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Gay people in Nazi Germany: how hate triumphs

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The mass murder of gay people in the Nazis’ Holocaust is a warning of how economic crises can fuel persecution, writes Viv Smith
Issue 2178
Gay prisoners in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen with pink triangles. Germany, December 1938
Gay prisoners in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen with pink triangles. Germany, December 1938

In recent weeks thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people have come together to hold vigils and show their anger at the rise in homophobic violence.

The brutal murder of Ian Baynham in Trafalgar Square and the assault on James Parkes in Liverpool sent shockwaves through the LGBT community.

Reported homophobic attacks have risen by 20 percent in London, 32 percent in Glasgow, 40 percent in Liverpool and 63 percent in Greater Manchester over the past year.

And the mood was fuelled by the appearance of Nazi British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin on the BBC’s Question Time, where he described seeing two men kissing as “creepy”.

Economic crises are often accompanied by increased scapegoating of minorities, and the current crisis is the worst since the 1930s.

Advances that at one time seemed secure can be reversed as the ruling class, desperate to cling to power and privilege, tries to make minorities – whether LGBT, black people, Muslims or migrant workers – bear the brunt of the system’s failures.

Fascist parties such as the BNP seek to capitalise on this.

In the most chilling example, the Holocaust, the Nazis slaughtered 11 million people, including six million Jews. This was not merely the act of a sick group of individuals but a carefully constructed ideological assault on German society.

Sections of the ruling class thought Germany was getting out of control in the early 20th century.

They saw the flourishing gay lifestyle in Berlin as a sign of a decadent society that had been brought to its knees by trade unionists and communists.

Germany had seen the first homosexual rights movement, in response to the introduction of Paragraph 175 of the penal code, which made acts of sodomy illegal.

Magnus Hirschfeld, father of the movement, established the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in 1897. It aimed at changing attitudes to homosexuality and scrapping the law.

The campaign drew widespread support, particularly from socialists in the German Social Democratic Party.

Between 1898 and 1914 over 100,000 books and pamphlets on sexuality were produced in the country.


Many believed that the proclamation of the German Republic after a revolution in 1918 would see the fall of Paragraph 175.

This feeling had been bolstered by the 1917 revolution in Russia, which saw the complete legalisation of homosexuality and full rights for women and other minorities.

Hirschfeld was so optimistic that he declared the newly founded Institute for Sexual Science, “the child of the revolution”.

And the Golden Twenties that followed did usher in massive changes – from science and technology to rights for women, LGBT people and workers.

A homosexual subculture flourished in Berlin as gay clubs and cabaret bars sprung up.

Although the law had not been repealed for gay men – as it had been for lesbian acts – there was little if any persecution of homosexuals.

But while the work of the Institute continued, it remained relatively detached from political life at a time when German society was becoming increasingly polarised.

Hirschfeld argued, “The royalist must be just as welcome a helper as the socialist republican…the communist as the bourgeois democrat.”

The lack of politics in the gay movement – the focus on the bar culture and lifestyle – meant that when the time came the movement had no role to play in helping shape the outcome of Germany’s political battles.

As the economy slumped from 1929, a new militant right wing movement, led by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party, grew rapidly in Germany.

Elements of the ruling and middle classes, alongside a layer of the top military personnel and government bureaucrats, turned to the fascists as they feared for their social and political positions.

Faced with socialist revolution they looked to Hitler, offering him the chancellorship in 1933.

Although the Nazi Party vote increased dramatically – from 2.6 percent in 1928 to 37.3 percent in 1932 – the Nazis were still not in a position to take power on their own.

Joseph Goebbels, architect of the attacks on German Jews, wrote in his journal that the forecast for the Nazis was gloomy.

Why? Because the combined vote of the Communists and the Social Democrats outstripped that of the Nazis. Yet the call for left unity against fascism was never achieved. The cost was great.

History often omits the slaughter of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, yet it was a central part of Hitler’s strategy to purge Germany of “undesirables” – Jews, the left, trade unionists, gypsies, the mentally ill and disabled people.

Wrongly, many homosexuals believed they were safe from the Nazis because of the presence of gay soldiers and officials in the upper hierarchy of the party.


Indeed one of Hitler’s closest allies, Ernest Rohm, was gay, and the Hitler Youth was dubbed the “homo youth”. This false sense of security was smashed when Hitler began his reign of terror.

It started with the destruction of Hirschfeld’s Institute – which the Nazis declared “an unparalleled breeding ground of dirt and filth”. Books, articles and information were carried out and thrown onto bonfires.

A bust of Hirschfeld was removed, later to be publicly paraded and burnt.

The extent to which Hitler was prepared to go to attack homosexuals was made apparent in June 1934. As part of a wider purge, homosexuals were removed from the party, and Rohm and dozens of officers were executed.

Paragraph 175 was amended to list nine punishable acts, including embracing, kissing and even fantasies. Around 50,000 people were convicted, many ending up in the death camps.

Himmler, the head of the Gestapo, took up anti-homosexual work with a fanatical passion.

He chillingly called for “an extinction of an abnormal life. It has to be removed just as we pull up stinging nettles, toss them on a heap and burn them.”

The entire Nazi ideology was founded on the notion of the “master race” and the pseudoscience of eugenics – the creation of the model family raising model children.

Motherhood and childbirth were rewarded. There was no place for homosexuals. Himmler said, “Germany stands and falls with the purity of the race.”

Gays and lesbians were interned in concentration camps, marked out with pink triangles for men and black triangles for lesbians (as with prostitutes).

Lesbians were forced to work in the camp brothels, the logic being that repeated rape would act as a “cure”, and “Project Pink” was a strategy for slowly working gay men to death.

In the words of one survivor, “That meant less food, more work, stricter supervision.

If a prisoner with a pink triangle became sick, it spelled his doom. Admission to the clinic was forbidden.”

The first authentic account of the experience of concentration camp internment for homosexuals appeared in 1954, when LD Classen von Neudegg wrote an account detailing his fear of entering the death mill at Klinker.

He wrote of how gay men were rounded up and forced to drag corpses as they were marched into the camp and their deaths. Estimates are that 220,000 gays and lesbians were killed during the Holocaust – although this is thought to be a conservative figure.


The Holocaust could have been prevented. The period after the First World War was one of immense possibilities for liberation.

Empires fell in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. Workers’ councils ruled for a short period in Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Moscow and Petrograd. Britain was wracked with some of the biggest strikes the country had ever seen.

Ireland was in the throes of civil war and national liberation movements swept across India and China.

But the potential of these movements was not fulfilled. They ended with capitalism intact. Only in Russia did workers, briefly, take and hold power.

The world was plunged into an economic crisis and the Second World War. Today the recession is again driving a rise in fascism and homophobia.

The political vacuum created by the failings of the system could be filled by the right if the left and all those who want a world free from oppression don’t stand together and act.

Unity is vital. We cannot and must not fall for the trick of blaming one another. Any division – gay against straight, black against white, Christian against Muslim – will make us all victims.

The appalling history of Nazi Germany is a chilling reminder of what happens when the ruling class fears for its future.

The coming together of thousands of LGBT people and their supporters in the past few weeks shows that we are not giving up.

Never again will we let millions of innocent people be scapegoated and slaughtered. Never again will LGBT people be driven back into the closet in fear and self-hatred.

We have a duty to make sure that history is not forgotten. Fascism, and the death and destruction it brings, must never take hold again.

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