nazi Germany thought of German gay men as part of the "Master Race" and sought to force gay men into sexual and social conformity. Gay men who would or could not conform and feign a switch in sexual orientation were sent to concentration camps under the "Extermination Through Work" campaign.
More than one million gay German men were targeted, of whom at least 100,000 were arrested and 50,000 were serving prison terms as convicted gay men. Hundreds of European gay men living under Nazi occupation were castrated under court order.
Some persecuted under these laws would not have identified themselves as gay. Such "anti-homosexual" laws were widespread throughout the western world until the 1960s and 1970s, so many gay men did not feel safe to come forward with their stories until the 1970s when many so-called "sodomy laws" were repealed.
Lesbians were not widely persecuted under Nazi anti-gay laws, as it was considered easier to persuade or force them to comply with accepted heterosexual behavior. However, they were viewed as a threat to state values and were often branded "anti-social."
Estimates vary wildly as to the number of gay men killed in concentration camps during the Holocaust ranging from 15,000 to 600,000. The deaths of at least an estimated 15,000 gay men in concentration camps were officially documented. Larger numbers include those who were Jewish and gay, or even Jewish, gay and communist. In addition, records as to the specific reasons for internment are non-existent in many areas, making it hard to put an exact number on just how many gay men perished in death camps.
Gay men suffered unusually cruel treatment in the concentration camps. They faced persecution not only from German soldiers but also from other prisoners, and many gay men were beaten to death. Additionally, gay men in forced labor camps routinely received more grueling and dangerous work assignments than other non-Jewish inmates, under the policy of "Extermination Through Work". German soldiers also were known to use gay men for target practice, aiming their weapons at the pink triangles their human targets were forced to wear.
The harsh treatment can be attributed to the view of the SS guards toward gay men, as well as to the homophobic attitudes present in German society at large. The marginalization of gay men in Germany was reflected in the camps. Many died from unsympathetic beatings, some of them caused by other prisoners. And Nazi doctors often used gay men for scientific experiments in an attempt to locate a "gay gene" to "cure" any future Aryan children who were gay.
An account of a gay Holocaust survivor, Pierre Seel, details life for gay men during Nazi control. In his account he states that he participated in his local gay community in the town of Mulhouse. When the Nazis gained power over the town his name was on a list of local gay men ordered to the police station. He obeyed the directive to protect his family from any retaliation. Upon arriving at the police station he notes that he and other gay men were beaten. Some gay men who resisted the SS had their fingernails pulled out. Others were raped with broken rulers and had their bowels punctured, causing them to bleed profusely. After his arrest he was sent to the concentration camp at Schirmeck. There, Seel stated that during a morning roll-call, the Nazi commander announced a public execution. A man was brought out, and Seel recognized his face. It was the face of his eighteen-year-old lover from Mulhouse. Seel then claims that the Nazi guards stripped the clothes of his lover and placed a metal bucket over his head. Then the guards released trained German Shepherd dogs on him, which mauled him to death.
Experiences such as these can account for the relatively high death rate of gay men in the camps as compared to the other "anti-social groups." A study by Ruediger Lautmann found that 60 percent of gay men in concentration camps died, as compared to 41 percent for political prisoners and 35 percent for Jehovah's Witnesses. The study also shows that survival rates for gay men were slightly higher for internees from the middle and upper classes and for married bisexual men and those with children.
After the war, 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 Nazi anti-gay law was not repealed until 1969. They could be re-imprisoned for "repeat offenses," and were kept on the modern lists of "sex offenders." Under the Allied Military Government of Germany, some homosexuals were forced to serve out their terms of imprisonment, regardless of the time spent in concentration camps.
Since the 1980s, some cities around the world have erected memorials to remember the thousands of gay people who were murdered and persecuted during the Holocaust. Major memorials can be found in Berlin, Germany; Amsterdam, Netherlands; Montevideo, Uruguay; and San Francisco, United States. In 2002 the German government released an official apology to the gay community.
In 2005, the European Parliament marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp with a minute's silence and the passage of a resolution. In its early draft, this resolution included the following text:
"The death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where hundreds of thousands of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Poles and other prisoners of various nationalities were murdered, is not only a major occasion for European citizens to remember and condemn the enormous horror and tragedy of the Holocaust, but also for addressing the disturbing rise in anti-Semitism, and especially anti-Semitic incidents, in Europe, and for learning anew the wider lessons about the dangers of victimizing people on the basis of race, ethnic origin, religion, politics, gender, or sexual orientation." However, in the final version of this resolution, the reference to homosexuals was removed.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum[]
- Giles, Geoffrey J. "'The Most Unkindest Cut of All': Castration, Homosexuality and Nazi Justice," Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 27 (1992): pp. 41-61.
- Burleigh, Michael and Wolfgang Wipperman. The Racial State: Germany, 1933-1945. New York: Cambridge, 1991. p.183
- Memorials of the Gay Holocaust, Matt & Andrej Koymasky