Homosexuality in the Holocaust

Who are we? It seems to be a question that makes us unique. Most people say that our ability to think and to question is what separates man from animals. However, it is also what separates us from one another. This is just one of the crucial ideas that surrounds the book Klaus Muller’s book, The Men With the Pink Triangle: the True Life-and-Death Stories of Homosexuals in Nazi Death Camps. Although this class has been incredibly informative to me, the fact of the matter remains that the plight of the Jews in the Holocaust is the most visible and frequently documented persecution under Hitler and the Third Reich. Muller incited the writing of this book, which tells the story of Heinz Heger, from his own point of view, because up until the publication of this book in 1994, the Nazi persecution of homosexuals is often ignored.
The book begins powerfully with the Heinz Heger’s firm declaration, “I am living proof that Hitler didn’t win.” While it’s very true that Hitler didn’t achieve his final goal of a “pure” race, the pain inflicted and the lives destroyed is palpable in the story of Heger’s experience in the Nazi death camps. What I found most interesting was that, although the story is about the death camps, the richness and fullness of the text goes far behind what was experienced in the death camps. In order to understand what happened, Muller and Heger make sure that you know how it happened. The story of the persecution of the homosexuals is not an entirely dissimilar story of that of the Jews, and in the cases of gay Jews, the discrimination was almost unbearable. What was perhaps most alarming and profoundly disturbing was, more than the loss of life, there was a sense of identity before Paragraph 175 was passed and before the Nazis came into power that was never re-captured until even the mid-1970s when people began to take interest in the stories of the persecuted homosexuals.
Heger details the cultural gay scene before the Nazis came into power and implemented legal restrictions against homosexuality. In this day and age, where homosexuality is something that is still a highly contested “lifestyle” for lack of a better term, it’s unusual to see a homosexual sub-culture exist in the early years of the 20th century. Most gay audiences these days believe that homosexuality began its visibility in the years following the Stonewall Riots which is, to a certain extent true, because earlier instances of homosexual gatherings were largely underground, but this concept of community was most definitely alive and well in the years leading up to World War II. Unlike our discussion of the Jewish community which existed in Germany up until the Holocaust, the gay community was much less visible. There wasn’t the same level of segregation between the gays and the straights as there was between most Jews and the largely Christian society, because homosexuality was practiced behind closed doors. This is something that made the Nazi persecution of homosexuals so alarming. The deep seed of anti-Semitism was sewn all throughout Europe much earlier whereas although the gay community was less visible, it was still recognized and even flourished in the early 20th century. There were even several clubs that catered to the gay community and they were, as Heger says, “normal bars” except on certain days when homosexuals would rent them out and transform them into a gay club for one night. Once again, I think it’s important to stress that the loss of life in the Holocaust was such a staggering loss, but Hitler’s subjugation and stifling of entire cultures is still something that’s so impossible to fathom to me. After the Holocaust, the loss of 6 million Jews was the primary thing that people took away from these events, but out of the darkness, the Jewish identity resurfaced, even more powerful than before. The story of homosexuals post-Holocaust is quite a different one. While they were also robbed of their cultural identity, no one fought back on their behalf. They were still viewed as sick and depraved rather than victims of Hitler’s regime. As I mentioned before, it wasn’t until decades later that people even spoke about the oppression of homosexuals. By this time, the feeling that no one cared or wanted to hear their stories overtook many homosexual Holocaust survivors. Their reluctance to talk about the horrors they faced stem from the fact that it was made very clear to them that few people wanted to hear it. Some however, Heger and few others, have been willing to talk about what they faced.
The actual implementation of Paragraph 175 and the Nazi persecution of homosexuals are actually far more horrifying than this loss of identity though. Paragraph 175 condemned only in men the practice of same-sex relations. Men were viewed as sick whereas cases of women being sent death camps for practicing lesbianism wasn’t nearly as common. In fact, Muller states that there were only about a dozen cases of lesbians being sent to death camps at the time of the publication of this book. This primarily is a result of the German, or rather Nazi, view of women at the time. Women were thought to be “going through a phase” whereas men were deemed “incurable”. The Nazis believed that women would grow out of it and go on to produce children for their great nation and so were not taken nearly as seriously. However, when men began being sent to death camps, this once called into question the role of identity. Even when Jews were being sent to concentration camps, it was understood that homosexuality was something that was still practiced, even among Nazi party members. The Nazi party officially came out, quite surprisingly, not against homosexuality. It was understood by higher-ups, such as Himmler himself, as an expression of “fraternity” for the early years of the Nazi’s ascent to power. It’s not fully understood why the stance on homosexuality changed in later years as Germany has always been known for its rather liberal stance on homosexuality, but it was later deemed to be a “weakness” of sorts. This clashed with many practicing German homosexuals’ perception of their own identity. They viewed themselves first and foremost as Germans, according to Heger’s own account. The stance on homosexuality, however, was not as aggressive as that against the Jews. Some Jews were forced to do hard labor, as were homosexuals, but more often than not, Jews were gassed much more frequently than homosexuals. Their non-Jew status was enough to save them from the chambers, but as a result of their sexual orientation, they often met with grisly fates. Most homosexuals were used for experimentation of sorts or others were simply castrated. However, the improper conditions of the camps often led to infections and illnesses, which killed off roughly two-thirds of the homosexuals that were sentenced to the camps. Unfortunately, as a result of the general lack of interest and due to the traumatizing nature of the events, little factual information is known about the overall fate of most homosexuals. What little we do know is primarily from first-hand accounts such as Heger’s and through extensive research in some of the documents that survive. Due to the lack of priority in uncovering what happened to the homosexuals in these death camps, unfortunately a great deal of the documents that would provide insight have been lost, misplaced, or buried in unsorted piles of work. What is known however is that homosexuals, even in death camps, were frequently victimized and viewed as the weakest of members. The most frequent means of exterminating the homosexual population was “extermination through work”. They were forced to work longer hours and with fewer breaks than most other minority groups in hopes that they would essentially kill themselves out through exhaustion or by refusing to work, giving guards grounds to execute them as they saw fit.
As I’ve previously stated, the lack of interest or compassion for the stories of homosexual survivors of the Holocaust has silenced many of them. Their stories began to surface in the 1970s which is sadly only several years after the repeal of Paragraph 175. Those that survive today remain haunted by the occurrences in death camps years ago. Although they suffered in fewer numbers than the Jewish population what was taken away from the men with pink triangles was more than the loss of life. It was a deprivation of a culture, or a sense of worth. What was lost is something that can arguably never be recovered. No one who has lived through the Holocaust will ever be the same, there’s no denying that. However, what was taken away from the Holocaust by many people is that we must never let this happen again. In a day and age where homosexuality and its origins is still a topic of heated debate, but is rarely met with the kind of violence seen by those in the Holocaust, we must remember them and those who died and those who struggled for their right to love openly. Heger’s account is a deeply emotional telling of a frequently forgotten group in the Holocaust. The sense of deprivation, and the overall victorious tone of his personal story is a rarity, but it gives me hope that one day, the men with the pink triangle will be remembered and counted amongst the millions of lives that were senselessly lost in the Holocaust. The focus on the number of 6 million Jews is staggering alone, but we cannot forget about the countless homosexuals and other groups lost under Hitler’s rule. Heinz Heger’s story and powerful telling assures me that at least I will never be able to forget.


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