Lesbian and gay life in Germany began to thrive at the beginning of the 20th century. Berlin in particular was one of the most liberal cities in Europe with a number of lesbian and gay organisations, cafés, bars, publications and cultural events taking place.
By the 1920s, Paragraph 175 of the Penal Code (which criminalised homosexual acts) was being applied less frequently. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science led the world in its scientific approach to sexual diversity and acted as an important public centre for Berlin lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered life. In 1929 the process towards complete decriminalisation had been initiated within the German legislature.
Nazi conceptions of race, gender and eugenics dictated the Nazi regime’s hostile policy on homosexuality. Within days of Hitler becoming Chancellor repression against gay men and lesbians commenced. On 6 May 1933, the Nazis violently looted and closed The Institute for Sexual Science, burning its extensive collection on the streets. Other organisations were also shut down. The existing laws were toughened and the courts and police were encouraged to take draconian steps. Unknown numbers of German gay men and lesbians fled abroad, entered into marriages in order to appear to conform to Nazi ideological norms, and experienced severe psychological trauma. The thriving gay culture in Berlin was lost.
The police established lists of homosexually active persons. Records from 1937-1940 include the names of over 90,000 suspects. Significant numbers of gay men were arrested, of whom an estimated 50,000 received severe jail sentences in brutal conditions. Most homosexuals were not sent to concentration camps but were instead exposed to inhumane treatment in police prisons. There they could be subjected to hard labour and torture, or be executed or experimented upon. The Nazis dehumanised the prisoners in their camps and some of their prisons by giving them a symbol, which coded them according to the reason for their detention, and assigned them a number to replace their name. Some 10-15,000 people were deported for being gay to concentration camps. Many, but not all, were assigned pink triangles. Most died in the camps, often from exhaustion. Many were castrated and some subjected to gruesome medical experiments. Collective murder actions were undertaken against gay detainees, exterminating hundreds at a time. Some people belonged to more than one targeted group. For example, Jewish gay people wore a yellow triangle and a pink triangle together.
During the 1935 redrafting of Paragraph 175 in Germany, there was much debate about whether to include lesbianism, which had not been recognised in the earlier version. Ultimately lesbians were not included in the legislation and they were subsequently not targeted in the same way as gay men. In Austria, after Anschluss (the annexation of Austria into greater Germany under the Nazi regime), a similar debate led to the inclusion of lesbianism in the penal code. Lesbians suffered the same destruction of community networks as gay men. They were not allowed to play any role in public life and therefore they often experienced a double economic disadvantage.
After the war, the Allies chose not to remove the Nazi-amended Paragraph 175. Neither they, nor the new German states, nor Austria would recognise homosexual prisoners as victims of the Nazis – a status essential to qualify for reparations. Indeed, many gay men continued to serve their prison sentences.
People who had been persecuted by the Nazis for being gay had a hard choice: either to bury their experience and pretend it never happened – with all the personal consequences of such an action – or to try to campaign for recognition in an environment where the same neighbours, the same law, same police and same judges prevailed.
Unsurprisingly very few victims came forward. Those who did – even those who had fought the Nazis and survived death camps – were thwarted at every turn. Few known victims are still alive but research is now beginning to reveal the hidden history of Nazi homophobia and post-war discrimination.
- Read the testimony of Albrecht Becker who was persecuted by the Nazis
- Read the life story of Rudolf Brazda, the last surviving person known to have been sent to a concentration camp for being gay
- Read about the life of Pierre Seel, who spoke out about his experience of being perseucted by the Nazis
- Read a review of I Pierre Seel, deported homosexual – a testimony of a gay man sent to a concentration camp
- Listen to Ben Sumerskill of Stonewall speak about LGB discrimination