Homophobia as a concept
The term homophobia is commonly used to refer to a prejudice, fear or dislike of queer conduct. Homophobia as a term has a difficult history and is potentially perceived as problematic. The American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler suggests, based on Michel Foucault, that identity categories like ‘homosexuality’ and, even gender categories more broadly, can only ever be problematic and their use in itself homophobic (The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, London: Routledge, 1993, p. 308). While the term homophobia is therefore tricky and may include or exclude various connotations of sexuality, it will be cautiously used here in reference to expressions of discrimination and rejection towards homosexuals.
In a visit to a Polish archive, I witnessed the homophobia towards and subsequent generalisations about certain prisoner groups myself. I asked the archivist for examples of homophobic language in the source materials and was told that it was mainly the ‘German prisoners anyway, who had same-sex relations’. This association of same-sex relations with certain prisoner groups is a common feature in the sources I have accessed, and my work aims to not only reveal the homophobia in the camps from the past but also to challenge the continuation of any homophobic narratives in the present and future.
The construction of same-sex conduct for non-functionaries: the case study of Hildegard D.
Imprisoned as ‘asocial/RD’ or ‘political’ in various camps, Hildegard’s ITS file reveals a staggering number of incarcerations. Born 14 June 1920 in Frankfurt am Main, Hildegard D. began her stay in various ‘institutions’ of the Reich at 19, when she was placed in the workhouse Breitenau, prisoner 654, and remained there between 26 May 1939 and 17 August 1940. She was later moved to Ravensbrück, prisoner 5388/4822 and arrived in Auschwitz on 18 March 1941, prisoner number 94, block 18b. Several further ITS records suggest that she was also imprisoned in Flossenbürg, Kommando Graslitz [today Kraslice in the Czech Republic], then again in Ravensbrück numbers 52738 and 61616 respectively. Some records show her first name as Helena which may have led to confusion in assigning the correct records to her after the war. The last entry on her CNI card states that she was on a death march in March 1945 (Hildegard D., T/D file 184.108.40.206 / 99914042, ITS Digital Archive, Bad Arolsen).
No accounts about Hildegard D. reveal that she was a prisoner functionary and her prisoner category is unclear. During her time in Ravensbrück, Hildegard was accused by her fellow inmates of same-sex relations. Eleonore L., former Polish political prisoner at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück, made a statement about Hildegard and other prisoners in Detmold on 31 January 1947:
‘A functionary prisoner with the nickname ‘Hansi’ isn’t known to me. It was probably a gay one; the male name Hansi reveals this. There were a few of those in Ravensbrück. There was a ‘Leo’ in Ravensbrück; she was 25-26 years old then, blonde and walked hunched over. She had a friend named Hildegard D., both were from Frankfurt am Main. They often fought, because Leo was very jealous. Both were in block 6. Additionally, there was an ‘Otto’, who had a relationship with an ‘Edith’, a Mischling girl. They were also in block 6, so criminals.’ (Bundesarchiv Ludwigsburg IV 409 AR-Z 77/72, Volume III, p. 472/473).
Interestingly, Hildegard’s record does not reveal that she was a “habitual criminal”, so was this a construction by the prisoner society, which also accused her of same-sex relations?
While we know little about Hildegard, ‘Leo’, the person Hildegard was connected to in Eleonore L’s testimony, was mentioned as a prisoner engaged in same-sex conduct in several other survivor accounts. This connection alone may have led to the accusation of ‘deviant’ conduct in Eleonore’s account. It is also plausible that Eleonore wanted to discredit Hildegard and used deviant sexual conduct as her method. Further, Hildegard’s connection to a functionary prisoner, Leo, not her actual ‘deviant’ conduct, may have caused the accusations of same-sex relations. It is also possible that she indeed may have really had a relationship with ‘Leo’. Relationships between a functionary and a prisoner were a common nexus of power and accusation. Whatever the case, Hildegard is exemplary of how women were frequently accused of deviant conduct quasi by connection, because of whom they were associated with or as a construction by fellow prisoners to exclude them from the prisoner society.
In the wider context of camps, Adi Kuntsman, Katherine Jolluck, Jehanne Gheit and Katherine Bruce-Lockard share reports of homophobia towards perceived sexual ‘deviancy’ in Gulags and Kenyan colonial detention camps, which are similar to those reported in Nazi concentration camps. While we know about the experiences of many prisoner groups in the camps, homophobic expressions of prisoners have only been analysed sporadically, namely by historians such as Ulrike Janz, Insa Eschebach, Cathy Gelbin and Anna Hájková. While Janz provides a documentary overview of the variety of homophobic expressions in the survivor accounts, Eschebach and Gelbin suggest explanations. In particular, Eschebach showed how homophobia in Ravensbrück operated with a pathologisation of the ‘other’; the camp society moulded “the lesbian” on the existing pathologisation of sexuality in Weimar society outside of the camps.
It can, therefore, be concluded that the camp society made lesbian women synonymous with ‘otherness’ and created a homophobic connection between deviance, female sexuality and ‘asocial’ behaviours. In turn, Gelbin highlighted how most Holocaust memoirs reflect a ‘clear-cut constellation of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders’ (Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature and Culture, Volume 23, 2007, p. 108). By associating prisoners wearing ‘black triangles’ (or often also ‘green triangles’) with predatory behaviour, the authors of survivor accounts achieve demarcation.
Historians like Nikolaus Wachsmann, Joachim Müller, Insa Eschebach, Christa Schikorra, Wolfgang Röll, Claudia Schoppmann, Maja Suderland and Ulrike Janz purport that homophobia in the inmate community is a valid starting point for not only our understanding of gender relations and perceptions but also the inmate society generally. Their scholarship suggests that the categories of otherness were consciously developed amongst prisoners to form a society within the camps. Homophobia could occur as gentile homosexuals or those accused of same-sex conduct were not integrated into camp society and Wolfgang Röll, Günter Grau and Eugen Kogon postulate that the exclusion of homosexuals and those accused of same-sex conduct was often a deliberate deflection strategy used by fellow inmates.
Bruce-Lockhart, K., ‘’Unsound’ minds and broken bodies: the detention of ‘’hardcore’’ Mau Mau women at Kamiti and Gitamayu Detention Camps in Kenya, 1954-1960, in Journal of Eastern African Studies, 2014, Vol. 8, No. 4, pp. 590-608.
Butler, J., ‘Imitation and Gender Subordination’, in Abelove, H. et al, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 307-320.
Eschebach, I. et al (eds.), Gedächtnis und Geschlecht. Deutungsmuster in Darstellungen des Nationalsozialistischen Genozids (Frankfurt/ New York: Campus Verlag, 2002).
Eschebach, I. (ed.), Homophobie und Devianz. Weibliche und männliche Homosexualität im Nationalsozialismus (Berlin: Metropol, 2016).
Eschebach, I., Geschichte und Gedenken. Homophobie, Devianz und weibliche Homosexualität im KZ Ravensbrück (Berlin: Metropol, 2012).
Eschebach. I., ‘Gespaltene Frauenbilder’, in Weckel, U. and Wolfrum, E., Bestien und Befehlsempfänger: Frauen und Männer in den NS-Prozessen nach 1945 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2003).
Gelbin, C., Gender and Sexuality in Women Survivors’ Personal Narratives, in Chare, N./ Williams, D. (eds.), Representing Auschwitz. At the Margins of Testimony (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 174-193.
Gelbin, C., ‘Double Vision: Queer Femininity and Holocaust Film from Ostatni Etap to Aimee and Jaguar’, in Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature and Culture, Volume 23, 2007, pp.179-204.
Gheith, J. and Jolluck, K., Gulag Voices. Oral Histories of Soviet Incarceration and Exile (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011).
Grau, G., Homosexualität in der NS-Zeit. Dokumente einer Diskriminierung und Verfolgung, 2. überarbeitete Auflage (Frankfurt: Fischer Verlag, 2004).
Hajkova, A., Why we’ve Suppressed the Queer History of the Holocaust, Haaretz, 18 February 2018.
Hajkova, A., Den Holocaust queer erzahlen, in Jahrbuch Sexualitäten 2018, pp.86-110.
Janz, U., ‘Zeugnisse überlebender Frauen. Die Wahrnehmung von Lesben/lesbischem Verhalten in nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern‘, in Frauenzeitung 1994. H2, pp.21-25 and 48-51. H3, pp. 20-23 and 40-41.
Kogon, E., The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System behind them (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2006).
Kuntsman, A., ‘Shadows of the Past: Memoirs of the GULag and Contemporary Homophobia’, in Kultura, Vol 2 (2008), pp. 9-11.
Kuntsman, A., ‘With a Shade of Disgust’: Affective Politics of Sexuality and Class in Memoirs of the Stalinist Gulag’, in Slavic Review 68 (2), pp. 308-328.
Müller, J., Homosexuelle Männer im KZ Sachsenhausen (Berlin: Verlag Rosa Winkel, 2000).
Müller, J., Vergleichbarkeit der Lebenssituation lesbischer Frauen mit der Lebenssituation schwuler Männer im Nationalsozialismus (und nach 1945) (Berlin: Männerschwarmverlag, 2007).
Röll, W., ‘Homosexual Inmates in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp’, in Journal of Homosexuality 31:4 (1996), pp. 1-28.
Schikorra, C., Kontinuitäten der Ausgrenzung. ‘Asoziale’ Häftlinge im Frauen-Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück. Dissertation (Berlin: Metropol, 2001).
Schoppmann, C., Days of the Masquerade. Life Stories of Lesbians during the Third Reich (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).
Schoppmann, C., Nationalsozialistische Sexualpolitik und weibliche Homosexualität. Dissertation, FU Berlin (Pfaffenweiler: Centaurus, 1991).
Schoppmann, C., Verbotene Verhältnisse. Frauenliebe 1938–1945 (Berlin: Querverlag, 1999).
Schoppmann, C., ‘Wider das ‘gesunder Volksempfinden’. Vom Verhohr zur KZ Haft: Nicht nur schwule Maenner, auch lesbische Frauen litten im ‘Dritten Reich’, in Der Tagesspiegel 22/2014, p.28.
Suderland, M., Ein Extremfall des Sozialen. Die Häftlingsgesellschaft in den nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern (Frankfurt/ New York: Campus Verlag, 2009)
Suderland, M., Inside Concentration Camps. Social Life at the Extremes (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).
Suderland, M., Territorien des Selbst (Frankfurt/ New York: Campus Verlag, 2004).
Wachsmann, N., KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (London: Little, Brown, 2015).
Suggested Further Reading:
The Wiener Holocaust Library holds many books and documents relating to homosexuality during the Nazi period, some of which are listed below:
- I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror by Pierre Seel
- Lost Intimacies: Rethinking Homosexuality under National Socialism by William J Spurlin
- Hidden Holocaust: Gay and Lesbian Persecution in Germany 1933-45 by Claudia Schoppmann
- Branded by the Pink Triangle by Ken Setterington
- An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin by Gad Beck
- The Persecution of Gays in Germany, 1933 – 1945 by Colin De la Motte-Sherman
- Victims and Survivors of Nazi Human Experiments by Paul Weindling
For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: homosexuality; homosexuals; social persecution.