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Targeted by Nazi Germany, their tales forgotten: The story of gays and the Holocaust

“Terrible things happened to the gay people, because they were so open, that they were easy to find.”
Credit: AP
Flowers are placed at a memorial stone in remembrance for prisoners assigned a pink triangle in the former Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald within the Christopher Street Day in Weimar, Germany, Sunday, June 23, 2019. There were 650 prisoners assigned a pink triangle in the Buchenwald concentration camp between 1937 and 1945. Many of them lost their lives. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

HARTFORD, Conn. — Often overlooked in the history of the Holocaust is the incarceration of the LGBTQ+ community, primarily gay men.

In the early part of the 1900s, gay life in Germany was thriving. Liberal cities like Berlin had nightclubs and bars that catered to gay and lesbian clientele.

“What was very exciting about the prewar era in Germany was it really began to open up a whole dialogue and a thoughtful sort of modern approach to homosexuality,” said gay historian and documentary filmmaker John Scagliotti, best known for the films ‘Before Stonewall’ and ‘Before Homosexuals’ and the groundbreaking TV series, ‘In the Life.’

One place leading that dialogue was Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science and its study of gays and lesbians.

“Hirschfeld and others were the leading voices of this, they actually did the first interviews with homosexuals about their lives and about what it meant to be gay in our society,” said Scagliotti.

Germany's laws against homosexual acts, known as Paragraph 175, were not strictly enforced. By 1929, efforts were underway to decriminalize homosexual acts entirely.

In four years, however, the entire situation changed. As the Nazi Party came to power, attacks against many communities - Jews, the Romani, gays and lesbians, the disabled, and others - increased.

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“It's not that they were a bunch of conservative people who then went on to persecute, this was something very different that was going on there,” said Professor Anat Biletzki, the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Philosophy at Quinnipiac University.

Hirschfeld’s institute was closed and the historic work he had amassed was forever lost as his papers were burned.

“When the Nazis came in, in 1933, one of the first groups they went after were homosexuals,” said Scagliotti. “And the problem was that they were so visible at that point, who thought that all this visibility would lead to such a repressive moment. So, the Holocaust really was the sign, one of the major signs of kind of backlash against homosexuality.”

Scagliotti said the bars were closed down, the everything went underground, “Terrible things happen to the gay people, because they were so open, that they were easy to find.”

In 1936, the Nazis changed Paragraph 175, broadening its scope, and increasing the penalties. Paragraph 175 solely applied to acts between men as even the existence of lesbians was vociferously denied. 

“It's systematic. That's the point, you know, that they're rounded up in groups, there are lists, it's called the pink lists. It's organized, well, you can have anything run by the Nazis and not have it be organized,” said Biletzki.

Estimates vary, but between 50,000 and 100,000 men were detained along with millions of Jews and other groups the Nazis deemed as undesirable. The majority of the gay men were sent to labor camps and around 15,000 were sent to death camps, where they were made to wear the now-infamous pink triangle. The same symbol decades later would be reclaimed by gay men during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

A small number of lesbians were detained, and they were given a black triangle and usually badgered because of other things, not because they were lesbians, said Biletzki. 

When the war ended and the people in the camps were released, little or no freedom came for the gay men who had been detained. The more stringent version of Paragraph 175 stayed in effect.

“They did not erase those penalties after the liberation,” said Scagliotti. “A number of gay folks continued to remain incarcerated after the liberation, and it also created a fear for those who did get out of the concentration camps. People didn't want to talk about what happened.”

“When it came to Israel, it was reparations for the Jews. There's no talk at all about reparations for gay people, or for what happened. And when you ask yourself, ‘How could this happen?’ I think you want to ask yourself about the general culture, the homophobic and anti-homosexual culture,” said Biletzki.

According to Scagliotti, the Holocaust made a "big, big dent" to the progress that homosexuals had made in the 20s.

"And it wasn't until the 60s revolution in America, and the civil rights movement that we began to see homosexuals again, rise up in a real way,” he added.

Scagliotti points out that when American gay men returned from their war service, many settled in larger metropolitan areas, like San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. These cities were where, to the degree possible at the time, LGBTQ people could live, work and socialize with less stigma than in the hometowns they left at the start of the war.

The story of gays and the Holocaust remains separate from the fabric of society’s understanding of the time.

And recent years, the exclusion of the LGBTQ+ community in Holocaust commemorations is still in evidence.

“This is the point that always gets me when we have commemorations for victims of the Holocaust. And not only are gays not invited in, or represented as a group, but there are real demonstrations against this, said Biletzki. “And those other groups are, of course, always considered wonderfully progressive because they're against the Nazis. I think being against Nazis is the cheapest way of talking about anti-discrimination. That's an easy one.”

Biletzki pointed out, one of the definitive books on the Nazis, William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” never mentions LGBTQ+ people.

“You know, being able to be visible about our history has been very important for us, and I think, you know, those were the lessons we learned from the Holocaust. Just how hated we were, but also how difficult it is to be visible,” said Scagliotti.

Watch an archived episode of "In the Life" about gays and the Holocaust.

Doug Stewart is the Senior Digital Content Producer at FOX61 News. He can be reached at dstewart@fox61.com.


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