Unfortunately so. Long post coming up; if you’re triggered by this topic, please press J on your keyboard now.
Not much is taught about the gay victims of the Holocaust, and I’m not an expert on the subject by any means - I wrote my dissertation based on it and did a shitload of research though, so I can give you the basic facts and direct you to some great sources where you can learn more than I can tell you (sources under the Read More).
The basics of what is often referred to as the gay Holocaust are as follows:
- Paragraph 175 was a law enacted in Germany in 1871, which criminalised sex acts between men on the basis that they were ‘against nature’. This definition focused on sodomy. As it was pretty difficult to prove that men had been engaging with sodomy, this law was really reserved for extremely provable cases (eg men engaging in sex in public places) and homosexuality was often ignored, if not entirely tolerated. Germany developed a large gay subculture on this basis.
In 1935, the Nazis, who believed that gay men were a threat to the stability of the Reich as they were ‘depriving Germany of the children they owe her’, broadened this law and removed certain subtle clauses with devastating effect; acts were now banned if they could be reasonably determined as ‘lewd’, which, in Nazi Germany, encompassed acts such as kissing and non-penetrative sex between men. As these acts were a lot easier to prove than sodomy, many more men were now liable to be arrested under Paragraph 175. Punishment for these men ranged from castration to imprisonment. Lesbians were not persecuted under Paragraph 175 and there was no equivalent law criminalising same-sex relationships between women, as Nazis believed that women were more easily forced or coerced into complying with standard heterosexual behaviour and were therefore not a threat to the Reich, although they were often monitored to ensure that they were not a threat to state values.
- Between 1933-1945, over 100,000 men were arrested for homosexual acts, of whom around 50,000 were prosecuted. Most of these men served their sentences in prisons, but many thousands were sent to concentration camps. There are no official figures for the number of men who were sent to concentration camps, probably because the different prisoner groups made it hard to determine (eg some camps did not categorise homosexual prisoners separately, but grouped them under asocial prisoners) but the death toll is estimated to have been between 5,000-15,000.
- Homosexual prisoners had the highest rate of mortality of all prisoner groups. This of course does not mean that the majority of prisoners who died were homosexual; most people who died in the Holocaust were Jewish. However, this meant that if you were sent to a camp, you were most likely to die if you were classed as homosexual. This is because homosexual prisoners were on the bottom rung of the camp hierarchy, considered immoral and subjected to brutal treatment from both the camp guards and the other prisoners. Gay prisoners were also often picked out for medical experimentation into sexuality and reproduction. In all, it’s estimated that around 60% of all gay men who were imprisoned were killed in the camps.
- The image of the pink triangle comes from these prisoners; all prisoners had to wear an image on their uniform which showed why they had been imprisoned. For homosexual prisoners, the symbol was a pink triangle. Not all homosexual prisoners wore this symbol; many were given a blue bar, signifying their status as a general ‘asocial’ prisoner, and some were marked with the words 175 on their uniforms. However, after a time, the pink triangle became the standard symbol of a homosexual prisoner who was categorised as such.
- After Liberation, homosexual prisoners were not officially recognised as Holocaust victims. For other persecuted groups, if you survived persecution in the Holocaust, you were legally entitled to status as a Holocaust survivor, meaning that you were entitled to both reparations and a state pension. However, as Paragraph 175 was still in force after 1945 (it was amended in 1969 and finally abolished in 1994), men who had been imprisoned as homosexuals were still considered criminals, and were not entitled to these reparations. This remained the case until 2002. They were also kept on the sex offenders register and were entirely liable to be rearrested for repeat offences.
Men who had been imprisoned under Paragraph 175 were also, as criminals, not freed when the camps in which they were imprisoned were liberated. Instead, most were forced to carry out the rest of their sentences; liberation for them was, in effect, being moved from one prison to another, this time under the Allies.
Even those who were freed were forced to return home as criminals rather than victims; forced to rebuild their lives without the acknowledgement of suffering that was due to them, and which was allowed to other prisoners. They were often obliged to try and return to the lives they had before their arrest, totally unable to discuss their experiences. This is what Pierre Seel meant by his famous quote ‘liberation was for others’; even though he was no longer in a camp, he felt as though he would never be free as he kept all his experiences inside him. Men like him were imprisoned first by the Nazis, then by the Allies, and finally by their own memories and isolation.
I think it’s very important that we recognise what the Holocaust really was. Many people consider it an ethnic genocide, and it’s true that this is partially what it was. Jews were undoubtedly persecuted most severely (eg the ‘Final Solution’ focused on solving the ‘Jewish problem’, and anti-Jewish propaganda formed the basis of Nazi society). However, the nature of the Holocaust itself was an attempt at a far more wide-reaching genocide; the death of every single person who did not fit into the ideal Nazi societal mould, including Roma, disabled people, homosexuals, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Poles, Russians, Socialists and Communists.
It was not merely an attempt at erasing one ethnic group, although this was their initial and most important target. It’s absolutely true that over half of Holocaust victims were Jewish (around 5,930,000). It’s absolutely and shamefully true that Jews were persecuted far more than other groups on a societal level, and I don’t think it’s unfair or incorrect in the slightest that Holocaust memorials tend to take a Jewish viewpoint. It’s completely justified; Jews suffered by far the highest number of casualties (for example, 90% of all Polish Jews were killed) and the anti-Semitism that was rife in Europe at the time has never really gone away.
However, it was also an attempt at erasing all but one group, and I think that by focusing on one aspect - albeit the most prominent and wide-reaching aspect - we’re doing a disservice to the millions of forgotten victims. Depending on which estimates you use, the figures of non-Jewish Holocaust victims ranges from 4,274,000-5,742,000. These people are seldom remembered, and if the phrase never forget is to be enacted with any merit, then we have to ensure that we remember everyone, regardless of the symbol they wore on their uniform.