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Homosexuals in Nazi Germany

Prior to the Third Reich, Berlin was considered a liberal city, with many gay bars, nightclubs and cabarets. There were even many drag bars where tourists straight and gay would enjoy female impersonation acts. And there had been a fairly significant gay rights movement under Magnus Hirschfeld around the turn of the century.

German students parade outside the Institute for Sexual Research
prior to raiding the building
In some ways the Nazis seemed conflicted on the subject of homosexuality. Although there is some evidence that Hitler himself was gay [1] (http://www.observer.co.uk/international/story/0,6903,564899,00), Nazi ideology was that homosexuality was incompatible with National Socialism because homosexuals did not reproduce and perpetuate the Master race. But while the stereotype they propagated of homosexuals was incompatible with their image of the ideal Aryan, the Chief of Staff of the SA, Ernst Röhm was homosexual.

When Hitler decided the SA had to be disbanded, Hitler ordered Röhm and several other SA chiefs killed, along with hundreds of others in a purge known as the Night of the Long Knives (June 30, 1934). Röhm's murder was undoubtedly based on political motivations and not his sexual orientation, but his orientation was given as justification.

Also in 1934, shortly after the purge, a special division of the Gestapo was instituted to compile lists of known homosexuals. In 1936, Heinrich Himmler, Chief of the SS, created the "Reich Central Office for the Combatting of Homosexuality and Abortion".

Himmler had initially been a supporter of Röhm, arguing that the charges against him were manufactured by Jews. But after the purge, Himmler became very active in the suppression of homosexuality. He exclaimed, "We must exterminate these people root and branch... the homosexual must be eliminated" (Plant, 1986, p. 99).

Estimates vary wildly as to the number of homosexuals murdered during the Holocaust. They range from as low as 10,000 to as high as 600,000. One reason for the wide variance is whether the researcher counted people who were both Jewish and homosexual. See pink triangle.

When studying the status of homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps, it is important to first understand the role that concentration camps played in Nazi Germany: they were a tool to bring the society to conform with the fascist state. In the case of homosexuals (and similarly, of Jehovah's Witnesses and political prisoners) the camps were perceived primarily as reeducation centers for Aryans who had deviated from state-imposed social norms. In this worldview, internment in the concentration camps was necessary to "correct" homosexual tendencies and could, at least theoretically, be followed by release and reintegration into society.

On the other hand, Hitler also believed that homosexual tendencies could not be eliminated in the individual, so that the purpose of reeducation was to suppress them instead. In other words, homosexuals were imprisoned in concentration camps as an extreme form of "aversion therapy." Nazi theory further elaborated on this by distinguishing between "hard-boiled" homosexuals and people who engaged in occasional sexual offences. In neither case was extermination an immediate necessity, though castration might be the desired outcome in the case of "incurable" homosexuals.

This theory, however, does not account for the unusually cruel treatment suffered by homosexuals in the concentration camps, which generally exceeded the brutalities suffered by Jehovah's Witnesses, criminals, and political prisoners. It can, however, be attributed to the view of the SS guards toward homosexuals, as well as to the lowly status of the homosexual in Nazi society at large. The marginalization of homosexual society in German was reflected in the camps, where they were disdained by other prisoners, and, as a result, did what they could to hide their identities. The few oral histories of homosexuals that we have indicate that homosexuals in concentration camps were cautious of even speaking to one another because this might arouse suspicion and disgust both among the guards and their fellow prisoners.

This can account for the relatively high death rate of homosexuals in the camps as compared to the other "anti-social groups." A study by Ruedigger Lautmann found that 60 percent of homosexuals in concentration camps died, as compared to 41 percent for political prisoners and 35 percent for Jehovah's Witnesses. The study also shows that survival rates for homosexuals were slightly higher for for internees from the middle and upper classes and for married homosexuals and homosexuals with children.

Women were not officially included under Nazi anti-homosexual laws. However, lesbians were considered a threat to family values and marked as 'anti-social'. See black triangle.

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