Homosexuals and the Holocaust
Ben S. Austin
Around the turn of the century there was a fairly significant gay rights movement in Germany under the leadership of Magnus Hirschfeld and his organization, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. The major goals of the movement were to educate the public and to bring about the repeal of Paragraph 175. At the close of World War I, there was a somewhat more liberal climate in Germany and the Weimar Republic, while it did not repeal the existing law, did not enforce the law with the same zeal as the First Reich. There was a proliferation of homosexual meeting places, books, articles and films and homosexuality was considerably more open and more openly discussed.
In the mid-1920's the government reacted to these developments by attempting to enforce the laws more vigorously and to pass more restrictive legislation. In 1929, after a couple of years of debate and discussion, the attempt failed by a narrow majority in the Reichstag. Homosexuals felt that a major victory had been achieved. However, in all of the discussion, a clear voice was heard from the Nazi deputies in the Assembly who voiced the conviction that it was the Jews who were leading this movement in an attempt to undermine the morality of the German people. The racial theme in their position also emerged in their argument that homosexuality has a detrimental impact on desired Aryan family size and population increase -- thus impacting German strength. Therefore, homosexuality was incompatible with racial purity. This was later to be one of Himmler's major arguments. That voice was to become very loud and clear when the Nazi Party gained control in 1933.
The Roehm Affair and Persecution of Homosexuals
The leadership of the Nazi Party included at least one avowed homosexual, Ernst Roehm. He was a member of Hirschfeld's League for Human Rights and openly attended homosexual meeting places. Between 1933 and 1934, Roehm was the leader of the SA (Stormtroopers) and, before the death of Hindenberg in 1934, he was a potential challenger to Hitler's supremacy. With the Nazis' rise to power came an attack from Germany's political left. Attempts were made to discredit Hitler and the Nazis. One of their arguments was the charge of homosexuality in the Nazi ranks. Hitler's old friend Roehm was one of their main targets.
Interestingly, one of Roehm's principal defenders was Heinrich Himmler. He articulated the belief that accusations against Roehm were the work of Jews who feared the SS and were trying to discredit the movement. The mood of the party, and of Himmler, changed, however, when Hitler decided in 1934 that Roehm was a threat to his authority. Specifically, Hitler feared that Roehm was attempting to turn the SA (at this time, over 2 million strong) into a militia and was planning a military challenge to Hitler. While there is no evidence that such a plan existed, Hitler ordered a purge. On June 30, 1934, Roehm, many of his supporters, and over 1,000 of Hitler's political and personal enemies, were murdered in the famous Night of the Long Knives. While the purge was politically motivated, the justification given for it was the homosexuality of Roehm and several of his associates in the SS command.
Himmler, who had once defended Roehm, assumed leadership of the SS and, in the process, also assumed the role of ridding the movement and Germany of homosexuals. In the wake of the Roehm execution, Hitler ordered the registration of homosexuals and the Gestapo was charged with the responsibility of creating dossiers on homosexuals and other asocials in the Third Reich.
The following year, in 1935, the Reichstag amended Paragraph 175 of the Criminal Code to close what were seen as loopholes in the current law. The new law had three parts:
Where a party was not yet twenty-one years of age at the time of the act, the court may in especially minor cases refrain from punishment.
Paragraph 174 of the penal code forbad incest and other sexual offenses with dependents, while paragraph 176 outlawed pedophilia. Persons convicted under these laws also wore the pink triangle.
The Nazi's passed other laws that targeted sex offenders. In 1933, they enacted the Law Against Dangerous Habitual Criminals and Measures for Protection and Recovery. This law gave German judges the power to order compulsory castrations in cases involving rape, defilement, illicit sex acts with children (Paragraph 176), coercion to commit sex offenses (paragraph 177), the committing of indecent acts in public including homosexual acts (paragraph 183), murder or manslaughter of a victim (paragraphs 223-226), if they were committed to arouse or gratify the sex drive, or homosexual acts with boys under 14. The Amendment to the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases dated June 26, 1935, allowed castration indicated by reason of crime for men convicted under paragraph 175 if the men consented. These new laws defined homosexuals as "asocials" who were a threat to the Reich and the moral purity of Germany. The punishment for "chronic homosexuals" was incarceration in a concentration camp. A May 20, 1939 memo from Himmler allows concentration camp prisoners to be blackmailed into castration.
In effect, the definition of "public morality" was made a police matter. In 1936, Himmler created the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion and appointed Joseph Meisinger to head up the office. The results of these administrative changes is very apparent. According to Burleigh and Wipperman (1991:192):
Himmler's Speech to the SS Group Commanders, February 18, 1937
In a particularly convoluted piece of Nazi logic, Heinrich Himmler put homosexuality under the ideology of racial theory and racial purity. Drawing upon the fact that Germany had lost over 2 million men during WWI, thus creating a serious imbalance in the reproductive sex ratio, he added an estimated 2 million homosexuals who had doubled the imbalance. Never mind the fact that they were not going to procreate anyway, Himmler proceeded to use those facts as a rationale for bringing homosexuality under Nazi racial policy. Portions of that speech follow:
After likening the homosexual who was killed and thrown into a peat bog to the weeding process in a garden, Himmler continued his tirade:
Over the next two years, an intricate network of informants was developed. School children were encouraged to inform on teachers they suspected of homosexuality, employers on employees and vice versa. Homosexuals who were arrested were used to create lists of homosexuals or suspected homosexuals. The clear intention was to identify every homosexual in Germany and move them to concentration camps.
Himmler clearly recognized that these strategies would not solve the sexual imbalance problem in Germany. Instead, the purpose of the plan was, in Himmler's own words, to "identify" the homosexual and remove them from society. He still needed a rationale for exterminating them. As in the case with the Gypsies, Himmler fell back on medical science as the solution to the homosexuality problem.
The Vaernet Cure
Several suggested solutions to the problem were taken under advisement by the Gestapo. One of the most attractive was that advanced by a Danish SS doctor, Vaernet, who claimed to have developed a hormonal implant which would cure homosexuality. The SS gave him a research position, necessary funds, laboratory facilities and the concentration camp population as experimental subjects. The testosterone implants were experimentally placed in homosexual inmates and their progress monitored. Some of the reports suggest improvement; however, for many others there was no significant change. We can only speculate as to the fate of those who, by this process, were determined to be "chronic" and "incurable" homosexuals. \
The Extermination of Homosexuals in the Death Camps
Precise figures on the number of homosexuals exterminated in Nazi Death camps have never been established. Estimates range from 10,000 to 15,000. It does not appear that the Nazis ever set it as their goal to completely eradicate all homosexuals. Rather, it seems, the official policy was to either re-educate those homosexuals who were "behaviorally" and only occasionally homosexual and to block those who were "incurable" homosexuals through castration, extreme intimidation, or both. For a fascinating empirical sociological examination of this idea, the reader is referred to the work of Reudiger Lautmann. Nor does it appear that their efforts extended beyond Germany itself to the occupied territories.
However, the numerous testimonies by homosexuals who survived the camp experience suggest that the SS had a much less tolerant view. Those who wore the pink triangle were brutally treated by camp guards and other categories of inmates, particularly those who wore the green (criminals), red (political criminals) and black (asocials) triangles. The following testimony by survivor, Heinz Heger, provides a dramatic illustration:
Extracted from: Heger, Heinz. The men with the Pink Triangles. Alyson Publications 1980:34-37.
Furthermore, homosexuals were at another important disadvantage. They lacked the group support within the camp to maintain morale. As Lautmann observes:
Death rates for homosexuals were much higher, perhaps three to four times higher, than for other non-Jewish categories of prisoners. While their overall numbers are small, their fate in the camps more nearly approximates that of Jews than any of the other categories, except, perhaps, Gypsies. And, homosexuals did not survive for very long. Of those who were exterminated, most were exterminated within the first few months of the camp experience.
One last issue deserves brief attention. The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, held in 1945, did not address the plight of homosexuals with the same seriousness accorded other victims of the Holocaust. Burleigh and Wipperman (1991:183) suggest that this may reflect the fact that after the war homosexuality was still a crime under German law and there still existed widespread homophobia. In fact, the Reich laws against homosexuality (i.e., the Nazi interpretations oBf Paragraph 175 of the Reich Criminal Code) were not repealed in Germany `xuntil 1969. As a consequence, homosexual survivors of the camp experience were still reticent to press their case before the courts since they could still be prosecuted under existing laws.
However, the contemporary Gay Rights Movement, both in the United States and in Europe, has led to a re-opening of the plight of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. The unparalleled treatment of homosexuals under the Nazi regime raises the same questions raised by the Holocaust itself: How could it happen? Can it happen again? And, how can its recurrence be prevented?
Ford and Beach. Patterns of Sexual Behavior, New York: Harper and Row, 1952.
Lautmann, Reudiger. Gay Prisoners in Concentration Camps Compared with Jehovah's Witnesses and Political Criminals, in Salvatore Licata and Robert Peterson, eds., Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality. NY: Haworth Press, 1981.
Source: The Holocaust\Shoah Page.