The Nazi persecution of Gays

For many decades, next to nothing was published on the Nazi persecution of gay men for the simple reason that both German governments in cooperation with the occupying forces continued to persecute gay men after the war until the late sixties. In the West, they used the laws of the Nazi's, in the East those from before the nazi-period, in both cases the infamous paragraph 175. Only since the seventies, books and articles began being published on the theme, for example Harry Wilde's Das Schicksal der Verfemten (1969), Heinz Heger's The Men with the Pink Triangle (1972) which was made into a successful play, Richard Plant's The Pink Triangle. The Nazi War Against Homosexuals (1986) and Ruediger Lautmann's important article in Seminar: Gesellschaft und Homosexualität (1977) that offered a first survey of the history of this persecution including concrete numbers of victims.(1) Since, the number of books and articles has grown rapidly while in the last two years six new books were published in German on specific aspects of the Nazi treatment of homosexuals. The Berlin Schwules (gay) Museum and the Sachsenhausen museum in Orianenburg (20 miles to the north of Berlin) co-organized the first major exhibit on the topic in their rooms in the summer of 2000.

In 1977, Lautmann and his co-authors established that between 5,000 and 15,000 men had been sent to concentration camps because of homosexual offenses, while about half of them died or were murdered there. Before, this persecution had often been denied while, at the pro-gay side, the Protestant Church of Austria had claimed 220,000 murdered homosexuals.(2) Rainer Hoffschildt is preparing a list of the names of all men persecuted for homosexual offenses by the Nazis. In the book of essays edited by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, he expects to come to a number of 5-7,000 men but does not speak out about the number that died in these camps of death. He warns also not to use the number of cases of homosexual offenses persecuted by the Nazis in the period 1933-1945 (about 50,000) as equalling the number of victimized men because many were repeat offenders. At the other hand, gay men as well as lesbian women were persecuted under other legal provisions for example against asocials, insane people or vagrants.

The main importance of the new books is however not establishing numbers but reporting the life histories and social conditions of gay men, sometimes also of lesbian women, in Nazi times. In all books, except the one published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the faces of gay men can be seen and their moving stories can be read. Most of the Nazi victims were utterly unprepared for their fate, and those who survived the war, had to confront afterwards the refusal to offer gay men « Wiedergutmachung « . Some men even remained imprisoned, or were sentenced again to severe penalties by judges and public prosecutors who made their careers in the Nazi period. For gay men, the « liberation « of 1945 meant no end to discrimination and prosecution. The capitalist West of Germany was even worse than the communist East. It kept the Nazi extension of paragraph 175 of 1935 as it was not deemed to be a result of Nazi ideology. The extension of 1935 broadened the crime from a limited number of homosexual acts that resembled coitus to all forms of desire, including mutual masturbation or intimacies. But the East had also its flaws: some gay men who dared to request after the war a special status as Nazi victims, were prosecuted because of fraud.

The collection of essays on Berlin edited by Pretzel and Rossbach includes a chronology of the Nazi prosecution of gay men. Within a month after the take-over at the end of January 1933, the Nazi minister of interior issued an order to close all gay bars. He also forbade obscene literature. In May, Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Sciences was sacked by the SA. The first gay and transgender men were sent in the autumn to the newly built concentration camps.(3) The legal provisions to arrest « sex criminals « were broadened. Without any attempt to produce legal proof, many SA leaders were murdered in the summer of 1934, among them their chief of staff, Hitler's buddy Ernst Roehm. As official reason was given that the regime wanted to clean society of such dens of sexual debauchery. The same year, the Gestapo got a section for homosexual crimes, and in 1936 a « National Institute to Combat Homosexuality and Abortion « was founded (the combination makes clear that a main nazi issue was promoting reproduction).

In 1935, paragraph 175 was broadened. Two years later, SS leader Heinrich Himmler gave his infamous lecture on the homosexual danger implying that it could menace through infection the homosocial institutions of the Nazi regime. After the beginning of the war in 1939, it was decided that no prisoner would be released from concentration camps. Persons who were considered to endanger the social body could be exterminated. The death penalty for homosexual offenses was introduced in 1941 for the SS and the police, in 1943 for the army. At that time, many gay men had already succumbed to the terror in the camps.

The book on Berlin is important for its stories of horror, idiocy but sometimes also tenderness. It is astonishing to realize that a vivid gay culture and an active movement had disappeared within a month after the Nazis took power. More than a third of homosexual offenses in Berlin came to the attention of the police through non-involved private persons, mostly neighbors. Another third was discovered by the police itself while also family members or the workplace denounced supposed sex-criminals. There were in fact no spaces where a gay man could feel safe, not even at home. Gay men of all social classes and political persuasions were prosecuted. The Nazi men who were judged for homosexual offenses faced the harshest destiny. The book offers essays on legal material from numbers to policies, on interrogations, on meeting places, on Sachsenhausen. The best part that makes up half of the book is a wide range of personal stories on the Nazi persecutions that are recuperated mainly from official archives. The police pictures of arrested men look dreadful, at the other hand the book has many lovely private pictures. There is a nice story of a gay fetishist who dressed his secretary in « Samt und Seide « (velvet and silk), kissed and touched him and got thus excited. The poor man was sentenced to prison even though there was no proof of a sexual act.

The book edited by Mueller and Sternweiler on Sachsenhausen that complements the exhibit is the most gruesome in its details and illustrations. It opens with « a list of the dead « , the 300 known names of men who were persecuted for homosexual offenses and died in Sachsenhausen. It continues with articles on the architecture of and the procedures in the camp. Gay men were separated from other prisoners because of the risks of homosexual infection. The worst jobs were reserved for them. In the « Klinkerwerke « or brickworks, they had to dig up and transport mud. In the summer of 1942 89 gay men were brutally killed on this location. Building a firing range for the SS was another place of death as the SS men used the prisoners as targets while they were forced to continue the construction work. In the « shoe-company « heavily packed gay men were coerced to walk for hours on new models to try them out in adverse circumstances. More benign locations were the kitchen and hospital that sometimes could offer some extra food. For young men, there was the possibility of becoming the secret beloved of a prison warden. In this way Heinz Heger survived the worst time in Sachsenhausen. Some men consented to be castrated in the vain hope of getting out of the camp.

Before 1939, gay men were considered the lowest rank in the hierarchy of prisoners with Jews and Gypsies. After the war started, the camps were flooded with political prisoners and prisoners of war from outside Germany, and gay men became only a tiny part of the camp population (nearly no non-German gay men were slept there). After 1942, the camps changed largely from places of extermination to labour camps. The prisoners were dearly needed to contribute to the war effort. Now, with many foreigners in the camps, gay men could even rise to positions of power that had always been withheld from them. The book ends with several essays on the continuation of discrimination of gay men after the war. Men who had hoped to be free after the liberation, had sometimes to stay in prison, and no gay Nazi victim ever received appropriate indemnification for his ordeal.

Hoffschildt's book begins with an explanation of the legal system that was used against gay men. It continues with an overview of some camps where they were held, namely the Emsland camps and Bergen-Belsen, Moringen and Neuengamme, and several « outside-camps « which were established next to a factory or another place where prisoners were forced to labor. The next chapter discusses prisons which began always more to resemble the camps in their organization and function. A last chapter is devoted to death penalties. Except for the first chapter, most material concerns personal histories. The material on Moringen is about three lesbian prisoners.

The book by Rahe and others is a special gay issue of a regular publication on the history of camp Neuengamme but the contents extend beyond this camp. Some of the main authors mentioned above have articles in this collection like Lautmann and Hoffschildt who discusses Bergen Belsen and the prison of Celle. Two articles tell the lesbian story, one by Claudia Schoppmann who is the main author on the Nazi persecution of lesbians.(4) Stefan Micheler has both an article on gays in Neuengamme, and another on the scandal that recently 80% of the court archives from the period 1935-1949 was destroyed by the National Archive in Hamburg, including much material on the persecution of homosexual offenses.

The book on the Cologne region went also with an exhibit.(5) It opens with an overview of the Nazi persecution of gays, and a second one on lesbians. Most articles discuss specific topics like the closing down of bars, raids on cruising places and preventive policies in Cologne, a theatre scandal in Essen, castration. An interesting article concerns Hanns Heinz Ewers, a gay author who contributed to the gay press before 1933 and wrote Fundvogel (1927), an early novel on a transsexual operation. He was the official biographer of the Nazi hero Horst Wessel (1932). After Hitler came to power, most of his books were forbidden but strangely enough not the gay ones. He died in oblivion during the war. The collection of essays ends with four personal stories.

The publication of the Heinrich Böll Foundation offers some general essays on the topic, for example by George Mosse, Schoppmann, the omnipresent Hoffschildt while another important author on the topic, Gunter Grau, gives an overview of the relevant literature.(6) It includes discussions on and proposals for a monument to commemorate the gay victims of the Nazi regime. Even two places are already suggested, in Tiergarten near the location of Hirschfeld's destroyed Institute, or on Nollendorferplatz where the gay scene was before 1933 and again is nowadays.

The books raise many important questions. A recurring theme is the strange mixture of anti-homosexuality and homo-eroticism in Nazism. For a long time, many Nazi victims and leftist Nazi opponents represented their persecutors and enemies as gay men, and denied the anti-gay ideologies and practices of the Nazis. Some authors claim that the gay experience of Nazism has therefore a unique specificity in the sense that gay men were mixed up between the Nazis and their opponents. But not only gay men were active on both sides, all prosecuted groups had their traitors who cooperated with the Nazis, often helping them in the annihilation of their own group.

Another question concerns the place gay men should occupy in the list of victims. It has become politically correct nowadays to delineate the victims of the Nazis as being Jews, Gypsies, leftists, resistance fighters, Eastern-Europeans, Jehovah-witnesses, the insane, homosexuals. But when I see, for example, after visiting the exposition on the gay victims of the Nazis, that mention is made of 17,000 prisoners of war from the Soviet-Union murdered in one single year in Sachsenhausen, the destiny of perhaps 5,000 murdered gay men seems to be minor. The authors deal in very different ways with this fact. Ilse Kokula has the unhappy formulation that « the suffering is not less when the number of dead people is smaller « (Heinrich Böll Foundation, 137). Grau found a better way to express the discussion of numbers « it is absurd to measure in numbers the suffering done to humans « (id, 100).

There is no doubt any longer that gay men were persecuted harshly by the Nazis, and especially the gay Nazis that Nazi victims have singled out for opprobrium. There is no doubt that among all the victims gay men have a real and special, but also minor place. One difference between gay and most other groups is that gay men were prosecuted in nearly all Western states at that point in time, perhaps less cruelly and systematically than by the Nazis, but nonetheless they had to face prison, castration, therapies, ostracism, and other forms of social and personal discrimination everywhere. As Florence Tamagne in her Histoire de l'homosexualité en Europe (Paris 2000) (7) and I myself argued in an article in Sexual Cultures in Europe (Vol 2, Manchester 1999), the thirties saw a steady decline in acceptance of homosexuality and an increasing persecution of gay men all over Europe that did not end in 1945, but only from the sixties on in Western Europe, and from the eighties on in Eastern-Europe.

Another major point is about Wiedergutmachung. Germany, but also The Netherlands, have promised a retribution to gay victims of the Nazis in the nineties. But as most men hid themselves very deep in their closets, while the few who opened up, are dead by now, minor indemnifications have come to less than a handful of gay victims. The question for the Berliners is the next step, a national homomonument to commemorate the victims. Amsterdam and Frankfurt have already one, Berlin will probably discuss it for a lengthy period with its ominous separatist traditions. In the Netherlands, some have suggested to pay substantial amounts of money for gay projects, not only because of persecutions and discriminations during the Second World War, but also for the periods before and after. The range of legal, financial, medical and other damage being done to gay men and lesbian women until recent seems to justify indeed major, probably collective, indemnifications by most Western governments.

The books offer a broad overview but show also that some topics are still under-researched. Most needed is research on persecutions in the Southern parts of Germany, in Austria and in Bohemia. Gay men in most occupied countries suffered little from the Nazis because they did not endanger the German race (except when they seduced German soldiers).(8) Very little is known on the attitudes of the general population regarding the gay persecutions. They probably supported them seen the number of denunciations in « tolerant « Berlin. Major gay scandals involving the army (false accusations against the highest officer in charge, general von Fritsch, in 1938) or catholic institutions deserve specific attention. Grau suggests to do research on the persecutors of gay men and on the treatment of homosexuals in homosocial Nazi institutions like SA, SS and Hitlerjugend.(9)

Several older books and articles have already brought forward material on gay exiles, gay resistance fighters, the stereotype of the gay nazi, fascist theories of homosexuality and their consequences.(10) Recently, leading German gay historian Manfred Herzer has accepted « à contre coeur « the thesis that many gay men were seduced by the homoerotic masculinity of the Nazis, and supported Hitler's party.(11) This entanglement of gay men with their oppressors certainly earns a full-blown study. This love for the enemy, so brilliantly depicted in the work of Jean Genet who was seduced like many of his French gay compatriots by German homoeroticism, was difficult to gauge for the gay libbers of the seventies. It should also be worthwhile to have a new general study on homosexuality in the Nazi period for which all these books and articles contribute parts and parcels.

Another important discussion concerns the modernity of the nazi-persecution. Many people consider it to have been a regressive phase in the progress promised by the Enlightenment, others have analyzed Nazism, like the equally murderous Stalinism, as a modern movement. Its use of media, technology and mass psychology certainly made it to a form of politics that very much belongs to the present and in fact happened again in other parts of the world. For gay emancipation, the question is if discourses and practices regarding homosexuality nowadays are so different from those of the Nazis that they offer a safeguard against future disasters. I do not see such fundamental changes.

All the recent books and exhibits on the Nazi persecution of gay men have made the topic inevitable. The statistics of the persecution are becoming more precise, while the personal stories in the discussed books have given the victims faces and voices. They confront us very directly with one of the ugliest periods of gay history. They will certainly contribute to a feeling of « never again « . But seen the activities of the extreme right, religious fundamentalists and other groups and the lack of support for gay emancipation by governments and international institutions, such hope does not offer certainty. Gay emancipation and sexual liberation need a much firmer base in society than they have nowadays even in the most liberal countries to counter such murderous politics.


Heinrich Böll Stiftung (ed), Der homosexuellen NS-Opfer gedenken (homosexual nazi-victims), Berlin: Heinrich-Boell-Stiftung, 1999, 175 pp.

Centrum Schwule Geschichte (ed), « Das sind Volksfeinde! « Die Verfolgung von Homosexuellen an Rhein und Ruhr 1933-1945 (« Those are the people's enemies! « The persecution of homosexuals on Rhine and Ruhr 1933-1945), Cologne: EL-DE-Haus, 1998, 259 pp, ill.

Rainer Hoffschildt, Die Verfolgung der Homosexuellen in der NS-Zeit. Zahlen und Schicksale aus Norddeutschland (The persecution of homosexuals in the nazi period. Numbers and fates from Northern-Germany), Berlin: Rosa Winkel, 1999, 195 pp, ill.

Joachim Mueller & Andreas Sternweiler (eds), Homosexuelle Maenner im KZ Sachsenhausen (Homosexual men in concentration camp Sachsenhausen), Berlin: Rosa Winkel, 2000, 396 pp, ill.

Andreas Pretzel & Gabriele Rossbach (eds), Wegen der zu erwartenden hohen Strafe... Homosexuellenverfolgung in Berlin 1933-1945 (Because of the expected high penalties ... Persecution of homosexuals in Berlin 1933-1945), Berlin: Rosa Winkel, 2000, 348 pp, ill.

Thomas Rahe a.o. (eds), Verfolgung Homosexueller im Nationalsozialismus (Persecution of homosexuals under national socialism), Bremen: Temmen, 1999, 205 pp, ill. (=Beitraege zur Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Verfolgung in Norddeutschland 5)


1. Translated in condensed form for the Journal of Homosexuality 6:1/2 (1981).

2. Mentioned in James D. Steakley, The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany, New York 1975, p. 106.

3. Gay leader Kurt Hiller was imprisoned already in March of the same year, see Steakley, o.c., p. 103.

4. See her Zeit der Maskierung (1993), translated as Days of Masquerade. Life Stories of Lesbians during the Third Reich, New York 1996.

5. The Center had earlier an exhibit and a book on « The life of the Cologne-homosexuals in the Third Reich: Cornelia Limpricht, Juergen Mueller, Nina Oxenius (eds), « Verfuehrte « Maenner. Das Leben der Koelner Homosexuellen im Dritten Reich, Cologne 1991.

6. Gunter Grau (ed), Homosexualitaet in der NS-Zeit. Dokumente einer Diskriminierung und Verfolgung, Frankfurt, 1993.

7. Tamagne, Histoire de l'homosexualité en Europe, Paris 2000, a 700-page-long study comparing London, Berlin and Paris for the period 1900-1945 and including a lengthy discussion of Nazi politics with regard to homosexuality; Gert Hekma, « Same-sex relations among men in Europe, 1700-1990 « , in: Franz Eder, Lesley & Gert Hekma (eds), Sexual Cultures in Europe, Vol. 2: Themes in Sexuality, Manchester 1999, pp. 79-103.

8. See for the Netherlands: Pieter Koenders, Tussen Christelijk R'veil en seksuele revolutie. Bestrijding van zedeloosheid met de nadruk op repressie van homoseksualiteit, Amsterdam 1996.

9. Franz Seidler, Prostitution, Homosexualität, Selbstverstuemmelung. Probleme der deutschen Sanitaetsfuehrung 1939-1945, Neckargemuend 1977 has a chapter on homosexuality in the German army, with short paragraphs on the SS and Hitlerjugend.

10. Several articles on gay resistance fighters and exiles and on nazi theories of homosexuality were published by Manfred Herzer in Capri. On the « gay Nazi « , see Joern Meve, « Homosexuelle Nazis « . Ein Stereotyp in Politik und Literatur des Exils, Hamburg 1990; Alexander Zinn, Die soziale Konstruktion des homosexuellen Nationalsozialisten. Zu Genese und Etablierung eines Stereotyps, Frankfurt 1997.

11. He says in an article on gay resistance against the Nazis that he thinks nowadays that an above average number of gay men were sympathetic to the Nazis until the murder of Röhm in 1934 (Capri 28, July 2000, p. 34). See also his article in this journal, Vol. 29:2/3 (1995). See for the homoeroticism of Nazi culture, Harry Oosterhuis, « Medicine, Male Bonding and Homosexuality in Nazi Germany, in: Journal of Contemporary History32:2 (April 1997), pp. 187-205.

Texte : Gert Hekma, University of Amsterdam.

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