An exhibit at the Florida Holocaust Museum takes a look at the persecution of gay men in Nazi Germany

By : Jeremy Williams
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Germany to pardon tens of thousands of homosexual men convicted under anti-gay, World War II era law, Paragraph 175.

This is not a headline that flashed across newspapers worldwide at the end of the worst war in human history 70 years ago. It didn’t hit the evening news in the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s as countries across the planet decriminalized homosexuality and began to revoke those laws. This is a headline you will see if you log onto your computers now, scroll through Facebook or Twitter and read the words of German Justice Minister Heiko Maas from this past March.

“The rehabilitation of men who ended up in court purely because of their homosexuality is long overdue,” Maas said.

The German Cabinet, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, announced support March 22 for a bill that would annul the convictions of thousands of gay men under a law criminalizing homosexuality. Much like in the United States, Germany’s LGBTQ community has had a long battle within their homeland to gain equality, with no battle more devastating than that during Germany’s Third Reich. The Nazis took Paragraph 175, a long standing anti-gay law in Germany’s criminal code, and strengthened it to justify the arrest, detention and execution of German gay men between 1933 and 1945, making them a targeted group in the worst genocide in human history.

The Florida Holocaust Museum, celebrating its 25th year, brings the hidden truth of LGBTQ life during the Holocaust and WWII to light via the exhibit titled “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals” April 30- July 2 and the documentary Paragraph 175 (showing June 21 in St. Petersburg). And as we witness allegations of gay men forced to sit on bottles in Chechnyan concentration camps playing out in today’s media, the resonance of those tortured in the Holocaust rings only more clearly and frighteningly.

“They were persecuted, punished and ostracized by the German state just because of their love for men, because of their sexual identity,” Maas said.

Paragraph 175

Paragraph 175 was established as a part of the German penal code in 1871, the year Germany became a unified nation, and reads: “An unnatural sex act committed between persons of the male sex or by humans with animals is punishable by imprisonment; the loss of civil rights may also be imposed.”

Paragraph 175 did not apply to women and only pertained to a penetrative sex act between two men.

“It wasn’t enough for two guys to be kissing or for two guys to seem like they were about to engage in sex. There needed to be some type of proof that penetrating sex had occurred,” says Dr. Erik Jensen, associate professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who will be in attendance at the Florida Holocaust Museum’s exhibit May 4 to give the opening keynote address.

LGBTQ Press: Cover of the September 1931 issue of Die Insel (The Island), a magazine for homosexuals, edited by Martin Radzuweit. Although illegal, homosexuality was generally tolerated in pre-Nazi Germany, particularly in urban areas. Some 30 literary, cultural, and political journals for homosexual readers appeared during the Weimar era. US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Along with it being difficult to get a conviction under Paragraph 175, Germany began to alter their censorship laws in the 1890s and into the 20th century.“There was an exception made to the censorship laws that said that as long as a publication has some scientific purpose, you can publish it and distribute it,” Jensen says.

In the beginning of the 20th century, an early gay movement started emerging in Germany under the auspices of scientific organizations and particular scientists who sought to study the biological root cause of homosexuality.

“These circles of gay men and women would come together to hear these scientific lectures. They would subscribe to these magazines that would give the latest results of scientific research. Everything was done in the interest of advancing science,” Jensen says. “But because the topic of the research was specifically homosexuality, it enabled all of these people who would otherwise not be able to find one another, to come together.”

Within these meetings the early gay rights movement began to develop. Gay and lesbian Germans started to develop mailing lists, publishing magazines and opening bars and clubs all geared toward the gay community.

“Germany is kind of legendary as being a ’Gay Paradise’ in the 1920s. There was a flourishing bar scene in Berlin and Hamburg and Cologne and all these big cities. There was an active movement to repeal Paragraph 175. There were films made about homosexuality. There were nationwide organizations of gay men and women that were partly social, partly political,” Jensen says. ”If you wanted to be a gay man or woman somewhere in the world in the 1920s, you’d probably want to do it in Germany, specifically in Berlin.”

Gays for Hitler

As the 1920s came to a close, a small political party on the far right in Germany began to make a stir. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi Party, longed to restore Germany to its “rightful position as a world power” that they felt they lost after their defeat in WWI. After the Great Depression decimated the economies of the industrialized world in 1929, the German people started to look for someone to blame for the rising unemployment and widespread misery. The Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler, tapped into that fear and anger and gave the German people a target to point their blame to.

EQUALITY GERMANY: A 1907 political cartoon depicting sex-researcher Magnus Hirschfeld, ‘Hero of the Day,’ drumming up support for the abolition of Paragraph 175 of the German penal code that criminalized homosexuality. The banner reads, ‘Away with Paragraph 175!’ The caption reads, ‘The foremost champion of the third sex!’ –US Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives.

“The Nazi Party, as they’re coming to power, their main target was always the Jews and communists,” Jensen says. ”Those were always the two specters in the Nazi mind that threatened to crush Germany and needed to be both booted out from within Germany and from the rest of Europe.”

In the early years of the Nazi movement, gay men were not seen as a target. Some even stood with, and as part of, the Nazi Party. Ernst Röhm was a German military officer, co-founder of the Nazi SA (better known as the Storm Troopers or “Brownshirts”) and was openly gay.

“Röhm was the second-most important figure in the Nazi Party and in the new regime after Hitler himself,” Jensen says. “Hitler was on record saying that [being gay] wasn’t a big deal and what a guy does in private is his own business. It was not a surprise to Hitler that Röhm liked to sleep with men. It certainly didn’t bother him.”

It was reported at the time that Röhm’s chiefs in the SA were almost exclusively gay, and in 1931 a German newspaper published letters Röhm had written to a friend discussing his homosexual affairs. Over the years, some have even speculated that Hitler carried such a close relationship with Röhm because he himself was bisexual, although these speculations have largely been dismissed by most historians. There is no indication that any of this bothered Hitler until 1933.

In January 1933, the Nazis took power in Germany and began to dismantle anything that they themselves could not keep control of, and anything that did not fall in line with their view of traditional values and racial purity.

“In general, the closing down of gay publications and gay bars and gay associations that happened immediately after the Nazis came to power was all part of this larger Nazi process of establishing complete control over German society. They wanted to eliminate all independent publications that were not issued by Nazis. They wanted to eliminate all associations that were not sanctioned by the Nazis. They wanted to eliminate independent spheres of sociability that they couldn’t keep tabs on,” Jensen says.

Hitler started to grow suspicious of Röhm by mid-1933 which caused a power struggle between Röhm and Heinrich Himmler, the head of Hitler’s paramilitary organization, the SS.

“Röhm was more associated with the left wing of the Nazi Party that wanted to take the socialist element of national socialism really seriously and that made business leaders nervous,” Jensen says.

Himmler began a smear campaign to purge the party of Röhm and his Storm Troopers. Propaganda began to highlight Röhm’s sexuality calling it an “unsavory element” that the German people would not want in charge of their young men. The attacks on Röhm and the SA came to a head June 30, 1934, when the Nazis carried out a series of executions against the leaders of the SA, including Röhm, known as the Night of Long Knives.

“It’s likely that propaganda backlash after the purge of Röhm helped fuel the targeting of homosexuals,” Jensen says. “But even more important is once Röhm is gone, Himmler fills his place at the side of Hitler.”

Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals

Himmler was now one the most powerful men in the Nazi Party and the one most responsible for the Holocaust. Himmler was also extremely homophobic.

“Gay men were still being arrested under Paragraph 175 up to this point, but the increase in arrests and the eventual sending of them to the camps was an agenda item of Himmler,” Jensen says. “He believed this notion that gay men were weak and — especially in a state that was predicated on the assertion of strong male power — this was seen as problematic to him. The Nazi regime relied a lot on male bonding. It was a male intensive organization where these men were supposed to develop camaraderie with one another and persecuting homosexuals was a way to draw a clear line between acceptable male bonding and crossing the line into homosexual contact.”

The Nazi’s repression of gay men began almost immediately once Hitler took power, and men were still being arrested under Paragraph 175, but in late 1934, the Gestapo, Hitler’s secret police under the rule of Himmler, started to increase surveillance of those suspected of being gay based on police “pink lists.”

Becoming a 175er: German police file photo of a man arrested in October 1937 for suspicion of violating Paragraph 175. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Landesarchiv, Berlin.

These lists consisted of names based on a variety of reasons including previous arrests under Paragraph 175, political affiliation and accusations of being a homosexual by neighbors. The increased investigation into these men’s lives led some who could to flee the country, while others concealed their homosexuality by marrying lesbians or chose to commit suicide.

In the summer of 1935, the Nazis overhauled the German criminal code, rewriting laws they felt needed revising.

“The most famous examples of these new rewritten laws are the Nuremberg laws that are promulgated against the Jews and are predicated on this idea that we need to decide who is a Jew and who is not,” Jensen says. “This is also when the Nazi Party decides that Paragraph 175 needs to be strengthened.”

The revised law was put into effect September 1, 1935, and opened up the definition of what was “homosexual activity” under Paragraph 175.

The expansion of Paragraph 175 made it illegal for a man to engage in any contact with another man, whether it be physical or in the form of words or gestures that could be construed as sexual.

“The expanded scope of that law made it much easier to get a conviction, to include all sorts of other expressions of same-sex affection that led up to, but might not have included, actual penetration. Even a long embrace could warrant a conviction. Certainly kissing, rubbing and mutual masturbation was now illegal,” Jensen says.

Along with the strengthening of Paragraph 175, the Nazis added in Paragraph 175A which increased prison sentences for those found guilty of being a homosexual and made it easier for the state to get a conviction.

Under this new revised law, more than 100,000 men were arrested and 50,000 were convicted of homosexual acts in the Nazi era. The Gestapo’s job made easier by denunciations from bystanders. Neighbors turned in neighbors as society began labeling gay men as “antisocial parasites” and “enemies of the state” thanks to Nazi propaganda. The majority of those convicted spent time in German prison, some were sent to concentration camps, and some served in both.

“They would do a prison sentence and then be released into SS custody in concentration camps,” Jensen says. “Exact numbers are hard to come by because so many of the men did not come forward after the camps were liberated. It’s estimated that 15,000 men were sent to camps just because they were gay. Of those men, it is estimated that up to 10,000 of them died in those camps.”

Camp Treatment of 175ers

The first of the Nazi’s concentration camps were improvised in local prisons, military barracks and abandoned factories. They began sending people to them almost immediately after Hitler took power in Germany.

“Dachau, the first concentration camp, was open March 1933. It was open, though, almost entirely for socialists and communists. It was for political prisoners,” Jensen says. ”By 1934, certainly there were gay men who were being sent to concentration camps probably because they were also political dissidents.”

It wasn’t long after that that Himmler started overseeing the camp system which fell under SS control. The main camps for homosexuals were the work camps: Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Dachau.

Worked To Death: Prisoners at forced labor in the Mauthausen concentration camp. Beginning in 1943, homosexuals were among those in concentration camps who were killed in an SS-sponsored “extermination through work” program. Nederlands Instituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie, courtesy US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“It’s important to make a distinction here between the two types of camps that the regime had: concentration camps and extermination camps. The extermination camps were for Jews and Romas, so-called ‘gypsies,’” Jensen says. “The other camps were these work camps that they used for the other groups of people such as communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Masons and gay men.”

The prisoners of these camps were given identification badges. Red for political prisoners, green for criminals, blue for immigrants, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, brown for Romas and pink for homosexual men. Jews wore a yellow triangle with another inverted triangle to make the Star of David.

Gay men also wore a black dot on the back of their uniform with the number 175 inside of it to designate that they were a criminal under Paragraph 175. They came to be known as “175ers” in the camps. The 175ers were abused physically and sexually by SS camp guards, and assigned grueling work in dangerous conditions, at times being fed barely enough to keep them upright. Himmler referred to this as “extermination through work.”

The 175ers not only suffered at the hands of the guards. Other prisoners saw them either as criminals who rightfully belonged in the camps or shunned them fearing guilt by association. The 175ers were left isolated and alone.

Once the war began, the purpose of the camps shifted from “correcting the behavior” to “exploitation of labor.”

“The original idea was that work was a type of therapy that would make these guys more productive members of society,” Jensen says. ”Once the war starts, they begin to engage these inmates in labor that was somehow productive for the war effort.”

The death rate among 175ers in the camps increased, partly due to the dangerous jobs they were forced to do in the camps, and partly at the hands of the SS guards.

Nazi scientists also began to experiment on 175ers, attempting to isolate the “homosexual gene” and cure it so that these men could be sent out to fight.

“They began experimenting on gay men in the early 1940s,” Jensen says. “There was a guy in Sachsenhausen, a camp outside of Berlin, named Carl Værnet. He was fascinated by hormone therapy as a form of treatment for homosexuality. Other doctors worked with gay men and female prostitutes thinking that they could re-educate these guys through sex. A lot of them experimented with castration as a form of treatment.”

A Third Reich “cure”: Operating room in Barrack R1 of sick-bay in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. After November 1942, concentration camp commandants were authorized to order the castration of prisoners in unspecified, “special cases,” thus permitting the compulsory castration of incarcerated homosexuals. Gedenkstätte und Museum Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg.

In some cases, the castration was forced upon the men, but in many cases they were offered release from the camps if they cooperated in these experiments.

“More often than not, they would not be released,” Jensen says. ”By the later years of the war as the regime was desperate for manpower, men were oftentimes experimented on and released from the concentration camps into these units that were immediately sent into combat just to occupy Allied firepower.”

The Nazis used 175ers as human shields in the field, and those left in the camps were used as examples to instill fear in other prisoners or as target practice by bored SS guards. Survivors tell stories of SS guards who would toss the hats of 175ers near the fence and order them to retrieve it. The ones who went to the fence were shot, then accused of attempting to escape. Those who did not retrieve them were severely beaten.

Pierre Seel, a French 175er survivor, recalls his time in the concentration camps in the 2000 documentary Paragraph 175. Seel was 16 years old when he was arrested, beaten and sodomized with a piece of wood. He was then sent to a camp where he was forced to watch the death of his teenage lover.

“It happened in front of me and 300 prisoners. The death of Jo, my friend. He was condemned to die, eaten by dogs. German dogs. German shepherds. And that, I can never forget,” Seel says in the documentary.

Liberation For Some

The first of the camps to be reached by Allied forces was Majdanek in Poland, liberated by the Soviets in July 1944. More camps would be reached and liberated by Soviet, American and British forces up to the end of the war in Europe in April 1945. Those in the camps went on to be set free, except for the 175ers.

“It’s not a story of liberation in the same way that it was for other groups when these camps were opened up by the Allies,” Jensen says. “There were many cases of people who had to serve out the rest of their sentence.”

As the Allied Military Government of Germany began to repeal countless laws created or strengthened under Nazi rule, one law they left was the Nazi revision of Paragraph 175. Many gay men imprisoned in the camps under the law were forced to finish their sentences in German prisons, most of whom did not have their time in the camps counted toward their prison sentence.

After the war, Germany was divided: East Germany under control of the communist Soviet Union, and West Germany under the watchful eye of the U.S., the United Kingdom and France. West Germany continued to use the Nazi-strengthened Paragraph 175 until 1969 when the law was changed to decriminalize homosexuality between men over the age of 21. In 1973, the law was further changed to lower the age of consent to 18. Paragraph 175 was not completely removed from German law until 1994.

In the years after the war, all groups held in concentration camps were designated victims and received compensation from the West German government, all except homosexuals. The 175ers were not acknowledged as victims by the German government until May 8, 1985, and those who were convicted under Paragraph 175 during the Nazi era were officially pardoned in 2002. Those convicted after the fall of the Third Reich are waiting for German parliamentary approval for their convictions to be annulled.

“The strength of a state of law is reflected in having the strength to correct its own mistakes,” Maas wrote in his post. “We have not just the right but the obligation to act.”

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