No place in history for gay victims of Nazism

Shirer's work on the Third Reich ignores the persecution of homosexuals . It should be withdrawn, says Peter Tatchell
Click to follow
The Independent Online
I FIRST read William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich with great admiration as a teenager in the 1960s. It affected me profoundly, and left me with a determined view that tyranny and injustice should never be ignored. Now, nearly 30 years later, I have just re-read Shirer as a gay man knowledgeable in gay history, and I am angry.

In all the 1,245 pages of this massive work, which purports to be the definitive account of the Hitler regime, there is not one reference to the persecution of homosexuals. This means that, for all its undoubted strengths, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is only a partial history; indeed it is a false history.

The terror campaign against gay people may have been a small element of Nazism, but it was a morally significant one, and yet, with no explanation or justification Shirer simply airbrushes it out of the record. It is an omission which has alarming parallels with the way revisionist historians have attempted to play down the mass murder of Jews - the denial of the Holocaust.

Yet the book has just been republished in this country, unaltered and without additional commentary, by Mandarin Press. If Shirer had ignored the Holocaust, would that have happened?

Most intelligent people are now aware of the Nazi hatred for homosexuals, but this they owe more to Martin Sherman's acclaimed play, Bent, than to the efforts of historians. There is, alas, still little knowledge of Nazism's persecution of gay people. So it is vital that the works which shape the popular understanding of the Third Reich should not obscure this chapter of Nazi horror.

Shirer's work meticulously explores virtually every other aspect of Nazism. Quite rightly, he gives great prominence to Hitler's anti-Jewish policies, with 58 references in his index. Yet the same index contains not even one entry concerning the Nazi witch-hunt of homosexuals. This is not point-scoring: gays versus Jews. Both groups suffered, but while the suffering of Jews is acknowledged, the suffering of homosexuals is not.

But not only does Shirer ignore the Third Reich's brutal policy towards homosexuals, he is also actively homophobic in his approach to the subject. Those Nazi personalities who happened to be homosexual he denounces as "notorious homosexual perverts" with "depraved morals". Employing the crudest of hostile stereotypes, he says they "quarrelled and feuded as only men of unnatural sexual inclinations, with their peculiar jealousies, can". Some Nazis, then, are attacked as much for their gayness as for their fascism, and Shirer almost seems to see a link between the two.

Shirer portrays homosexuals as protagonists in the fascist state, while remaining silent about the gay victims of Nazism. This is to turn history upon its head. The truth is that only a handful of senior Nazis were gay and most of them were murdered on Hitler's orders in 1934.

Yet the book is regarded as being authoritative. Since it was first published in 1960, critics have been unstinting in their praise: "Documented, reasoned, objective ... The classic history of Nazism", Hugh Trevor-Roper (now Lord Dacre) wrote at the time of first publication. "Perfectly balanced ... a great record", Bernard Levin wrote.

It cannot be argued that Shirer did not know about the persecution of homosexuals. As a foreign correspondent in Germany from 1926 to 1941, Shirer was an eyewitness to Nazi terror. For example, the ransacking of the headquarters of the German homosexual rights movement by fascist students and stormtroopers on 6 May 1933 made headlines in the national press, yet it does not rate even a footnote in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer does, of course, cite the notorious Nazi book burning in Berlin four days later, but he fails to acknowledge that most of the 20,000 volumes consumed in that particular fire were stolen from the trashed headquarters of the homosexual movement, the Institute for Sexual Science.

Shirer ignores the outlawing of gay rights groups, the closure of gay bars and magazines, the criminalisation of the intent to commit homosexuals acts, the creation of the Reich Office for combating Abortion and Homosexuality and the compiling of "pink lists" by the Gestapo. Also missing from his history are the mass deportations of homosexuals to concentration camps and the introduction of the death penalty for gay sex.

It would have been easy for Shirer to slip in a few brief references to these acts of terror, but he never bothered. The persecution and mass murder of such people did not apparently constitute either an outrage or a worthy historical fact.

We know that Shirer had access to source material which detailed the Nazi policy of terror towards homosexuals. His own bibliography cites Eugen Kogon's book, The Theory and Practice of Hell, published in 1950. Written by an ex-Buchenwald political prisoner, it documents the fate of homosexuals. They "had to slave in the quarry", Kogon wrote. "This consigned them to the lowest caste in the camp during the most difficult years ... virtually all of them perished."

Shirer should also have been aware of the recollections of Himmler's doctor, published in 1947 and again in 1957 as The Memoirs of Dr Felix Kersten. This devotes a chapter to Himmler's obsession with the extermination of gay people.

In 1959 Rudolf Hoess, a leading Nazi, explained in his book Kommandant in Auschwitz how he sought to "cure" homosexuality by forcing gay inmates to undertake hard labour and compelling them to have sex with female prostitutes.

Shirer would surely have read these books, yet he makes no reference to the slaughter of gay men that they document. He describes the gruesome medical experiments carried out on concentration camp inmates, but he never mentions the experiments on homosexuals in Buchenwald. These included castration and hormonal implants by the SS-Sturmbannfuhrer, Dr Carl Vaernet (medical abuses which were never cited during the Nuremburg doctor's trial and for which no-one was ever prosecuted).

It is difficult to believe that all Shirer's omissions are mere oversights. All writing, even historical writing, is a reflection of the time in which it is written, and the 1950s were more intolerant of homosexuality than the 1990s. But Shirer's choosing to ignore the horrors Hitlerism inflicted on gay people is more significant than that; taken together with his disparaging references to homosexuality, it must be seen as a homophobic bias.

If Shirer had excluded the destruction of the Jews from his book, few people would have hesitated to condemn him as a revisionist historian, and his enormous study would be both notorious and reviled. Yet when he excises from history the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, his revisionism passes unchallenged. At the very least the publishers of the new edition, Mandarin, should withdraw the book until it is amended to present an accurate history of the Nazi terror.

Comments