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Persecution of Gays in Nazi Germany

Updated on August 19, 2017
John Everette profile image

While I was in the Arny, this history buff, spent a total of 9 years in Germany, where I gained a curiosity about its historic figures.

The Pink Triangel
The Pink Triangel | Source

Laws governing the social customes of a country tend to come and go given that country’s economic, political, and social condition, at any given time. Of all of the social customes that exist in a society, there is perhaps no other set of customes that has always stirred more controversy or uneasiness as those customes that deal with an individual’s sexual identity and sexual activities in relation to the larger society. Even if these laws did not exist, most countries and societies would tend to look down upon sexual activities and believes that do not match up with those of the greater society.

Most if not all countries have laws addressing acceptable sexual activitiy. Even with these laws, the enforcement of them tends to be hit-or-miss.

Shortly after Germany was unified in January of 1871, its governing body criminalized (male) homosexual activity in March of 1871 with the passing of Paragraph 175. Then from 1871 to the rise of the Weimar Republic in 1918 there does not seem to have been much said or done about it. It was only after the “Great War” that it started to become an issue.

Germany was thrown into a state of chaos after its defeat and the humiliating treaty of Versailles that it had to sign in order to end the hostilities of the Great War. Amongst this chaos many reformers managed to create a new German constitution and government-the Weimar Republic. For a time they were successful with their experiment with modern democracy in a country that had only know aristocratic militarism and monarchy. They appear to have been the most successful in the areas of social renewal and ad cultural innovations. Even though various regions of Germany already had a history of tolerance of (male) homosexuals, there existed an uneasy existence between (male) homosexual society and the greater society of heterosexuals. During this time an average gay man could live unnoticed and undisturbed unless he was entrapped by police, or blackmailed. For lesbians this was a time of costume balls, luxurious bars and night clubs, plays and magazines with a healthy circulation. (There were no laws forbidding sexual acts between women).

It was also during this time (the 1920s) of relative sexual freedom that the gay rights, and sexual rights of women movements began. The gay movements did not really reach it’s peak until the very ambitious, energetic, and imaginative homosexual Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld came on the scene.

The chaos continued though as the average German, who had welcomed the Great War and had been assured of victory up to the end, and beaten and unemployed soldiers returning from the war joined various paramilitary groups belonging to various political organizations, all looking for people and groups to blame for their defeat. The blame was usually assigned to Jews, Bolsheviks, foreigners and homosexuals that seemed to populate and corrupt Berlin. To make matters worse, the economy of the Weimar Republic was never as prosperous as it seemed so, like the rest of Europe and the world Germany suffered greatly under the Great Depression. The worse unemployment, inflation and civil strife, and trust in the government became, the less attention was paid to homosexual tolerance.

In 1933 the Weimar Republic fell as Hitler and his National Socialist Party rose to power in Germany. It was in January 1933 that Hitler was made Chancellor. In March the Reichstag passed the Fire Decree which abolished most civil liberties, and the Enabling Act which allowed Hitler to act without consent of Parliament and not limited by the constitution. In August 1934 when he took full control of the government proclaiming himself “Furher”. By then the persecution of “inferiors” including homosexuals had begun, in small ways such as the arrest of members of homosexual rights organizations. He also had purged homosexuals from much of the Nazi Party during the “Night of Long Knives” in June of 1933 when he did away with Ernst Roehm and his SA thus removing any sense of protection gays may have had as long as there were gays within the Nazi Party.

Heinrich Himmler and his files on individuals
Heinrich Himmler and his files on individuals | Source

Himmler and his war with homosexuals

In October 1934, long before he acquired unlimited authority to “purify” the German race Himmler instructed German police to submit lists of homosexually active individuals (those who had already been arrested for violations of Paragraph 175). Their political affiliation was to be noted.

In December of 1934, the Ministry of Justice issued new guidelines in regard to homosexual offenses. These guidelines were initially used in cases of Jewish men having sexual relations with a non-Jewish woman, for they stated that offenses did not actually have been committed to be punishable.

On June 28, Paragraph 175 was revised to authorize authorities to arrest homosexuals caught having criminally indecent activities on the most ludicrous and transparent charges, then leaving it up to the courts to determine the meaning of “criminally indecent”, Eventually the cane to see the following charges as “criminally indecent”. This list consists of only those charges that could be printed here.

  1. Kissing and touching

In 1935 a legal decision was made that made any act punishable “if inborn healthy instincts of the German people demanded it” thus judges became free to administer justice as they believed Hitler had intended.

In 1936 Himmler had to halt his persecution of homosexuals temporarily because of the Olympics in Berlin. At that time some gay bars were permitted to reopen, and the police requested not to bother visiting foreign homosexuals. In the Fall of that year the persecutions resumed.

In 1936 Himmler finally acquired his virtual unchallenged authority as law enforcement was “federalized”. Prosecutors were also granted greater leeway in the presentation of their cases. Defense lawyers lost powers as the rules of factual evidence were abolished. The sentencing of convicted criminals were no longer dependent on the severity of the alleged crime but the “psychological type” that the offender supposedly belonged to. Finally, newly devised laws were made retro-active, meaning that crimes of racial defilement (by Jew and homosexual) occurring before the Nuremberg Laws were in enacted in 1933 were still punishable, and those convicted were sent to prison and concentration camps, established and run by Himmler and his SS.

Finally, in 1936 Himmler established his Federal Security Department for Combating Abortion and Homosexuality with headquarters in the Gestapo Headquarters in Berlin.

In 1937 the definition of “criminally indecent” acts of a homosexual nature, was further clarified or made clear (dependent on one’s interpretation) by a chart created by a young lawyer who drew a chart classifying same sex felonies. (again, this list has been edited so eliminate references that some may find objectionable. The references are left to your imagination though)

  1. Simple contemplations of desired object
  2. Plain touching which may lead to ……..
  3. Petting/embracing/ kissing of partner
  4. Pressing of (naked) … to any part of partner’s body
  5. Pressing two bodies against one another with/without friction
  6. Rhythmic thrusts between …….
  7. Touch of … by partner’s tongue
  8. Placement of … into partner’s mouth
  9. Placement of penis in ……..

The Nazi courts were not satisfied with this as they decided that even a lewd glance from one man to another was sufficient grounds for prosecution. Again, there was no mention of lesbianism, or “gross indecencies between women” as that lesbianism was seen as alien to German women. German women could be tender with each other without arousing suspicions. Sexual acts of any kind between women were usually carried out in private.

On September 27 1939 Himmler further enhanced his power by uniting the Office for Combating Abortion and Homosexuality with the Federal Security Bureau, thus freeing up agents.

In 1943 Himmler finally able to extend his authority over the military.

homosexuals in concentraton camp
homosexuals in concentraton camp | Source

The Condition of Homosexuals in Nazi Germany

Homosexuals in the military

In 1935 gays began to realize that they could escape a great deal of persecution by enlisting in the army, navy, and air force because Himmler’s authority did not extend over the military. None of the military forces held views particularly favorable to homosexuality.

To combat any homosexuality in the military set up brothels were either established or allowed to be established to serve servicemen. Despite this, between 1940 and 1941 nearly 5,000 German military men were arrested, of those 205 were officers. These individuals were tried in accordance to laws dating back to the Prussian army before 1870. In this manner the court distinguished between those offenders who could not resist same sex misdeeds and those would either had been seduced or had become over stimulated with no other outlet. In either situation the individual was either put in jail or into a penal battalion.

When Himmler extended his authority over the military, he and the military decided that there should three categories of those who committed acts in violation of Paragraph 175:

  1. Incorrigible felons deserved a harsh penalty namely that they were to be turned over to the Gestapo for certain death
  2. Men who had committed ½ homosexual crimes such as seducing another individuals deserved sever punished but not so severe that they could not be rehabilitated
  3. Those who showed homosexual inclinations were to be put into penal combat battalions, however if observation suggests they reformed they could rejoin former unit

However as World War II progressed every able-bodied man was needed in the war effort.

Concentration Camp Life for Homosexuals

After a gay arrived at a concentration camp, with his pink-triangle, he was subject to profound trauma as his hair was shorn, then there would come a time in which he would be cuffed and forced to tell in detail what he had done and how. He would also be subject to being kicked and beaten. He was also most likely cut off from the outside world like none of the other inmates.

Sometime he would be put in a barracks with other homosexuals, other times he may be put with other inferiors who tended to think of him as a man for whom nothing was more important than his genitals thus these people worried that the concentration camp offered gays too many opportunities to approach sex-starved males. For this and other reasons gays were often barred from joining camp committees in order to improve conditions in the barracks. At best homosexual acts were in the concentration camps were seen as “locational sex”. It was also believed that gays would tend to loose sexual urges as a result of hard work, starvation, or lack of medical care.

Then there was the tendency of some SS officers, who were willing to risk everything, including their very lives, to make handsome young gay inmates (teenage Poles and Russians) into “doll-boys” which many of these gays saw as a means of receiving extra food rations, as well as exception from tough work in exchange for sexual favors.

Three-fourths of every day was spent on some kind of work detail whether it was spend using poor quality tools to secure the barracks from the rain and cold. In the end much of what was accomplished would collapse and had to be done over again. Building walls only to tear them down, or building another concentration camp.

Some work details involved actual work as war factories and installations were built near concentration camps. For gays these work details were death sentences for they involved working in quarries and tunnels such as the V-2 rocket-tunnels near Buchenwald where they were subject to plastic and cement dust and had to sleep on narrow bunks stacked 4 high. The dust ruined lungs with tuberculosis.

Medical/ pseudo-medical experiments involved homosexuals

Apart from work details in concentration camps, homosexuals were likely subject to medical and pseudo-medical experiments. Regardless of the experiment more often than not brought illness and death. This happened as a result of lab techs not knowing the procedures, there being no control group, the purity of medications not being checked, and files being lost

At Buchenwald experiments were conducted by a Dutch endocrinologist by the name of Carl Vaernet whose theory was based on the idea that homosexuals could be changed into heterosexuals through hormone treatments. He was joined in this endeavor by German surgeon Schudlavsky. The experiment involved castrated the subject and the administration of huge doses of male hormones, then wait and see if the subject exhibited signs of interest in the opposite sex.


1975-Irma Kukuc published the account of how SS officers arrested and sentenced Helena G. from Scheswig-Holstein who worked for counter-intelligence division of Luftwaffe and shared a residence with a lesbian. Toward end of 1944 a young man wanted to bed her girlfriend (the lesbian), however when he was rebuffed he took revenge by having Helen arrested and indicted for military subversion. She was expelled from air force and sent to the Bulzow concentration camp which had been designated as a camp for recalcitrant (French and Russian) POWS. The prisoners promised bottle of Schnapps for each woman they had sex with.

Then there is the story of Isa Vermehren, a German intellectual who was arrested because brother defected to Allies in 1944. She was first sent to Dachau, thed Ravensbruk, and Buchenwald. At Ravensbruck older inmates attacked 2 young girls they suspected of having an affair. The female block warden yelled at them and threatened to punish

Then there are interviews of lesbian survivors of Nazi Germany conducted by Ilsa Kokula, a Berlin social worker and journalist who was concern with the arrest and mistreatment of lesbians by the Gestapo in 1944. Several of them were taken into custody when SS raided a les bar, (illegal under Nazi judicial code) sentences were upheld though the raids were conducted before sex laws were enacted Fir the most part most lesbians camp out of Nazi Germany unscathed largely because lesbianism was outside of Himmler’s universe of sexual obsessions.

Prominent homosexual artists

For the most part prominent performing and decorative artists often too were able to survive unscathed for these people were often able to obtain protection from high officials

One name comes to mind of and artist by the name of Gustave/Gustaf Grundgen, who was admired by Goring’s wife. Though his homosexuals exploits tended to be more notorious that Ernst Roehm’s he was appointed director of State Theater. He later became head of theatrical life of Third Reich. In 1936 Klaus Mann wrote a bitter satire of Gustaf who was married to his sister Erika Mann. Mann painted Gustaf as a lecherous intellectual who prostitutes his talent for the sake of some sort of tawdry fame and temporary wealth

Homosexuality on occupied territories

Each country conquered by Hitler and his forces each had their own unique characteristics, few never had laws banning sexual activity between consenting adults. Others had laws that were not only vague but not always enforced

The Netherlands were busy battling labor unions who were holding general strikes to protest deportation of Jews. Over all they did not co-operate with the Nazi, not were the expected to.

When France was invaded in November of 1942 some French collaborated and assisted in arrests and deportation of Jews and other “undesireables”, others organized into resistance unit. Officially French homosexuals not arrested by the occupying Germans. Vichy police did issue seek the arrest of gays on Riveria. Homosexuals from Alsac-Lorraine were hounded at first for the area was seen as regular component of Third Reich, to which it would be rejoined with, and thus subject to all German laws.

In March of 1942 Poland was invaded and the Gestapo issued a secret memorandum on the possible arrest and sentencing of Polish citizens guilty of abortion and sexual misdeeds. This memorandum stressed the need of Germans to continue their quest in the purification of their race, in order to keep them stronger than their enemies, and how the proximity of Poles to Germans could and in fact did challenge this. It also recognized the right of Poles to engage in abortion and homosexuality as long as these two crimes were committed only with other Poles.

Ideal of Nazi germany
Ideal of Nazi germany | Source


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