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The Holocaust is remembered as the period in which the mass annihilation of the Jewish community happened across Europe. Nazi propaganda widely promoted antisemitic views, the superiority of the “Aryan race,” and the persecution of those deemed “inferior” or “useless.” Although Jews were the most affected and persecuted, the Nazis targeted other minorities whose victimization was not acknowledged by the world after the war was over. Like Jews, homosexuals were victims of the same hateful crimes, such as gas chambers and psychological torture in death camps. Even after the war ended, homosexuals continued to experience the rooted homophobia in European society. In this paper, I will examine the persecution of gay men prior to and during the Holocaust, including the conditions they experienced in the death camps.
To understand the persecution of homosexuals during the holocaust, it is fundamental to understand how Germany dealt with homosexuality prior to Nazism. After German unification in 1871, courts set forth sodomy laws, primarily concerned with male intercourse. This law was known as Paragraph 175, and it started losing strength throughout the years, up until 1929, when Germany experienced a progressive period for the homosexual community known as the “Golden Twenties.” This context allowed for a parliamentary commission to rewrite the country’s moral code and almost drop the anti-sodomy statute. However, as the Nazi party became more influential in the legal system, such recommendation never became introduced to Parliament. One of the primary reasons why Nazis cared so much about homosexuals was because Nazi opposition to this emancipation appealed to the conservatives that the Nazis wished to co-opt. When it came to immediate action after Hitler rose to power, there were well-known closures of gay bars in big cities, but homosexuals were a minority group. The Jews were an easier target, as they stated their religion on birth certificates and other government records.
Furthermore, in 1935, Paragraph 175 was strengthened and no sexual act was needed between two men for their conviction, but only simple ones. The act of looking at another man in a different way, gossips spread by neighbors, or exchanging love letters, were enough evidence and grounds for severe punishments, like imprisonment and forced work at extermination camps. “Homosexuality was not just a criminal offense, argued Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, but a danger to the future Aryan race”. Because the Aryan race was the main project for the population desired by the Nazis, and two men together could not breed, any idea that went against natural reproduction was justification for persecution and death. Homosexuals were seen as weak degenerates who had to rely on state aid to survive. Their behaviors as homosexuals were what made them ‘weak’ and if these behaviors were allowed to continue, they would ‘corrupt” other citizens. In addition, these men were having non-procreative sex at a time when the Nazis wanted to breed as many offspring as possible, as Hitler’s project was the creation and expansion of the Aryan race.
Through the story of The Men with the Pink Triangle, Heinz Heger informs his readers about his experiences being captured and tortured as a gay man in Nazi Germany. From the beginning, he was in a difficult situation by dating Fred, whose father was a high Nazi official. When his Christmas card to Fred got intercepted, Nazi officials had proof of his homosexuality. When inquired to go to the Gestapo headquarters for interrogation, Heinz did not know he would face six years of confinement for simply being gay. After doing time in prison, however, Heinz did not experience the freedom he had so longed for. Put on a wagon with other ordinary criminals, he witnessed the rooted homophobia surrounding him from every angle. When sharing his wagon with two murderers, he said, “They soon got it out of me that I was a ‘175er,’ a ‘filthy queer,’ as they called me from then on. They, too, spoke of homosexuals with utter contempt; it did not bother them that as murderers, they were certainly even more rejected by society. They emphasized, however, that they were at least ‘normal men’”. Because the murderers considered themselves as “naturally men,” and the heavy male-dominated environment across European society favored the idea of heterosexuals dictating the rules and narratives, they saw themselves as morally superior. Alongside Jews and gypsies, homosexuals were considered the dregs of society and treated miserably.
The camp of Sachsenhausen was the first death camp Heinz arrived at, and the treatment of gay men was brutal. Describing the comparison between badges worn by non-queer offenders, Heinz talks about the larger size of pink triangles gays had to wear: “The pink triangle, however, was about 2-3 centimeters larger than the others, so that we could be clearly recognized from distance”. Heinz not only portrays the segregation of homosexuals within the camps but the way SS officials took advantage of such segregation. Segregated homosexuals were whipped and kicked in the stomach tirelessly, and dehumanized in many ways. In Heinz’s words, “It was January and a few degrees below zero, with an icy wind blowing through the camps, yet we were left naked and barefoot on the snow-covered ground, to stand and wait. An SS corporal in winter coat with fur collar strode through our ranks and stroke now one of us, now another, with a horsewhip, crying: ‘This is so you don’t make me feel cold, you filthy queers’”. The torture he and others experienced highlighted how the Nazis wanted to psychologically torture them, leading to their collapse.
In addition to torture and fear amongst inmates, when it came to hierarchies in the barracks, homosexuals were not permitted to have higher-level positions, just like they could not interact with people from other cells. They could not do so because SS guards thought they were going “to try to seduce them”. After experiencing the torture of Sachsenhausen, Heinz was taken to the clay pit of the Klinker backwoods, known as the “Auschwitz” for homosexuals, not knowing what other sorts of brutality he would encounter. He described it as “the most terrible working conditions, as well as actual torture”. Given that the clay pits were in steep hills, and the brutally cold winds blew through them, many would eventually die of exhaustion and cold. Not only working conditions were difficult, but they had to cope with orders that were nearly impossible to carry out, but could not because of the harsh treatment.
Similarly, Kapos who had immediate supervision over homosexuals were strictly ordered by the SS to spare no human life, should the offenders not be able to accomplish their tasks. Heinz shows us that although there was a level of hierarchy within the camps, even the Kapos, who were part of the highest command, were still subordinated to orders: “They used this power of life and death with sadistic cruelty since they were themselves threatened with relegation to the same labor column if the daily quota was not achieved”.
The bizarre punishments in the Flossenburg camp showed the cruelty and madness of SS officers towards homosexual prisoners. As Heinz witnessed the beating of a gay Czech, his description was as cold as it was real: “The camp commander stood right by the Czech, and looked visibly…he buried his hands in his trouser and pockets and could be clearly seen to masturbate”. The guards would also play ‘games’ with the prisoners that would usually result in their death. None of the prisoners were allowed within five meters of the barbed wire gate. When the guards would get bored, they would choose a prisoner and put a bucket on his head and spin him around. Then they would take the bucket off and shove him towards the gate. The prisoner would start feeling dizzy and disorientated. Before he could right himself, he would get too close to the gate and would be shot by the guards for trying to escape.
The Nazis also turned labor into a killing game. Heinz Heger describes another type of work he was forced to do in the concentration camps. He, along with other homosexual prisoners, was made to help build mounds of dirt that then the Nazis would use for target practice. However, the Nazis came early while the prisoners were still building targets and they would start shooting at the ‘targets.” Heger had to dodge bullets while still doing his job. He was lucky because he got transferred from that work fairly fast, but many prisoners that had to continue working were ‘accidentally’ killed on the job.
Aligned with the torture and pain gay men in the camps faced, the Nazis used their prisoners as human lab rats during most of the Holocaust. Experiments were conducted on prisoners of all kinds, from pregnant women and children to disabled and twins, and homosexuals. The experiments performed were different for all groups and had to do with exposing the victims to various germs and viruses, poison, amputation, and other cruel research. Many experiments were done on homosexual prisoners to see if the prisoners could be “real men.” It was widely believed by the Nazis that homosexuality was a disease, enabling them to find a cure for it. The fact that the Nazis wanted to subject the homosexual prisoners to unnecessary torture, made them think that if they could ‘cure’ the homosexuals, then they could become functioning German citizens and produce more offspring. However, because results were often not trustworthy and slow, many homosexual prisoners were left to suffer the effects of these experiments for the rest of their lives without reparation, or they were annihilated.
In addition to such inhumane experiments, one that was notoriously known conducted on homosexuals was castration. The castration was meant to further emasculate the men and essentially punish them for their ‘crime’. It was hoped that castrated men would lose their sexual desire and could be integrated into the rest of the camp. Some homosexuals were forced into castration depending if they had committed additional crimes. In contrast, there were prisoners who were given the option of voluntary castration, which some prisoners believed would help keep them out of the gas chambers longer.
One of the main sources to understand the persecution of homosexuals is through documentary Paragraph 175, which portrays the testimonies of the few gay men who survived the brutality of SS guards and their Kapos within death camps. Amongst the few survivors, Heiz Dormer talks about his youth as a boy’s scout before the ascension of the Nazis, with its core values rooted in “the proclamation of a romantic view of the world, celebrating nature, friendship, and the human body.” Prior to the rise of Hitler’s Youth, Dormer talks about the possibilities of having intimate sexual relationships with other boys, and they would typically have those with their older leaders. Nonetheless, the newly created Hitler Youth, completely opposed to homosexuality, violently shut down boy’s scouts’ groups that did not follow strict military codes of conduct. Dormer describes the takeover of his group: “My group and I could only exist for another six months. The Hitler Youth moved in on us, with brass knuckles and other weapons.”
Another survivor of the systematic attack on homosexuals portrayed in the film, Albrecht Becker, describes one of Hitler’s most loyal officers, who was also homosexual: Ernst Rohm. He was a German officer and one of the earliest members of the Nazi Party, helping to consolidate it and spread its influence. In the early 1920s, Rohm and the SA outgrew SS soldiers. Constantly fearing an uprising against him, Hitler decided to massacre this paramilitary force, which became known as The Night of Long Knives. Röhm opposed his party’s stand on Paragraph 175 of the German penal code, which made male homosexual acts illegal. This made some German homosexuals think he might ultimately tone down the Nazi stance. According to the film, “opponents, eager to denounce the Nazis, publicized Rohm’s sexuality,” which was an exception of tolerance on Hitler’s side, given the Nazi party had always condemned homosexuality.
Röhm was executed because he was part of the SA, not because of his homosexuality, which was well-known. Despite Paragraph 175’s restrictions on homosexuality, homosexual behavior was a feature of life in concentration camps, particularly when the prisoners were gay. The life of homosexuals in death camps could become easier or harder, depending on the relationships they forged – specifically, sexual ones. Inside the homosexual camps, it was common for inmates to have sexual relationships with either the Kapos or the SS commanders which, in turn, would allow them the benefits of receiving better treatment, less arduous jobs, and more food. Although this was a strategic movement amongst inmates, anyone found guilty of homosexual behavior in the camps could face severe punishments. And throughout Heinz’s time in the clay pits, he depicts how his relationship was vital for his survival: “One of the Kapos offered me a bargain. I need only load earth into the barrows and not carry them to the butts if I would be his lover and have sex with him. Then I would no longer be exposed to the shots of the SS”. The lessened work Heinz had to do certainly proved to be valuable, as it did help him survive. These were relationships of convenience on both sides, and they meant the survival of homosexuals. Heinz mentioned the gratitude toward his protector, ‘The Kapo kept a protecting hand over me. He saved my life more than ten times over, and I am still very grateful to him for this today, more than twenty-five years later”. Even though Heinz was chosen to become the Kapo’s ‘dolly boy’, as they were called, and had to do whatever the Kapo wanted, he still expresses gratitude, because the Kapo essentially offered him “life.”
While testimony from gentile homosexuals is limited, testimonies from gay Jewish men are almost non-existent. One of the only survivors to address being gay and Jewish was Gad Beck, who only spent a brief time in a transit camp, and not a concentration camp. For most of the war, he worked to provide food and shelter for Jews in hiding. Most of his story focuses on assisting Jewish citizens and keeping them safe. Beck’s story, as well as the lack of other gay Jewish survivor stories, helps to illustrate the division between various victims of the Holocaust. Scholarship tends to focus on one particular group of victims and not their intersectionalities. There were prisoners who belonged to multiple groups. Jewish prisoners with affiliations to another group would have one yellow star, and one triangle of the color belonging to the other group to make their Star of David. For example, a homosexual Jewish prisoner would have one pink and one yellow triangle forming the Star of David.
By the end of World War Two, many of the victims of the Holocaust were liberated. The American and Soviet armies helped to set them free tried to bring order to Germany once again. Former inmates tried to find surviving family relatives and return to their hometowns. It was disorienting, after being in the camps for so long and seeing all of the horrors, to go back to a world that did not yet understand what happened. Nevertheless, homosexual inmates who were liberated from the camps only faced more discrimination. Given that they were in the concentration camps because of the crimes they had committed, it is known that many were put into Soviet prisons even after being practically annihilated in the camps. Paragraph 175 had been a law since 1871, and only in 1957 did the Supreme Court rule that it was still a crime since it was not a law created during the Nazis regime. Paragraph 175 remained in the German constitution until 1969, which meant that homosexuality was still perceived as a crime until that year. While other prisoners were trying to make sense of what happened and move on with their lives and families, homosexual prisoners experienced even more discrimination, hardships, and imprisonment. Inmates who were in specific homosexual barracks, or had been part of experiments conducted by doctors, often kept quiet because they did not feel that they could share their experiences for fear of being perceived as ridiculous.
According to data collected from research institutes that study holocaust institutes, such as Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, over 50,000 men were arrested under Paragraph 175 throughout the time of the Nazi totalitarian regime. Among those imprisoned, it is estimated that around 15,000 were murdered. Accurate numbers are hard to predict, as the Nazis normally kept poor records and destroyed many of them when they knew their end was approaching. After the Holocaust, homosexuals were oftentimes silent and careful regarding their treatment within the camps. They continued to experience discrimination and, doubtless, imprisonment if they mentioned why they were sent to death camps. They still did not feel safe requesting recognition until nearly five decades following liberation. Even these days, they are still not properly recognized or rewarded for their suffering. Within the past few years, it has become acceptable to testify as a gay survivor of the Holocaust. These homosexual victims deserve respect and recognition for all of their sufferings inside the camps. Their voices ought to be heard and taught alongside the voices of all victims of the Holocaust. If the world ignores or silences their voices, it means the Nazis won.
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