On May 6, 1933, Nazis ransacked the "Institute for Sexual Science" in Berlin; four days later, as part of large public burnings of books viewed as "un-German," thousands of books plundered from the Institute's library were thrown into a huge bonfire. The institute was founded in 1919 by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (1868 -1935). It sponsored research and discussion on marital problems, sexually transmitted diseases, and laws relating to sexual offenses, abortion, and homosexuality. The author of many works, Hirschfeld, himself a homosexual, led efforts for three decades to reform laws criminalizing homosexuality. (In 1933, Hirschfeld happened to be in France, where he remained until his death.)
In 1934, a special Gestapo (Secret State Police) division on homosexuals was set up. One of its first acts was to order the police "pink lists" from all over Germany. The police had been compiling these lists of suspected homosexual men since 1900. On September 1, 1935, a harsher, amended version of Paragraph 175 of the Criminal Code, originally framed in 1871, went into effect, punishing a broad range of "lewd and lascivious" behavior between men. In 1936, Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler created a Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion: Special Office (II S), a subdepartment of Executive Department II of the Gestapo. The linking of homosexuality and abortion reflected the Nazi regimes population policies to promote a higher birthrate of its "Aryan" population. On this subject Himmler spoke in Bad Tölz on February 18, 1937, before a group of high-ranking SS officers on the dangers both homosexuality and abortion posed to the German birthrate.
Under the revised Paragraph 175 and the creation of Special Office IIS, the number of prosecutions increased sharply, peaking in the years 1937-1939. Half of all convictions for homosexual activity under the Nazi regime occurred during these years. The police stepped up raids on homosexual meeting places, seized address books of arrested men to find additional suspects, and created networks of informers to compile lists of names and make arrests.
An estimated 1.2 million men were homosexuals in Germany in 1928. Between 1933-45, an estimated 100,000 men were arrested as homosexuals, and of these, some 50,000 officially defined homosexuals were sentenced. Most of these men spent time in regular prisons, and an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 of the total sentenced were incarcerated in concentration camps.
How many of these 5,000 to 15,000 "175ers" perished in the concentration camps will probably never be known. Historical research to date has been very limited. One leading scholar, Ruediger Lautmann, believes that the death rate for "175ers" in the camps may have been as high as sixty percent.
All prisoners of the camps wore marks of various colors and shapes, which allowed guards and camp functionaries to identify them by category. The uniforms of those sentenced as homosexuals bore various identifying marks, including a large black dot and a large "175" drawn on the back of the jacket. Later a pink triangular patch (rosa Winkel) appeared. Conditions in the camps were generally harsh for all inmates, many of whom died from hunger, disease, exhaustion, exposure to the cold, and brutal treatment. Many survivors have testified that men with pink triangles were often treated particularly severely by guards and inmates alike because of widespread biases against homosexuals. As was true with other prisoner categories, some homosexuals were also victims of cruel medical experiments, including castration. At Buchenwald concentration camp, SS physician Dr. Carl Vaernet performed operations designed to convert men to heterosexuals: the surgical insertion of a capsule which released the male hormone testosterone. Such procedures reflected the desire by Himmler and others to find a medical solution to homosexuality.
The vast majority of homosexual victims were males; lesbians were not subjected to systematic persecution. While lesbian bars were closed, few women are believed to have been arrested. Paragraph 175 did not mention female homosexuality. Lesbianism was seen by many Nazi officials as alien to the nature of the Aryan woman. In some cases, the police arrested lesbians as "asocials" or "prostitutes." One woman, Henny Schermann, was arrested in 1940 in Frankfurt and was labeled "licentious Lesbian" on her mug shot; but she was also a "stateless Jew," sufficient cause for deportation. Among the Jewish inmates at Ravensbrück concentration camp selected for extermination, she was gassed in the Bernburg psychiatric hospital, a "euthanasia" killing center in Germany, in 1942.
Consequently, the vast majority of homosexuals arrested under Paragraph 175 were Germans or Austrians. Unlike Jews, men arrested as homosexuals were not systematically deported to Nazi-established ghettos in eastern Europe. Nor were they transported in mass groups of homosexual prisoners to Nazi extermination camps in Poland.
It should be noted that Nazi authorities sometimes used the charge of homosexuality to discredit and undermine their political opponents. Charges of homosexuality among the SA (Storm trooper) leadership figured prominently among justifications for the bloody purge of SA chief Ernst Röhm in June 1934. Nazi leader Hermann Göring used trumped-up accusations of homosexual improprieties to unseat army supreme commander Von Fritsch, an opponent of Hitler's military policy, in early 1938. Finally, a 1935 propaganda campaign and two show trials in 1936 and 1937 alleging rampant homosexuality in the priesthood, attempted to undercut the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, an institution which many Nazi officials considered their most powerful potential enemy.
After the war, homosexual concentration camp prisoners were not acknowledged as victims of Nazi persecution, and reparations were refused. Under the Allied Military Government of Germany, some homosexuals were forced to serve out their terms of imprisonment, regardless of the time spent in concentration camps. The 1935 version of Paragraph 175 remained in effect in the Federal Republic (West Germany) until 1969, so that well after liberation, homosexuals continued to fear arrest and incarceration.
Research on Nazi persecution of homosexuals was impeded by the criminalization and social stigmatization of homosexuals in Europe and the United States in the decades following the Holocaust. Most survivors were afraid or ashamed to tell their stories. Recently, especially in Germany, new research findings on these "forgotten victims" have been published, and some survivors have broken their silence to give testimony.