To mark LGBTQ+ History Month, Dr Barbara Warnock looks at the persecution faced by gay people in Nazi Germany, and some of the documents in The Wiener Holocaust Library’s International Tracing Service digital archive that contain evidence about their experiences.
The Nazi period saw a significant intensification of the persecution of gay people in Germany. Prior to their accession to power in 1933, under section 175 of Germany’s Civil Code, male homosexuality was illegal in Germany. However, prosecutions were relatively rare, though by no means unknown. In Berlin in particular there existed an atmosphere of comparative toleration in relation to sexuality in the 1920s. There was a flourishing gay scene there, and many gay and lesbian bars and publications such as Die Freundin (Eng: The Girlfriend). Germany was also at the forefront of research into sexuality and gender and campaigns for gay rights in the decades before the Nazi era. The Scientific Humanitarian Committee had worked since its establishment in 1897 to overturn section 175, and in 1919, one of its founding members, Magnus Hirschfeld, set up the Institute for Sexual Research, a pioneering organisation in its approach to gay and transgender rights. This era of relative tolerance ended with the Nazi rise to power in January 1933, however.
The Nazis, and often wider society, viewed gay people as dangerously non-conformist, and this was one motivation for persecution. The Nazis promoted traditional family values, with distinct gender roles for men and women, and encouraged women to have many children: gay people were regarded as a threat to these ideals. Racial ideas and ideas about national ‘strength’ and ‘virility’ were also behind the Nazis’ hostility to homosexuality. False ideas about race were at the core of Nazi ideology, and central to this was the notion that the country should promote as many births of healthy ‘Aryan’ babies as possible. In 1937, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, said in a speech to SS leaders that the persecution and even murder of homosexuals was desirable because gay people hindered efforts to breed a dominant racially strong nation. ‘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… A people of good race which has too few children has a one-way ticket to the grave.’
The initial period of Nazi rule saw the closure of lesbian and gay bars, the cancellation of publications and the sacking of Hirschfeld’s institute. Gay men were arrested, and some were among the first prisoners in the early concentration camps. In 1935, the regime expanded section 175, widening the scope of activities defined as illegal and increasing the penalty for homosexual activity from six months to five years. The number of men detained and prosecuted under section 175 rose tenfold: in 1937, the authorities arrested 8,000 men. Some were held in prison, others sent to SS-run concentration camps where they worked as slave labourers. In total, around 15,000 gay men were incarcerated in concentration camps, of whom 60% are estimated to have died: they were murdered or perished as a result of poor health and maltreatment. Some of those who were arrested were denounced to the criminal police or the Gestapo, others the subject of police-initiated investigations.
Some women were also incarcerated in concentration camps on the grounds of lesbianism. The Nazis did not in the main target lesbians to the same extent as gay men, nor were they subject to code 175 – perhaps because the Nazis did not consider women to have the same potential as men to be a political threat – but they did view lesbians as a threat to their ideals of racially strong National community. Some women were targeted and arrested and also faced maltreatment in camps.
ITS documents and the persecution of gay people in Nazi Germany
The documents in The Wiener Holocaust Library’s digital copy of the International Tracing Service (ITS) Archive can provide us with some information about the men and women persecuted by the Nazis on the grounds of their sexuality, as well as insights into how Nazi persecution against gay people operated. These documents, gathered as part of efforts to trace the fates of the missing at the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust, include extensive material relating to the incarceration of victims of Nazi persecution in Nazi camps.
Sometimes concentration camp prisoner cards in ITS collections record the grounds on which male prisoners were held as ‘Section 175 – Homosexual’ – in reference to the relevant section of the law. This can be seen in documents in the case of Rudolf Brazda in Buchenwald (extract below).
ITS documents relating to the experiences of Josef Kohout of Vienna reveal that he was transported from prison in Vienna to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1940 having been convicted under section 175. There, the Nazi authorities forced him to work as a slave labourer. Later, he was sent to Flossenbürg camp. Towards the end of the war, the SS forced Kohout to march from Flossenbürg to Dachau, where the United States Army liberated him after five years of incarceration.
In 1972, under the pseudonym Heinz Hegel, a friend of Kohout’s published a memoir of his experiences, The Men with the Pink Triangle. The book documented the experiences that Kohout and other gay men had of slave labour and maltreatment at the hands of the Nazis and other inmates.
The documents in the ITS collections that relate to the persecution of Margarethe Rosenberg point to some of the complexities in the Nazis’ approach to lesbians. The documents reveal that Rosenberg was incarcerated on political grounds, because she had engaged in ‘behaviour detrimental to the state’. The word ‘Lesbisch’ (Eng: lesbian) is also appended to her documents in a number of places. It is likely that the ‘political’ action that the Nazis considered so detrimental to the state was lesbianism. Once incarcerated, women such as Rosenberg, who were lesbians or identified by others as lesbians, experienced hostility from other camp inmates.
Rosenberg was married, with a husband fighting at the frontline, which obviously does not preclude her being lesbian. However, some women may have been targeted as lesbians, or as a political or social threat to the state, on the basis of their gender non-conformity, and it is possible that this was the case for Rosenberg. The Nazis forced Renée Sintenis, a well-known sculptor and much-photographed celebrity in Weimar Germany, out of her job and her livelihood because she supposedly had Jewish origins. However, it is possible that Sintenis’ powerful and rather masculine image, her successful career, and the fact that she was known for frequenting lesbian bars in Berlin also caused the Nazis to regard her as a threat. Women such as Sintenis, even when married, did not conform with Nazi ideals about the role of women: focussed on the home and their children.
The injustices perpetrated by the Nazis against gay people did not end after 1945. Intolerance, prejudice and discrimination continued. In East Germany, section 175 was not enforced after 1957, but homosexuality was only officially decriminalised for those over eighteen years old in 1968. In West Germany, homosexuality was only decriminalised for men over twenty-one years old in 1969.
Some survivors of Nazi persecution were able to use the documents and evidence contained in the International Tracing Service Archive as a basis to claim compensation after the war, but this was not the case for gay victims. There has been more recognition of their experiences in recent years: in 2008, a memorial to gay victims of Nazi persecution opened in central Berlin.
With thanks to Elise Bath for help with International Tracing Service documents and Deborah Lewer for her insights into Renée Sintenis.
Suggested further reading:
Anna Hajkova, ‘Queere Geschichte und der Holocaust’, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 38-39/2018, pp.42-47.
Heinz Heger, The Men with the Pink Triangle, (Boston: Alyson, 1972).
Gerard Koskovich, Roberto Malino and Steed Gamero, A Different Holocaust (2006).
Colin De La Motte-Sherman, The Persecution of Gays in Germany 1933-1945 (Berlin: International Lesbian and Gay Cultural Network, 2000).
Claudia Schoppmann, Hidden Holocaust: Gay and Lesbian Persecution in Germany 1933-1945 (London: Cassell, 1995).
Williams J. Spurlin, Lost Intimacies: Rethining Homosexuality under National Socialism (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009).
For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Social persecution, Homosexuals, Women, Identity, National Socialism, Historiography.
One comment so far
I thought the article was quite good and informative unlike many I have read. I am also aware Germany is my country of birth and it’s history. Being a post war baby and having migrated with my parents I had to read a lot about what happened as my parents stories were insufficient about WW2. I’ve learnt to look at things in layers. What was the Nazi regime? I had to study that because all I heard was bullshit.. It wasn’t just about Hitler. Himmler was a vile creature almost worse than Hitler. Persecution of Gay people was started by the Churches and that just carried over from generation to generation. Then came Eugenics and Darwinian theories which were reinterpreted by so called learned scholars to suit the political climate. That was not uniquely a German Nazi thing either. We hear mostly about the wholesale persecution of Jews regarding the Holocaust but forget easily how it started. The Nazi Govt was a Govt claiming to rescue Germany from complete collapse and the jaws of the Bolshevik hoards. Whole groups of people were classified as asocials and murdered as a result. And it was all about money and profits. There were probably many Gay Nazis who were closeted and as long as they presented manly or appropriately effeminate as male and female according to their sex they went unnoticed. The Nazis were about power, profits and creating a free cheap workforce. It was all about absolute power and the regime did not feel obliged to feed or provide for human needs outside of what they thought was the exclusive so called pure German folk. Everyone else was isolated and referred to as a deviant. So social cleansing began. It also made more lebensraum as people were removed and displaced. A good way to appropriate the wealth of others. The first people to be arrested were political opponents who were rounded up and put in camps with no rights, then came the so called unemployed and homeless people considered work shy, then Gay people and so on. Then came the T4 program etc. There was no Jewish problem until they caused one. No one did anything about it or they too were sent to a camp. People would do well to remember that. The way we treat the Aged, mentally ill, disabled and homeless is always one step away from calling them useless mouths not worthy of a life and the possibility of camps are just around the corner. It is the degree with which we denigrate people who we consider other and not of us that determines the direction we take collectively. Then when all is said and done we will say we didn’t know. When we dehumanise sections of the population that’s what happens. Actually many gay people are just boring and ordinary and you would never notice them. A bit like with the Jews. Who knew who was a Jew until people had to register and like good Germans they did. A lot of Gay people don’t ham it up and lead unusual obvious party lives like we would believe from stereo types and one gets tired of this constant colourful status even often perpetuated by Gay people themselves. People talk about the Gay lifestyle. What is that actually? What the Nazis wanted was a free disposable workforce , slaves they could grind into the ground and when done dispose of them like garbage just as long as good so called Germans kept breeding. Hey plenty more where they came from. We also don’t realise how frightening and intimidating a dictatorship is and how quickly it can consume a nation and cause years of murder and bloodshed. It does well to remember that no matter who or what you are. The Germans were not especially evil, they just had at a certain time in history had certain leaders come along under certain difficult conditions and the rest of the world looked on until it became cataclysmic and threatened the whole world. I lived in Germany during the early 1970s and they had Gay bars back then which were a quiet affair usually in an underground type venue and those in the know spread where they were by word of mouth. You had to knock and someone would let you in. I imagine it has changed a lot since then. Gay people are still persecuted in many countries but less so now in the West. People would do well to consolidate those rights and strengthen them and don’t sweat the small stuff lest hard gains are overturned.