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Homosexuals & the Holocaust: 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 from punishment.

Paragraph 175a: Penal servitude up to 10 years or, where there are 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 be imposed.

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" 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.

"... 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 up.

"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 the double!

"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 observes:

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 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?

Sources: The Holocaust\Shoah Page

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, 1952.
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, eds.
Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality. NY: Haworth Press, 1981.