Half a century ago the Nazi regime sought to rid Germany of homosexuality. An estimated 100,000 men, most of them from German Christian families, were arrested and a further 10-15,000 sent to concentration camps.
After the horrors of the First World War, Germany, particularly Berlin, experienced a ‘golden era’ of liberation. There appeared to be a more liberal outlook towards Paragraph 175, the German law prohibiting sex between men. However, the fact that the law existed meant that there was still a threat of blackmail or imprisonment. This new wave of liberation saw a campaign to rid Germany of Paragraph 175. Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, a prominent figure in the research into human sexuality, started an ongoing movement to abolish Paragraph 175. His petition to overturn the law included prominent signatories such as Albert Einstein and the philosopher Martin Buber. Hirschfeld was founder of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) an internationally influential research institution that thrived under the more liberal German attitude of the inter-war period. The petition was unsuccessful but signified a change in the attitudes towards homosexuality in Germany among many prominent figures.
At the same time as Hirschfeld was fighting to persuade Germany to rid itself of Paragraph 175, the growing political power of the Nazis fought to strengthen the parameters of the law against homosexuals. They believed that Hirschfeld, and the other people calling for the law to be abolished, were homosexuals themselves. They argued that they were trying to promote homosexuality in order to weaken Germany by ensuring there was a lower birth rate. The Nazis made their ideologies clear, Germany would remain strong through traditional values, law and order and “racial purity”. Those deemed undesirable were swiftly suppressed by the Nazis. In January 1933 Hitler was declared Chancellor of Germany and within a month all gay rights organisations and gay publications were banned. The Nazis kept the gay bars of Berlin open as a way of ‘rounding them up’ a similar technique was employed with Jewish people. On February 27th 1933 the German legislative building The Reichstag burst into flames. Hitler blamed the Communists. Communists blamed the Nazis and spread rumours that the arsonist who had been arrested was a Nazi party member’s secret male lover. Taking advantage of the crisis Hitler received emergency powers from the government. Within a month the first concentration camp in Dakau started to receive prisoners. By July 14th 1933 the Nazi party became the only legal party in Germany. Most homosexuals saw themselves as German first and thought their national identity would protect them. By 1934 Hitler had forged a powerful alliance with the military and in doing so stepped up the persecution of homosexuals. Gestapo HQ had established a special department for the crime of homosexuality.
“Those who practice homosexuality deprive Germany of the children they owe her.” Heinrich Himmler
In 1935 the Nazis rewrote Paragraph 175 to broaden the definition of illegal homosexual behaviour. Party leaders considered including lesbians in the new law but decided against it. They viewed lesbianism as a temporary and curable condition. Women were seen as vessels of reproduction. A new government agency was formed; The Reich Office for the Combatting of Abortion and Homosexuality. Lesbians were spared mass arrest. Recent research has uncovered no more than 5 cases of lesbians who were sent to concentration camps. Lesbians who were sent to the camps were not made to wear the pink triangle but the black triangle, signifying them as anti-social prisoners. The social world that lesbians created, however was destroyed. Some chose to live in exile, others married homosexual men, most quietly disappeared from their previous lives and circle of friends. While lesbians seemed to pose no threat, the Nazis saw male homosexuality as a contagious disease that weakened the blood of the German people. Under the Nazi revision of Paragraph 175 gossip and innuendo became evidence. Men could be arrested for being homosexual with merely a touch or a gesture. No one knew how long they would be held, or whether their arrest would lead them to prison or a concentration camp.
The brutality that faced homosexual men during arrest became a taste of the horrors and extended periods of brutality that awaited them in the concentration camps. Each prisoner was made to wear a symbol to coincide with their criminality. Stripped of any personal identity and reduced to a mere prison number and coloured symbol, the pink triangle was the symbol gay inmates were forced to wear. Since most were German Christians almost all were spared the gas chambers. Instead the Nazis elected them for slave labour, surgical experiments or castration. Guards controlled the prisoners with casual brutality. Each inmate would witness daily executions of other inmates. Almost two thirds perished in the camps. Homosexual prisoners became targets of abuse and violence from other inmates as well as the guards. A social hierarchy existed where homosexual prisoners were perceived to be the weakest and therefore inferior, even among the other prisoners. Many camps housed homosexual inmates away from other prisoners because of the strongly held belief that homosexuality was a disease that could be passed onto others.
By mid 1944 the Nazi war machine began to collapse. The Soviets were advancing from the East, the Americans from the west. An aerial bombing campaign destroyed one German city after another. The concentration camps however were spared. When allied forces liberated the camps in 1945 the ordeal for homosexual inmates was not over. The allies held little sympathy with the wearers of the Pink Triangle and many were sent from the camp to prisons to carry out the remainder of the sentence originally given to them by the Nazis. Homosexuals who were released found that the stigma of being a “175er” made it difficult to assimilate back into normal life. In the post-war period many people didn’t consider homosexual prisoners as victims, but saw them as men with a criminal past. After release they lost their academic and professional degrees, were unable to work in many professions and unable to vote.
Homosexuality remained punishable throughout Germany after the war. East Germany retained the Nazi version of Paragraph 175 until 1968, West Germany retaining the law until 1969. It is estimated that between 1949 and 1969 more than 10,000 men were arrested for homosexuality in West Germany. If those arrested had been previously held in concentration camps they were considered repeat offenders and given harsher sentences. The German and European governments established programs to assist the victims of the Nazi regime by offering compensation for the losses they had suffered. This compensation was not extended to homosexual men because they were classified as criminals.