Upon the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany, gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians, were two of the numerous groups targeted by the Nazis and were ultimately among Holocaust victims. Beginning in 1933, gay organizations were banned, scholarly books about homosexuality, and sexuality in general, (such as those from the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, run by Jewish gay rights campaigner Magnus Hirschfeld) were burned, and homosexuals within the Nazi Party itself were murdered. The Gestapo compiled lists of homosexuals, who were compelled to sexually conform to the “German norm.”
While male homosexuality remained illegal in Weimar Germany under Paragraph 175 of the criminal code, German homosexual-rights activists became worldwide leaders in efforts to reform societal attitudes that condemned homosexuality. Many in Germany regarded the Weimar Republic’s toleration of homosexuals as a sign of Germany’s decadence. The Nazis posed as moral crusaders who wanted to stamp out the “vice” of homosexuality from Germany in order to help win the racial struggle. Once they took power in 1933, the Nazis intensified persecution of German male homosexuals. Persecution ranged from the dissolution of homosexual organizations to internment in concentration camps.
The Nazis believed that male homosexuals were weak, effeminate men who could not fight for the German nation. They saw homosexuals as unlikely to produce children and increase the German birthrate. The Nazis held that inferior races produced more children than “Aryans,” so anything that diminished Germany’s reproductive potential was considered a racial danger.
In late February 1933, as the moderating influence of Ernst Röhm-Röhm’s sexual orientation was no secret after the mid-1920s. Hitler either ignored it or said it was immaterial-weakened, the Nazi Party launched its purge of homosexual (gay, lesbian, and bisexual; then known as homophile) clubs in Berlin, outlawed sex publications, and banned organized gay groups. As a consequence, many fled Germany
In March 1933, Kurt Hiller, the main organizer of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sex Research, was sent to a concentration camp.
On May 6, 1933, Nazi Youth of the Deutsche Studentenschaft made an organized attack on the Institute of Sex Research. A few days later on May 10, the Institute’s library and archives were publicly hauled out and burned in the streets of the opernplatz. Around 20,000 books and journals, and 5,000 images, were destroyed. Also seized were the Institute’s extensive lists of names and addresses of homosexuals. In the midst of the burning, Joseph Goebbels gave a political speech to a crowd of around 40,000 people.
Hitler initially protected Röhm from other elements of the Nazi Party which held his homosexuality to be a violation of the party’s strong anti-gay policy. However, Hitler later changed course when he perceived Röhm to be a potential threat to his power. During the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, a purge of those whom Hitler deemed threats to his power took place, he had Röhm murdered and used Röhm’s homosexuality as a justification to suppress outrage within the ranks of the SA.
After solidifying his power, Hitler would include gay men among those sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust.
On June 28, 1935, the Ministry of Justice revised Paragraph 175. The revisions provided a legal basis for extending 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 even intent or thought sufficed. On October 26, 1936, Himmler formed within the Security Police the Reich Central Office for Combating Abortion and Homosexuality. Josef Meisinger, executed in 1947 for his brutality in occupied Poland, led the new office.
The police had powers to hold in protective custody or preventive arrest those deemed dangerous to Germany’s moral fiber, jailing indefinitely—without trial—anyone they chose. In addition, homosexual prisoners just released from jail were immediately re-arrested and sent to concentration camps if the police thought it likely that they would continue to engage in homosexual acts.
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 issued a directive indicating that men convicted of homosexuality could be incarcerated in concentration camps. 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.
The Nazis interned some homosexuals in concentration camps immediately after the seizure of power in January 1933. Those interned came from all areas of German society, and often had only the cause of their imprisonment in common. Some homosexuals were interned under other categories by mistake, and the Nazis purposefully miscategorized some political prisoners as homosexuals. Prisoners marked by pink triangles to signify homosexuality were treated harshly in the camps. According to many survivor accounts, homosexuals were among the most abused groups in the camps.
Because some Nazis believed homosexuality was a sickness that could be cured, they designed policies to “cure” homosexuals of their “disease” through humiliation and hard work. Guards ridiculed and beat homosexual prisoners upon arrival, often separating them from other inmates. Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, wrote in his memoirs that homosexuals were segregated in order to prevent homosexuality from spreading to other inmates and guards. Personnel in charge of work details in the Dora-Mittelbau underground rocket factory or in the stone quarries at Flossenbürg and Buchenwald often gave deadly assignments to homosexuals.
Survival in camps took on many forms. Some homosexual inmates secured administrative and clerical jobs. For other prisoners, sexuality became a means of survival. In exchange for sexual favors, some Kapos protected a chosen prisoner, usually of young age, giving him extra food and shielding him from the abuses of other prisoners.
Homosexuals themselves very rarely became Kapos due to the lack of a support network. Kapo guardianship was no protection against the guards’ brutality, of course. In any case, the Kapo often tired of an individual, sometimes killing him and finding another on the next transport. Though individual homosexual inmates could secure a measure of protection in some ways, as a group homosexual prisoners lacked the support network common to other groups. Without this help in mitigating brutality, homosexual prisoners were unlikely to survive long.
One avenue of survival available to some homosexuals was castration, which some criminal justice officials advocated as a way of “curing” sexual deviance. Homosexual defendants in criminal cases or concentration camps could agree to castration in exchange for lower sentences. Later, judges and SS camp officials could order castration without the consent of a homosexual prisoner.
Nazis interested in finding a “cure” for homosexuality expanded this program to include medical experimentation on homosexual inmates of concentration camps. These experiments caused illness, mutilation, and even death, and yielded no scientific knowledge.
At Buchenwald, Danish doctor Carl Værnetconducted hormonal experiments on twelve gay men. He made incisions in their groin and implanted a metal tube that released testosterone over a prolonged period, as he believed that a lack of testosterone was the cause of homosexuality.
There are no known statistics for the number of homosexuals who died in the camps.
Memorial “Stolperstein” for Arnold Bastian, a homosexual victim of the Nazis. It is located at Große Straße 54 in Flensburg. The text reads: “Here lived Arnold Bastian, born 1908. Arrested 15 January 1944. Penitentiary at Celle. Dead on 17 February 1945 at the penitentiary in Hameln.