This Holocaust Memorial Day marks 78 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Every year on this day, the same promise is made: “Never Again,” to remember those lost and to be vigilant to the enduring threat of fascism. Yet, through the creation of Holocaust public memory, the biases of society have threatened to erase certain parts of the narrative.
The experience of LGBTQ+ people under Nazism can be diminished in historical narratives. While the vast majority of victims were Jews, many minority groups, such as Roma, Jehovah's Witnesses, people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ people, were persecuted. Even as a queer Jewish person, I didn’t learn about the experiences of these groups until much later in my Holocaust education. Public memory is not a zero-sum game. To remember LGBTQ+ peoples experience in the Holocaust is to not to detract from the importance of Jewish memory, or any other affected group.
In Germany, even before the war, a law called Paragraph 175 criminalised homosexuality. Despite this, cities like Berlin had well-established queer scenes. When Hitler rose to power, he painted homosexuality as a threat to the continuation of the Aryan race, banning all gay and lesbian organisations and beginning the strict enforcement of Paragraph 175. While Paragraph 175 only outlawed homosexuality for men, other queer people suffered greatly during the Holocaust. Many endured abuse, the destruction of their communities and some faced imprisonment.
In the same way that Jewish prisoners were made to wear yellow stars, gay male inmates were labelled with upside-down pink triangles to identify them. Many were castrated and subjected to inhumane experiments. Their death rate is thought to have been higher than any other prisoner groups.
The exact numbers are not known, but it’s thought that around 100,000 gay and bisexual men were arrested between 1933 and 1945 and somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 men were taken to concentration camps. These are just the inmates who were specifically recorded as being incarcerated for their sexuality. Undoubtedly, there were more members of the LGBTQ+ community incarcerated in camps, but without their sexuality or gender identity having been recorded as the reason, we’ll never know the accurate number. It’s more likely these people were labelled as political prisoners or ‘asocial’. For this reason, along with poor record keeping and a lack of research funding, the knowledge around the experience and treatment of other queer groups is relatively unknown.
At the end of the war, liberation for gay survivors was only partial. They re-entered a society where their sexuality was still criminalised. Some were even re-arrested under Paragraph 175 and made to serve further sentences. Unsurprisingly, few survivors felt safe enough to come forward and recount the horrors they experienced. Paragraph 175 remained in law in West Germany until 1994.
Queer victims of the Holocaust have faced double erasure—first from participating in society and subsequently from the narrative of Holocaust memory. Their high death rates in the camps, the enduring climate of homophobia that supressed their stories and a lack of research funding has threatened to erase the queer experience of the Holocaust.
Public memory is constructed. Its narrative is shaped and designed by acts of remembering: writing books, erecting monuments, conversations. The memory of queer people during the Holocaust has already been put under irreparable strain, asserting the importance of acts of remembrance in their name.
The first German memorial dedicated to the homosexual victims of the Holocaust was the Frankfurt Angel, in 1994: a cast of a Gothic angel, with its head severed and reattached slightly askew. The inscription reads:
“Homosexual men and women were persecuted and murdered in Nazi Germany. The crimes were denied, the dead concealed, the survivors scorned and prosecuted. We remember this, in the awareness that men who love men and women who love women still face persecution.”
The tragic intersection of hate and persecution did not end with the Nazi regime. Today both antisemitic and homophobic hate crimes are on the rise. It is more critical than ever to remember all the victims of Hitler’s fascism and stand against all forms of racism and discrimination.