‘We must exterminate these [homosexuals] root and branch…We can’t permit such danger to the country; the homosexual must be entirely eliminated.’
With these chilling words, the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, set out the Nazi master plan for the sexual cleansing of the Aryan race.
Heinz F was a care-free young German gay man in the early 1930s. He had no idea of what was about to happen. ‘I didn’t fully understand the situation,’ he admitted with pained regret. One morning, out of the blue, the police knocked on his door. ‘You are suspected of being a homosexual,’ they told him. ‘You are hereby under arrest.’
‘What could I do? Off I went to Dachau, without a trial,’ he recalls in an interview for the documentary film Paragraph 175.
After spending a year and a half in Dachau, Heinz was released but soon rearrested and sent to Buchenwald. He was stunned to discover the grisly fate of gay and bisexual men. ‘Almost all the homosexuals…nearly all of them…were killed.’
Heinz amazingly survived a total of eight-plus years in concentration camps. Following the war, he never spoke to anyone about his experiences. He was afraid. Gay ex-prisoners were regarded as common criminals – not victims of Nazism. With tears trickling down his cheeks, he lamented: ‘Nobody wanted to hear about it.’
His life had been very different up until 1933. Berlin was the gay capital of the world, with a huge, buzzing gay scene of bars and clubs. It boasted gay magazines and gay arts and sports associations, as well as organisations campaigning for greater understanding and rights. Life in Berlin was good – and getting better – for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.
Although homosexuality was illegal under paragraph 175 of the German criminal code, it was relatively rarely enforced.
In the Reichstag, MPs were on the verge of securing its repeal. A new era of freedom seemed to be dawning. Then came the horrors of Nazism.
Within weeks of assuming power in 1933, Hitler outlawed homosexual organisations and publications. Gay bars and clubs were closed down soon afterwards. Storm troopers ransacked the headquarters of the gay rights movement, the Institute of Sexual Science, and publicly burned its vast library of ‘degenerate’ books.
Before the end of the year, the first homosexuals were deported to newly established concentration camps.
In 1934, the Nazis stepped up their anti-gay campaign, with the creation of the Reich Office for Combating Abortion and Homosexuality. According to Himmler: ‘Those who practice homosexuality deprive Germany of the children they owe her … our nation will fall to pieces because of that plague.’ The police were ordered to draw up ‘pink lists’ of known or suspected homosexuals. Mass arrests followed.
The Nazis again intensified the war against what they called ‘abnormal existence’ in 1935, broadening the definition of homosexual behaviour and the grounds for arrest. Gossip and innuendo became evidence. A man could be incarcerated on the basis of a mere touch, gesture or look.
Later, Himmler authorised a ‘scientific’ programme for the eradication of ‘this vice’. Gay prisoners were subjected to gruesome medical experiments in a bid to ‘cure’ their homosexuality – including hormone implants and castration.
From 1933-1945, an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 men were arrested under paragraph 175 for the crime of homosexuality. Some were tried and sentenced in the courts; others were sent direct to concentration camps without any trial or formal sentence. The death rate of gay prisoners in the camps was over 50 per cent, the highest among non-Jewish victims.
Heinz Dormer and Gad Beck were also interviewed for the film Paragraph 175. Dormer spent nearly ten years in prisons and concentration camps. He remembers the haunting, agonised cries from ‘the singing forest’, a row of tall poles on which condemned men were hung: ‘Everyone who was sentenced to death would be lifted up onto the hook. The howling and screaming were inhuman…Beyond human comprehension.’
The Nazi ‘homocaust’ sought to completely eliminate gay and bisexual men. It was an integral part of the Holocaust. Contrary to false histories that claim the persecution of Jewish people was entirely distinct and separate from the victimisation of other minorities, the mass murder of Jews was part of Hitler’s grand design for the racial and genetic purification of the German volk. The Nazis set out to eradicate what they deemed to be racial and genetic "inferiors" – not just Jews, but also gay, disabled, Slav, Roma and Sinti people.
Gad Beck carried a double burden. He was gay and Jewish. He recalls his first sexual experience as a teenage schoolboy:
‘I ran home to my mother and said: "Mother, today I had my first man."’ Luckily, his parents accepted his homosexuality. But they feared for his safety: ‘They said: "Oh my god, he’s Jewish and he’s gay. Either way he’ll be persecuted. This cannot end well."’
But Beck survived the war, although nearly everyone around him perished. Two of his lovers were seized by the Nazis:
‘I met this beautiful blonde Jew. He invited me to spend the night. In the morning the Gestapo came … I showed my ID – not on the list. They took him to Auschwitz. It had a different value then, a night of love.’
Later, Beck tried to free another lover, Manfred Lewin, from a Gestapo transfer camp. He posed as a Hitler Youth member and asked the commandant to release Manfred to help with a construction project. Although this incredibly daring, dangerous deception was successful, as they walked to freedom Manfred told Gad he could not abandon his family in the camp. Beck watched helplessly as his lover returned to be with them. He never saw Manfred again. Lewin and his entire family were murdered in Auschwitz.
During the Third Reich, these heart-breaking personal tragedies were repeated over and over millions of times for both gay and non-gay victims of Nazism. But for gay people the trauma was compounded by the fact that they often suffered alone – rejected by their families, persecuted by the Nazis and vilified by other concentration camp inmates.
No wonder so few survived and why so many were reluctant to speak out in the post-war years. Paragraph 175 remained on the statute books after 1945. Homosexuality continued to be a crime in East Germany until 1968 and in West Germany until 1969.
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