Gay Focus at Holocaust Museum
New York Times,
January 4, 2003
229 W. 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
By Elizabeth Olson
WASHINGTON—They were called the "175ers"—homosexuals
that the Nazis arrested, beat, used as prison labor and sometimes castrated.
Charges were brought under Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code, which
outlawed "unnatural indecency" between men, starting in 1871. The
Nazis broadened the statute to make "simple looking" and
"simple touching" reasons for tracking and rounding up gay men.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum here, where two million
visitors a year learn about the persecution of Jews under Hitler, has decided
to focus exhibitions on other groups, beginning with homosexuals. For two
years the museum’s researchers combed records, mainly in Germany. The somber
result is "Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, 1933-1945," an
exhibition that is running through March 16 at the museum, at 100 Raoul
Wallenberg Place SW, and will then travel to New York, San Francisco and other
cities. (More information: ushmm.org.)
While tens of thousands were incarcerated and an unknown number killed, few
homosexuals told their stories then—or later. For decades after the Allied
victory they were subject to the same criminal statute that Hitler’s regime
had used to pursue them. The law was expunged in 1994, and it was only last
May that convicted "175ers" were pardoned by the German government.
Only fragments of their brutal treatment in the Nazi era are known. Robert
T. Odeman, for example, who wrote cabaret songs, was convicted for homosexual
offenses in Berlin and sent to prison. After he was released, police arrested
him again, citing his letters to a half-Jewish friend. Mr. Odeman was sent to
a concentration camp, from which he and two others escaped in 1945.
He died in Berlin 40 years later without knowing that his story would be
part of an effort to remember the Holocaust’s other victims, who include not
only gays but also the handicapped, Gypsies, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war
and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Since there was so little testimony from the victims or the survivors, the
museum built the exhibition around disturbingly meticulous Nazi records.
Photographs, cartoons and art from the era show that stamping out
homosexuality became a priority for the Nazis even though an openly gay Ernst
Röhm, chief of the storm troopers, helped bring Hitler to power. When he was
murdered in 1934, barriers to pursuing gays were swept away, and homosexuality
was equated with treason.
In a country where bonding began early in all-male youth groups, the Nazis
publicly campaigned to stamp out "indecent" acts. Yet "a
considerable number of cases of homosexual activity were found in just about
every part of the Nazi apparatus, from the storm troopers to the Hitler Youth
movement," said Geoffrey Giles, a University of Florida historian, who
contributed some of his research to the exhibition. While "deviant"
acts were a convenient tool of denunciation in the Hitler Youth, where
homosexuality was cited for 25 percent of those expelled, there was also a
fear that such behavior was learned and could spread through the corps.
Such behavior had to be righted, the Nazis argued, because homosexuals were
jeopardizing Germany’s future generations by failing to have children.
Lesbians, by contrast, were often spared, because they could be re-educated to
assume roles as wives and mothers.
In the Weimar Republic, courts restricted the 1871 law, which carried a
sentence of two years’ imprisonment, to acts of physical contact. About 400
people were convicted until the start of the Nazi era; then the number of
convictions rose tenfold.
By 1936 the Gestapo leader Heinrich Himmler had established the Central
Office to Combat Homosexuality and Abortion, and surveillance of gays was
legalized. Over all, as many as 100,000 men were arrested and charged with
homosexual acts. About half were convicted and imprisoned. Up to 15,000 were
interned in concentration camps, where pink triangles—like the yellow star
of David that Jews had to wear—were sewn on their uniforms. Some prisoners
Despite Nazi zeal, no law prevented homosexuals from serving in the German
military. The Nazi Party feared that an exemption "could exclude as many
as three million men," said Mr. Giles, who is writing a book about
homosexuals and the party. When World War II began, accused and convicted
"175ers" could legally mingle in the ranks. About 7,000 were
convicted but were forced to return to military service, where they were
sometimes used in suicide missions on the front lines.
The Nazis distinguished between offenders who had "learned" their
behavior from others and the "incorrigibles," who actively sought
partners. The so-called incorrigibles were sent to concentration camps, and by
1943 camp commanders were given authority to castrate homosexuals. The
exhibition includes a photograph of an operating table.
"They believed that homosexuality could be corrected," said
Edward J. Phillips, the exhibition’s curator. "That included hormone
treatments among other experiments. Also, there was a notion that
homosexuality was developmental and those forced to work in disciplined hard
labor could overcome it."
Mr. Odeman’s case was unusual, according to historians, because some of
the songs and poems he wrote in the concentration camp showed that he was part
of a supportive gay circle. One theory about why gays were treated so badly in
the camps was that they were isolated by fear of associating with each other
and so were easier prey for camp guards, Mr. Giles said.
Why where the Nazis so diligently anti-homosexual? There have been claims
that Hitler was gay, but Mr. Giles believes the Nazi focus on gays stemmed
from close relationships among German men in wartime trenches.
"The defining relationship for the older Nazis was World War I, and
they set out in the 1920’s to reproduce that feeling of comradeship,"
Mr. Giles said. "But those relationships could stray into the homoerotic
area, and that’s what they feared."
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