By Ashley Koch, Museum Educator at The HC
A COMMUNITY EMERGES
The roots of the modern LGBTQ+ movement lie in Germany, where a community of self-conscious and openly gay men and women began to emerge in the second half of the 19th century. This group of activists and professionals advocated for a new view of “homosexuality,” conceived of not as a moral failing or mental illness, but rather as an inborn characteristic worthy of toleration. They were galvanized into action by the nationalization of the Prussian penal code, which criminalized homosexual behavior between men in Paragraph 175.
Magnus Hirschfeld, a gay Jewish doctor, was the most prominent leader of this first LGBTQ+ rights movement. He founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in 1897 to advocate for LGBTQ+ Germans and call for the repeal of Paragraph 175. He also established the Institute for Sexual Science (ISS) in Berlin in 1919 to provide psychological and medical services to gay and transgender patients. For this work, Hirschfeld was vilified—especially by the Nazi party—who portrayed his work as part of a Jewish plot to undermine German society.
BACKLASH AND CRACKDOWN
Sexual and gender diversity was seen as an existential threat to the Nazis’ vision of a pure Aryan “racial community.” Gay men were seen as effeminate and weak, and gay relationships of either sex would never produce “pure Aryan” children. Queer Germans were seen as a direct threat to the Nazis’ dream of waging a racial struggle, and the Nazis sought to purge them from German society.
In 1933, Nazi student groups raided the ISS, ransacking the building and destroying the research inside as part of the first mass book burning in Berlin just a few days later. Hirschfeld, who was in Paris at the time, could only watch from afar as his life’s work went up in flames. Disheartened, he died of a heart attack two years later.
The Nazis soon expanded Paragraph 175 to include any erotic activities between men, and mere suspicion became grounds for imprisonment. Those arrested faced torture to gain further names.
Richard Grune, a Berlin artist and gay man, was arrested in 1934 and convicted under Paragraph 175. He spent the next decade in prisons and concentration camps, where he was forced to wear the pink triangle assigned to gay inmates.
DEATH IN CAPTIVITY
From 1933 to 1945, around 50,000 men were convicted of homosexuality and sent to prison. Of those, around 10,000 ended up in concentration camps where they faced slave labor, torture, rape, forced castration, medical experimentation, and murder.
One of these victims was Liddy Bacroff, a transgender woman from Hamburg who was arrested in the late 1930s. Bacroff maintained her identity in the face of police persecution, telling her captors that her “sense of sex is fully and completely that of a woman.” Nonetheless, they prosecuted Bacroff as a male homosexual and sent her to Mauthausen, where she was murdered in 1943.
Queer inmates faced abuse from guards and other inmates who often saw pink triangles as the lowest of the low among those imprisoned. Isolated from inmate support networks and subjected to daily abuse, gay and trans prisoners faced some of the highest death rates among non-Jewish camp prisoners, with an estimated two-thirds dying in captivity.
SEEKING RECOGNITION FOR QUEER VICTIMS
Grune was lucky, and he survived until 1945 when he escaped from Flossenburg shortly before its liberation. Unfortunately for queer survivors, Paragraph 175 was kept on the books in Germany and was not repealed entirely until after East and West Germany reunited in 1994. Grune sought to be recognized as a victim of Nazi atrocities, but the West German government continually denied his efforts.
It wasn’t until the 21st century that the German government began recognizing queer Germans as victims of the Nazis, and historians began fully recovering this lost community of pioneering LGBTQ+ people.