ⓘ Persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany
Upon the rise of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers Party in Germany, gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians were two of the numerous groups targeted by the Nazis and were ultimately among Holocaust victims. Beginning in 1933, gay organizations were banned, scholarly books about homosexuality, and sexuality in general, were burned, and homosexuals within the Nazi Party itself were murdered. Germanys vibrant gay community at the time became heavily repressed as the Gestapo compiled lists of homosexuals, who were compelled to sexually conform to the "German norm". Gay clubs were shut down as homosexual men were no longer permitted to openly socialize with one another. While some gay men who were not sent to camps emigrated to safety, others withdrew from homosexual practices or engaged in heterosexual relationships to cover their identities.
Between 1933 and 1945, an estimated 100.000 men were arrested as homosexuals, of whom some 50.000 were officially sentenced. Police compiled list of suspected homosexuals after torturing and compelling gay men to identify others as homosexuals. Most of these men served time in regular prisons, and an estimated 5.000 to 15.000 of those sentenced were incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps. It is unclear how many of the 5.000 to 15.000 would die in the camps, but leading scholar Rudiger Lautmann believes that the death rate of homosexuals in concentration camps may have been as high as 60%. Homosexuals in the camps suffered an unusual degree of cruelty by their captors, including being used as target practice on shooting ranges. Homosexuals were additionally used as the subjects for Nazi medical experiments as scientists tried to find a "cure" for homosexuality. These estimates include only individuals singled out for their sexual orientation. Many others had already been sent to the camps simply based on their ethnic or religious background without need of other justification. Little study has been done to estimate the number of Jewish homosexuals who died in the camps.
After the war, the treatment of homosexuals in concentration camps went unacknowledged by most countries, and some men were even re-arrested and imprisoned based on evidence found during the Nazi years. It was not until the 1980s that governments began to acknowledge this episode, and not until 2002 that the German government apologized to the gay community. In 2005, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the Holocaust which included the persecution of homosexuals. Commissioned memorials around the world, including the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism in Berlin, commemorate the homosexual victims in Nazi Germany. Several movements like the Silence=death project have reclaimed the pink triangle symbol in support of gay rights, AIDS awareness, and related issues.
1.1. Pre-Holocaust Gay Life in Germany Pre-War
Prussia, the largest and most populous of the Lander, did not enforce Paragraph 175 under the leadership of the Social Democratic Otto Braun from 1918 to 1932, which had the effect of making Prussia into a haven for homosexuals all across Germany. In the 1920s, gay culture had flourished in Prussia, especially Berlin, which was known as the "homosexual capital of Europe", and many homosexuals had come out of the closet. Germany under the Weimar Republic was characterized by a sort of cultural war between the traditional culture and the avant-garde Weimar culture, and the tolerance shown to homosexuals in Prussia was often used by traditionalists as an example of the "depravity" and "un-German" nature of Weimar culture. Despite societal marginalization, a lively homosexual counterculture in Germany gradually developed throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Berlin alone there were over forty gay clubs and meeting places, staffed by homosexuals, that served as popular pubs for the gay community, including more famous spots like Queers Way in Tiergarten. Private baths and other places were used as fronts for homosexuals to gather and socialize. There was a vibrant social scene that grew along with the nightlife, including developments like the foundation of Der Eigene, the first gay magazine in the world.
Stories by Christopher Isherwood about the gay communitys cabaret shows eventually served as the inspiration for the 1972 Hollywood film Cabaret. Some of these clubs were quite popular, such as El Dorado, to the point that they were even frequented by tourists. Other clubs catered to different classes within the gay community. As some venues catered for the upper income strata of gay Germans, other bars like the Mother Cat Zur Katzenmutter catered for soldiers. While the majority of nightlife provided for gay and bisexual men, clubs like the Dorian Gray also had nights for lesbians.
The tolerance towards homosexuals in Prussia had ended after Chancellor Franz von Papen had deposed Braun in 1932, and starting in 1933, gay culture in Germany "went completely underground". On 30 January 1933, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor with Papen as the Reich Commissioner of Prussia.
The aim of the National Socialist regime was the creation of the idealised Volksgemeinschaft "peoples community" that would unite the German people into one, and which required the removal of all who either would not join the Volksgemeinschaft or those who considered to be racially "unfit" to join the Volksgemeinschaft. The German historian Detlev Peukert wrote that Nazi thinking about the Volksgemeinschaft was "Its basis was the racialist elimination of all elements that deviated from the norm: refractory youth, idlers, the asocial, prostitutes, homosexuals, people who were incompetent or failures at work, the disabled. National Socialist eugenics.laid down criteria of assessment that were applicable to the population at whole".
1.2. Pre-Holocaust Gay Life in Germany Crackdown on Homosexuals
In late February 1933, as the moderating influence of Ernst Rohm, the most prominent gay Nazi official, weakened, the Nazi Party launched its purge of homosexual clubs in Berlin, outlawed sex publications, and banned organized gay groups. As a consequence, many fled Germany. Rohm himself was gay, but he subscribed to an ultra-macho "hard" image and despised the "soft" homosexuals. Parties opposing Hitler even used Ernst, who was known to visit many of Berlins gay clubs and parlors and was a member of the League of Human Rights, to attack Hitler by discussing "Hitlers queer friend Rohm". A climate of fear took hold over the homosexual community, with – for example – many lesbians getting married to avoid being sent to the concentration camps that had first appeared in March 1933. Within just weeks of Hitlers appointment as chancellor on January 30, 1933 the subsequent raids and crackdown throughout the year marked a stark turning point in the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. In February Nazi Storm Troopers began to shut down bars and ban the sale of publications featuring sexual content. As a result, the gay community withdrew from the clubs and groups that had dominated the homosexual community in Germany, thereby putting a rapid end to the vibrant gay communities at the time. The personal testimony of an anonymous subject described the change in political climate as a "thunderbolt", while many of his Jewish and homosexual friends started to disappear as they were presumably detained. The Prussian police launched a series of raids to shut down gay bars and Paragraph 175 was enforced with a new degree of strictness and vigor. One homosexual man recounts regularly being summoned to the Gestapo office for interrogation for a period of weeks following the arrest of an earlier romantic partner. He, like many homosexuals at the time, had to break off all relations with all his friends in the homosexual community as he commented that "we lived like animals in a wild game park.always sensing the hunters." Arrested homosexuals were used to generate lists of other members in the gay community, leading towards a societal purge of the homosexual community. Gay men that did not successfully emigrate to safety attempted to conceal their gay identities, with some engaging in heterosexual relationships and marriages with women.
In March 1933, Kurt Hiller, the main organizer of Magnus Hirschfelds Institute of Sex Research, was sent to a concentration camp. On May 6, 1933, Nazi Youth of the Deutsche Studentenschaft made an organized attack on the Institute of Sex Research. A few days later on May 10, the Institutes library and archives were publicly hauled out and burned in the streets of the Opernplatz. Around 20.000 books and journals, and 5.000 images, were destroyed. Also seized were the Institutes extensive lists of names and addresses of homosexuals. In the midst of the burning, Joseph Goebbels gave a political speech to a crowd of around 40.000 people.
Hitler initially protected Rohm from other elements of the Nazi Party which held his homosexuality to be a violation of the partys strong anti-gay policy. However, Hitler later changed course when he perceived Rohm to be a potential threat to his power. During the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, a purge of those whom Hitler deemed threats to his power, he had Rohm murdered and used Rohms homosexuality as a justification to suppress outrage within the ranks of the SA. After solidifying his power, Hitler would include gay men among those sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Heinrich Himmler had initially been a supporter of Rohm, arguing that the charges of homosexuality against him were manufactured by Jews. But after the purge, Hitler elevated Himmlers status and he became very active in the suppression of homosexuality. He exclaimed: "We must exterminate these people root and branch. the homosexual must be eliminated."
Shortly after the purge in 1934, a special division of the Gestapo was instituted to compile lists of gay individuals. In 1936, Himmler created the Reichszentrale zur Bekampfung der Homosexualitat und Abtreibung Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion.
Nazi Germany thought of German gay men as against the plan of creating a "master race" and sought to force them into sexual and social conformity. Gay men who would not change or feign a change in their sexual orientation were sent to concentration camps under the "Extermination Through Work" campaign.
More than one million gay Germans were targeted, of whom at least 100.000 were arrested and 50.000 were serving prison terms as "convicted homosexuals". Hundreds of European gay men living under Nazi occupation were castrated under court order.
Some persecuted under these laws would not have identified themselves as gay. Such "anti-homosexual" laws were widespread throughout the western world until the 1960s and 1970s, so many gay men did not feel safe to come forward with their stories until the 1970s when many so-called "sodomy laws" were repealed.
For a variety of reasons lesbians were not widely persecuted in the Nazi period. However, there are a number of recorded cases of lesbians imprisoned in concentration camps.
2. Definition of homosexuality
The first legal step historically towards the eventual persecution of homosexuals under the Nazi regime in Germany was paragraph 175 of the new penal code that was passed after unification of the German states into the German Empire in 1871. Paragraph 175 read: "An unnatural sex act committed between persons of male sex or by humans with animals is punishable by imprisonment; the loss of civil rights might also be imposed." The law was interpreted differently across the nation until the ruling of a court case on April 23, 1880. The Reichsgericht Imperial Court of Justice ruled that a criminal homosexual act had to involve either anal, oral, or intercrural sex between two men. Anything less than that was deemed harmless play. The German police forces until 1936 all policing was the responsibility of the Lander governments found this new interpretation of paragraph 175 extremely difficult to prove in court since it was hard to find witnesses to these acts. The enforcement of Paragraph 175 varied at times, with for instance a major and unprecedented crackdown on homosexuals being launched after the Eulenburg-Harden affair of 1906-09 led to a homophobic moral panic in Germany. Enforcement also varied from land to land with Prussia under the leadership of the Social Democrat Otto Braun refusing to enforce Paragraph 175 from 1918 to 1932. As convictions often had to prove homosexual conduct that occurred in private, the interpretation of Paragraph 175 only resulted in approximately 500 convictions per annum. However, homosexuals often faced other forms of marginalization from chanteure, or blackmailers, through informal prosecution.
After the Night of the Long Knives, the Reich Justice Minister Franz Gurtner who was not a Nazi at the time amended paragraph 175 due to what his government saw as loopholes in the law. The 1935 version of Paragraph 175 also declared any "expression" of homosexuality was now a criminal act. The most significant change to the law was the change from "An unnatural sex act committed between persons of male sex" to "A male who commits a sex offense with another male." This expanded the reach of the law to persecute gay men. Kissing, mutual masturbation and love-letters between men served as a legitimate reason for the police to make an arrest. The law never states what a sex offence actually is, leaving it open to subjective interpretation. Men who practiced what was known to be harmless amusement with other men were now subject to arrest under the law. Additionally, in 1935 paragraph 175 was altered with paragraph 175a which expanded the criminal offenses relating to homosexuality. This expanded homosexual conduct to include criminal indecency which encompassed any actions that went against "public morality" or "aroused sexual desires in oneself or strangers." As a result, someone could be prosecuted under 175a for looking at a man in an "enticing way."
Under the Nazis new paragraph 175, 230 men were arrested in Luebeck in January 1937. Noted German Friedrich-Paul von Groszheim was among those arrested. He served 10 months in prison, was later rearrested in 1938 and released upon the condition that he be castrated. During his imprisonment Groszheim, like many other gay men, was subject to torture and abuse as he stated that he was "beat finally named names." Groszheims badge in prison was labeled with the letter A which stood for Arschficker "arse-fucker".
3. Homosexuality and the SS
According to Geoffrey J. Giles the SS, and its leader Heinrich Himmler, were particularly concerned about homosexuality. More than any other Nazi leader, Himmlers writing and speeches denounced homosexuality. However, despite consistently condemning homosexuals and homosexual activity, Himmler was less consistent in his punishment of homosexuals. In Geoffrey Giles article "The Denial of Homosexuality: Same-Sex Incidents in Himmlers SS", several cases are put forward where members of the Nazi SS were tried for homosexual offences. On a case by case basis, the outcomes vary widely, and Giles gives documented evidence where the judges could be swayed by evidence demonstrating the accuseds "aryan-ness" or "manliness", that is, by describing him as coming from true Germanic stock and perhaps fathering children. Reasons for Himmlers leniency in some cases may derive from the difficulty in defining homosexuality, particularly in a society that glorifies the masculine ideal and brotherhood.
Not only was Himmlers persecution of homosexuals based on this masculine ideal, but it was also driven by societal issues. On February 18, 1937 Himmler gave his most detailed speech on the topic in Bad Tolz. Himmler starts his speech off covering the social aspect of the problem. He reminds his listeners of the number of registered members in homosexual associations. He was not convinced that every homosexual was registered in these clubs, but he was also not convinced everyone registered was a homosexual. Himmler estimated the number of homosexuals from one to two million people, or 7 to 10% of men in Germany. He explained "If this remains the case, it means that our nation will be destroyed by this plague." Adding the number of homosexuals to the number of men that died in the previous war, Himmler estimated that this would equal four million men. If these four million men are no longer capable of having sex with a female, then this "upsets the balance of the sexes in Germany and is leading to catastrophe". Germany was having population issues with the number of killed men during the First World War. Himmler believed "A people of good race which has too few children has a sure ticket for the grave, for insignificance in fifty to one hundred years, for burial in two hundred and fifty years."
4. Concentration camps
Homosexuals were considered to be the lowest of the low in the concentration camp hierarchy. Estimates vary widely as to the number of gay men imprisoned in concentration camps during the Holocaust, ranging from 5.000 to 15.000, many of whom died. In addition, records as to the specific reasons for internment are non-existent in many areas, making it hard to put an exact number on exactly how many gay men perished in death camps. Homosexuals were often classified as "asocials" when sent to the concentration camps, which makes estimating the number of homosexuals in the concentration camps difficult. "Asocials" were a very broad legal category in Nazi Germany consisting of people who were "work shy" i.e. lazy, drug addicts, homeless people, alcoholics, petty criminals, and people who were merely eccentric or non-conformist, and the authorities often classified homosexuals as "asocials" as a way of showing the "deviant" nature of "asocials" in general.
Peukert wrote the way in the authorities linked homosexuality to "asociability" showed that the campaign against homosexuals cannot be considered in isolation, and should be viewed as part of the wider project to "cleanse" the volksgemeinschaft peoples community of all genetically "unfit" elements. Lesbians who were sent to the concentration camps were always classified as "asocials", and as such lesbian inmates wore the black triangle given to "asocials" instead of the pink triangles given to male homosexuals. Paragraph 175 only covered male homosexuality, so the authorities always sent lesbians to concentration camps as asocials which was such a broad category as to allow the authorities to send anyone of whose lifestyle they disapproved to the concentration camps.
4.1. Concentration camps Torture and Camp Treatment
Gay men suffered unusually cruel treatment in the concentration camps. They had their testicles boiled off by water. Survivor Pierre Seel said "The Nazis stuck 25 centimeters of wood up my ass". They faced persecution not only from German soldiers, but prisoners as well, and many gay men were beaten to death. Additionally, gay men in forced labor camps routinely received more grueling and dangerous work assignments than other non-Jewish inmates, under the policy of "Extermination Through Work". For instance, they were assigned the most dangerous tasks at the Dora-Mittelbau underground rocket factory and the stone quarries at Flossenburg and Buchenwald. SS soldiers also were known to use gay men for target practice, aiming their weapons at the pink triangles their human targets were forced to wear, in camps such as the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Homosexuals were indiscriminately killed while they were creating artificial mound targets with earth and clay on the shooting range as guards often targeted homosexuals instead of the shooting range targets themselves. It is noted that homosexuals in the Nazi regime were targeted "in a manner without parallel in any civilized state in the world."
The harsh treatment can be attributed to the view of the SS guards toward gay men, as well as to the homophobic attitudes present in German society at large. Additionally, homosexuals in concentration camps lacked the ability to practice group solidarity, which aided other groups like political prisoners, for their morale. Peukert wrote the campaign to crush homosexuality together with the campaign against the "asocials" was approved of by "wide sections of the population, including many who criticized the detention and torture of political opponents of the regime". The marginalization of gay men in Germany was reflected in the camps. Many died from beatings, some of them inflicted by other prisoners. Experiences such as these can account for the high death rate of gay men in the camps as compared to the other "asocial" groups. A study by Rudiger Lautmann found that 60% of gay men in concentration camps died, as compared to 41% for political prisoners and 35% for Jehovahs Witnesses. The study also shows that survival rates for gay men were slightly higher for internees from the middle and upper classes and for married bisexual men and those with children.
4.2. Concentration camps Nazi experiments
The Nazi policies on homosexuals were largely driven by Himmlers disdain for homosexuality, which he believed was a menace to the German national reproductive capacities. He also loathed the unmasculine and oppositional traits of homosexuals so that he sought its cure through initiatives that started in 1937 after Himmlers speech to the Reich Committee for Population and Racial Policy. His rationale was that human experimentation was permissible if it was for the benefit of the state.
Dachau and Buchenwald were the principal centers of human experimentation on homosexuals by Nazi doctors, who sought to find a "medical cure" for homosexuality, among other endeavors. At Buchenwald, Danish doctor Carl Værnet conducted hormonal experiments on gay men on the personal authority of Himmler. He was awarded 1.500 German marks monthly from the SS funds to test his "cure", which involved incisions in the subjects groin where an artificial male sexual gland was implanted. This was a metal tube that released testosterone over a prolonged period, as the doctor believed that a lack of testosterone was the cause of homosexuality. Although some of the men claimed to have become heterosexual, the results are largely unreliable as many are assumed to have stated they were "cured" in order to be released from the camp. Those who did not show improvement were determined to be "chronic" or "incurable" homosexuals. At least seventeen prisoners were used for Værnets research, which also involved criminal and heterosexual participants. Twelve gay men were subjected to the hormonal experiment and two of these men died due to infections.
The Third Reich forced Jewish women and lesbians to perform sex acts with men at German camp brothels in World War II. Heinrich Himmler ordered that pink triangles be forced to perform sex acts on female sex slaves. This proved to be psychologically damaging to both parties. Homosexuals were ordered to perform these acts once a week as conversion therapy. The therapy also included humiliation through beatings and ridicule as well as the policy of segregating homosexuals from other prisoners, which was also implemented out of the belief that homosexuality can be spread to other inmates and guards.
Other experiments included attempts to create immunization from typhus fever, led by Erwin Ding-Schuler, and castration. The typhus experiments resulted with inoculations that made the Matelska strain of typhus rickettsia avirulent to patients. One of these experiments was halted when it was determined that lice was a threat to the camps health. Another experiment that used homosexuals involved placing the subjects under sun lamps that were so hot they burned the skin. A homosexual victim was said to have been repeatedly cooled to unconsciousness then revived with lamps until he was pouring sweat.
Although there are no exact statistics regarding these experiments, it is recognized that they have caused illness, mutilation, and deaths while yielding no scientific knowledge.
Homosexual concentration camp prisoners were not acknowledged as victims of Nazi persecution in either post-war German state. Additionally, neither state contained a record of homosexual victims of the Holocaust. Reparations and state pensions available to other groups were refused to gay men, who were still classified as criminals - the 1935 version of Paragraph 175 remained in force in West Germany until 1969 when the Bundestag voted to return to the pre-1935 version. The German historian Detlev Peukert wrote "no homosexuals obtained reparations after 1945" and only a brave "few" even tried because the 1935 version of Paragraph 175 stayed in effect until 1969, and that despite the way that homosexual survivors had suffered "profound damage to their lives" that they remained outcasts in post-war Germany. Peukert used the fact that the Nazi version of Paragraph 175 stayed on the statute books until 1969 because it was a "healthy law" as Chancellor Adenauer called it in 1962 and the complete refusal of the German state to pay compensation to gay survivors to argue that Nazi Germany was not some "freakish aberration" from the norms of the West, and the Nazi campaign against homosexuals should be considered part of a broader homophobic campaign throughout the world. In 1960, Hans Zauner, the mayor of Dachau, told a British journalist Llew Gardner writing for The Sunday Express that the Nazi campaign against homosexuals and "asocials" was justified, saying: "You must remember that many criminals and homosexuals were in Dachau. Do you want a memorial for such people?". On 12 May 1969, when Der Spiegel, Germanys most popular magazine, ran an editorial saying it was "scandalous" that the 1935 version of Paragraph 175 was still in effect and called for repealing Paragraph 175 completely, it attracted much controversy. In 1981, it was discovered that many West German police forces still kept lists of known homosexuals included significantly under the category "asocials". Paragraph 175 was not repealed until 1994, although both East and West Germany liberalized their laws against adult homosexuality in the late 1960s. However, in East Germany the Nazi edits to the law were partially repealed in 1950 while homosexual acts between adults were legalized in 1968.
Holocaust survivors who were homosexual could be re-imprisoned for "repeat offences", and were kept on the modern lists of "sex offenders". Under the Allied Military Government of Germany, some homosexuals were forced to serve out their terms of imprisonment, regardless of the time spent in concentration camps.
The Nazis anti-gay policies and their destruction of the early gay rights movement were generally not considered suitable subject matter for Holocaust historians and educators. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that there was some mainstream exploration of the theme, with Holocaust survivors writing their memoirs, plays such as Bent, and more historical research and documentaries being published about the Nazis homophobia and their destruction of the German gay-rights movement.
5.1. Post-War Holocaust Memorials
Since the 1980s, some European and international cities have erected memorials to remember the thousands of homosexual people who were murdered and persecuted during the Holocaust. Major memorials can be found in Berlin, Amsterdam Netherlands, Montevideo Uruguay, Tel Aviv Israel and Sydney Australia. In 2002, the German government issued an official apology to the gay community. Following this apology, Berlins memorial was created years later. Berlins Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism is located in the Tiergeraten Park, which contained the location of the popular Queers Way for the early 20th century gay community. The memorial was approved by the Budenstag on December 12, 2003, opened to the public on May 27, 2008, and subsequently vandalized numerous times in the years following its opening. The memorial was vandalized again in the fall in August 2019 when vandals painted over a window in the monument that allowed visitors to see a picture of a gay couple kissing.
In 2001 Pink Triangle Park was dedicated; it is the first permanent, free-standing memorial in America dedicated to the persecuted homosexuals in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. Starting in 2003, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has displayed its traveling 30-panel exhibition dedicated to homosexual victims of the Holocaust across the country.
In 2005, the European Parliament marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp with a minutes silence and the passage of a resolution which included the following text:
.27 January 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germanys death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where a combined total of up to 1.5 million Jews, Roma, Poles, Russians and prisoners of various other nationalities, and homosexuals, were murdered, is not only a major occasion for European citizens to remember and condemn the enormous horror and tragedy of the Holocaust, but also for addressing the disturbing rise in anti-Semitism, and especially anti-Semitic incidents, in Europe, and for learning anew the wider lessons about the dangers of victimising people on the basis of race, ethnic origin, religion, social classification, politics or sexual orientation.
An account of a gay Holocaust survivor, Pierre Seel, details life for gay men during Nazi control. In his account he states that he participated in his local gay community in the town of Mulhouse in the Alsace region of France. When Alsace was effectively annexed to Germany in 1940, his name was on a list of local gay men ordered to the police station. He obeyed the directive to protect his family from any retaliation. Upon arriving at the police station he notes that he and other gay men were beaten. Some gay men who resisted the SS had their fingernails pulled out. Others had their bowels punctured, causing them to bleed profusely. After his arrest he was sent to the concentration camp at Schirmeck. There, Seel stated that during a morning roll-call, the Nazi commander announced a public execution. A man was brought out, and Seel recognized his face. It was the face of his eighteen-year-old lover from Mulhouse. Seel states that the SS guards then stripped the clothes off his lover, placed a metal bucket over his head, and released trained German Shepherd dogs on him, which mauled him to death.
Rudolf Brazda, believed to be the last surviving person who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp because of his homosexuality, died in France in August 2011, aged 98. Brazda was sent to Buchenwald in August 1942 and held there until its liberation by U.S. forces in 1945. Brazda, who settled in France after the war, was later awarded the Legion of Honour.
5.2. Post-War Early Holocaust and genocide discourse
Arising from the dominant discourse of the Jewish suffering during the years of Nazi domination, and building on the divergence of differential victimhoods brought to light by studies of the Roma and the mentally ill, who suffered massively under the eugenics programs of the Third Reich, the idea of a Gay Holocaust was first explored in the early 1970s. However, extensive research on the topic was impeded by a continuation of Nazi policies on homosexuals in post-war East and West Germany and continued western notions of homophobia.
The word genocide was generated from a need for new terminology in order to understand the gravity of the crimes committed by the Nazis. First coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944, the word became politically charged when The Genocide Act was enacted by the United Nations on December 9, 1948, which created an obligation for governments to respond to such atrocities in the future. The debate on the Gay Holocaust is therefore a highly loaded debate which would result in an international acknowledgement of state sponsored homophobia as a precursor to genocide should the proponents of the Gay Holocaust succeed. However the United Nations definition does not include sexual orientation or even social and political groups within its qualifications for the crime. Genocide by the U.N. definition is limited to national, ethnical, racial or religious groups and as this is the only accord to which nations have pledged allegiance, it stands as the dominant understanding of the term. It is, however, what Michel-Rolph Trouillot terms "an age when collective apologies are becoming increasingly common" as well as a time when the established Holocaust discourse has settled and legitimized claims of the Jewish, Roma and mentally ill victims of Nazi persecution so it would seem an appropriate time to at least bring attention to the debate of the Gay Holocaust, even if the issue is not to be settled.
A lack of research means that there is relatively little data on the dispersion of gay men throughout the camps. However, Heinz Heger suggests in his book The Men with the Pink Triangle that they were subjected to harsher labor than smaller targeted groups, such as the political prisoners, and furthermore suffered a much higher mortality rate. They also lacked a support network within the camps and were ostracized in the prison community. Homosexuals, like the mentally ill and many Jews and Roma, were also subjected to medical experimentation in the hopes of finding a cure to homosexuality at the camp in Buchenwald.
The Jews were the only group targeted by the Nazi regime for complete annihilation regardless of their identification or place of residence. However, Jews were not the only group to be targeted by the Nazis, leading to a debate as to whether other groups should be counted as Holocaust victims. William J. Spurlin has suggested that restricting the definition of "Holocaust" to Jews fosters a misrepresentation of history and devalues the suffering of other victims of Nazi atrocities. The Austrian Jewish Shoah survivor Simon Wiesenthal argued, for example, that "the Holocaust transcended the confines of Jewish community and that there were other victims." In the mid-1970s new discourses emerged that challenged the exclusivity of the Jewish genocide within the Holocaust, though not without great resistance.
6. Changes with the civil rights movement
The Civil Rights Movement of the United States saw an emergence of victim claims through revision and appropriation of historical narratives. The shift from the traditional notion of history as the story of power and those who held it, social historians emerged with narratives of those who suffered and resisted these powers. African Americans created their own narrative, as firmly based on evidence as the discourses already in existence, as part of a social movement towards civil rights based on a history of victimization and racism. Along similar lines, the gay and lesbian movement in the United States also utilized revisionism to write the narrative that had only just garnered an audience willing to validate it.
There were two processes at work in this new discourse, revisionism and appropriation, which Arlene Stein teases out in her article Whose Memory, Whose Victimhood?, both of which were used at different points in the movement for civil rights. The revisionist project was taken on in a variety of mediums, historical literature being only one of many. The play Bent and a limited number of memoirs which recall The Diary of Anne Frank coincided with the appropriation of the pink triangle as a symbol of the new movement and a reminder to "never forget". While the focus of these early revisions was not necessarily to determine the Nazi policy on homosexuals as genocidal, they began a current towards legitimizing the victimization of homosexuals under the regime, a topic that had not been addressed until the 1970s.
Historical works would turn focus on the nature and intent of Nazi policy. Heinz Heger, Gunter Grau and Richard Plant all contributed greatly to the early Holocaust discourse which emerged throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Central to these studies was the notion that statistically speaking, homosexuals suffered greater losses than many of the smaller minorities under Nazi persecution such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and within the camps experienced harsher treatments and ostracization as well as execution.
These early revisionist discourses were joined by a popular movement of appropriation, which invoked the global memory of the Holocaust to shed light on social disparities for homosexuals within the United States. Larry Kramer who was one of the founders of ACT UP, an HIV/AIDS activist group that used shock tactics to bring awareness to the disease and attention to the need for funding popularized the AIDS-as-Holocaust discourse. "The slowness of government response at federal and local levels of government, the paucity of funds for research and treatment, particularly in the early days of the epidemic stems, Kramer argued, from deep-seated homophobic impulses and constituted intentional genocide."
The pink triangle symbol worn by homosexual concentration camp prisoners was notably reclaimed by the gay community during the United States HIV/AIDS crisis through the Silence=Death Project which featured the pink triangle on a back background. The poster was created by the Gran Fury, a six-person collective in New York City. The collective, which included Avram Finkelstein, aimed to use the power of art to bring awareness to and end the AIDS epidemic. The ACT UP organization used this image as a central component to their awareness campaign during the AIDS epidemic. Finkelstein described how the collective "initially rejected the pink triangle because of its links to the Nazi concentration camps" but ultimately "returned to it for the same reason, inverting the triangle as a gesture of a disavowal of victimhood." Even today, this symbol has continued to be used by the gay rights movement as the poster was recently featured on the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art windows.
The Holocaust frame was used again in the early 1990s, this time in relation to right-wing homophobic campaigns throughout the United States. The conservative response yielded a new discourse working against the Gay Holocaust academia, which emphasized the gay and lesbian revisionism as a victimist discourse which sought sympathy and recognition as a pragmatic means of garnering special status and civil rights outside those of the moral majority. Arlene Stein identifies four central elements to the conservative reaction to the Gay Holocaust discourse: she argues that the right is attempting to dispel the notion that gays are victims, pit two traditionally liberal constituencies against one another gays and Jews, thereby drawing parallels between Jews and Christians and legitimating its own status as an oppressed and morally upright group.
The victimist argument raises a central tenet as to the reasons for which the discourse of a Gay Holocaust has experienced so much resistance politically and popularly in the conscious of the public. Alyson M. Cole addresses the anti-victim discourse that has emerged in western politics since the end of the 1980s. She asserts "anti-victimists transformed discussions of social obligation, compensations and remedial or restorative procedures into criticisms of the alleged propensity of self-anointed victims to engage in objectionable conduct." Though she is clear that the anti-victimist discourse is not limited to right-wing politics, the case of the Gay Holocaust situates itself along these political boundaries and the anti-victim discourse is highly relevant to the debate on homosexual claims to genocide under the Third Reich. Cole refutes what she sees as problems in the anti-victim arguments.
7. Post-revisionist framing of the "Gay Holocaust"
In the 2000s, work was done on the Gay Holocaust and rather than emphasizing the severity of destruction to communities or the exclusivity of the genocidal process of the Nazi regime, it focuses on the intersections of social constructions such as gender and sexuality within the context of social organization and political domination. Spurlin claims that these all functioned with one another in forming Germany’s social order and final solution to these social problems. Rather than being autonomous policies, "They were part of a much larger strategy of social disenfranchisement and the marking of enemies."