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The Pink Triangle
The Nazi War Against Homosexuals
By Richard Plant
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 1986 Richard Plant
All rights reserved.
BEFORE THE STORM
THE NAZI WAR AGAINST GERMANY'S HOMOSEXUALS, to be properly understood, must be seen against the backdrop of the terrible tensions and social traumas that ultimately were to cause the collapse of the Weimar Republic. For the severe economic depression, widespread unemployment, galloping inflation, and bitter civil strife that were to engulf Germany in the wake of World War I also consigned the country's small but vigorous homosexual-rights movement to oblivion. That movement, which began around the turn of the century, would reach its peak in the early 1920s, under the remarkable leadership of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. It would enjoy its greatest influence at precisely the moment that the larger society whose prejudices it sought to change began to spin out of control. To understand the fate of Germany's homosexuals it is necessary to grasp not only the specific events and warring ideologies that destroyed the Weimar Republic and created the conditions that permitted the rise of the Nazis, but also the general atmosphere of Germany between 1919 and 1933.
The anxiety and insecurity that would come to grip all social classes by 1933 began with the shock of military defeat at the end of World War I. It was a war that had left 1.7 million German soldiers dead and another four million wounded. The returning veterans, convinced that they had been betrayed, claimed to have been "stabbed in the back." Most Germans agreed. How was it possible for the Kaiser's mighty army to have been defeated? Only days before the end, hadn't the army's own press releases promised the certain victory of the "sacred German cause"? What the man in the street suspected, what the popular press trumpeted, was that traitors at home had caused the great catastrophe. War profiteers, foreigners from the East, Communists and Socialists, the Jews — all were to blame for Germany's humiliation.
A tidal wave of shame and resentment, experienced even by younger men who had not seen military service, swept the nation. Many people tried to digest the bitter defeat by searching furiously for scapegoats. The belief that internal enemies had brought down the Empire, the Kaiser, and the "Golden Age of German Power" was widespread. Enraged ex-soldiers and younger men formed violent bands that roamed Germany. A palpable yearning could be felt on all levels of society, from farm and factory workers to middle-class businessmen and big-city intellectuals, for security and vengeance. The old guard of the Empire had never given up their positions of privilege and power, and no truly democratic government ever really grew strong enough to dislodge them. Arch-conservatives still held most of the leading positions in the army and navy, the universities, the civil service, and especially the courts. Long before Adolf Hitler entered politics, long before anti-Semitism and antiliberalism had become battle cries for the Nazis, the Weimar Republic's experiment in democracy and social tolerance was steadily undermined by distrust, injustice, and violence. One is almost tempted to say that Hitler did not bring the Republic down; he merely saved it from suicide by murdering it himself. It was bankrupt long before he appointed himself as Germany's savior.
The social hurricane at the heart of the Weimar Republic was prompted and complicated by five factors: (1) fear of revolution; (2) racist and xenophobic paramilitary groups; (3) unprecedented inflation; (4) extreme unemployment; and (5) the Nazi Party.
First, directly after World War I, many older people were frightened by the specter of revolution. The Bolsheviks had accomplished it in Russia, and they had counted on the spreading of revolution in Europe to ensure their survival. The revolt in Munich in 1918 seemed to many to be but the opening shot in a class war. German newspapers were soon filled with hysterical reports of famine in the Ukraine. Many people feared that a Socialist triumph in Germany would doom the country to Russia's plight.
Second, dozens of racist and virulently nationalistic groups began to flourish in this climate, each more fanatical than the other. Many participated in the civil strife that began to break out sporadically all over the country. These guerrilla skirmishes especially alienated those Germans (the majority, it is safe to say) who wanted an orderly society in which to live and work.
A third factor cracked open the thin walls of stability and did more than any other to destroy trust and hope: the mammoth inflation of 1922-23. In just sixteen months the German mark soared from 192 marks to the American dollar to a staggering 4.2 trillion marks to the dollar. The financial faith of the country was shattered beyond repair. The middle class lost its savings and its confidence in government. Persons on fixed incomes, such as pensions, war bonds, and annuities, found their dreams drowned in monetary quicksand. An incomprehensible economic sickness infected everyone, diminishing all salaries and gobbling up savings. Everywhere, pawnshops were packed, and relief rolls lengthened. The labor unions, too, in which many had put their trust, failed. Since the unions' funds were gone, they could no longer resist the demands of employers: the ten-hour day returned to many industries. Unions began to lose members. Death and suicide rates rose; many children suffered from malnutrition. Those who had left the unions — and there were hundreds upon hundreds of thousands — found themselves politically adrift. Neither the left-wing Social Democratic Party (to which most labor unions belonged) nor the liberal or right-wing parties offered any prescriptions to cure this epidemic.
That the middle classes and the workers lost faith in both the state and the economy is not surprising. When money loses its value, then government is robbed of its authority. As Alan Bullock, the distinguished British historian and biographer of Hitler, has observed, the "result of the inflation was to undermine the foundations of German society in a way that neither the war nor the revolution of 1918 nor the Treaty of Versailles had ever done. The real revolution in Germany was the inflation." Berlin, the capital of the country, became the object of hatred for many Germans. A wave of anti-Berlin sentiment, always dormant on many levels of German society, swept through the provinces. Berlin, it was said, was different; it was evil, dominated by Jews, homosexuals, Communists.
A fourth factor compounding the deepening crisis was the rapid rise in unemployment, especially after the 1929 New York Stock Exchange crash, which toppled half of the financial institutions of Central Europe. Austrian banks collapsed first, then a number of leading German banks. In January 1930, the number of unemployed workers rose from 1.5 million to 3.2 million. Some economists estimate the actual number to have been more than six million by 1933. Many of the unemployed were teenagers or in their early twenties; they waited in endless lines before the welfare agencies to receive their meager welfare stamps worth less than twenty dollars a month. On every corner, peddlers offered trinkets nobody wanted; street singers and itinerant musicians played endlessly in courtyards for people who could not afford to drop a few pennies into their empty caps. Many young men, without hope, sullen and bewildered, were filled with a rage that knew no release. Many began to join the extremist parties of both the left and the right; many joined first the left, then the right. The promise of dramatic change suddenly made sense. Men were hungry too long, and now they were angry and desperate.
Into this social cauldron was added the fifth and most poisonous ingredient: the Nazi Party. As the numbers of unemployed rose, the Nazi membership rolls grew. To be sure, just before Franz von Papen maneuvered Hitler into the chancellorship in 1933, the Nazis had lost quite a few members. Still, the rise in unemployment and the growing strength of the Nazis were indissolubly linked. The Nazi Party not only provided food, weapons, and a splendid uniform, it proclaimed a new purpose, a new faith, and a new prophet. Inflation and unemployment catapulted into power a man who promised rebirth to all "Aryan" Germans, regardless of status. Hitler vowed to avenge the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles, and to punish the culprits who had been responsible for Germany's defeat. As was so often the case, Hitler's rhetoric was littered with sexual metaphors. Jews and other minorities, for example, were guilty of the "syphilitization of our people." In 1935, Nazi lawyer Hans Frank would warn that the "epidemic of homosexuality" was threatening the new Reich. America, too, was an enemy, a "niggerized Jewish country" where women painted their faces — a practice that enraged Nazi moralists. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, would later boast that no Aryan woman he knew ever used lipstick. It was Himmler who would mastermind the attacks on homosexuals, whom he endowed with the same subhuman, dangerous qualities as were ascribed to Jews, Communists and Gypsies.
During the Weimar Republic, the homosexual subculture had managed an uneasy coexistence with the larger heterosexual society surrounding it. Of course, those in the spotlight — famous actors, designers, dancers, doctors, politicians, directors, and lawyers — had to live with a certain amount of abuse. But many had acquired power, money, and even connections to the Weimar government, which served as protection. The average gay man could live unnoticed and undisturbed unless he fell victim to police entrapment or blackmail. The average lesbian enjoyed a kind of legal immunity. During the Weimar years, organized lesbian costume balls were held; luxurious lesbian bars and nightclubs flourished. Their owners never feared a police raid. The reason: neither the Second German Empire nor the Weimar Republic had ever promulgated laws forbidding or punishing sexual acts between women. Lesbian magazines enjoyed healthy circulations, some even featuring personal ads, and a few lesbian plays achieved widespread popularity.
But the sexual tolerance so often associated with the Weimar Republic began to disappear as rapidly as Germany's economy began to crumble. (The unemployed are generally less tolerant of contragenics.) Germany, it must be remembered, had never been an ethnically pluralistic society. Almost all German churches were state churches. There were no large ethnic groups or religious sects other than the Jews, the Gypsies, and the Jehovah's Witnesses — the latter relatively small in number. Homosexuals were an obvious, if largely invisible, scapegoat.
The years from 1929 to the end of the Weimar Republic were years of mounting tension. The Brown Shirts, or SA, under the leadership of Ernst Roehm, who was himself homosexual and would later be the target of Hitler's wrath, became even more brutal and more repressively efficient. Hitler had promised Germany's youth life as an endless military parade, replete with dashing insignia, badges, and banners. He invented special ranks for SA recruits and later for the SS. He proffered the vision of a brave, sunny world of soldiering for those who had given up hope. His enemies he threatened with war and extinction. They would be eliminated "ruthlessly" (his favorite word), and "heads would roll." His various adversaries were united in nothing but blindness. Only when it was too late did some grasp that Hitler's program of wholesale destruction would indeed be carried out, its scope widening year after year. The initial misreading of the implications of the Nazis' policy of systematic violence was shared by almost all of those who were their victims: union leaders, shrewd politicians of the center and the right, Marxists, Jewish scientists, writers, lawyers, and, of course, homosexuals of all professions and educational levels. To be sure, a small minority did read the omens correctly and managed to leave Germany before it was too late; but many stayed behind to face their doom uncomprehendingly.
It is in this context that the successes and failures of the homosexual-rights movement in Germany must be measured. The movement began long before World War I, during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, but didn't assume the proportions of a significant reform movement until the arrival of Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935). It would be hard to overestimate Hirschfeld's importance. The attacks on his person and on his life's work anticipate the wholesale horror that was to be unleashed once Hitler had consolidated his rule.
Hirschfeld, a Jew, a homosexual, and a physician, was a man possessed of enormous energy, imagination, and ambition. He became the leader of several psychological and medical organizations, the founder of a unique institute for sexual research, and the organizer of numerous international congresses dedicated to research on sexual matters and to the promotion of policies that would lead to an acceptance of homosexuals by society. In his celebrated study, Homosexuality in Men and Women, Hirschfeld optimistically declared that 90 percent of the German people would vote to repeal the nation's antihomosexual laws if only they had a chance to learn the truth. His optimism would later prove to be unfounded, even after Hitler's defeat in 1945. Hirschfeld's motto was "Justice Through Knowledge." He was not alone in his belief that progress could be made through the exercise of reason. Other doctors and psychiatrists, such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Albert Moll, and Alfred Adler, shared this belief even as they contested Hirschfeld's ideas while respecting his research.
Consumed by a kind of missionary zeal, Hirschfeld wrote book after book, polemic after polemic, pamphlet after pamphlet. His total output (nearly two hundred titles) is staggering: Natural Laws of Love (1912), Homosexuality in Men and Women (1918-20), Sexual Pathology, three volumes (1920), The Science of Sexology (1920), and Sexual Knowledge, five volumes published from 1926 to 1930, are his major works. Most of the books were quite lengthy; for example, the second edition of Homosexuality in Men and Women stretches to more than one thousand pages. In addition, Hirschfeld composed scores of articles, book reviews, political pamphlets, and petitions to government agencies. He also founded the Yearbook for Intersexual Variants, which he edited until 1923, and was published, with a few interruptions, until 1932-33. The yearbooks addressed legal, historical, medical, and anthropological aspects of homosexuality. They presented lengthy discussions with psychiatrists who disputed Hirschfeld's work. For a long time Hirschfeld had believed that homosexuals formed a third sex. (He would abandon this notion in 1910.) He considered the archetype of the totally masculine male and the totally feminine female as unchanging throughout history, a law of nature as firmly rooted in reality as the laws of mathematics. He was convinced that homosexuals constituted a biologically distinct gender — a human being between male and female. He devoted much thought to establishing fine differentiations within this third sex. (The "third sex" thesis, however, would inadvertently help the Nazis in their crusade against homosexuals, as will be explained below.)
Hirschfeld repeatedly tried to reform Germany's laws, particularly the notorious Paragraph 175. This national law, enacted in 1871, stipulated that "A male who indulges in criminally indecent activities with another male or who allows himself to participate in such activities will be punished with jail." That such a law should have been passed is no surprise. Legal authorities in Germany had been obsessed with sexual practices for several centuries. In the seventeenth century, for instance, the German legalist Benedict Carpzow, in a legal commentary of 216 pages, condemned not only bestiality, masturbation, coprophilia, homosexuality, and intercourse with virgins, but sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews as well. Since the Jews were not human but animals, Carpzow reasoned, intercourse with them should properly fall under the legal category of the crime of sodomy-bestiality.
Excerpted from The Pink Triangle by Richard Plant. Copyright © 1986 Richard Plant. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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