by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
SGN previewed the exhibit 'Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, 1933-1945,' which is on display at the Henry and Sandra Friedman Holocaust Center for Humanity (2045 Second Ave.) in Belltown, from September 11 through October 31. I'm happy to report that it will leave you not only educated but filled with a sense of justice, because although nothing can or will bring back the many thousands of lives lost, the documentation of the crimes, celebration of the lives of the victims, and the conversation about how it all happened might surely lead to stopping anything from happening like this ever again.
SGN was given a tour on Monday of the traveling exhibition produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. While it is a known fact that the Nazis persecuted and murdered Gay men alongside other 'undesirables,' what is not as known is the number of these men who died or their personal stories. The current exhibit does not, however, leave out any detail. In its entirety, the collection of photos (and in some cases personal property) of the people impacted by the Holocaust is impressive.
The Holocaust Center for Humanity describes the exhibit thus: 'Through reproductions of historic photographs and documents, this exhibition explores the rationale, means, and impact of the Nazi regime's persecution of homosexuals, which left thousands dead and shattered the lives of many more.'
It is important to note that you must plan your visit; reservations are required for all exhibits. Reserve tickets online or call 206-582-3000. You can attend with a small group of friends or as a couple or set up a corporate or student group visit. Tickets are priced surprisingly well for the plethora of items, information, and resources you receive once you are at the exhibit: adult are $10, students and seniors are $5.
At the exhibit you learn that while male homosexuality remained illegal in Weimar Germany under Paragraph 175 of the criminal code, German homosexual-rights activists became worldwide leaders in efforts to reform societal attitudes that condemned homosexuality. Many in Germany regarded the Weimar Republic's toleration of homosexuals as a sign of the nation's decadence. The Nazis posed as moral crusaders who wanted to stamp out the 'vice' of homosexuality in order to help win the racial struggle. Once they took power in 1933, the Nazis intensified persecution of German male homosexuals, ranging from the dissolution of homosexual organizations to internment in concentration camps.
Lesbians were not regarded as a threat to Nazi racial policies and were generally not targeted for persecution. Similarly, the Nazis generally did not target non-German homosexuals unless they were active with German partners.
Ilana Cone Kennedy, director of education at the Holocaust Center for Humanity, was tour guide for the SGN visit to the museum. I cannot say enough good things about how knowledgeable she is about the subject. Also, she conducted the tour in a way that allowed for conversation to take place and really showed her understanding, within the greater context of current LGBTQ persecution, aside from just the historical implications the Nazi persecution of Gay men has had on the world.
Ms. Kennedy explained that the Nazis believed that male homosexuals were weak, effeminate men who could not fight for the German nation. They saw homosexuals as unlikely to produce children and increase the German birthrate. The Nazis held that inferior races produced more children than 'Aryans,' so anything that diminished Germany's reproductive potential was considered a racial danger.
As the exhibit explains, SS chief Heinrich Himmler directed the increasing persecution of homosexuals in the Third Reich. In most cases, the Nazis were oddly prepared to accept former homosexuals into the 'racial community' provided that they became 'racially conscious' and gave up their lifestyle.
While it is painfully understood that most of our LGBTQ history before Stonewall has been systematically hidden or lost, this exhibit goes into great detail about how and why this sort of thing happened in Nazi Germany. On May 6, 1933, students led by Storm Troopers (Sturmabteilung, or SA) broke into the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin and confiscated its unique library. Four days later, most of this collection of over 12,000 books and 35,000 irreplaceable pictures was destroyed, along with thousands of other 'degenerate' works of literature in the book burning in Berlin's city center. The remaining materials were never recovered. Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of the Institute and a pioneer in the scientific study of human sexuality, was lecturing in France at the time and chose not to return to Germany.
Our tour guide explained to SGN that the destruction of the Institute was a first step toward eradicating an openly Gay culture from Germany. Police closed bars and clubs such as the 'Eldorado' and banned publications such as Die Freundschaft (Friendship). In this early stage the Nazis drove homosexuals underground, destroying their networks of support. In 1934, the Gestapo (the secret state police) instructed local police forces to keep lists of all men engaged in homosexual activities. The Nazis used these 'pink lists' to hunt down individual homosexuals during police actions.
On June 28, 1935, the Ministry of Justice revised Paragraph 175. The revisions provided a legal basis for extending Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Ministry officials expanded the category of 'criminally indecent activities between men' to include any act that could be construed as homosexual. The courts later decided that even intent or thought sufficed. On October 26, 1936, Himmler formed within the Security Police the Reich Central Office for Combating Abortion and Homosexuality. Josef Meisinger (executed in 1947 for his brutality in occupied Poland) led the new office. The police had powers to hold in protective custody or preventive arrest those deemed dangerous to Germany's moral fiber, jailing indefinitely - without trial - anyone they chose. In addition, homosexual prisoners just released from jail were immediately rearrested and sent to concentration camps if the police thought it likely that they would continue to engage in homosexual acts.
According to the exhibit, 1937 to 1939 were the peak years of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. During that time the police increasingly raided homosexual meeting places, seized address books, and created networks of informers and undercover agents to identify and arrest suspected homosexuals. On April 4, 1938, the Gestapo issued a directive indicating that men convicted of homosexuality could be incarcerated in concentration camps. Between 1933 and 1945 the police arrested an estimated 100,000 men as homosexuals. Most of the 50,000 men sentenced by the courts spent time in regular prisons, and between 5,000 and 15,000 were interned in concentration camps.
The Nazis began to send homosexuals to concentration camps immediately after they came to power in January 1933. In the camps Gay men had to wear a pink triangle (which, for many years before the creation of the rainbow pride flag, was the symbol around which the community rallied). Prisoners marked by pink triangles to signify homosexuality were treated harshly in the camps. According to many survivor accounts, homosexuals were among the most abused groups in the camps.
Much like today's right-wing Christians who believe that Gays can be 'cured,' the Nazis also believed homosexuality was a sickness that could be cured and designed policies to 'cure' homosexuals of their 'disease' through humiliation and hard work. Guards ridiculed and beat homosexual prisoners upon arrival, often separating them from other inmates.
One avenue of survival available to some homosexuals was castration, which some criminal justice officials advocated as a way of 'curing' sexual deviance. Homosexual defendants in criminal cases or concentration camps could agree to castration in exchange for lower sentences. Later, judges and SS camp officials could order castration without the consent of a homosexual prisoner.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, wrote in his memoirs that homosexuals were segregated in order to prevent homosexuality from spreading to other inmates and guards. Personnel in charge of work details in the Dora-Mittelbau underground rocket factory or in the stone quarries at Flossenbürg and Buchenwald often gave deadly assignments to homosexuals.
For some prisoners, sexuality became a means of survival. In exchange for sexual favors, some kapos (prisoners who rose to leadership positions) protected a chosen prisoner, usually of young age, giving him extra food and shielding him from the abuses of other prisoners (homosexuals themselves very rarely became kapos due to the lack of a support network).
In the end, for many reasons, there are no known statistics for the number of homosexuals who died in the camps.
Personally, I found it refreshing that, as you go from panel to panel, looking at the various photos and documents on display, the image of Adolf Hitler only appears two or three times. If you are like me, you tire of everything about the Nazi party or the Holocaust resting on him alone. That is too easy and too boring - not to mention inaccurate. Instead, the exhibit relies on the accounts of people who died and in some cases, lived through it all. Hitler was perhaps the reason why much of the genocide came about, but he was certainly not the only person involved or the only person who thought to murder Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and others. Kudos to the creators of this exhibit for showcasing that.
Support for the exhibit comes from Gilman Family Foundation, Pride Foundation, Greater Seattle Business Association, Carter Subaru, 1st Security Bank, Congregation Tikvah Chadashah, and Lifelong AIDS Alliance.
Additionally, Claims Conference, 4 Culture, Verizon, Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, and Comcast are sponsoring the exhibit.
Also, as an added bonus, photos from Robin Hammond's evocative photo project 'Where Love is Illegal,' which tells the story of LGBTQ persecution today, are on display at the museum. So you essentially get to see two exhibits for the price of one
The Holocaust Center for Humanity teaches tolerance and citizenship through lessons of the Holocaust. Established in 1989, the Center supports teachers in the public and private schools of Washington State and in the Pacific Northwest, making it possible to introduce Holocaust studies into their curricula. The Holocaust Center for Humanity is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. For more information visit the center online at www.HolocaustCenterSeattle.org.
Share on Facebook
Share on Delicious
Share on StumbleUpon!