Homosexuality was classed as a “degenerate form of behaviour” in Nazi Germany that threatened the nation’s “disciplined masculinity”. Under Nazi law, homosexuality was deemed non-Aryan and as such homosexuals were far more persecuted in Nazi Germany than under the Weimar regime. Ironically it had been the support of Ernst Rőehm, a known homosexual, and his SA followers that had greatly helped Hitler gain power on January 30th 1933.
Under Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code sex between men aged 21 and over was punishable by a prison sentence. Paragraph 175a dealt with those aged under 21 years. However, the law stated that specific evidence was needed that sex had taken place and this evidence was frequently very difficult to acquire. As a result during the Weimar government and in the first two years of Nazi rule, many charged with homosexual behaviour were found not guilty and released. This changed in June 1935.
In June 1935, Paragraph 175 was changed so that it referred to “any unnatural sexual act” with “unnatural” ultimately being determined by the Nazi courts. This change led to a major rise in the number of men arrested. Many were charged with crimes that had previously not been a criminal offence.
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels made the party’s policy very clear on the night of May 6th 1933:
“We must exterminate these people root and branch; the homosexual must be eliminated.”
Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, estimated that there were 2 million homosexuals in Nazi Germany. In a speech given to SS men in February 1937, he compared the campaign against homosexuals to be no different from digging up weeds in a garden. During the speech, Himmler made it clear that if any SS man was found to be homosexual, he would be arrested, publicly humiliated, sent to a concentration camp where he would be shot trying to escape:
“Following completion of the punishment imposed by the court, they will be sent, by my order, to a concentration camp, and they will be shot in the concentration camp, while attempting to escape. I will make that known by order to the unit to which the person so infected belonged.”
Between January 1933 and June 1935, 4,000 men were convicted under the old Paragraph 175 – around 4 a day. From June 1935 to June 1938, 40,000 men were convicted of an “unnatural sex act” – around 54 men each day. Another 10,000 men were arrested from June 1938 to June 1939. By the end of World War Two, it is thought that 100,000 homosexual men had been arrested with 50,000 sent to prison. While figures are vague, it is thought that between 5,000 and 15,000 were sent to concentration camps.
In June 1935 a new law was passed titled: ‘The Amendment to the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases”. This law defined homosexuals as “asocial” and a threat to the moral purity of the Third Reich. If someone was found guilty under this law, a judge was given the right to order the castration of that person. Anyone found guilty of “chronic homosexuality” was sent to a concentration camp.
Under Nazi law the man arrested as a “seducer” was deemed more guilty than the “seduced” and received a longer prison sentence. Those sent to concentration camps had to wear a pink triangle on their clothing. The “seduced”, it was believed by the Nazis, could be won round by the use of ‘psychological therapy’. What were called ‘Research Institutes’ were established for this purpose.
A new law was introduced – called Paragraph 176 of the Criminal Code – that dealt with homosexual behaviour involving members of the Hitler Youth. Those in a position of authority in either the Hitler Youth or the League of German Girls were deemed to have committed a criminal offence if they were found guilty of using their position to sexually exploit a subordinate. However, this new piece of legislation did not it seems put paid to any worries that the Nazi hierarchy had about homosexual behaviour in its youth movements. In 1935 the Gestapo arrested a number of Hitler Youth leaders and questioned them with regards to their relationships with younger members. But from the party’s point of view any hint of such behaviour within their youth movements undermined the very principles that the party was trying to put across. The party image was of the youth who would become a warrior who would fight to the death for his country. Any controversy within the Hitler Youth would have been very embarrassing for the party and as a result it is known that any rumours of homosexual behaviour or exploitation were covered up. One mother who complained about her son being exploited by Hitler Youth superiors was arrested and sent to a concentration camp (Richard J Evans ‘The Third Reich in Power’.)
Trumped up charges of homosexual behaviour could also be used against someone who had upset the Nazi Party hierarchy. This happened against Helmut Brűckner who was a party regional leader in Silesia. He complained about the activities of the SS in his area, especially their brutality, and was promptly arrested on the orders of Himmler, head of the SS, and charged with gross indecency with an army officer. He was sacked from his post and sentenced to 18 months in prison. The charge simply was not true but no one challenged the veracity of it in the court.
On October 1st 1936 the Nazi Party introduced a new department – the Reich Central Office for Combatting Homosexuality and Abortion. The Gestapo was given the task of hunting out homosexuals – a task it carried out with vigour – and an assumption was made that homosexual behaviour equalled dissidence and opposition to the Reich. Some senior Nazi leaders also believed that homosexuality was contagious and could undermine the Third Reich. Those not imprisoned were sent to state-run mental institutions so that they could be “cured of their illness”. Most arrested homosexuals were sent to prison but between 5,000 and 15,000 were sent to concentration camps where they faced a torrid time, more so, according to some survivors, than other inmates. It is thought that proportionate to their numbers in these camps, homosexuals suffered a higher death rate than any other ‘small victim’ group – about 60% according to scholar Rudiger Lautman. During the war, homosexuals were part of the “Extermination Through Work” policy and work camp survivors claim that homosexuals were frequently given the most difficult and dangerous tasks by their SS guards.
During World War Two, experiments were conducted on homosexuals arrested in Occupied Europe. These experiments tried to isolate the “gay gene”, as the Nazis called it, in an attempt to find a ‘cure’ for homosexual behaviour. Once these experiments were finished, the victims were invariably castrated.
Lesbians were not widely persecuted by the Nazis as their behaviour was classed as “anti-social” as opposed to “degenerate”.
Ironically, after the end of World War Two, homosexuals in the now occupied Germany who had somehow managed to survive their treatment were afforded little if any support as homosexual behaviour was still deemed a criminal offence. In West Germany the law against homosexuals remained in place until 1969.