At least 100,000 gay men were arrested during the Nazi regime, with thousands sent to concentration camps like Dachau, Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen.
Now a new exhibit is trying to share their tragic story.
“Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, 1933-1945,” at Lake Worth, Florida’s Compass Gay and Lesbian Center through January 25, was originally created by the United States Holocaust Museum some years back. But with barbaric anti-gay legislation cropping up in various corners of the globe, it’s as relevant as ever.
“Few people recognize the role laws, specifically Paragraph 175, had in justifying the dehumanization and murder of thousands of homosexuals during the Holocaust” says Compass Center CEO Tony Plakas. “There are historic lessons to be learned for sure, but there are present-day applications too: Political currents aimed at denying gays and lesbians employment protections, hate-crime legislation, and the denial of equal recognition of marriage illustrate how legislation and law-enforcement can be used to forward harmful political and social agendas.”
Filled with hundreds of archival photos, the exhibit traces the history of persecution from Weimar Era Germany, when gay people could live somewhat freely, to the height of the Third Reich, when they were exterminated alongside millions of Jews and other “undesirables.”
When the Nazis first took over, homosexuals were deemed “sick” and forced into a brutal version of conversion therapy. “It had nothing to do with morality or religion,” says the Holocaust Museum’s Ted Phillips, who created the exhibit a number of years ago. “[Gay men] were a brake on the growth of the German Aryan population. So the emphasis was to re-educate them to be productive dads. And if they contacted another male, they were spreading the contagion.”
The policy didn’t address lesbianism, explains Phillips. “Women were not very important in society—mainly as wives and mothers to support men,” he says. “The policy denied women’s sexuality and personhood.”
The another section, “Radicalization,” addresses the virulent persecution that came in the run-up to WWII. Expanding the scope of Paragraph 175, the section of the penal code that addressed homosexuality, the Nazis started staging raids on gay clubs and shutting down queer newspapers. Even the suspicion of homosexuality was enough to get you arrested, and more than 50,000 gay men were sent to prison.
Because so many records were destroyed, it’s hard to say exactly how many gay men were sent to concentration camps—the best estimates are between 5,000 and 15,000. Once there, they were made to wear pink triangles and placed in forced-labor gangs with hardened criminals.
According to press notes, some men were castrated, brutalized or marked for “extermination through work.”
At a granite quarry, gays from the Mauthausen camp were often chosen to plant explosive charges, and the Nazis enjoyed setting off the charges before they escaped. At the Flossenburg camp, a commandant gave gay inmates extra-large pink triangles.
“He liked them for target practice,” Phillips says.
Phillips says he hopes the exhibit shows visitors how any group can be targeted: “It shows how easy it is to erode public opinion of a minority, make them outcasts and create the indifference that allows persecution.”
As we in America move toward true equality, let us not forget the lesson of the Holocaust: “Never again.”