Why did Hitler persecute homosexuals in Nazi Germany?
It is a well-known fact that homosexuals have been persecuted throughout history, and in much of the developing world and parts of the developed world, they continue to be persecuted. In present-day Saudi Arabia, for example, homosexual acts are illegal and are punishable by the maximum penalty of death. Male homosexuality (sodomy in particular) is treated like fornication, with the penalty involving stoning, flogging or banishment depending on the circumstances of the act. Female same-sex behaviour is treated as adultery and is punishable by stoning to death for married people or flogging for single people. (Refworld.org)
In my own country- India- homosexuality was a crime punishable by imprisonment until a few years ago. This was a Victorian-era law that India inherited during the time it was colonized by the British. After more than 20 years of activism, this law was struck down in a landmark Supreme Court Judgement on 6th September 2018 (Navtej Singh Johar vs Union Of India Ministry Of Law And Justice on 6 September 2018). However, much of the damage had already been done- homosexuals in India continue to live in the closet because homophobic social norms and values are still very entrenched in our society.
So, what drove Hitler to commit the mass murder of homosexuals in Nazi Germany? This is the question that I will be exploring in this section.
Although male homosexuality remained illegal in Weimar Germany under Paragraph 175 of the criminal code, German homosexual-rights activists became worldwide leaders in efforts to fight homophobia. At that time, Nazi leaders posed as moral crusaders who wanted to stamp out from Germany what they believed was the “vice” of homosexuality to help win the racial struggle. They also viewed male homosexuality as a sign of German decadence. Thus, when the Nazi Party took power in 1933, they intensified the persecution of German male homosexuals. Persecution ranged from the dissolution of homosexual organizations to internment in concentration camps- which often led to death.
On June 28, 1935, the Ministry of Justice revised Paragraph 175 and provided a legal basis for extending the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Ministry officials expanded the category of “criminally indecent activities between men” to include any act that could be construed as homosexual. The courts later decided that the intention to commit a homosexual act or even the contemplation of such an act was sufficient (Holocaust Encyclopedia).
Interestingly, the Sturmabteilung (SA), or Storm Troopers- the military arm of the Nazi Party was an all-male, anti-Semitic, aggressive, radical organization headed by a man named Ernst Roehm – who was openly homosexual. He was “open,” in the sense that he never made his sexual orientation public, but everyone knew about it. Hitler too appointed him to this powerful position of an SA commander despite knowing that he was gay.
Hitler thought that if he ignored the whole subject of Rehm’s homosexuality, it would be forgotten and indeed this happened- the Nazi press never explicitly referred to Roehm’s homosexuality in their writings. The precedent set by Roehm- as an openly gay SA Commander- was a source of hope for many homosexuals. However, this optimism did not last long, for after the Nazis rose to power, they shut down organizations, banned pro-homosexuality publications and attacked meeting sites for gays – but officially, at least, homosexuality itself was not a cause of persecution and arrest. It was only after Roehm was killed that homosexuals began to be persecuted by the Nazis explicitly based on their sexual identity. The Nazi policy toward homosexuals became more stringent only from mid-1934, owing, among other reasons, to the activity of the homophobic Himmler and the growing power of the SS under his leadership. As long as Roehm held his high position, the Nazis displayed a modicum of “tolerance” for homosexuality if it was confined exclusively to the private and intimate sphere (Haaretz).
How were homosexuals persecuted in Nazi Germany?
From 1937 to 1939, the peak years of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, the police increasingly raided homosexual meeting places, seized address books, and created networks of informers and undercover agents to identify and arrest suspected homosexuals. On April 4, 1938, the Gestapo (the official secret police of Nazi Germany) issued a directive indicating that men convicted of homosexuality could be incarcerated in concentration camps following their sentences. Between 1933 and 1945 the police arrested an estimated 100,000 men as homosexuals. Most of the 50,000 men sentenced by the courts spent time in regular prisons, and between 5,000 and 15,000 were interned in concentration camps (Holocaust Encyclopedia).
When during an early election campaign, a homosexual rights organization requested a formal statement on homosexuality from all political parties, Hitler’s National Socialist Party gave the following official response:
‘Suprema lex salus populi!
Communal welfare before personal welfare!
Those who are considering love between men or between women are our enemies. Anything that emasculates our people and that makes us fair game for our enemies we reject because we know that life is a struggle and that it is insanity to believe that all human beings will one day embrace each other as brothers. Natural history teaches us a different lesson. Might makes right. And the stronger will always prevail against the weaker. Today we are the weaker. Let us make sure that we will become the stronger again! This we can do only if we exercise moral restraint. Therefore, we reject all immorality, especially love between men, because it deprives us of our last chance to free our people from the chains of slavery which are keeping it fettered today.’ – Source: Haeberle (1981)
Once homosexuals were captured and sent to concentration camps, life was torturous: they were usually near the bottom of the prisoner hierarchy and were often singled out for special tortures and dangerous work. Due to this, their mortality rate was very high (Haeberle,198Error! Bookmark not defined.; Kogon). Of the various prisoner categories, only two were based on sexual considerations: the homosexuals and the “race defilers.” For them, the markings became concrete, outwardly visible “stigmata of degeneration,”. Homophobia was so rampant that they were even despised by their fellow inmates (Haeberle, 1981).
The verbal denigration of homosexuals, their stigmatization, imprisonment, and finally, the forced “cures” for this alleged medical condition continued and intensified under the Nazi regime and unfortunately continues in many societies even today- including India, which still offers so-called conversion therapies to ‘cure’ homosexuality. (Haeberle, 1981).
The Legacy of Persecution: Lessons for Present Times
Just as the Nazis forced Jewish people to wear a yellow Star of David as an identifying mark, they forced people they labelled as gay to wear inverted pink triangles (or ‘die Rosa-Winkel’). From the few survivors and prison guards who escaped persecution and lived to share their stories, it’s been learned that those sent to concentration camps were also segregated, for fear that their sexual preference was contagious. Many were castrated. Some were used as guinea pigs in various medical experiments to find a cure for typhus fever and a cure for homosexuality, the latter of which led the SS to inject them with testosterone to see if it would make them straight (Time).
However, as time went by and as the gay liberation movement grew in America in the ’70s and the ’80s, so did awareness of the persecution of gays during the Holocaust. Over time, books and data about period started being published and more recently, pink triangles have become visible during gay rights demonstrations worldwide to shed light on the persecution of gay men in Chechnya. In 2017, the German parliament voted unanimously to pardon gay men convicted of homosexuality during World War II. The vote came about 15 years after the issuing of an official apology and almost a decade after the unveiling of a memorial to gay Holocaust victims in Berlin (Time).
It is important to remember, and never forget all the victims who were persecuted during the Nazi Holocaust. Although most of the Western World, including Germany, have made tremendous progress in the field of gay rights, a lot more work needs to be done both in the developing world and in the developed world. IGLA, for instance, drew up a map visualizing the state of LGBTQ+ rights in countries around the world.
And as one can see, much of the world still harbours negative sentiments towards gender and sexual minorities. We must ask ourselves: what lessons can we learn from the Holocaust vis-à-vis the persecution of homosexuals, to ensure that such atrocities never happen again? Also, in what ways did the common German internalize homophobia during the Nazi era and how is it different (or same) from the kind of homophobia we see in the world today? And most importantly- what can we do to completely eradicate homophobia from modern society?
These are difficult questions with no easy answers.
Haeberle, E. J. (1981). Swastika, pink triangle and yellow star—the destruction of sexology and the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. The Journal of Sex Research, 17(3), 270-287.
Kogon, op. cit. p. 50 and Lautmann, op. cit. pp. 325-365