Last edited: July 11, 2004

A New Perspective on Gay Victims of Nazi Persecution

International Gay Association, Spring 1981

By Craig Howell

The US Holocaust Memorial Counci1, which will make recommendations on the proposed National Museum on the Holocaust, will receive a copy on May 18th of a recently translated manuscript on Gay victims of Nazi persecution.

Pink Triangle: The Social History of Anti-homosexual Persecution in Nazi Germany, written by Ruediger Lautmann and Erhard Vismar and translated by Page Grubb, supports the demand by the Gay Activists Alliance of Washington, an IGA member organization, that Gay victims of Nazi terror should be honored in all activities and exhibitions commemorating the Holocaust.

The emotions aroused by the horrors of the Holocaust are strongly shared by the Gay community and are reinforced by the contemporary awareness of the plight of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. Recent research by historians Lautmann and Vismar confirms this brutalization of Gays during the Nazi terror, yet it also clarifies the homosexual's position in the concentration camp hierarchy.

The unique value of this manuscript--which still has not found an American publisher*-- is its exhaustive material obtained from the International Tracing Service, a repository in Germany for all remaining concentration camp records. Even those records are far from complete, the authors observe, since many camps never had good records and many other files were destroyed by the Nazis themselves at the end of the war in order to escape punishment.  

*One of the key chapters in this manuscript is slated for publication this year in the Journal of Homosexuality.

The authors also studied memoirs of camp survivors (only a few of which were written by homosexuals) and conducted interviews with the relatively few Gay ex-prisoners still alive and willing to describe their experience. 

While the Lautmann-Vismar manuscript should provide a solid foundation for ending the decades of silence about Gay victims of Nazi persecution, the authors also correct some misconceptions which are prevalent within Gay liberation circles. For example:

  • Gay activists have frequently claimed that as many as 250,000 homosexuals were killed under Hitler. The authors estimate, however, that "the total number of officially-defined homosexual prisoners ever incarcerated in the camps was about 10,000 (but it could be as low as 5,000 or as high as 15,000)."

  • We have frequently assumed that both Lesbians and Gay men were persecuted by the Nazis. The authors find, however, that although "sanctions against homosexual males were tightened to the utmost degree, Lesbianism was passed over as being of no consequence."

  • We have frequently noted that to this day the West German government has refused to allow any reparations to be paid to Gay ex-prisoners, on the grounds that the Gays were common criminals for violating the anti-sodomy laws which both preceded and survived the Nazi era. The authors point out that homosexuals are not the only victims of this unfair policy. Only those persecuted because of overt political opposition to Naziism or for racial, religious, or philosophical reasons were made eligible for compensation.

  • We have frequently assumed that homophobia was nearly as central to Nazi ideology as anti-Semitism. But the authors document that far more homosexual men were convicted for homosexual "offenses" than were ever sent to concentration camps. Himmler in 1937 exempted artists and actors from prosecution for being homosexual. The number of new homosexual prisoners dropped off after the war began, and their relative status within the camps improved. In addition, some homosexual prisoners were released from the camps for being "rehabilitated," i.e., capable of heterosexual intercourse with prostitutes. While such facts hardly exonerate the Nazi treatment of homosexuals, they at the same time do not reflect the ferocity of the monomania which drove the Nazis to genocide of the Jews, even at the expense of their war effort against the Allies. 

(See The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 by Lucy S. Dawidowicz.)

The authors devote considerable attention to the question of the treatment of those homosexuals who were sent to concentration camps, a controversial subject since the play Bent was first produced. More often then not, Gay men were indeed at the bottom in the camps, grossly abused by the camp authorities and often victimized by their fellow prisoners.

But the authors again ask their readers to keep things in perspective: "Homosexuals were not in all places at times exceptionally badly treated, and they were not the only category of inmate subject to extreme degradation.

The authors explore in detail some of the reasons why brutality against homosexual inmates was so common and why homosexuals were unable to deflect that brutality. Solidarity was a key to survival in the camps, and this was a trait often expressed within circles of political prisoners, criminals, and other categories. Communists, for example, looked out for each other and established their own protective devices. But homosexuals, isolated within the camps, did not collectively resist their oppressors. What emerges from this analysis is a powerful case for the survival value of a gay community ethos: there is no safety to be found by scurrying back into the closet while letting the world go to hell.

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