“We saw barracks surrounded by a double circle of high fences… A torrent of blows awaited us. We were instantly overcome with terror.” With these words in his 1994 memoir, Pierre Seel—one of the few gay Holocaust survivors to publicly share his experience—described his arrival at the Schirmeck-Vorbrück concentration camp on May 13, 1941. Having been arrested on account of his homosexuality in Nazi-occupied France, Seel was interrogated, tortured and forced to watch his lover being mauled by a pack of dogs—all before he’d even turned 18.
Eighty years later, while Holocaust remembrance has become an integral part of our civic duties, stories like those of Seel and other LGBTQ victims are often missing from that collective memory. This, however, isn’t the consequence of an accidental historical oversight. The truth is that for the queer survivors of Nazi oppression, 1945 did not bring about any kind of liberation; rather, it marked the beginning of a systematic process of persecution and willful suppression—one that would result in their erasure from the pages of popular history.
Within the National Socialist vision, homosexuality represented an insidious “threat” to the “Aryan” race’s survival that needed to be stamped out. Although male homosexual activity had been technically illegal in Germany since the 19th century, it was generally tolerated and even celebrated within certain urban circles prior to Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933. Weimar-era Berlin came to be labeled as the “gay capital of the world,” a city where a booming queer nightlife scene was wedded with the budding dissemination of new academic ideas calling for greater acceptance of homosexuality and gender non-conformity.
Realizing the power these movements held, the Nazis began their anti-gay purges by immediately targeting the very hubs of queer cultural production and kinship, namely clubs, societies and Magnus Hirschfield’s renowned sexology research institute. Decades of pioneering work and community life had been erased, thus depriving queer Germans of their sources of solidarity both during and after the Third Reich.
By 1935, Paragraph 175 of the German penal code—the existing Prussian-era provision outlawing sodomy—was revised to include a harsher sentence and criminalize virtually any kind of male same-sex intimacy. These Nazi-era modifications would amount to a death sentence for gay men, and haunt them for years to come. Under Paragraph 175’s aegis, police forces arrested approximately 100,000 gay men before the war came to an end, of whom around 10-15,000 were sent to concentration camps. There, they were subjected to barbaric tortures, including sexual abuse, castration and medical experiments, and were further ostracized by fellow inmates. Overall prospects for gay prisoners were poor: an estimated 65% died, and an unknown, albeit likely disproportionate, number committed suicide.
But, tragically, gay Holocaust survivors did not leave their camps as recognized victims. Instead, even after liberation, they left as convicted criminals.
The Nazi-era amendments to Paragraph 175 were maintained for over two decades in West Germany, resulting in the arrest of around 100,000 gay men between 1945 and 1969, with some Holocaust survivors even being forced to carry out their sentences in prison. While East Germany had softer penalties, no reparations were provided for gay victims, and Paragraph 175 itself would only be entirely removed from the penal code in 1994, following Germany’s reunification.
With time, we’ve come to learn about the “pink triangles” used by the Nazis to identify homosexual camp inmates, but not of the “pink lists” of gay men’s names—lists that were also compiled by West German officials. Facing widespread homophobia and cut off from support networks—which the Nazis themselves had destroyed—gay Holocaust survivors stayed silent out of fear of social and legal repercussions.
Even in France, where homosexual activity was technically legal, Pierre Seel hid his story for years behind an unhappy marriage, with horrific consequences for his mental health. “I’d hear him screaming at night during my childhood,” his son, Antoine, told me. “He suffered more than I could fathom, more than I could comprehend.” Not all those close to Pierre were so understanding, however: he was disowned by his godfather and repeatedly sent letters from devoutly Catholic relatives calling for his conversion.
The burden of such forced silence shackled the academic world, which was slow to acknowledge the Third Reich’s queer victims. Indeed, one of the earliest definitive studies of the Holocaust, William L. Shirer’s 1,245-page The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, published in 1960, left out any reference to the Nazis’ anti-gay purges.
All of this doesn’t even to begin to address the Nazi-era oppression of queer women and intersex individuals, whose experiences have been overshadowed by the double layer of homophobia and sexism. Lesbian women, for instance, may not have been systematically persecuted under the Third Reich, as Paragraph 175 only targeted gay men, but that did not deter the Nazis from shutting down their clubs or arresting them for “anti-sociality.” Scholars know of two women—Elli Smula and Margarete Rosenberg—whose sexual activities were deemed “morally unsound” by the Gestapo, leading to their deportation and demarcation as “lesbisch” (lesbian) political dissidents. While Rosenberg survived, Smula died of unexplained causes at Ravensbrück camp in 1943.
It was not until the 1970s that gay Holocaust victims would start speaking out and receiving public acknowledgement, with the first testimony coming from Josef Kohout in 1972, followed by Pierre Seel’s own memoir, published in 1994. Advocacy groups successfully rallied for the creation of memorials, and the German Bundestag finally voted to pardon and compensate the victims of Paragraph 175 in 2017.
But a meager and all-too-late offer of justice did not translate into universal recognition. For years, LGBTQ organizations were ignored and even shunned from Holocaust commemorations. “We will physically oppose ourselves, if necessary, to a presence we deem inappropriate,” were the words used by a French partisan group in response to the participation of LGBTQ associations at a Holocaust memorial event, as recounted by activist Daniel Mesmacque in 2001.
The suppression of the Holocaust’s gay voices remains a stain that lingers on to this day. It is vital that any form of modern-day remembrance includes their stories, especially as the LGBTQ community continues to face widespread persecution. With the last known Holocaust survivor tried for homosexuality, Rudolf Brazda, having died ten years ago, it is now incumbent upon us to carry on the torch of this lost generation—lest we too end up becoming complicit in its erasure.
Historians’ perspectives on how the past informs the present
Andrea Carlo is a PhD researcher in European political history stationed at Rome’s Germanic Historical Institute
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