“Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-45”
2005, in the
San Francisco Main
Library’s packed Koret
Auditorium, Edward (Ted) J.
Phillips, Deputy Director of Exhi-
bitions of the United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum (www.ushmm.org), spoke of
putting together “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals
1933-1945,” the exhibition on display in the Skylight Gallery.
“Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945” is a must-see, real-life horror story with reverberations up to the present day. The exhibit at the San Francisco Main Library, organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, conveys the horror of that era primarily through a series of illustrated narrative panels that describe what happened to gays in one of history’s darkest eras. Selected rare publications from the Gerard Koskovich collection are also on display, devoted to medical doctor and social reformer Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935).
To walk among the panels and experience the grim reality of that time is to experience intense emotions. To be immersed in such material full time in the course of research must be heartbreaking. At one point toward the end of curator Ted Phillips’ powerful, important, moving lecture on the exhibit, his voice started to crack.
“I started this project in 2000,” Phillips told the rapt audience in the Koret Auditorium. “It opened at the museum in 2002. It was probably one of the most difficult two years of my life. It’s not a project one just sort of takes up and works on 40 hours a week. Everything about this history I lived with 24 hours a day, seven days a week. My friends got a little bit tired of hearing about nightmare stories of the Nazi regime, because it’s all I could think about.”
The historian, himself a gay man, had to sift through, untangle, and organize a coherent picture of what was happening to Germany’s gay population during their deliberate persecution by the Nazi regime. Their tale, though vastly overshadowed by the deaths of six million Jews at the hands of the perpetrators, is an example of the Nazi regime’s attempts to eliminate entire other classes of people including the handicapped, the Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Poles, and of course homosexuals.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were targeted because they refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Nazi regime; the handicapped were “the first group of people targeted for state-sponsored murder beginning almost within weeks of the outbreak of the war in 1939,” said Phillips. During the war the Nazis took aim at the non-Jewish Polish population, and ultimately struck at Soviet POWs, “some three million of whom perished in concentration camps set up by the Germans.” But also from the beginning, the Nazis deliberately targeted homosexuals.
A year after its opening in 1994, said Phillips, the Holocaust Museum began putting together a series of publications to look at these non-Jewish groups targeted by the Nazis, and in 1996, after the museum had been up and running successfully for three years, getting extraordinary visitation, the museum decided to turn the information into a series of traveling exhibition. The first out was going to be on the persecution of homosexuals.
“I was given the opportunity to take on that task probably for a variety of reasons,” said Phillips, a professional historian with a Ph.D. in Russian History who already had a couple of exhibitions under his belt working with his colleagues at the museum, “so I kind of had a sense of how to put together an exhibition.” But also, he said, “I think it was because I arrived at the museum as an out gay man. I never made any bones about it and they didn’t pay any attention to it either. I think it was the opportunity as a gay man to be kind of comfortable with what I’d have to be reading about. Not too many straight people are often interested in knowing about the history of gay people. They may find in fact the contents difficult to work with. That wasn’t going to be a problem for me.”
The plan was to put together a narrative of the history of the persecution of gay people and find things to illustrate that history. The challenge was coming up with material to tell a visual story about the persecution of homosexuals.
“Homosexuals as victims did not come forward after the war to tell their stories,” said Phillips. “Jews did. It took them a while, because they were shocked and horrified by what they had been through, but in the months and years after the war the Jews were coming forward and telling what happened to them, those who had survived, who were looking for their families who had perished. Homosexuals did not come forward following the persecution during the war, because they were still criminals in Germany.”
Phillips explained that the law that the law the Nazis wrote in 1935, the infamous criminal law section §175 (“Paragraph 175”), expanded opportunities for the Nazi regime to persecute gays, “and remained on the books as an active law in Western Germany until 1969. Other laws that were put in place during the Nazi years have been eradicated because they were deemed as Nazi, but §175 as written by the Nazis was not identified as being a Nazi-specific law, but was a perfectly acceptable moral law and left in place.”
The result, he said, was that “individuals who had come through the persecution, who may have actually had personal items that would help them be identified as homosexuals, likely destroyed that information because they would have been linked to being homosexuals and therefore could continue to be persecuted in the post-war period.”
Just as Phillips was setting out on his research, a museum in Berlin, the Schwules Museum — schwule is German for gay — opened an exhibition on the persecution of homosexual men in Berlin, 1933-1945, so Phillips and a team from the Holocaust Museum hopped a plane and spent two weeks in Berlin, working with that museum’s small team of young, dedicated archivists and researchers who, while basically living on unemployment insurance in order to pursue their research, had uncovered a “remarkable treasure trove” of materials. The Schwules Museum made the material available to Phillips and his team, which helped steamroll the Holocaust Museum’s project. Now could be included such heartbreaking finds as a December 1934 New York World Telegram newspaper article: “Hitler Jails 500 in Morals Drive”.
“They threw into jail between 500 and 700 men accused of perversion,” Phillips said as he projected the image. “This was a particular raid in a particular month in the early months of the Nazi regime. Foretelling is that the invasion of the gay bars and restaurants and other gathering places of gay men was against a class described by Herr Hitler as a menace to the race.”
Among the documents supporting the exhibition are transcripts of Gestapo “denunciations,” said Phillips, “denunciations by people about gay men, turned into the Gestapo to be arrested and dealt with by the police.” He showed one from 1938 “denouncing somebody for accused sexual activities from two years earlier,” and another denunciation of a man by the man’s partner’s mother.
Between 1933 and 1945, said Phillips, “100,000 men in Germany were arrested for violating §175. Roughly half of those ended up in prison.” Seventy-eight percent of the convictions occurred between 1936 and 1939, the outbreak of World War II. In the city of Berlin alone, 112 homosexuals were arrested in the month of June 1937, Phillips added. “By my calculation there’s something like 500 gay men who were arrested just in this one month across Germany.”
In the Q&A after the speech, Phillips addressed several interesting questions, including the difference between the yellow stars the Jews were forced to wear and the the pink triangles used to identify homosexuals. Phillips said that “the only place that gays were marked with pink triangles was in concentration camps. That’s very different from the Jewish experience, where Jews were in ghettos, and even before ghettos existed had to just wear it in public as a yellow star.”
As to the infamous book “The Hidden Hitler” by German researcher/scholar Lother Machtan, exploring the idea that Hitler and some of his milieu were gay, Phillips said tartly: “As a historian I find the book just despicable. Not because of what he is attempting to argue, by his misuse of the sources. My favorite example of how he tries to prove his case: Hitler and his friend in Austria loved the opera. Magnus Hirschfeld in his research indicated that some gay men had some particular interest in opera. Therefore, aha! Guess who’s gay! Give me a break. I’m gay and I hate opera!”
More to the point, Phillips added somberly, is what former Holocaust Museum Director Walter Reich said in his comment on the book, which was basically, “so what? He still did what he did. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust and millions of others perished at the hands of his regime. Whether he was gay or not makes no difference; he was still a nightmare.”
“Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945” is on display in the Main Library’s Skylight Gallery from June 18–Aug. 18, 2005. Info: sfpl.lib.ca.us/news/exhibitions.htm