Holocaust Survivors' Network

Exhibit unmasks Nazi persecution of gays


Knight Ridder Newspapers
March 7, 2005

(KRT) - KANSAS CITY, Mo. --Homosexuals, whose "degeneracy" Nazis believed would taint the Aryan German race, suffered horrors equal to Jews and gypsies before and during World War II: arrest, imprisonment, torture, castration, murder.

Now more than 60 years later, the Urban Culture Project has presented an illuminating exhibit showing how gays were treated in Nazi Germany.

The show, "Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945," ran recently at the Bank gallery in downtown Kansas City and marked a departure from UCP's regular practice of presenting shows of contemporary art. But since ideas, attitudes and ideology play a formative role in culture, they decided to take on what is essentially an illustrated lesson in social history.

The exhibit, organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., comprised two dozen kiosks arrayed with texts and images gathered primarily from the Schwules Museum (Gay Museum) in Berlin. Conceived in 1996 as one of a series of traveling exhibits devoted to non-Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, the show was completed in 2002 and has been on the road for two years, most recently in St. Louis.

After learning about the exhibit last summer, Mike Dalena, associate director of the Kansas City Jewish Museum's Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom, led the effort to bring it to Kansas City.

"I see a lot of parallels between this history and what's happening now," Dalena said, during a walk through the show.

Last August Missourians voted to add an amendment banning gay marriage to the state constitution. Recently, the Kansas Legislature gave the go-head for Kansas voters to decide on a similar amendment that would include depriving same sex couples of the right to civil unions.

Dalena sees these "anti-gay amendments" as marking a big cultural shift from the climate of tolerance evidenced by popular TV shows such as "Queer Eye" and "Will & Grace."

"I seriously do have a little fear in me," he said. "I hear people on the extreme right sound so much like stuff I've been reading in this exhibit."

The Nazi crackdown on homosexuality came after the relatively permissive Weimar years (1919-1933). Gay clubs -- some 200 of them -- flourished in Berlin, despite the presence on the books of paragraph 175, a law that made "unnatural indecency" between men punishable by up to two years in prison.

In the 1920s, activists such as Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, campaigned for homosexual civil rights and the repeal of paragraph 175. But the opposite happened.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they closed down homosexual clubs and denounced homosexuality as a contagious infection. They demonized homosexuals as predators and political subversives. They expanded the surveillance powers of the police, confiscated notebooks and address books and enlisted citizen denunciations.

In 1935, the Nazis rewrote paragraph 175 to include not just sexual intercourse but looking and touching between two men. Under this revised version of the law, more than 100,000 men were arrested and 50,000 were imprisoned during the 12 years of Nazi rule.

The exhibit documents this chain of events with numerous photographs, posters and diagrams, including police file photographs of dozens of men. A diagram shows how "homosexual infection" could be spread from one person to 28 others. There are also police surveillance shots and images of Nazis ransacking Hirschfeld's Institute of Sexual Science.

The Nazis aversion to homosexuals was not without its ironies. "A lot of Nazi propaganda was homoerotic," Dalena said, indicating a 1930s propaganda poster proclaiming, "We build body and soul," accompanied by an image of two bare-chested men.

A telling episode from the period was the 1934 murder of Ernst Rohm. Rohm, the openly homosexual leader of the Nazi storm troopers, was killed after members of Hitler's circle convinced Hitler that Rohm was a threat to his authority. The incident cemented the equation between homosexuality and political subversion, and the view of homosexuals as a threat to the state.

Once the persecution of homosexuals started, it snowballed.

The Nazis took two views of homosexuality, treating it in some cases as a "contagious degeneracy" that was hereditary and therefore had to be eliminated, and in others as a behavioral issue that could be changed by re-education.

"When people are desperate to advance their agenda, their logic isn't always sound," Dalena observed.

The Nazis furiously propagandized the ideas that homosexuals perverted youth, contributed to the declining birth rate and sabotaged the "masculine discipline" of the German nation.

"German mothers, workers wives! Do you want your children turned over to homosexuals?" a Nazi poster asks.

Concern over the birth rate led to the establishment in 1935 of the Reich Central Office for Combating Homosexuality and Abortion. Lesbians were not recorded in this police registry. The Nazi regime viewed all women as subject to men and did not see lesbianism as interfering with women's primary responsibility to bear children.

The Nazis did target Catholic priests, convicting dozens of clerics on charges of sexual misconduct and homosexuality in the mid-1930s.

Within the larger society, between 1937 and the middle of 1939, Nazis arrested 78,000 men. Roughly one-third of them were sent to prison for violating paragraph 175.

The war made things worse.

Homosexuals were drafted and also persecuted in the military under paragraph 175. Seven thousand soldiers were convicted and given a choice between prison and military suicide missions.

Once the war began in 1939, the Nazis also stepped up their persecution of homosexuals on the home front. Many "repeat offenders" were sent to concentration camps, where they were assigned the most dangerous jobs. Pink triangle badges, which identified them as homosexuals, attracted particular brutality from the guards.

Photographs in the exhibit show the labor camps and prisoners at Auschwitz wearing the pink triangle. There is also a shot of one of the operating rooms.

Some homosexuals were castrated; the Nazis' medical experiments included implanting 10 homosexuals with hormone capsules to "correct" their urges.

The exhibit closes with an image of a memorial in Frankfurt erected in honor of homosexual victims of the Nazis. It is one of several such memorials erected since 1985, the year Robert T. Odeman died.

Odeman, a writer and composer born in 1904, was arrested and imprisoned twice under paragraph 175; his second conviction landed him in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Odeman didn't live to see the German parliament abolish paragraph 175 in 1990 (although the Nazi version was rescinded in 1969) and was long dead by May 2002, when the German government pardoned those convicted by the Nazis under paragraph 175.


© 2005, The Kansas City Star.