Last edited: March 06, 2005

Gay Love: Verboten

How ‘Paragraph 175’ Turned into a Nazi Death Sentence

Washington Post, November 18, 2002
1150 15th Street NW, Washington, DC 20071

By Philip Kennicott, Washington Post Staff Writer

German law has at least been consistent when it comes to homosexuals, who faced criminal sanction before the Nazis, under the Nazis and after the Nazis.

As a new exhibition at the Holocaust Memorial Museum points out, gay men who survived Hitler’s concentration camps—and not many did—faced being returned to prison after the Allied liberation. Not until 1994 was the infamous Paragraph 175, which criminalized gay sex, finally removed from the books in Germany; not until this year did the German parliament pardon gay men convicted by the Nazis.

To be fair, America has laws on its books just as nasty as Paragraph 175. What gay men do in Maryland, or the District, for example, is a felony in Virginia. And unlike the American military, which since adopting the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 1993 has kicked out almost 8,000 gay men and women, Hitler’s military frowned on homosexual acts between soldiers, but took less interest in rooting out homosexuals as a class of people.

Homosexuality presented a variety of threats to the Nazis. It slowed down the production of new Germans, and threatened the cohesion of single-sex social and militaristic groups, which were a major pillar of the highly regimented society. Parents turned their sons over to Nazi youth groups for a wholesome diet of marching, ideology and homosocial bonding; homoeroticism flourished, but actual sex was verboten.

Hitler’s views on the subject are a source of great fascination. He apparently tolerated the open homosexuality of his lieutenant Ernst Roehm, head of the Sturm Abteilung bully boys, but when he needed Roehm and Roehm’s storm troopers out of the way, Hitler linked their homosexuality to charges of treason, and had them killed. Hitler’s taste in art suggests a healthy appreciation of the male body, and questions about his sexuality crop up fairly regularly, most recently in a book by the German historian Lothar Machtan.

The Holocaust Museum exhibition deals glancingly with the homoeroticism of Nazi culture, and dodges (thankfully) the “Was Hitler gay?” question. It approaches homosexuality primarily as a question of Nazi criminal law and enforcement; reproductions of police photographs and documents are a substantial part of the show. The exhibit lacks the museum’s usual personal feel, and according to curator Ted Phillips, that is no accident.

“The Nazi law stayed in effect after the Nazis and many homosexuals destroyed whatever they had that might link them to homosexuality,” says Phillips. “They didn’t tell their stories, and the best way we could get into this was through police documents.”

Score one for Nazi record-keeping.

The exhibit traces the evolution of Paragraph 175, from a law that went mostly unenforced in the gay days of the Weimar Republic, into a more menacing statute, with harsher penalties, under Nazi rule. Nazi persecution began early, with an attack on Magnus Hirschfeld’s trailblazing Institute for Sexual Science, which militated against legal persecution. As a Jew and homosexual, Hirschfeld was a two-fer, and the rise of the Nazis effectively banished him from Germany. By 1934 two of the major homosexual rights organizations in Germany had been dissolved, and in 1936 Heinrich Himmler stepped up persecution through a new police bureau, the Reich Central Office for Combating Homosexuality and Abortion.

The justification for all this, philosophically at least, was based on eugenics, which led to a remarkable if informal distinction between homosexuals who were guilty of having only a single offense, and those with repeated arrests. The former, given the essentially medical definition of homosexuality as an illness, might be cured; the latter, in eugenic terms, were particularly worrisome, given speculation that they carried some genetic problem that could be passed on to a new generation, if, of course, they had sex with women. In 1940 Himmler ordered homosexuals who had had multiple partners to be sent to concentration camps after their prison sentences; in 1942, the SS allowed concentration camp leaders to castrate gay men. A photograph of an operating table at Sachsenhausen is one of the most chilling images in the show.

But along with eugenic thinking, there was plenty of plain old homophobia and a free-floating angst about homosexuality that could be usefully directed as slander whether one was a Nazi or not. Nazi thinking associated Jewishness with a superheated and often deviant sexuality (and, paradoxically, sterility). And at least one Jewish writer, Arnold Zweig, returned the favor, speculating that the disease of anti-Semitism was in part a paranoia caused by the suppression of homosexual impulses.

In short, today gay men face a double bind: If you express homosexual desires you’re a menace, and if you suppress them you’re a menace too. Pop-psych thinking loves nothing more than evidence of “secret” or repressed homosexuality to explain psychopathic behavior. Witness, for instance, the speculation in some tabloids that the D.C. snipers had a secret sex thing going on. “Active” homosexuals are considered promiscuous; inactive ones are even more dangerous. Hence the fascination with Hitler’s sexuality.

The Holocaust Museum exhibition is designed to travel, and for that reason it is relatively small. Not much time is spent on gay culture before the Nazis, which is a small disappointment. As with other victim groups, it was not just individuals who suffered, but the milieu they had created.

English audiences know this world, in a somewhat romanticized form, from the works of Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden, all of whom spent time slumming in Germany between the wars, notching their belts. Some sense of that world might have humanized a show that focuses heavily (and with good cause) on the criminal, medical and scientific aspects of the subject. This is the perpetual danger with the Nazis: When we rely on their photographs and documents to tell a story, we risk a second dehumanization of their victims.

The show, which focuses on the period 1933-1945, mostly avoids the vexing question of the Nazi homoerotic aesthetic, including its odd incorporation into some aspects of contemporary gay life.

The square-jawed, rectilinear-torsoed blond god of Nazi art is alive and well in Abercrombie and Fitch fashion plates, and Versace perfume ads. The term “gym Nazi,” to describe a certain class of grim-visaged ascetics who haunt the club scene, has fairly wide currency. And within the subculture of sadomasochism there is an even more explicit flirtation with Nazi imagery and uniforms. All of it is very odd, very interesting, probably harmless, and of course, not really the sort of thing the Holocaust Museum is designed to study. But there are threads here that link sex, power, domination and male bonding, which could be productively spun into a show unto themselves someplace else.

Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals: 1933-1945 will continue at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW, through March 16. Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, Tuesday and Thursday until 8 p.m. Admission is free. For information, call 202-488-0400 or visit

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