Everyone sent to the Nazi concentration camps in World War II endured horrors beyond what most people could endure. Millions of people died in these desolate places, but little is written about the plight of homosexuals in the camps. The lack of complete records means we will never know the real figure but between 50,000 and 100,000 homosexuals were arrested by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 and tens of thousands ended up in the dreaded concentration camps.
While in these camps, homosexual prisoners were on the lowest rung of the ladder; despised by the guards and fellow inmates alike. These men were subjected to the worst horrors of the camps, and over 50 percent of non-Jewish homosexuals died. 75 percent of the men died within the first year of imprisonment.
The Nazis Persecuted Homosexual Men from the Beginning
According to Paragraph 175 of the Criminal Code, homosexuality was illegal in Germany, yet there were an increasing number of activists preaching tolerance and acceptance during the Weimar Republic era. The Nazi Party appealed to those who hated homosexuals, and once they gained power in 1933, they wasted little time persecuting gay men. The Nazis justified their actions by saying it was part of a crusade to racially purify the nation. They believed that gay men carried a contagion which weakened society and damaged the growth of the Aryan population.
The Nazis did not persecute gay women as they believed them to be no threat to society. Likewise, they did not target foreign homosexuals unless they were with German men. They even accepted ‘former’ homosexuals back into the community as long as they pledged to give up their ‘lifestyle.’ On May 6, 1933, students and Storm Troopers broke into the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin and destroyed 35,000 pictures and 12,000 books deemed ‘inappropriate’; they also burned thousands of ‘degenerate’ books. The Institute’s founder, Magnus Hirschfield, was in France lecturing at the time and wisely decided not to return to Germany.
In many ways, the destruction of the Institute was the first big step the Nazis took regarding eliminating Germany’s openly gay culture. Police closed down bars and newspapers related to homosexual activity, and the Nazis quickly forced gay men underground by destroying their support networks. On July 1, 1934, Adolf Hitler ordered the purge of all homosexuals from Nazi organizations.
In the same year, the Gestapo ordered local police forces to keep lists of all men involved in homosexual activities; it was something German police had already done for a number of years. The Nazis used the so-called ‘Pink Lists’ to hunt down gay men. The persecution continued throughout the 1930s. In 1935, the Ministry of Justice made revisions to Paragraph 175 as a means of widening the scale of persecution. Any act between two men deemed to be homosexual was an arrestable offense, and later, the Nazis decided that even homosexual thought was a crime. In the same year, another new law was introduced. It legalized the castration of gay men.
1936-1939: The Pre-War Peak of Persecution
By 1936, it was dangerous to be a gay man in Nazi Germany as persecution made way for violence. In October 1936, Heinrich Himmler created the Reich Central Office for Combating Abortion and Homosexuality as part of the Security Police, and it was led by Josef Meisinger. This new police force could indefinitely jail anyone they believed to be a threat to the nation’s moral fiber. Gay men recently released from jail were thrown back inside if the Nazis believed they were likely to ‘reoffend.’
In the two years before the war, the Nazis intensified their level of persecution and started raiding meeting places. They also created an army of informants to provide them with the information they could use to arrest gay men. The Nazis began placing homosexuals in concentration camps as early as 1933 and even placed some political prisoners in the camps under the ‘gay’ category as a means of enhancing the punishment. On April 4, 1938, the Gestapo issued a directive whereby men convicted of homosexual activity could be imprisoned in the concentration camps. These men were marked with pink triangles in the camps, and their classification guaranteed even worse treatment. If being a homosexual as a freeman in German was hard, life in a concentration camp was the stuff of nightmares.