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Belonging and Exclusion: Reshaping Society under Nazi Rule

Sexuality, Gender, and Nazi Persecution

The Nazi project to transform Germany to fit concepts of race and national unity excluded many people. The Nazi regime increased the persecution of gay men, lesbian women, transgender people (who were often referred to at the time as “Transvestiten”), and others already marginalized for sexuality or gender identity. Sources in this collection show how people experienced this persecution differently and had a range of responses.

Sexuality, Gender, and Nazi Persecution

Public discussions of gender identities and same-sex love and desire were just beginning to emerge in Europe in the early 20th century.1 World War I (1914-1918) and the end of the German Empire upended many longstanding German social traditions. Many people living in Germany experienced the years of the Weimar Republic (1918–1933) as a new era of relative freedom and acceptance.

By the 1920s, large German cities like Berlin and Hamburg became known for their open, tolerant atmosphere and nightlife. Dozens of different bars and nightclubs welcomed a wide range of different groups, including gay men, lesbian women, and transgender people—who were often referred to at the time as “Transvestiten” (“transvestites”).2 An advertisement for “Violetta Ladies Club” shows how these clubs helped form a shared sense of group identity among these communities. Drag balls became regular events, and several of these clubs became fashionable destinations for a wide variety of people where celebrities could regularly be spotted among the guests.3

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New developments in science and medicine supported greater acceptance. In 1919, the Institute for Sexual Science (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft) opened in Berlin under the guidance of a pioneering researcher of sex, sexuality, and gender named Magnus Hirschfeld. This institute was a groundbreaking facility that offered specialized medical care and public sex education.4 A special identification card for Gerd Katter shows how the institute’s staff helped its patients navigate discriminatory laws and police practices. For example, police sometimes arrested so-called “Transvestiten” for disorderly conduct or other such charges. Sexual relations between men had been outlawed under Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code ever since 1871.

While the Weimar period brought a tolerant atmosphere to some German cities, the rise of the Nazi movement reflected a conservative backlash in German society. Rejecting the growing openness of Weimar society, the Nazi Party embraced conservative German beliefs about gender and sexuality. Nazi racial ideology also framed same-sex romantic and sexual relationships as contagious vices that could be spread among the population. Nazi theorists worried that such relationships would lower the German birth rate and slow the growth of the so-called "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft").5

After gaining power in 1933, the Nazi regime’s efforts to suppress such “vices” focused on policing same-sex relations between men, but the Nazi Party also promoted a reverence for masculinity and close male friendships.6 Lesbian women, transgender people, and others who did not belong to the narrow Nazi vision for society were also targeted. Nazi ideology taught that society was weakened and corrupted by their supposedly “degenerate” behavior.

The Nazi regime began to force Germany’s gay and lesbian bars to close less than a month after the Nazi rise to power in early 1933. A photograph of the Eldorado Club in Berlin shows how the Nazi Party used the building for a local Nazi SA (Sturmabteilung) headquarters after forcing the well known nightclub to shut down. A collage created after gay and lesbian bars were forced to close in 1933 shows how Nazi propagandists tried to exploit the closures to identify these groups as outsiders.

Nazi leaders began targeting these communities almost immediately after rising to power in 1933, and people’s experiences of persecution—and their responses—varied widely. A postwar oral history with Albrecht Becker shows how one gay man boldly proclaimed his sexuality when he was arrested under Paragraph 175. Becker was not otherwise deemed a threat and eventually joined the German army. Other people denied all of the allegations against them. For example, the so-called “Protective Custody Order” for Herbert Fröhlich shows that he was imprisoned indefinitely even though he denied all of the charges against him and received no trial. The featured police report on Fritz Kitzing shows how German police under the Nazi regime targeted so-called “Transvestiten” as outsiders—even when police concluded that no crimes had been committed.7

The Nazi campaign against same-sex romantic and sexual relationships between men began to shift toward individual arrests in 1935, when Nazi jurists revised and expanded Paragraph 175 to add many vaguely defined behaviors. Roughly 100,000 arrests were made for alleged violations of Paragraph 175 during the years of Nazi rule, and over half of these ended in convictions. In the Nazi camp system, prisoners arrested under Paragraph 175 typically were forced to wear pink triangles sewn onto their uniforms. A prisoner badge worn by Josef Kohout shows how one of these so-called “pink-triangle prisoners” was identified by camp authorities.

Although the Nazi regime did not systematically target women in same-sex romantic or sexual relationships with a particular law of the German criminal code, lesbian women were still persecuted as outsiders. For example, a police statement from Margot Liu reveals that the Berlin Criminal Police (Kripo) began investigating the young German Jewish woman due to “suspicion of lesbian activity” in 1942. She was targeted as a lesbian woman after first experiencing persecution for being Jewish.8

People’s experiences of persecution for their sexuality or gender were often shaped by whether or not the Nazi regime also targeted them as political or racial outsiders. Although Nazi policies against same-sex relationships and marginalized gender focused primarily on so-called “Aryan” Germans, the regime also targeted those whom authorities thought were outsiders corrupting Nazi society. For example, an oral history with Teofil Kosinski describes how the young Polish man was arrested after writing a love letter to his boyfriend in the German army. Kosinski's interrogators verbally abused him for being Polish as well as for being gay. A handmade book given to Gad Beck, “Do You Remember, When,” describes happier times that Beck shared with his Jewish boyfriend before his partner was deported to Auschwitz and killed. As a young half-Jewish man, Beck had connections to both Jewish and non-Jewish underground movements that helped him to survive the war living in Berlin. In an oral history with Frieda Belinfante—a half-Jewish Dutch lesbian woman who lived disguised as a man to escape capture by German authorities—she reflects on her own identity and her experiences at the time.

After the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II, Paragraph 175 stayed in effect for decades in both the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). Many of those victimized by the Nazis for their gender or relationships continued to endure discrimination. People were often reluctant to discuss these experiences of Nazi persecution. A lithograph by Richard Grune shows how one “pink-triangle prisoner” chose not to draw attention to the unique nature of his persecution when producing artwork inspired by his experiences in concentration camps. Instead, Grune’s art depicted a sense of shared suffering among all those imprisoned in the Nazi camp system.9

Social stigma and continued legal persecution after the war prevented many people from discussing their experiences. This has made primary sources on the Nazi persecution of same-sex relationships or marginalized gender relatively difficult to find. These experiences included a range of state-sponsored persecution as well as less official acts of discrimination. The primary sources in this collection offer a rare opportunity to explore the different experiences and responses of those persecuted for same-sex relationships or marginalized gender under Nazi rule.

The modern idea that same-sex love and desire were distinct experiences that helped define personal identities did not begin to spread until the late 19th century. To learn more, see Clayton John Whisnant, "Representations and Identities," Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: A History, 1880-1933 (New York: Harrington Park Press, 2016): 122-61; and Robert Beachy, "The German Invention of Homosexuality," Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014): 3-41.

The word "Transvestiten" ("transvestites") was coined in 1910 by Magnus Hirschfeld as a neutral descriptive term. Originally, the word "transvestite" was used to describe a wide range of people—from men and women who occasionally performed in drag to nonbinary and transgender people. Over the years, the term "transvestite" took on a narrower definition with negative connotations. For these reasons, the word is now considered offensive by many members of the transgender community.

German police in major cities monitored the bars and nightclubs that catered to these emerging communities with relative tolerance during the years of the Weimar Republic. Although police occasionally harassed or arrested their clients, the businesses were permitted to operate. To learn more, see Katie Sutton, "'We Too Deserve a Place in the Sun': The Politics of Transvestite Identity in Weimar Germany," German Studies Review 35, no. 2 (May 2012): 335-54; and Robert Beachy, "Policing Homosexuality in Berlin," Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014): 42–84.

To learn more about Hirschfeld and the Institute for Sexual Science, see Ralf Dose, Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement, translated by Edward H. Willis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014).

To learn more about Nazi attitudes toward sex, reproduction, and national health, see the related Experiencing History collections, Public Health under the Third Reich and Targets of Eugenics.

For a time, the Nazi Party even accepted members whose sexual or romantic relationships with other men were open secrets. To learn more about the complexities of Nazi attitudes toward masculinity, male relationships, and same-sex relations, see Andrew Wackerfuss, Stormtrooper Families: Homosexuality and Community in the Early Nazi Movement (New York: Harrington Park Press, 2015); and Eleanor Hancock, "'Only the Real, the True, the Masculine Held Its Value': Ernst Röhm, Masculinity, and Male Homosexuality," Journal of the History of Sexuality 8, no. 4 (April 1998): 616-641.

To learn more about the role played by German police during the years of Nazi rule, see the related Experiencing History collection, German Police and the Nazi Regime.

To learn more about how gender and sexuality affected experiences of persecution under Nazi rule, see the related Experiencing History collection, Gendered Experiences of Jewish Persecution.

To learn more about art and artists under Nazi rule, see the Experiencing History collections, Artistic Responses to Persecution and Artists and Visual Culture in Wartime Europe.

All 13 Items in the Sexuality, Gender, and Nazi Persecution Collection

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