In the featured oral history, a German man named Albrecht Becker describes living as an openly gay man in the city of Würzburg during the first years of Nazi rule. As the Nazi regime redefined who could belong to the so-called "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft"), the Nazis and their supporters excluded many different groups. Nazi propaganda often targeted gay men, but some same-sex relationships were known to exist within the Nazi Party in its early years.1 Becker explains that he felt safe as a gay man in Nazi Germany because SA (Sturmabteilung) leader Ernst Röhm was a gay man whose sexuality was public knowledge. Röhm was an influential Nazi leader and a personal friend of Adolf Hitler, but a growing power struggle among Nazi Germany’s leadership led to the assassination of Röhm and others between June 30 and July 2, 1934. Afterward, Nazi propaganda argued that the killing was partly justified by Röhm’s sexuality.2
Becker followed news of Röhm’s assassination, but he did not view this as a sign that Nazi Germany was a dangerous place to live as an openly gay man. Becker took a trip to the United States the following month, and he returned to Germany as planned. Just a few months after returning home, he was arrested for alleged violations of Paragraph 175—the statute of the German criminal code outlawing sexual relations between men.3 “Had I known that this would happen,” Becker explains, “I would not have come back from America."
Becker answered allegations that he had sexual relations with other men as if they were obvious, saying that everyone in town knew that he was gay. When pressed for a confession, Becker provided details of his sex life. He was convicted and sentenced to several years in prison.4 Becker always believed that his decision not to hide anything saved him from being held indefinitely in what was misleadingly called “protective custody” like others accused of violating Paragraph 175.5
Becker settled in Würzburg again after he was released from prison in 1938, but people treated him differently because of his arrest. The sports clubs he belonged to kicked him out, and he was ignored by old friends. World War II also changed daily life in Germany after 1939. Because so many men joined the German army, Becker felt surrounded by women. Missing the company of other men, Becker decided to go where they had gone—into the German army. Although he had been persecuted by the Nazi state for his sexuality, he volunteered for the German armed forces in 1940. Becker became a radio operator, and he was sent to the eastern front in 1941.
Although same-sex relationships did exist in Nazi Germany’s military and security forces, Becker chose not to seek out any romantic or sexual relationships with other men again until after the fall of the Nazi regime in 1945.6 Fearing the consequences of same-sex relationships, Becker chose instead to express himself and his sexuality through photography and tattooing.7
After World War II, Becker settled in Hamburg. He continued photography and began a long career in production design for film and television. He also continued tattooing his own body until it was almost completely covered—a process of self-expression that he first began on the eastern front as a response to his experience of persecution.8 He made his tattoos and his sexual identity the subject of many of his own photographs over the decades. He died in 2002.