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Days of Remembrance: Forgotten History

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- In honor of the upcoming Days of Remembrance on, April 21, 2020, let us reflect on a portion of Nazi oppression that is often forgotten; the cruel suppression and targeting of members of what is now known as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. While LGBT casualties and treatment during the Holocaust are small in comparison to other groups, its impact on LGBT rights is felt to this day.

The history of LGBT rights in Germany began well before Hitler came to power. Early in German unified history in 1867 Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs, a gay German lawyer, advocated for the decriminalization of same-sex sexual activity. In 1897, two decades before the Treaty of Versailles ended the First World War, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld founded the very first organized gay rights group, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee. After the war concluded, Germany was in a state of barely managed chaos. Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany, stepped down from power, and with him disappeared the stability of the monarchy. This left the country open for communist rebellions and paramilitary anti-communist movements, and among the chaos new ideas flourished. Berlin between 1919 and 1933 was home to a rising mindset; acceptance of homosexuality and what was then called transvestitism, both terms coined in Germany. Gay nightclubs and bars operated freely in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany, magazines geared towards gay men and lesbian women were published openly, and films like Girls in Uniform were created with storylines revolving around homosexual relationships. Of great significance was Dr. Hirschfeld’s own Institute for Sexual Science, devoted to learning about the complexities of sexuality. None of these developments would appear out of place in today’s world, and they all started more than a century ago.

All of this came to a swift end with the rise of the Nazi Party. While initially dismissive of homosexuality, and possessing high ranking and valuable gay members themselves, the Nazis eventually changed their philosophy. Gay Germans would not breed, and therefore would not further their ideal of a German master race. Upon Hitler gaining power, political enemies and movements were either killed off or silenced by other means. The Institute for Sexual Science was ransacked, its library destroyed among other undesirable literature in a mass book burning. Decades of research, studies and surveys were destroyed. The rosters of people kept at the Institute were used to make mass arrests of homosexuals, many of whom were later sent to concentration camps. Within months the blossoming LGBT rights movement was snuffed out. Participants either fled, went into hiding or were arrested. Further development of spy networks and informants rooted out further pursuit of homosexual activities over the following years.

The primary targets of Nazi persecution of homosexuals were gay German men. Homosexuals among what the Nazis deemed “lesser races” mostly ignored unless a German man was involved. Life as a homosexual in concentration camps was significantly worse than other detainees. Gays were separated so as not to “spread” homosexuality to other prisoners. They were given the most dangerous jobs, and were frequent victims of abuse, even among detainees. A lack of support network led to a high death rate, estimated at 65%. Homosexuals were subjected to experimentation, most often used to find a “cure” for homosexuality. The “cure” most often settled on was castration. By the end of the Holocaust, approximately 5,000-15,000 homosexuals died in Nazi persecution.

The end of the war and the liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny did not end the persecution of homosexual people in Germany. Homosexuality was still criminalized, and many who served time in concentration camps were re-arrested to serve out the rest of their sentences, actions that were supported by American and British occupation forces. Few spoke out about the atrocities committed against LGBT people, and homosexuals were not recognized as victims of the Holocaust by any government until the early 2000’s. Article 175, the Nazi modified law forbidding “unnatural” sex acts among men, did not get repealed until 1967, two decades after the war ended.

The ideas originating in Germany before the Nazi regime strongly resemble concepts that have become mainstream in our era, and they predate the modern LGBT rights movement by almost 100 years. The brutal suppression of homosexuals in Germany stunted the growth of gay rights and destroyed valuable progress and research. Forgetting about these atrocities is what happened after the Holocaust. Let’s not forget about in now.

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