Days of masquerade: the lives of lesbians during the Third Reich

On November 30, 1940, Elli Smula and Margarete Rosenberg were brought to the Ravensrück Women's Concentration Camp north of Berlin. Smula had just turned 26, Rosenberg 30. Camp records list the reason for their arrest as "lesbian." As in all concentration camps, the SS assigned different colored triangles to prisoners in Ravensbrück; it was a way of playing one against the other made it easier to prevent resistance. Elli Smula and Margarete Rosenberg received red triangles, that is, they were categorized as "political" prisoners. The pink triangle designating those arrested because of their actual or alleged homosexuality was reserved for men, so lesbians did not make up a separate category of prisoners. No one knows what Elli Smula's and Margarete Rosenberg's lives were like before they were arrested, nor how and if they survived the camp. Just as little is known of the circumstances leading to their arrest. Had they attracted the attention of the block leader and been denounced. Or had they perhaps been arrested during a raid of a homosexual establishment? (...)

How did women's lives change after the Nazis came to power? What became of the small amount of freedom they had struggled to attain, particularly during the Weimar Republic? What consequences did they suffer as a result of homophobic Nazi ideology? (...)

In attempting to reconstruct the lives of lesbians during the "Third Reich", one is confronted with many obstacles. First of all, hardly any relevant files and documents still exist; moreover, because of continuing discrimination, few women have written personal accounts in this regard and finding those willing to talk about their experiences from that time is a difficult task. (...)

After the First World War and the establishment of the Weimar Republic, lesbians started to come together and form organizations to an extent that had never before existed in Germany. This was possible due to achievements of democracy, such as women's suffrage and freedom of assembly, speech, and the press. As early as the turn of the century, lesbians -- even if in small numbers -- started joining homosexual groups that had been founded by men, such as the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee), started in 1897 by the homosexual physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935). The main goals of the committee were the repeal of Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code, which made homosexual activities between men punishable, and educational and outreach work to raise the public consciousness regarding homosexuality. The strong orientation toward penal reform and academic structure of this organization, which tried to win prominent personalities to support its struggle, were among the reasons why women, who were not admitted to universities until 1908, were not represented in these groups to a greater extent. In addition, according to laws regulating the formation of organizations, women were prohibited from (any form of political) organizing in most German states until 1908. In order to create meeting places despite these restrictions, women formed clubs that were officially registered, for example, as bowling clubs or savings clubs.

The image that lesbians had of themselves was generally modeled after the ideal of the financially independent, working woman, often the androgynous "garçonne" type as personified by Marlene Dietrich. They usually saw themselves as belonging to the "third sex". This theory, which declared homosexuals to be a category beyond that of man or woman, became popular through Magnus Hirschfeld. He considered homosexuality innate, a "sexual variation in nature", and thus neither pathological nor criminal, neither immoral nor sinful -- as had been propagated by the spirit of the times. Hirschfeld's theories contributed to the development of a positive self-image among homosexuals.

Berlin was without a doubt the center of homosexual culture and its emancipation movement, as these were facilitated by the anonymity of a large metropolis and a progressive climate. In contrast, the social controls of the family and the environment were much more repressive in small town and rural areas. (...)

[Berlin's lesbian] clubs and bars catered to a different women's social milieu. They often organized social and cultural events, thus supporting the process of political emancipation. Some of these clubs were part of larger organizations representing both lesbians and gay men, such as the Human Rights League (Bund für Menschenrechte, BFM), founded in 1923. According to league records, membership reached 48,000 at times. The league's main aims were the struggle against Paragraph 175, public education regarding homosexuality and organizing homosexual men and women. (...)

Despite some restrictions, the freedom of the press enjoyed during the Weimar Republic enabled the printing of [homosexual] magazines which had a combined circulation in the millions. Some of them were targeted specifically at lesbians and were available in Berlin at newsstands or by subscription. (...)

But this freedom, which -- in spite of mass unemployment and inflation -- homosexual men and women had struggled to attain during the Weimar Republic, was not inalienable. Numerous antihomosexual and antifeminist pamphlets were also printed. Ehrhard F. W. Eberhard for example, in his book on the "women's movement and its erotic foundation", (1) which contained a never-ending collection of antifeminist prejudices, attacked the women's movement, holding it responsible for almost all real or alleged ills in the republic, which he hated as well. According to Eberhard, not only did the women's movement unduly question all prevailing power structures, but, supposedly, undermined by lesbians, he accused it of "seducing" women into withdrawing themselves from men and the institution of marriage. As regards lesbianism, the author felt it was actually "pseudohomosexuality" -- to a much greater degree than was the case for men. It was, therefore, an acquired vice. Like some contemporaries, Eberhard demanded the inclusion of women under Paragraph 175. To him, female homosexuality represented "a serious moral threat" to society, and the influence of the women's movement was to be restricted, "in the interest of a healthy development of social life".

The Protection of Youth from Obscene Publications Act, passed in 1926, was also an effective means of attacking the homosexual media and its public visibility. (...) Die Freundin was banned from publication for a year, starting in June 1928, and in June 1931 Garçonne was no longer permitted to be sold publicly, that is, it was only available under the counter for informed customers. (...)

There were also clubs dedicated to combating the existence of homosexuals organizations. Among these were the German Association for the Improvement of the Species and the Science of Heredity (Deutscher Bund für Volksausfartung und Erbunke) or the Catholic Association to Protect the People (Volkwartbund). The latter published the Volkswart, a monthly journal dedicated to fighting public immorality, and publicized other similar literature, such as the memorandum "Paragraph 175 must stay!" (2) which opposed the demand to repeal Paragraph 175.

Actions against homosexuals covered a wide range: in 1932 public dance events and meetings were prohibited by Rudolf Diels, chief of the political police in Berlin and after 1933 first head of the Gestapo. Other actions included raids of bars and clubs and even physical assaults; for example, Magnus Hirschfeld was critically beaten in 1920 in Munich by a group of nationalist students after he had given a lecture.

Only a few Nazi statements on homosexuality from the 1920s are known. Most of them were made in connection with the planned reform of Paragraph 175 and thus were aimed predominantly against gay men. On June 22, 1927, a "counter draft" of the sexual criminal code, which was prepared by a committee of which the Human Rights League and the Scientific Humanitarian Committee were members, was debated for the first time in the Reichstag. It demanded decriminalization of homosexual activities between adult men. On the same day, the Nazi Party (NSDAP), which already had fourteen seats in the Reichstag, had Wilhelm Frick -- minister of the Interior starting in 1933 -- declare "that these people of Paragraph 175, that is, unnatural sex acts among men, must be persecuted with all severity, as this vice will lead to the downfall of the German people." (...)

Homosexuality was included under the heading "illicit sexuality", which for the Nazis meant all nonmarital sexual activities not primarily aimed at procreation. The necessary" liberation of the people" -- that is, from the regulations of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles -- and the aggressive conquest of the new "living space" [Lebensraum] they sought allowed no room for a self-determined form of sexuality and not, therefore, for homosexuality.

In response to the acceptance by the Criminal Code Committee in October 1929 of the counter draft, which provided for impunity for homosexual activities by consenting adults and recommended to the Reichstag the repeal of Paragraph 175, the NSDAP issued another statement. The article appeared in the Völkischer Beobachter (Nationalist Observer), which was very effective for propaganda purposes:

We will see to it that all evil efforts of the Jewish soul to thwart the divine idea of creation through physical relations with animals, siblings, and the same sex will soon be characterized by law as what they truly are, that is, as contemptible aberrations of Syrians, as the most serious of crimes, to be punished by hanging or expulsion.(3)

Whereas in 1928 talk was only of the "reprehensibility" of male-male and female-female love, but not of concrete countermeasures, this tirade of hatred -- which in advance proclaimed the certainty of Nazi victory -- threatened the death penalty. At the same time, homosexuality was declared a "Semitic invention" and foreign to the German national body" (deutscher Volkskörper).

Conspicuously, the NSDAP refrained from making public statements on homosexuality beginning in 1931. This had to do with the "discovery" of SA Chief of Staff Ernst Röhm's homosexuality on the basis of published letters. That revelation created quite a stir, quite inconvenient for the Nazis, in the media in 1931-1932. The Social Democratic Party, in particular, published a series of articles on "Fascism and Homosexuality" in their newspaper The Munich Post and elsewhere, aimed at attacking the Nazis' double standard, whereby they publicly condemned homosexuality yet tolerated it without a word in their own ranks. The Social Democrats wanted to discredit the Nazis politically; but they used the homophobia of the majority of the public to that purpose, thus contributing to propaganda against homosexuals. The German Communist Party expressed similar opinion albeit less often. Hitler and Himmler themselves stood protective behind Röhm, as Hitler did not think the political takeover would be possible without him. This, however, did not change the declaration in principle of a war on homosexuality, especially its visible and politically organized form. The Nazis wanted to eliminate homosexuality, since its sheer existence challenged their sexual mores, which were based on production of "genetically healthy" "Aryans". They did not need to develop any explicit Nazi ideology regarding homosexuality, however, but were able to draw on the deeply rooted prejudices of the population: homophobia was encouraged by the Church and homosexuality considered pathological by the medical profession. Neither the Nazis coming to power nor the end of the war represented the fundamental ideological break in attitude toward homosexuality. What was specific to the nazis was their way of implementing this ideology in practice.

Despite Nazi propaganda slogans calling for the extermination of homosexuals, there was no uniform policy dictating their treatment. This can be seen especially with respect to the different measures against homosexual men, on the one hand, and homosexual women, on the other. This distinction in the persecution of homosexuals was fundamentally different from the racist war of extermination fought against the Jewish and the Gypsy (Roma and Sinti) populations. Even in the Nazi state, which exemplified injustice par excellence, there was no persecution of lesbians, whereas approximately fifty thousand men were convicted under Paragraph 175 of the Criminal Code and ten to fifteen thousand were interned in concentration camps, two-thirds of whom did not survive.

The homosexual policy of the Nazis did not aim to see all homosexuals killed. (...) It was a commonly held belief that the large majority of homosexuals had been "seduced" and were thus considered "educable". The proportion of those whose homosexuality was "innate" and who were therefore to be "eradicated" was estimated at about 2 percent. Although claims that homosexuality was genetic were in line with biological ideology fostered during the Third Reich, it did not seem politically prudent for the Nazis to favor a theory expounding that in the "Master Race" an "epidemic" as widespread as homosexuality -- there were an estimated two to four million homosexuals -- was innate and therefore "incurable".

One of the most significant measures in Nazi sexual policy as the destruction of the public, organized homosexual movement, since its emancipatory demands and infrastructure made it a visible contradiction to the Nazi sexual mores. Large organizations [...] were either disbanded or they dissolved. Even smaller groups were not able to survive. The communication network was destroyed; bars and restaurants were closed or kept under surveillance. Raids and denunciations created a climate of fear, leading more and more homosexuals to become withdrawn and live a life of masquerade, hiding their homosexuality in public. Some broke off all contacts for fear of being discovered, even changing their places of residence. The beginnings of a collective lesbian lifestyle and identity, which had been developing since the turn of the century, especially thriving during the Weimar Republic, were destroyed, the impact of which would last far beyond the end of the Third Reich.

An important factor in determining the living conditions of lesbians who were not endangered because of their ethnic background, party membership, or other reasons was their gender, their status as women. Nazi ideology saw the "Aryan" woman as predestined to motherhood as marriage as a matter of principle. There was also a strict separation between living and working spheres for men an women. (...) The population policy aimed at raising the birthrate was a necessary prerequisite for the aggressive expansionist politics of the Nazis, especially in view of the fact that the birthrate declined an estimated fourteen million in the period from 1915 to 1933 as compared to the eighteen years before. Under these circumstances, marriage and motherhood were of the highest political priority. (...) Marriage that nevertheless remained childless were therefore subject to harsh attack. (...) Lesbians in particular were targets of the propaganda against unmarried and childless women, since they obviously remained unmarried more often than heterosexual women. After 1933 many lesbians married in order to avoid social pressure. The more fortunate were able to marry gay men, for whom marriage also represented great, albeit not absolute, protection. (...)

The Nazis claimed not only that the women's movements was "infiltrated by lesbians", but that it had supported the concerns of lesbians, even though this cannot be substantiated for the 1920s. The movement had fought for better educational and vocational opportunities for women. This was particularly important for lesbians, who had no other means of support and where thus dependant on employment. However, their lesbianism and the social discrimination they experienced were not movement issues since homosexuality was too much a taboo, even within the movement. With the destruction of the women's movement, forcing it into conformity, and the subordination of Nazi women's organizations to male leadership, the Nazis saw less need to criminalize lesbians. (...)

The Nazi state assumed that women were "naturally" dependent on men, especially in terms of sexuality, and efforts were made to reinforce this as far as possible. Based on centuries-old patriarchal tradition that declared passivity a female trait, a self-assured sense of female sexuality, including homosexuality, was unfathomable. All of this led a majority of Nazis to believe that female sexuality did not represent a threat to the "German national community".

(1) Ehrhard F. W. Eberhard, Die Frauenbewegug und ihre erotischen Grundlagen (Vienna and Liepzig, 1924).
(2) Ernst Lennartz et al., 175 muss Bleiben! memorandum of the Association to Combat Public Immorality, adressed to the German Reichstag, Cologne, 1927
(3) Völkischer Beobachter, August 2, 1930

Source : Days of masquerade - Life stories of lesbians during the Third Reich: An Introduction, Claudia Schoppmann, Columbia University Press, 1996, translated by Allison Brown.

Picture: (top) Renée Sintenis (1888-1965), sculptor, photographed with a group of friends.

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