Spanish poet, novelist, and philosopher George Santayana warned that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. In the United States of America, our history trends towards the teaching of the atrocities of the Holocaust as if it began on November 9, 1938, with the horrors of Kristallnacht, and focuses almost exclusively on persecution of individuals of Jewish descent. Little discussion is given to the persecution of homosexual men during this time, or what the balance of power and views surrounding homosexuality looked like in Germany prior to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers Party aka the Nazi Party.
In this essay, I will explore how the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party destroyed Germany, specifically Berlin, as an epicenter for gay life and culture, and effectively destroyed the first gay rights movement, as well as how frightening parallels can be drawn between this time in our global history, and the current state of politics and affairs in the United States of America.
Post WWI Berlin was a known epicenter of gay culture, academia, literature, and politics. Although homosexuality, specifically between males, was outlawed in Paragraph 175 of the German penal code circa 1871, the Weimar Republic, founded in 1918, did not tend to enforce this law, particularly in larger cities such as Berlin . In fact, this was so much the case that Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a gay, Jewish doctor, and advocate for the sexual rights of minorities, established the Sexual Science Institute in Berlin in 1919. It was the first medical facility to offer trans people the opportunity to pursue gender affirmation (reassignment) surgery, and by the 1930s Berlin saw people from all around the globe make their way to the Sexual Science Institute for reassignment. The institute was home to over twenty thousand volumes of the collected thoughts, stories, and studies of LGBTQ people, along with an archive of medical records that had detailed procedural notes regarding the complexities of gender reassignment surgery.
Dr. Hirschfeld was also the co-founder of the Scientific-Humanitarian committee in 1897; together, Dr. Hirschfeld and the committee attempted, and almost succeeded, in abolishing Paragraph 175 in 1929, just a few short years before Adolf Hitler came to power as chancellor of Germany in January of 1933.
Indeed, in the early 1900s Berlin itself was known for its transvestite, gay, and lesbian club scene, and was even the basis of inspiration for the film Cabaret, from 1972. This reputation was so widely known that tourist literature expounded upon the evils of the gay scene. It was not uncommon for male prostitutes to find work in the company of soldiers frequenting hustler bars that had been setup near military bases . Nightclubs like The Dorian Gray, Jolly Joker, and Monbijou were particularly popular amongst lesbians , and it is worth noting that there was a distinct double standard in existence regarding gay men vs lesbian women. Paragraph 175 of the German penal code specifically forbade homosexual acts between two men, however it was never able to be determined what defined female sexuality, and hence no such prohibitions against lesbianism existed, with lesbians therefor often enjoying the benefit of virtual immunity under the law.
Social and economic tensions, including rising inflation, harsh economic depression, and extreme unemployment suffered by the people of defeated Germany in the post-WWI era was the fertile soil in which Hitler and the Nazi party sunk their roots . With the exception of disenfranchised soldiers returning home from the war looking for someone, anyone, to blame for the loss that they were ill prepared for, the climate was, in many ways, reminiscent of what we see in the United States today.
The first years of the 1930s saw a rising number of attacks on LGBTQ businesses in Germany, and the forced round up of individuals judged to stray to far from prescribed heteronormativity. On May 6, 1933, within a few short months of Hitler becoming chancellor of Germany, a group of Nazi youth known as the German Student Union took violent steps, attacking the Sexual Science Institute.
The attack sent both patients and researchers into flight while Nazis pilfered the collected medical records which gave them a method by which to assess possible homosexual tendencies and desires, and actively pursue their execution. Four days later, on May 10, 1933, the Nazi youth staged a massive book-burning during which time over twenty five thousand books and images were destroyed, gone in flames and ash, a modern day retelling of the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria.
As the reign of the Third Reich escalated, so to did the anti-homosexual rhetoric, with 100,000 men arrested between the years of 1933 and 1945 for violation of Paragraph 175. Half of those men arrested were sent to prison, while an additional 5,000 to 15,000 souls were sentenced to concentration camps where they are believed most likely to have perished, possibly at the hands of Nazi medical experiments seeking a “cure” for the prisoners’ homosexuality . When WWI finally ended in September of 1945, these prisoners, forced to wear a pink triangle in camp, were not released along with the other victims of Nazi persecution, but rather left to finish out their prison sentences.
In the months leading up to the 2016 United States presidential elections, Donald Trump and his team never expected, wanted, nor intended to win . The general consensus of the country was that his candidacy was a joke, that there was no possible way he would be elected in lieu of any of a number of other candidates with actual political backgrounds. His campaign promised a better economy, more jobs, and a better America, promises that spoke to the average blue-collar citizen struggling to make ends meet, existing paycheck to paycheck while watching their bosses get fatter. Since his assumption of the role of president, Trump has led a barrage of propaganda style attacks against people of color, with a specific focus on immigrants and transgender individuals. Trump’s lack of the sort of charisma and charm possessed by Adolf Hitler in 1920s Germany does not deter those in the United States who have taken this propaganda as tacit permission to let fly their flags of bigotry, racism, and homophobia.
A scapegoat was needed, and both Hitler and Trump, each for their own reasons, made clear through rhetoric, cabinet appointment, and policy, at whom their country’s rage should be directed. Within days of taking office, the Trump administration erased all mentions of LGBTQ issues from official White House web pages, and all mentions of sexual orientation and gender identity from the United States census. To date, they have also revoked Obama era Title IX protections for transgender students, and have appointed several very vocal, very vehemently anti-gay individuals to high cabinet positions, including Neil Gorsuch to the United States Supreme Court. Although Brett Kavanaugh has not been crystal clear on his stance, it is not outside the realm of possibility that his appointment to the Supreme Court may very well be an additional obstacle in the U.S. fight for LGBTQ rights.
All of this was done to appease a deeply evangelical base who believes that LGBTQ people are pushing an immoral and unethical lifestyle. Hitler and the Nazi party did not, as mentioned above, have such an issue with lesbian women, but gay men, particularly those who were flamboyant or effeminate, tarnished the male virility of his perfect Aryan race. Since this couldn’t be allowed, he routinely murdered even those in his own ranks who were proven or rumored to be homosexual, ordering his armies to eradicate all traces of homosexual culture.
These actions make very clear statements to the masses with regards to the way the LGBTQ community should be viewed. Stripped of even the basic rights to acknowledge who they truly are, or to keep records of that existence, and denied basic protection from harm against their person, the individuals in the community are left vulnerable to the slathering jaws of rabidly intolerant, often violent homophobes, who’s worst ideas and impulses are now quietly condoned by policy.
The United States is poised at a pivotal juncture in our progress towards equity and equality for all. Have we learned from our globally shared past, or are we doomed to repeat German atrocities here as well?