Before Hitler rose to power in 1933, Berlin was a hub of gay life, in the midst of which one of the world’s first homosexual liberation movements slowly gained momentum.
That would end with gay people swept up in the Holocaust. But even when that was over and the community had ground to a halt, which would take decades to recover from, gay men faced long prison sentences and persecution.
The crackdown started slowly, but the Night of the Long Knives – which saw Hitler’s openly gay friend and leader of the Sturmabteilung (SA), Ernst Röhm murdered, just like at least 100 of his men – the situation changed in a heartbeat.
Suddenly, homosexuals were on the list of persecuted communities as they ‘couldn’t contribute to the ‘master race’ and its ‘reproduction effort’ and the Nazis started their anti-homosexuality campaigns.
To this day, the number of homosexual men interned and killed in concentration camps is unknown; it is estimated to lie between 10,000 and 15,000 people, of whom at least half died in the camps.
It can’t take into account the lives of those arrested and detained for other reasons – the gay Jews, Gypsies, and ‘Antisocials’ whose sexuality was considered the least of their ‘crimes’.
In the film Paragraph 175, highlighting the plight of the Holocaust’s homosexual victims for recognition of their suffering, Heinz F. recounts his ordeal in the camps, starting with a call from the local police station.
‘”You are suspected to be homosexual. You are hereby under arrest.” What should I do?’ he says.
‘And then it was straight to Dachau. From there, without a trial, I was immediately sent to Dachau.’
Without knowing why, he spent one and a half years in the concentration camp; just days after he was released, Heinz was arrested again, on charges of homosexuality, and sent to a prison to wait for a trial.
‘I couldn’t understand all of this. And while I was there, nearly all the homosexuals were deported to Mauthausen,’ he says.
‘And nearly all of them were killed.’
Heinz himself was sent to Buchenwald, where prisoners were first labeled with ‘Paragraph 175’ on their jackets, before the pink triangle was introduced.
In the camps, a majority of gay men were supposed to be re-educated – but only Germans were spared the gas chambers.
Instead of sending them to their immediate death, the Nazis selected the Germans in their camps for slave labor, castration or forced them to take part in human experiments.
Almost two thirds of the men held in the camps died.
Some were brought to the ‘singing forest’, a cynically-named concept of torture and slow death where prisoners were hung head down until they died.
‘The singing forest… everyone got goose bumps,’ Heinz Dörmer
‘There were concrete holes in the ground. All those who were sentenced were lifted up, so the hooks would lock down.’
Prisoners in the camps would have to listen to the screams of pain and anguish of those sentenced to die there; as the forest was on the grounds of Buchenwald, the sounds were audible to most prisoners.
‘The howling and screaming were inhuman,’ Dörmer says.
‘The singing forest. Inexplicable. Beyond human comprehension. And so much remains untold.’
Inside the camps, a strict hierarchy prevailed, with gay men at the bottom of the pecking order; they were beaten, tortured and sodomized, with some of the higher-ranking prisoners, or Kapos if they served a ‘function’ or job, exploiting the men’s situation.
Those who reported being exploited, often young Polish or Jewish men, were punished just as severely as those who used them, if not more.
‘Some of the Kapos held themselves so-called Piepels, young men who had to provide personal services in exchange for being exempt from hard work and enjoying privileges,’ historian Hermann Langbein writes in his book People in Auschwitz.
‘Many of them sexually abused their boys.’
If any of these affairs became public, both men were locked in a bunker, isolated from other prisoners.
German men had to sign a waiver declaring they’d be castrated before being let back into the camps and often their old jobs; those who weren’t were shot in front of the black wall.
But after escaping the horror of the camps, be it through successful escape plans or liberation by allied forces, the Holocaust’s gay victims couldn’t go back to the cities they formerly filled with life.
Having suffered through hard physical labor, forced visits to the camp brothels (which were observed by officers to discover eventual ‘homosexual deviances’) and human experiments to cure their homosexuality, they entered a Germany devoid of any gay life.
The government wasn’t particularly gay-friendly, either: deciding to keep §175 as established under Hitler’s regime, they ruled sexual connections between men, no matter of which age, to be illegal.
Some, especially those of Jewish descent, fled the country, fearing the repercussions and further persecution; those who decided to stay often hid their sexuality.
And if they rarely spoke about what happened to them in the concentration camps, it’s nearly impossible to find accounts of what happened afterwards, as the suppression continued.
The war, and Hitler’s reign, had destroyed all LGBTI culture; clubs had been closed, newspapers and magazines were out of print and all charities and organizations supporting the gay community had been shut down.
And while judges had their doubts about sentencing men for homosexuality, the government held on to the era of new conservatism.
One of the most notorious institutions continuing the persecution of gay men was located in Baden-Württemberg, more precisely the state’s capital of Stuttgart.
Having taken up residence in the Hotel Silber, former headquarters of Stuttgart’s Gestapo force, the city’s police force created an atmosphere of fear, intimidation and degradation amongst the gay population.
Between 1953 and 1969, police registered 19,591 criminal offences under §175 throughout the state. In 1959 alone, the city’s courts sentenced 902 men to prison sentences – more than twice as many as the German average – and Stuttgart’s police played a big part in this.
The persecution started nearly immediately after the war, when the city’s force established a department exclusively dealing with gay men breaking the law.
Clubs like the Café Weiss, catering to a gay audience, were put under surveillance as much as public spaces known – or suspected – to be frequented by gay men and even the showers in swimming pools, because police feared they could be turned into a spot to look for community as much as quick sexual encounters.
They actively kept track of 2,000 men the police knew to be gay; they also had a collection of pictures, reminiscent of Hitler’s pink lists of alleged homosexuals.
Gay men were forbidden from meeting up in large groups after a judge at the administrative court of Mannheim claimed ‘the indulgence and promotion of the meeting of homosexual circles in a venue’ would only serve to promote homosexuality among citizens.
The police’s scare tactics worked.
As more and more men were arrested and sent to prison, the community increasingly moved underground – but even there, they weren’t safe: reports from 1951 show the police used confidential human sources in their hunt for ‘homosexual offenders’.
It was only a matter of time until the first men who suffered through the Holocaust would be arrested and sentenced.
Having already been interned in the concentration camps – most notoriously Buchenwald, but also commonly Mauthausen, Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen – should have prompted police to show some mercy.
But the opposite was the case.
Men who had been interned before, especially if they had been sent to the camps for long sentences, often faced longer prison sentences, as they ‘have repeatedly and severely been punished for similar offences before. Yet they re-offended again.’
In 1969, the German government decided to abolish §175, at least partially; it was fully scratched in 1994.
It took them another eight years, until 2002, to delete all criminal records of gay men convicted under the Nazi regime.
To this day, not a single man who had to wear the pink triangle has received any compensation for what they suffered through.
Rudolf Brazda, who died 3 August 2011, is thought to have been the last man who wore the pink triangle and lived to tell his story.