Background & Overview
by 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:
Paragraph 175: A male who commits a sex offense with
another male or
allows himself to be used by another male for a sex offense shall be
punished with imprisonment.
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
Paragraph 175a: Penal servitude up to 10 years or, where
mitigating circumstances, imprisonment of not less than three months shall
apply to: (1) a male who, with violence or the threat of violence to body
and soul or life, compels another male to commit a sex offense with him or
to allow himself to be abused for a sex offense; (2) a male who, by abusing
a relationship of dependence based upon service, employment or
subordination, induces another male to commit a sex offense with him or to
allow himself to be abused for a sex offense; (3) a male over 21 years of
age who seduces a male person under twenty-one years to commit a sex
offense with him or to allow himself to be abused for a sex offense; (4) a
male who publicly commits a sex offense with males or allows himself to be
abused by males for a sex offense or offers himself for the same.
Paragraph 175b: An unnatural sex act committed by humans with
animals is punishable by imprisonment; the loss of civil rights might also
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):
...While in 1934 766 males were convicted and imprisoned,
in 1936 the figure exceeded 4,000, and in 1938 8,000. Moreover, from
1937 onwards many of those involved were sent to concentration camps
after they had served their "regular" prison sentence...
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:
If you further take into account the facts that I have not yet
mentioned, namely that with a static number of women, we have two million
men too few on account of those who fell in the war, then you can well
imagine how this imbalance of two million homosexuals and two million war
dead, or in other words a lack of about four million men capable of
having sex, has upset the sexual balance sheet of Germany, and will
result in a catastrophe.
I would like to develop a couple of ideas for you on the question of
homosexuality. There are those homosexuals who take the view: what I do
is my business, a purely private matter. However, all things which take
place in the sexual sphere are not the private affair of the individual,
but signify the life and death of the nation, signify world power...
After likening the homosexual who was killed and thrown into a peat bog
to the weeding process in a garden, Himmler continued his tirade:
...In the SS, today, we still have about one case of
homosexuality a month. In a whole year, about eight to ten cases occur
in the entire SS. I have now decided upon the following: in each case,
these people will naturally be publicly degraded, expelled, and handed
over to the courts. Following completion of the punishment imposed by
the court, they will be sent, by my order, to a concentration camp, and
they will be shot in the concentration camp, while attempting to escape.
I will make that known by order to the unit to which the person so
infected belonged. Thereby, I hope finally to have done with persons of
this type in the SS, and the increasingly healthy blood which we are
cultivating for Germany, will be kept pure.
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"
The Extermination of Homosexuals in the Death
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
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:
Heger, Heinz. The men with the Pink Triangles. Alyson Publications
"... Our block was only occupied by homosexuals, with about 250
men in each wing. We could only sleep in our night-shirts, and had to keep
our hands outside the blankets, for: 'You queer arse-holes aren't going to
start wanking here!'
"The windows of had a centimetre of ice on them. Anyone found with his
underclothes on in bed, or his hand under his blanket -- there were checks
almost every night -- was taken outside and had serveral bowls of water
poured over him before being left standing outside for a good hour. Only a
few people survived this treatment. The least result was bronchitis, and it
was rare for any gay person taken into the sick-bay to come out alive. We
who wore the pink triangle were prioritised for medical experiments, and
these generally ended in death. For my part, therefore, I took every care I
could not to offend against the regulations.
"Our block senior and his aides were 'greens,' i.e. criminals. They look
it, and behaved like it too. Brutal and merciless towards us 'queers', and
concerned only with their own privelege and advantage, they were as much
feared by us as the SS.
"In Sachsenhausen, at least, a homosexual was never permitted to have any
position of responsibility. Nor could we even speak with prisoners from
other blocks, with a different coloured badge; we were told we might try to
seduce them. And yet, homosexuality was much more rife in the other blocks,
where there were no men with the pink triangle, than it was in our own.
"We were also forbidden to approach nearer than five metres of the other
blocks. Anyone caught doing so was whipped on the 'horse', and was sure of
at least 15 to 20 strokes. Other categories of prisoner were similarly
forbidden to enter our block. We were to remain isolated as the damnedest
of the damned, the camp's 'shitty queers', condemned to liquidation and
helpless prey to all torments inflicted by the SS and Capos.
"The day regularly began at 6 a.m., or 5 a.m. in the summer, and in just
half an hour we had to be washed, dressed and have our beds made up in
military style. If you still had time, you could have breakfast, which
meant a hurried slurping down the thin flour soup, hot or luke-warm, and
eating your piece of bread. Then we had to form up in eights on the
parade-ground for morning roll-call. Work followed, in winter from 7.30
a.m. to 5 p.m., and in summer from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., with a half hour break
at the workplace. After work, straight back to camp and immediate parade
for evening roll-call.
"Each block marched in formation to the parade-ground and had its permanent
position there. The morning parade was not so drawn-out as the much feared
evening roll-call, for only the block numbers were counted, which took
about an hour, and then the command was given for work detachments to form
"At every parade, those that had just died had to be present, i.e. they
were laid out at the end of each block and counted as well. Only after the
parade, and having been tallied by the report officer, were they taken to
the mortuary and subsequently burned.
"Disabled prisoners also had to be present for parade. Time and again we
helped or carried comrades to the parade-ground who had been beaten by the
SS only hours before. Or we had to bring along fellow-prisoners who were
half-frozen or feverish, so as to have our numbers complete. Any man
missing from our block meant many blows and thus many deaths.
"We new arrivals were now assigned to our work, which was to keep the area
around the block clean. That, at least, was what we were told by the NCO in
charge. In reality, the purpose was to break the very last spark of
independent spirit that might possibly remain in the new prisoners, by
senseless yet heavy labour, and to destroy the little human dignity
that we still retained. This work continued til a new batch of pink-triangle
prisoners were delivered to our block and we were replaced.
"Our work, then, was as follows. In the morning we had to cart the snow
outside our block from the left side of the road to the right side. In the
afternoon we had to cart the same snow back from the right side to the
left. We didn't have barrows and shovels to perform this work either, that
would have been far too simple for us 'queers'. No, our SS masters had
thought up something much better.
"We had to put our coats with the buttoned side backward, and take the snow
away in the container this provided We had to shovel up the snow with our
hands our bare hands, as we didn't have any gloves. We worked in teams
of two. Twenty turns at shovelling up the snow with our hands, then twenty
turns at carrying it away. And so, right throught the evening, and all at
"This mental and bodily torment lasted six days, until at last new
pink-triangle prisoners were delivered to our block and took over for us.
Our hands were cracked all over and half frozen off, and we had become dumb
and indifferent slaves of the SS.
"I learned from prisoners who had already been in our block a good while
that in summer similar work was done with earth and sand. "Above the gate
of the prison camp, however, the 'meaningful' Nazi slogan was written in
big capitals: 'Freedom through work!'"
Furthermore, homosexuals were at another important disadvantage. They
lacked the group support within the camp to maintain morale. As Lautmann
The prisoners with the pink triangle had certainly shown
"precamp" qualities of survival, but they did not get a chance to apply
these qualities in the camp. Because their subculture and organizations
had been wantonly destroyed, no group solidarity developed inside the
camp...Since every contact outside was regarded as suspicious,
homosexuals did not even dare speak to one another inside (as numerous
survivors have reported in interviews).
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
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
Burleigh, Michael and Wolfgang Wipperman. The Racial State: Germany, 1933-1945. NY: Cambridge, 1993.
Ford and Beach. Patterns of Sexual Behavior, New York: Harper and Row,
Heger, Heinz. The Men With the Pink Triangle. MA: Alyson Publishing Co., 1994.
Laska, Vera. ed. Women in the Resistance and in the Holocaust: The Voices of Eyewitnesses. CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.
Lautmann, Reudiger. Gay Prisoners in Concentration Camps Compared with
Jehovah's Witnesses and Political Criminals, in Salvatore Licata and Robert Peterson,
Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality. NY: Haworth Press, 1981.