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Are homosexuals the forgotten victims of the Holocaust?

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Are homosexuals the forgotten victims of the Holocaust?  Empty Are homosexuals the forgotten victims of the Holocaust?

Post by Tashski Sat Sep 07, 2013 1:35 am


I originally wrote this essay whilst I was an undergraduate student at the University of Winchester. We were asked think about a subject that could be classed as controversial and relevant to current historical debate. In the end, after I did a bit of research I chose this topic. Mainly because I found it is a subject that has been covered in very little detail by historians and also offers up very little in way of information, certainly when compared to what we know about the persecution of the Jews. I accept that this is likely because the systematic extermination of the Jews in Europe was more widespread and the amount of Jews killed was much higher than the amount of gay people that were killed under Nazi rule. However, this does not mean it was any less horrific or that it should not be written about. This essay aimed to address the reasons why very little is known or written about the suffering of gay prisoners today and to do this I had to explore the post war context of Europe where homosexuality was still illegal in many countries, including Britain. I could not imagine living in a world where you are imprisoned and tortured legally simply because of your feelings for someone of the same sex. Much of the information about what went on in those camps has been lost to history because the post war context many victims did not come forward to tell their stories. But society has changed and as a result some people have come forward to tell the world how they were treated just for their feelings. I applaud people like Heinz Heiger, whose book was one of the most harrowing pieces of literature I have ever read, for showing the world the brutal reality of what it was like to be gay under the Nazis. I hope you find this essay informative. The bibliography is at the end, the books and articles contained in it make for fascinating reading. Please feel free to ask questions and add comments.

When one thinks of the holocaust and who it affected the obvious victims who spring to mind are the Jews. Every teaching on the holocaust whether it be in schools or in museums points to the Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis. However, there were many other victims who do not have such notoriety such as Gypsies, the physically and mentally handicapped, political ‘enemies’ and homosexuals (both male and female). And it is the latter that this essay will focus on. Much is said and written about the liberation of the concentration camps and how the Nuremburg Trials saw that those responsible for such an atrocity were punished, however, what is not told is although ‘war criminals’ were tried for crimes against the Jews and other victims there was no charge for crimes against gay people, they were forgotten. It has been increasingly generating more public interest since the 1980′s. Many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) groups in Poland, the UK and the USA have been lobbying to get more recognition for gay victims and in 1986 the first study was done to ascertain how many homosexual victims of the holocaust there was. In 2005 attention was drawn to the worldwide campaign further when it emerged that the LGBT had been excluded from the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The issue of gays in the wider community is a constant source of debate in the USA and in the UK where the civil partnership bill was introduced in 2005; these things only serve to aid the cause for more recognition for gay victims. The debate over gay victims serves to help change the historiography of the holocaust because it opens up another avenue of the holocaust to explore. Many books have been written about the Jewish suffering but there are very few books on the suffering of gay people in the holocaust. More information could mean that we change the way in which we view the holocaust, it is much more than merely about the Jewish suffering and furthermore it helps us to understand the post war context and how the liberation of the camps did not liberate everyone. In essence homosexual victims were forgotten.

Being gay in Nazi Germany meant that like the Jewish population you lived in fear of being denounced by your neighbours, work colleagues and even friends. For the Jews the persecution was driven by the Nazi propaganda machine but homosexuality had always been illegal in Germany and the Nazis used the legislation already in place to persecute homosexuals far more severely than ever before; “Of all those herded in the cellar we were the lowest of the low…Whereas they had to organise hatred against the Communists and the Jews among their henchmen and followers with a massive propaganda effort,  whole centuries of Christianity handed them homo hatred on a platter.”[1] In the concentration camps gay prisoners often found life tougher than that of other prisoners, not only did they fear violence from camp guards but they feared it from other inmates, particularly as paedophiles were banded with the same pink triangle leading to a misconception of those prisoners who wore it.[2] Homosexuals in Nazi Germany were penalised under Article 175 (gay prisoners were often referred to as the 175ers). Article 175 was used by the Nazis to punish homosexuals although it was not introduced by them; “This had been introduced in 1871, and a recommendation to reform in 1929 was interrupted by Hitler’s rise to power. In 1935, Paragraph 175 was tightened up considerably. The Pink Triangle was introduced in 1937.”[3] Under Nazi rule homosexuality was not tolerated and those suspected received stern punishment.

At the end of the Second World War the allies were intent on bring the proprietors and main figures involved in the implementation of the holocaust to justice. At the famous Nuremburg Trials many Nazis were put on trial for crimes against humanity and this charge included crimes against Jews and other victims of the holocaust, except homosexuals. The definition of crimes against humanity were deemed by the Nuremburg Trials in Article 6c as; “Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against a civilian population, before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within judicial jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.”[4] It only refers to inhumane acts against those on the basis of religious, racial and political grounds and not sexual orientation. This shows after the war the allies who had liberated the camps were not interested in the suffering of homosexual victims and therefore they were forgotten despite Article 6c explicitly stating “…whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.” So in effect whether homosexuality was illegal or not in the county they were persecuted in, the tribunal could have included crimes against sexual orientation on the list of charges. Moreover, the failure to include homosexuals as victims could have been due to the fact that homosexuality was illegal at the time in Britain[5] and the USA. Although penal repression of homosexuality had been abandoned in France during the French Revolution it was still largely considered immoral.[6] For the rest of the century following the trials the lack of recognition for gay victims continued, for example, in 1977 the President’s Commission on the holocaust by President Carter began. The aim of the commission was to determine what should be done to honour the victims of the holocaust by speaking to victims, historians and religious organisations. The commission, however, ignored gay victims; “It came as a bitter shock when the commission issued its final 40-page report in October 1979 that catalogued many categories of people that the Nazis targeted for persecution if not annihilation, yet said absolutely nothing about the very existence of gay victims.”[7] The National Gay Task Force (NGTF) appealed to the commission for inclusion but was constantly rebuffed. This shows that even after more than thirty years the gay victims were still pushed to the background and forgotten by those that called themselves the ‘liberators of Nazism’ but further it explicitly shows that the west knew about the suffering of gay people but chose to ignore and forget it. In effect the term ‘liberation’ when applied to the holocaust is not something they can engage with or celebrate because they were not the liberated ones. As the title of Pierre Seel’s memoir reads; “Liberation was for others.”[8]

The post war context meant that many homosexual victims did not come out and tell the story of their suffering; many were scared of being stigmatised in a time when homosexuality was still one of society’s big taboos. Anton Gill says; “Paragraph 175 was to have an effect on the homosexual survivor which explains why so very few have told their story…Until the end of the sixties many former KZ inmates who were homosexuals could do nothing but keep a low profile and say nothing about their sufferings…”[9] Therefore, many of those homosexual victims did not live to see this new development of gay history and their stories were lost to history forever. This present a small problem in the sense that as those stories are lost and due to the time lapse we may never know the true extent of homosexual suffering under the Nazis. But although the true extent may never be heard there is small consolation in the fact that finally those homosexual victims get a voice. A voice they never had in 1945 at Nuremburg unlike the Jews who had the support of the state of Israel. However, one has to be cautious as a historian when using oral testimony and memory but with this particular case even more so. Homosexuals who suffered under the Nazis have suffered ever since, some have hidden their sexuality, married and had children (Pierre Seel for example[10]) and they are still living with a deep fear of rejection in a society that was supposed to support those who were victimised by the Nazis and therefore their memory of things would almost certainly be partially obscured by the post war context in which they have lived until now. This makes relying on oral testimony of homosexual victims difficult and problematic for historians but unfortunately the post war events shaped the way in which the western society remembers the holocaust and its victims-homosexuals were the forgotten victims-until now.

The issue of gay victims of the holocaust is attracting wider debate now more so than before because homosexuality is becoming more and more acceptable in modern society. In 2005 the United Kingdom brought in the Civil Partnership Bill, this meant that for the first time the British Government legally recognised couples and was arguably the biggest leap for gay politics in the UK since the Sexual Offences Act in 1967. The recognition of gay couples in law meant that more attention could be paid to gay history and it was brought to the front of the general public’s minds. Coincidentally 2005 marked the 60th year since the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp. Representatives of groups affected by the holocaust were invited to lay wreaths in memory however, the gay community were excluded from this although they suffered under the Nazis too. Polish LGBT organisations hit out at this exclusion in the media; “Sixty years later we have learnt about the atrocities of death camps, we have at our disposal many testimonies of people who survived, historical documents as well as publications. Nevertheless, our knowledge regarding the death of the men who wore pink triangles on their prison uniforms remains scant and almost non-existent.”[11] This supports the view that homosexual victims are forgotten about when remembering the holocaust. Furthermore, it shows that even with today’s more liberal views on homosexuals they are still often the forgotten victims despite the fact that homosexuality has been legal in Poland since 1932.[12] After the liberation of the camps and following the Nuremburg Trials many gay victims of the holocaust have never spoken about their experiences largely through shame and because homosexuality was still a societal taboo in many countries until recently but some victims who are still living have begun to come forward and put their testimony on record for the first time. The testimony of Heinz Heger reads; “Scarcely a word has been written on the fact that along with the millions whom Hitler butchered on the grounds of ‘race’, hundreds of thousands were sadistically tortured to death for simply having homosexual feelings. Scarcely anyone has publicised the fact the madness…was also directed against us homosexuals.”[13] This testimony is one of the first known accounts of life as a gay victim of the holocaust, recorded in 1972 and translated into English in 1980. Just one year before Heger gave this account homosexuality was legalised in his native Austria which undoubtedly meant he was free to give his testimony on his experiences. this supports the view that it is only with increasing acceptance of homosexuality in the modern day that finally the story of homosexual victims could be told to the world. The modern acceptance of gay people has helped fire the debate on the memory of gay victims who suffered in the holocaust.

With reference to the historiography it is only since 1986 when Professor Ruedgier Lautmann’s “Pink Triangle: The Social History of Anti-homosexual Persecution on Nazi Germany” was translated into English that the statistics of homosexuals who suffered were available for the world to see. Ever since the book was translated an increasing number of books have been written about the suffering of homosexuals under the Nazi regime, up until then they were largely a forgotten victim, overshadowed by the Jewish suffering. As previously mentioned, the debate over gay people in the wider modern community of today has helped bring attention to the cause. In the USA homosexuality is a constant source of debate with President Obama promising to reverse the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the United States military.[14] Yet in 2008 the state of California, which houses more gay people than any other state in the USA, banned gay marriage under Proposition 8. This shows that even in today’s more liberal society homosexuality is still not completely accepted. With this consistent debate raging it gives LBGT groups lobbying for more recognition for gay victims a platform in which to gain more support for their cause. With this new avenue of exploration for holocaust historians being further opened up by the changing historiography it means we can learn more about the holocaust than we previously have and homosexuals are not left forgotten.

In conclusion, the post war context of western society helped to make us forget the suffering of homosexuals under the Nazis. So much has been written about the suffering of the Jews but not much has been written until recently about the suffering of homosexuals. The suffering of homosexuals in Nazi Germany has become a wider public debate due to the increasing liberal attitudes towards gay men and women in modern society, thus, meaning that for the first time gay people have a history that society actually wants to listen and learn about. It aids the holocaust historiography because it opens up a whole new avenue of exploration for history, just when historians thought they knew everything about the holocaust something new has emerged for them to analyse. The increasing historiography also means that homosexuals are no longer the forgotten victims and finally they get the voice they were denied in 1945 and recognition for what happened to them over sixty five years ago. The use of oral testimony, particularly this late in time, is problematic but it is all the historians have to go on when researching homosexuality in Nazi Germany. Although more recognition is emerging there are still instances where homosexuals are forgotten like at the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, despite homosexuality being legal in Poland since 1932. But this actually aids the cause of the LGBT and means that homosexual suffering is kept in the public mind and therefore it is not forgotten at all. Heinz Heger summed up; “May they never be forgotten, these multitudes of dead, our anonymous, immortal martyrs.[15] But they are anonymous no more.


Berenbaum, M., and Peck, A., (eds) “The holocaust and history”, (Indiana University Press, 1998)
Courtois, C., (ed) “The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression”, (Harvard University Press, 2009)
Engelkin, B., “Holocaust and memory”, (London, 2001)
Gill, A., (ed), “The Journey back from Hell: Coversations with concentration camp survivors”, (London, 1988)
Heger, H., The Men with the Pink Triangle”, (Hamburg, 1980)
Lemke, J., (ed) “Gay voices from East Germany”, (Indiana University Press, 1991)
Seel, P., “Liberation was for others: memoirs of a gay survivor of the Nazi holocaust”, (De Capo Press, 1995)
[1] Lemke, J., (ed) Gay voices from East Germany, Indiana University Press, (1991) p. 18

[2] Gay men wore a pink triangle whereas gay women were given a black triangle and labelled as ‘asocials’. There are very few records of gay women being imprisoned for being gay but many were arrested for being lesbians when gay bars were raided but the reason for their internment was put down as something else entirely

[3] Gill, A., (ed) The Journey Back from Hell: Conversations with Concentration Camp survivors, London, (1988) p. 34

[4] Courtois, C., (ed) The Black book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press, (2009) p.6

[5] In 1957 the Wolfenden Report argued that it was not the law’s business what people did in their own homes. ten years later Britain legalised homosexuality for over 21′s in the privacy of their own homes with the introduction of the Sexual Offences Act (1967)

[6] www.devoiretmemoire.org/memoire/histoire_homosexualite/index.html

[7] http://www.rainbowhistory.org/howell-%20gaysand%20the%20holocaust.pdf

[8] Seel, P., Liberation was for others: memoirs of a gay survivor of the Nazi holocaust, De Capo Press, (1995)

[9] Gill, A., (ed) The Journey Back from Hell: conversations with Concentration Camp survivors, London, (1988) p.34

[10] Seel, P., Liberation was for others: memoirs of a gay survivor of the Nazi holocaust, De Capo Press, (1995)

[11] http://www.ukgaynews.org.uk/archive/2005feb/0901.htm

[12] www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/IES/poland.html#0

[13] Heger, H., The Men with the Pink Triangle, Hamburg, (1980) p. 115

[14] A policy brought in by President Clinton in 1993 meaning that persons entering the US military are not to be asked what their sexual orientation is nor are they to talk about it to other military personnel

[15] Heger, H., The Men with the Pink Triangle, Hamburg, (1980) p. 115

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