Homosexuality was considered abnormal and dangerous by the Nazi regime, resulting in the brutalization and death of thousands of gay men.
In October 1939 the British government released a White Paper on German concentration camps, detailing torture and brutality suffered by Jews and political prisoners. Hardly mentioned, however, was the regime’s attack on homosexuals. What began as an attack on those accused of crimes against nature and, as Heinrich Himmler said in 1937, an “abnormal existence,” ended with extermination. Historian Richard Plant concluded Himmler “would come to believe that the Final Solution was as inevitable for gays as for Jews…”
Homosexuality in Germany
Homosexuality was always criminalized in Germany. During the Weimar Republic following the end of the First World War, however, the homosexual community flourished and was identified with larger cities like Berlin and Hamburg. The 1939 White Paper, for example, suggested that “an explanation of this outbreak of sadistic cruelty may be that sexual perversion, particularly homosexuality, is very prevalent in Germany.” There was little sympathy for homosexuals, even after the war ended. Homosexuality was not decriminalized in Germany until 1994.
The Nazi regime stressed social order and national strength embodied within the family structure. Germany’s estimated two million homosexuals threatened that view. Amendments to Paragraph 175, the law proscribing jail sentences for homosexual behavior, expanded punishments to ten years of prison time, although many homosexuals were ultimately sent to concentration camps. Historian Klaus Fischer estimates the number to have been 15,000. Homosexuals were identified with a pink triangle patch on their clothing.
Promoting Behavioral Changes through Prison Conditions
Stefan Micheler, of the University of Hamburg, concludes that “The National Socialist’s regime’s professed goal was to eradicate homosexuals behavior and not the ‘homosexual’ per se, although the end result was often the same.” This conclusion is shared by other historians and sociologists studying the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.
Carola von Bulow, in an unpublished dissertation, argues that, “…the severity of measures was intended to bring about a change in behavior.” Von Bulow, in her study, differentiates between homosexuals sent to prisons and those in concentration camps where punishments were brutal. Frank Hornig’s compelling account of Rudolf Brazda, for example, demonstrates the Nazi use of “punishment battalions” that resulted in “extermination through labor.” (Spiegel, July 6, 2011) Brazda survived Buchenwald. It should also be noted that Nazi punishments were harsher against German homosexuals.
Many homosexuals were denounced by friends and neighbors, particularly after the Roehm affair in 1934 and several celebrated criminal cases that ostensibly implicated homosexuals. Anyone suspected of “asocial” behavior, including lesbians, was subject to arrest. Although few lesbians suffered persecutions as did gay men, examples exist. Mary Punjer, for example, was gassed at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in May 1942. Her arrest records include notations referring to lesbian behavior.
The Military as a Refuge
Some of Germany’s homosexuals found escape in the military. Plant suggests that, “Because Himmler’s Gestapo agents had no jurisdiction over the military, it offered a relatively safe refuge for most homosexuals of military age.” Europa Europa, for example, details the true life story of Solomon Perel who befriended a homosexual soldier in his unit on the Eastern front.
Homosexuals in the military, however, still found it a matter of survival to hide their sexual identities. A junior officer, for example, relates his experiences as a member of a post-war POW “roll commando:”
“One day we got the information that we had some homosexuals in camp and they were active. One lived in a little shed…the other lived in a tent. We all met one night [25 men in the roll commando group] near midnight at that tent. Very silently, we pulled out the stakes at the side, lifted up the tent and pulled the man outside. His sleeping bag was tied over his head and then he got a good beating. We used sticks and belts and kicked the man until there was no sound. He and his partner were put in protective custody by the British.”
Fear and Indifference
German homophobia was fueled by propaganda equating homosexuality with decadence and weakness. Political parties of both the left and the right joined together in denouncing homosexuality. The freedoms experienced by the German gay community in the 1920’s were short-lived. Once persecutions began, many homosexuals could not fathom the extent of Nazi barbarism and the indifference of friends, neighbors, and even family members. A climate of fear fed the culture of denunciations. Like many Jews, homosexuals believed the madness would pass.
The end of Hitlerism did not bring relief; homosexuality was still criminalized and carried a stigma.
- Raymond Daniell, “Nazi Tortures Detailed by Britain; Concentration Camp Horrors Told,” New York Times, October 31, 1939
- Klaus P. Fischer, Nazi Germany: A New History (Continuum, 1995)
- Frank Hornig, “At 98, Gay Concentration Camp Survivor Shares Story,” Spiegel July 6, 2011
- Stefan Micheler, “Homophobic Propaganda and the Denunciation of Same-Sex Desiring Men under National Socialism,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Volume 11, Number 1 and 2, January/April 2002
- Richard Plant, The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals (Henry Holt and Company, 1986)
- Unpublished memoirs of “G.S.,” a junior officer in the German military, p. 48