PinkNews publisher Benjamin Cohen reflects on the persecution of gay people by the Nazis as Britain marks Holocaust Memorial Day
If I was alive 75-year-ago and living in Berlin and not London, my outlook would not have been looking good and not just because I’m Jewish. Like some of those who found themselves in concentration camps, I also have a disability, I am member of a trade union and perhaps more pertinently, like many of the people reading this article, I am gay.
More than 80 years ago, Hitler ordered the creation of a list of homosexuals, who would later find themselves persecuted. In total, during their time in power, the Nazis arrested 100,000 people for homosexuality, imprisoning half of them including up to 15,000 in concentration camps. Many of those imprisoned died, some after sickening experiments by scientists trying to find the ‘cure’ for homosexuality.
Unfortunately, when the allies liberated the concentration camps, many of the gay people who were imprisoned were not set free. Instead they were transferred to prisons, then under the control of the Allied forces. Their crime, homosexuality, something outlawed before the Nazis took power, remained on the statute book until 1968 in East Germany and 1969 in West Germany. Unlike other victims of Nazi persecution, they were not offered reparations and it took until 2002 for the German government to officially apologise for the Nazis’ crimes against gay people. Today memorials to the Nazi persecution of the gay community are found in Berlin, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Sydney and Tel Aviv.
Holocaust Memorial Day, marked today is the opportunity to remember all of the victims of Nazi persecution. The Nazi’s rule of terror was an era that witnessed the single worst example of misery that humanity has ever inflicted on itself. Today in my view, also provides moment of reflection for what happened still in our collective lifetimes and an opportunity to galvanise us never to allow the same persecution of minority groups happen again.
I believe that as a community, should use today as an opportunity for us to consider, given how many countries around the world continue to criminalise or discriminate LGBT people, how unchallenged prejudice can quickly and dramatically escalate into unimaginable brutality.
What happened during the Holocaust also stands to us as a warning to all of us that societies can go backwards as well as forwards. In the 1920s, Berlin was one of the gay capitals of the world, where Germany’s prohibition on homosexuality was widely ignored by the police and a large, open, flourishing gay community was in existence. Just before the Nazis took power, the German legislature was poised to repeal the legal ban of male homosexuality. It took a political climate that had nothing to do with gay people to radically alter the treatment of this minority group. The Nazis drew on deep rooted, latent homophobia within the population to stigmatise gay people to justify to ordinarily rational people the single largest act of persecution on the basis of sexuality that the world has ever seen, just as it engulfed the largest single act of anti-Semitism on the planet.
What worries me is that eight decades on, as some countries such as Britain have moved forward so much with gay equality, other countries are moving backwards or have yet to move at all. Russia, which legalised homosexuality twenty years ago last year introduced draconian laws that severely clamp down on the rights of gay people and their families.
As a gay man, there are though, far worse places where I could live than Russia. In the majority of the countries of the Commonwealth, including 11 where our Queen is head of state, homosexuality is illegal and can result in life imprisonment. Even worse, there are five countries that routinely execute people for being gay. It seems incredible that in 2014, 78 countries around the world would either imprison me or put me to death simply for being gay, something that I chose no more than the accident of my birth than means that I am a Jew. It is clear that when it comes to gay people, at the least, there are still many lessons from the past that need to be learnt.
Benjamin Cohen is the publisher of PinkNews. He Tweets @benjamincohen
Variants of this article have previously appeared in Gay Times (GT) and the Jewish Chronicle.
Persecution of Homosexuals in the Third Reich
While male homosexuality remained illegal in Weimar Germany under Paragraph 175 of the criminal code, German homosexual-rights activists became worldwide leaders in efforts to reform societal attitudes that condemned homosexuality. Many in Germany regarded the Weimar Republic‘s toleration of homosexuals as a sign of Germany’s decadence. The Nazis posed as moral crusaders who wanted to stamp out the “vice” of homosexuality from Germany in order to help win the racial struggle. Once they took power in 1933, the Nazis intensified persecution of German male homosexuals. Persecution ranged from the dissolution of homosexual organizations to internment in concentration camps.
The Nazis believed that male homosexuals were weak, effeminate men who could not fight for the German nation. They saw homosexuals as unlikely to produce children and increase the German birthrate. The Nazis held that inferior races produced more children than “Aryans,” so anything that diminished Germany’s reproductive potential was considered a racial danger.
SS chief Heinrich Himmler directed the increasing persecution of homosexuals in the Third Reich. Lesbians were not regarded as a threat to Nazi racial policies and were generally not targeted for persecution. Similarly, the Nazis generally did not target non-German homosexuals unless they were active with German partners. In most cases, the Nazis were prepared to accept former homosexuals into the “racial community” provided that they became “racially conscious” and gave up their lifestyle.
On May 6, 1933, students led by Storm Troopers (Sturmabteilung; SA) broke into the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin and confiscated its unique library. Four days later, most of this collection of over 12,000 books and 35,000 irreplaceable pictures was destroyed along with thousands of other “degenerate” works of literature in the book burning in Berlin’s city center. The remaining materials were never recovered. Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of the Institute and a pioneer in the scientific study of human sexuality, was lecturing in France at the time and chose not to return to Germany.
The destruction of the Institute was a first step toward eradicating an openly gay or lesbian culture from Germany. Police closed bars and clubs such as the “Eldorado” and banned publications such as Die Freundschaft (Friendship). In this early stage the Nazis drove homosexuals underground, destroying their networks of support. In 1934, the Gestapo (secret state police) instructed local police forces to keep lists of all men engaged in homosexual activities. Police in many parts of Germany had in fact been doing this for years. The Nazis used these “pink lists” to hunt down individual homosexuals during police actions.
On June 28, 1935, the Ministry of Justice revised Paragraph 175. The revisions provided a legal basis for extending Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Ministry officials expanded the category of “criminally indecent activities between men” to include any act that could be construed as homosexual. The courts later decided that even intent or thought sufficed. On October 26, 1936, Himmler formed within the Security Police the Reich Central Office for Combating Abortion and Homosexuality. Josef Meisinger, executed in 1947 for his brutality in occupied Poland, led the new office. The police had powers to hold in protective custody or preventive arrest those deemed dangerous to Germany’s moral fiber, jailing indefinitely—without trial—anyone they chose. In addition, homosexual prisoners just released from jail were immediately re-arrested and sent to concentration camps if the police thought it likely that they would continue to engage in homosexual acts.