Searching Yesterday

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Considering that history has a way of ignoring the things that are unpleasant, a day to remember the horrific genocide that occurred between 1933 and 1945 is incredibly important. But we tend to forget to remember those who perished during the Holocaust who weren’t Jews. It is almost universally accepted that the Holocaust caused the death of somewhere between 5-6 million Jews, and the acknowledgement of what the Holocaust was in terms of Jewish deaths happened pretty much the moment the first Allied unit stepped foot inside Ohrdruf. However, the Jews weren’t the only casualties of the Holocaust. In fact, the second largest group of victims during the Holocaust were gay men…and the persecution of homosexuals by the Nazis began almost the second Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor.

In February 1933, the Nazis began purging Berlin of all gay clubs, outlawed all homosexual publications. and banned all homosexual related organisations. Seeing the future they had in a Nazi run Germany, many homosexuals who had means began fleeing Germany…although by 1939, that was no longer a possibility. In March, the administrator for the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. Kurt Hiller, was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. On 6 May 1933, the Nazi Youth raided Institut für Sexualwissenschaft and ordered its closure. On 10 May, they publicly burned the contents of the institute’s library, which included over 20,000 books and journals, and over 5,000 images. The raid also gave the Nazi party the largest list of known homosexuals in Germany. In response, Nazi propaganda boss Joseph Goebbels used the opportunity of the public burnings to give a political speech denouncing homosexuality, and proclaiming homosexuals a public danger, and declaring that “homosexuals must be eliminated.”

The purging of homosexuals began within the Nazi party itself. Known homosexuals within the party were routed and murdered during the Night of the Long Knives (30 June to 2 July 1934). The Gestapo compiled lists of homosexuals, some of whom weren’t, and ordered all men to conform to German social standards. Those who didn’t were arrested. After the Night of The Long Knives, the Gestapo established a special division whose sole purpose was compiling lists of homosexuals. In 1936, Himmler created the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion.

By 1937, Hitler’s propaganda machine was in full swing…and so was the buildup to what would become the Holocaust. The political problems Hitler faced at home were well trampled by Goebbels, and in reality Hitler didn’t face many issues at home. The most important thing to remember about Nazi Germany is that everything Hitler did up until 1939, was legal. Hitler was legally appointed chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg (after two successive parliamentary elections hadn’t returned a majority…Germany at this time was a parliamentary republic). Hitler, through the Enabling Act, was legally allowed to pass laws without the the Reichstag, and upon von Hindenburg’s death 2 Aug 1937, legally became führer of Germany. Although Hitler had opponents on home soil, in 1937 the majority of Hitler’s opponents were international…although it would take another year for Hitler to be on an inevitable path to war, most countries realised the foreign policy consequences of what Hitler had achieved so far. Having rearmed Germany against the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, withdrawn from the League of Nations (of with the US was never a part), and reoccupied the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland, Hitler was actually quite popular at home. Germany’s victories during the 1936 summer Olympics only re-enforced Hitler’s propaganda. Hitler’s popularity allowed many to ignore the obviousness of Hitler’s purges. In 1938, Hitler issued a directive which allowed any man convicted of gross indecency to be sent directly to a concentration camp.

In early 1940, the Nazis passed a new directive which required that any man arrested for homosexual activity with multiple partners was to be sent directly to a concentration camp upon completion of his prison term. This directive was grandfathered into German law, which meant that any man who was already in prison for multiple counts of sodomy would also be sent to concentration camps upon the completion of his prison term. In 1943, Himmler, commander of the SS, issued an order allowing any man imprisoned in a concentration camp as a homosexual to be released provided he underwent castration. There are very few records which have survived, and it’s unknown how many men actually underwent the procedure. In reality, it didn’t matter. Those who were castrated and released were immediately sent to fight in the Dirlewanger Brigade, which was akin to a death sentence.

The social stigma of homosexuality was so great, that even amongst concentration camp prisoners they were outsiders. In the camps, gay men were subjected to often brutal treatment…both by the guards, and by other prisoners. It’s estimated that as many as 40% of homosexuals in the camps were beaten to death. Concentration camp guards often used homosexual prisoners for target practice, aiming for the pink triangle on their chest. Homosexual men were frequently subjected to experiments in the camps in an attempt to find a ‘cure’ or a ‘homosexual gene’ in order to prevent it in future generations. More homosexuals deaths in the camps were a result of violence and experimentation than any other group.

When the Allied forces finally broke through and invaded Germany (US/UK/France/Belgium,etc from the West and Russia from the East), they liberated concentration camps as they went. They brought in medical supplies, food, clothing, and hope. But for the homosexuals in the camp, there was no hope. Those concentration camp prisoners with upside down pink triangles were arrested by allied forces, and transported to prisons in German and Russia, were they were forced to serve out the remainder of their sentence… a sentence arbitrarily created by the date they were arrested by the Gestapo. For homosexuals, the upside down pink triangle was not their symbol of genocide and wrongful incarceration as the Star of David was to Jewish prisoners… rather it was the symbol of a criminal. Broken, bleeding, beaten, starved, raped and ostracised, they were removed from concentration camps and sent to prison. For them, the Allied forces weren’t a symbol of hope, they were simply the next in a line of jailers. The gay men who survived the concentration camps, and were moved to government prisons, were forced to register as sex offenders upon their release.

The Holocaust was an attempt to eradicate the Jewish people, and although it failed, it had a significant impact on the Jewish population of Europe. And on this day of remembrance, it’s important to accept that we’ll never understand why, and we’ll never fully understand the impact the Holocaust had on European Jews. But it’s Holocaust Remembrance day, not Jewish Holocaust Remembrance day… and although the numbers of homosexuals who died in concentration camps is less than 1% of the total of Jewish deaths, it can’t be ignored.

It’s unknown exactly how many homosexuals perished in concentration camps during the holocaust, but some 100,000 were officially arrested and about half officially sentence between 1933 and 1945. Of those 50,000 officially sentence, about 15,000 ended up in a concentration camp. These numbers, of course, are reliant on official Nazi documents, and many historians believe the number of gay men who ended up in concentration camps was a lot higher than the official number. Because of the stigma related to homosexuals, concentration camp guards were particularly cruel to gay men. Of the estimated official  number of 15,000, it’s believed as many as 60% were killed in the camps.

The acceptance of the Holocaust is, today, almost universal…and the understanding of its impact was almost immediately acknowledged at the end of WWII. It wasn’t until the 1980s, in the middle of the panic of the AIDS epidemic, that world governments began acknowledging that homosexuals were imprisoned in concentration camps, and died at the hands of the Nazis by gas chamber and rifle. In 1969 the Chancellor of West Germany officially admitted the German responsibility and apologised for the Holocaust… it wasn’t until 2002 that the German government apologised to the gay community, and in 2005 EU Parliament officially included homosexuals in the list of those persecuted during the Holocaust by adopting a previously passed resolution. However, since Homosexuality was outlawed in Germany during the Third Reich, and subsequently in almost every other country in the world, the Germany government maintains that homosexuals were convicted of ‘criminal activity,’ and thus aren’t eligible to reparations.

It’s been 71 years since the camps were liberated, and in some ways the world has learned nothing. The hate that led to the Holocaust still exists, virulently in some cases. Fear of that which you don’t understand, leads to hate, which leads to violence. There are still historians, today, who argue that homosexuals can’t be classified as a persecuted group by the Nazis because homosexuality was illegal…they were simply common criminals. There are many today who still feel that homosexuals should be forced to live in the shadows, marginalised because of who they love. It’s been 71 years since the discovery of the worst crime in human history, and yet there are still those who think that the mindset which led to the Holocaust is acceptable in the 21st Century. Hate of that which you are not does nothing but create violence. Hate has no place in a modern world, and ignoring the reality of what the Holocaust was, how it became what it did, and acknowledging the hate it took for 6million people to die is nothing more than a recipe for history to repeat itself.


AFTERWARD: Homosexuals and Jews weren’t the only people persecuted by the Nazi regime. Political prisoners (which was loosely defined as anyone who dissented), Jehovah Witnesses, Romani Gypsies, to a lesser extent Catholics and non-whites, the disabled, and the mentally ill.

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