Recently, I spent nearly two weeks in The Netherlands with my partner, Dutch, whose family is from this small European country. My take-away from this vacation was not the indulgence in freely available marijuana or the Red Light District and its openly accepted prostitution; I came home still thinking about the Holocaust and its victims.
The Holocaust ran from January 30, 1933, to May 8, 1945. The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah, was a genocide in which six million Jews and countless others were murdered by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime in the name of racial superiority. The Netherlands alone was home to 107,000 Jews; some arriving there as they fled persecution in their native Germany, which borders The Netherlands to the east. Only 5,000 of the Jews living in The Netherlands survived the Holocaust.
My education about the Holocaust began at Verzetsmuseum (the Dutch Resistance Museum) in Amsterdam. Dutch and I visited this museum because the Dutch Resistance helped save the life of one of Dutch’s family members during World War II. Dutch grew up with knowledge about this group and wanted me to learn about them as well.
The Dutch Resistance helped undermine the Nazis during their occupation of The Netherlands in World War II. This group forged birth certificates and passports to help male Dutch citizens avoid working in the German labor camps, which were just slightly better than concentration camps, and to assist in hiding Jewish citizens from the Nazis and avoid deportation to the concentration camps, where death was imminent. The Dutch Resistance provided counterintelligence, domestic sabotage and communications networks that would later benefit the Allied forces.
A museum dedicated to The Dutch Resistance is located in Amsterdam. I visited this museum, spending several hours learning about the Holocaust, it heroes and its victims. The American history books I read when I attended public school just skimmed the surface of the Holocaust and only mentioned the effect of the Holocaust on the Jewish population. I was simply shocked when I stepped into an exhibit about Dutch citizens who died at Dachau, a concentration camp in Germany.
Among the Dutch who died at Dachau were brave citizens who ran underground, illegal publications and who helped hide Jews from the Nazis. These citizens basically did what they thought was the right thing to do, even though being caught meant certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
Hanging on one wall of the exhibit dedicated to these brave Dutchmen was a color-coded key that explained the classification system used at all Nazi concentration camps. The classification system was very detailed yet immediately understandable at one glance as these colored badges told the Nazi guards at the camps the exact identity of every single prisoner at the camp.
For example, Jewish prisoners were marked with a solid yellow Star of David. A political prisoner of Jewish faith was marked with a yellow triangle beneath a solid red triangle to signify both the political prisoner class as well as the Jewish faith of the prisoner.
The Nazis viewed the Jews as an inferior race. Men of Jewish faith who had sexual relations with Aryan women and Jewish women who had sexual relations with Aryan men were covered in the color-coded breakdown as well because the Nazis condemned the mixing of races. Mixed marriages between Jews and Aryans were forbidden by the Nazis and by the German criminal code as well. Once the Nazis started to invade other countries, this same criminal code applied to the people living in those countries as well.
The color classification system went on to include green for criminals, black for Roma (also known as Gypsies), purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses and pink for homosexuals. Days after seeing this exhibit, it was the pink triangle that I kept thinking about the most.
The Nazis did not view lesbians as a threat to their race and, thus, seldom targeted lesbians. For this reason, the term homosexuals will represent only gay men in this blog. Information presented in this blog is taken mostly from museums, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Verzetsmuseum (the Dutch Resistance Museum), and other historically-validated materials, including the Jewish Virtual Library.
To give readers a better understanding of the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust, I need to go back a bit in Germany’s history to a few years before the Nazis came to power.
At the turn of the 20th century, a fairly significant gay rights movement existed in Germany, which was under the leadership of Magnus Hirschfield and his organization, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. The major goals of this gay rights movement were to educate the public and to repeal Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code, which made homosexuality a crime.
Prior to the Nazis, the Weimar Republic was in control of Germany. This group tolerated homosexuality and did not enforce the law under Paragraph 175. As a result of this relaxed tolerance, there was a proliferation of homosexual meeting places, books, articles and films. Homosexuality was being discussed more openly in German society as a result. This all changed after the Nazis rose to power in 1933.
When the Nazis rose to power, its leadership contained at least one known homosexual, Ernst Roehm, who openly attended homosexual meeting places. From 1933 to 1934, Roehm was the leader of the SA (or Stormtroopers). The political left in Germany attacked the Nazi party, using homosexuality among Nazi leaders, with Roehm as the main target, as a way to discredit Hitler.
In 1934, Hitler decided Roehm, who had been a friend of Hitler’s for many years, was now a threat to Hitler’s own authority. Hitler thought Roehm was trying to turn the SA, at over 2 million strong in membership, into a militia in order to plan a military challenge to Hitler. Without any evidence such a plan even existed, Hitler ordered the murder of Roehm, many of Roehm’s supporters and over 1,000 of Hitler’s personal and political enemies.
In the wake of these murders, Hitler ordered the registration of homosexuals and the Gestapo, or the secret state police in Germany, was charged with creating dossiers on homosexuals. These “pink lists” were later used by the Nazis to hunt down individual homosexuals during police raids and other actions.
After the 1934 murders of Roehm and his supporters, the persecution of homosexuals by the Nazis really started to take off. The Nazi brand of persecution of homosexuals involved a wide range of brutality: from the dissolution of homosexual organizations to imprisonment to forced castrations to internment in concentration camps.
Between 1933 and 1945, the German police arrested an estimated 100,000 men as homosexuals. Most of the 50,000 men sentenced in court spent time in regular prisons, while between 5,000 and 15,000 homosexual men were interned in concentration camps. There are no records that tell us how many homosexuals were murdered by the Nazis.
The Nazis persecuted homosexuals because they believed them to be weak and effeminate and therefore unable to fight for the German nation. The Nazis had a deep-rooted belief in procreation; with nearly 2 million German males having been killed during World War I, the Nazis felt the remaining German males needed to produce children in order to keep the German population growing. Homosexuals were viewed by the Nazis as unlikely to reproduce, which meant they were worthless in the eyes of the Nazis. Oddly, the Nazis accepted “reformed” homosexuals into their group if the homosexuals in question became “racially conscious” and gave up their gay lifestyles in favor of heterosexuality.
On May 6, 1933, a group of students lead by Stormtroopers broke into the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin and basically stole its entire library. Four days later, at a book burning in Berlin’s city center, over 12,000 books and 35,000 irreplaceable photographs belonging to the institute were destroyed. The institute’s remaining materials were never recovered.
By burning the institute’s books and materials, the Nazis took their “first step to eradicating an openly gay or lesbian culture” from German society. After the book burning, the police permanently closed gay and lesbian bars and clubs and banned specific publications, especially those geared to a homosexual audience.
On June 28, 1935, Paragraph 175 of the criminal code was revised by Germany’s Ministry of Justice to provide a legal basis for widening the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. The revised law now defined “criminally indecent activities between men” to include any act that could be construed as homosexual. Under the revised law, even intent or thought was enough justification for a homosexual’s arrest and subsequent jailing.
Towards the end of 1935, all police across Germany had the power to “hold in protective custody or preventative arrest those deemed dangerous to Germany’s moral fiber.” This meant that the police could now jail indefinitely, without a trial, anyone they chose. Those homosexuals who were released from prison were often immediately re-arrested and sent to concentration camps if the police believed they would continue to engage in homosexuality.
Homosexuals in concentration camps were kept separated from other camp prisoners. Rudolf Hoess, commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, wrote in his memoirs that “homosexuals were segregated in order to prevent homosexuality from spreading to other inmates and guards.”
Some Nazis actually believed that homosexuality was a sickness that could be cured. German criminal justice officials advocated for castration as a way of “curing” the perceived sickness of homosexuality. Detained homosexuals could actually consent to castration as a means of having a reduced sentence while interned in the concentration camps. Eventually, judges and Nazi concentration camp officials could order castration without consent of the homosexual prisoner.
The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, held in 1945, did not address the treatment of homosexuals by the Nazis. If homosexual concentration camp survivors came forward during the trials, they were subjected to prosecution under German law for being homosexual. Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code, which made homosexuality a crime, was not repealed until 1969.
The persecution of gays and lesbians still exists throughout the world today. Perhaps it is time to use our knowledge of past events to help guide us to a more knowledgeable and accepting world today.