Tomorrow is Holocaust
Memorial Day. These
people are part of it
I live in a city where there are so many gay folk that the local (apparently entirely heterosexual) football team suffers homophobic abuse when they play away games. So I was pleased to become involved in a project for the local library to commemorate the holocaust as experienced by homosexual people in Nazi Germany.
It's easy to forget that Germany was, before 1933, home to the largest openly gay population in the world. Most of us have seen 'Cabaret' and some of us will have read Christopher Isherwood, but the facts bear closer attention. Berlin had over a hundred bars targeted at a gay clientele; there was a lesbian guidebook to the city; there were 25 political, social and cultural gay organisations in Berlin alone; films explored the lives and loves of homosexual people in an unapologetic way; the Institute of Sexual Research compiled an archive of 20,000 volumes and 5,000 photographs that explored sex and sexuality from anthropological, legal, medical and social perspectives.
It was no wonder that people came from all over Europe to take part in this dazzling cultural scene. Magnus Hirschfeld, the director of the institute, claimed, on visiting the city's largest gay venue, that people 'had been seen arriving from the provinces weeping tears of joy at this spectacle'.
This was only one side of the picture. Paragraph 175 was the name of a law, passed in 1871, which criminalised sexual contact between men. Lesbians were not included but the law, so similar to our own dear Criminal Law Amendment Act, had a contagious effect on them as well. The Nazi Party in 1928 was one of many minority parties jostling for public attention but their position on homosexuality was clear: 'Anyone who thinks of homosexual love is our enemy'.
Within weeks of taking power in 1933, they resolved to destroy books which they deemed to be un-German and the Institute for Sexual Research was one of their first targets. The attack on the institute made clear that the Enlightenment approach of gathering evidence on a topic such as sexuality was to be replaced by the glorification of ignorance and bigotry. Gay meeting places were closed down and the intimidation of homosexual people intensified.
Paragraph 175 was strengthened so as to make it clear that it referred to kissing, fondling, oral sex or mutual masturbation as well as anal intercourse; the maximum sentence was increased to 10 years. People were encouraged to report on neighbours and work colleagues whom they suspected of homosexual activity; successful prosecutions increased tenfold to 8,000 a year. One hundred thousand men were taken in for questioning under the terms of Paragraph 175 between 1935 and 1945.
When liberation came in April 1945, it was more difficult for survivors
than anyone had imagined. Many died of disease and some died of inability
to absorb the wholesome food they were given.
Many men who were sentenced to imprisonment found that, on completion of their sentence, they were sent to a concentration camp. Between 10,000 and 15,000 men, deemed to be homosexual, were transported there. There was a strict system of monitoring the reasons why people were sent there and homosexual men were required to identify themselves by wearing a pink triangle. They were not targeted for systematic extermination in the way that the Jews and gypsies were, but their low survival rate suggests that they may have been subjected to particularly harsh treatment; whereas 35% of prisoners who were Jehovah's Witnesses died in the camps, the death rate for homosexual men was 61%.
Buchenwald had a programme to develop methods to eradicate homosexuality through use of hormone implants; there was also a scheme whereby prisoners with pink triangles who agreed to be castrated would be transferred away from the camps to factory work. Pierre Seel records how he was beaten and raped – on one occasion with a piece of wood. On another occasion he and his fellow inmates were required to watch while his 18-year-old lover was stripped naked, had a bucket placed over his head and was then ripped apart by guard dogs; classical music provided a background to this butchery.
When liberation came in April 1945, it was more difficult for survivors than anyone had imagined. Many died of disease and some died of inability to absorb the wholesome food they were given. Some homosexual men were astonished to find that, far from being treated on the same basis as other survivors, they were sent back to prison to complete the rest of the sentence that had been imposed on them under the terms of Paragraph 175.
Many were rejected by their own families and communities of origin; the destruction of the pre-war gay culture meant that there was nowhere safe for them. No-one who had been sent to the camps because of his homosexuality ever received a penny of compensation. My fellow historians for the most part ignored the homosexual wipe-out under Nazism. Paragraph 175 was only repealed in 1994. Solidarity with homosexual survivors of the Nazi regime was in very short supply.
There are no happy endings in this particular tale but I was very moved by the story of Rudolf Brazda, the last known gay survivor of the camps; he died in 2011 at the age of 98. He spent three years in a camp and in the chaos of the final days he survived because a friendly guard hid him in a pig sty for 14 days until such time as the Allied troops arrived. He went to France where he worked as a roofer and in 1950 he met a new lover at a costume ball.
They were together for 50 years and it was only after the lover's death that Brazda came out about his experiences in the camps. When he was invited to Berlin to visit the recently opened memorial to gay victims of Nazism, he flirted with the openly gay mayor of the city. Small comfort indeed but it was clear that the Nazi attempts to terrorise him and de-sexualise him had failed to break his spirit.
Bob Cant is the editor of Footsteps and Witnesses: Lesbian and gay lifestories from Scotland