Britain has just celebrated LGBT History Month, a much-needed occasion for a community that has lived through a troubled history and is only just beginning to receive true acceptance.
Conspicuously absent from many discussions, however, are the stories of the Holocaust’s LGBTQ+ victims. The persecution of gays and lesbians during the Third Reich has only recently started to receive proper historical appreciation after decades of erasure and suppression, and yet the LGBTQ+ community still remains largely ignored within our popular consciousness. As the world finds itself gripped with the rise of far-right forces, remembering the Holocaust cannot merely belong to the history classroom, but must have paramount importance in everyday life. We must also read about Nazism’s forgotten gay victims, because their story and subsequent erasure shed so much light on problems that persist to this day.
Under the Third Reich, approximately 100,000 men were arrested for homosexuality, of which around 5,000-15,000 were sent to concentration camps. Nazi Germany intensified anti-gay laws and sentiment, portraying homosexuality as an “asocial” characteristic which threatened society’s stability. Nazis subjected gay, bisexual and lesbian citizens to torture and humiliation.
Pierre Seel, one of the many gay Holocaust victims and few survivors, provides one of the most harrowing stories. As a teenager in France, a nation where same-sex activity was legal, his name initially fell on a record of “accused homosexuals”. His childhood dream was to study textiles. But after the country was invaded by Germany, he was seized by the Gestapo in 1941, and sent to the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp. From the moment of his arrest, he was tortured by Nazi soldiers – forcibly sodomised with a wooden stick, and then made to witness his lover being murdered by a pack of dogs. He had yet to turn 19. The brutality of Pierre’s experience was far from an isolated incident. Gays and lesbians often found themselves faced with the most pitiless of punishments – ranging from castration and inhumane experiments to sexual slavery.
Even more tragically for the gay Holocaust victims who survived, persecution would not end in 1945. Liberation meant little for the gay men who would find that Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code, criminalising homosexual activity since 1871, continued to apply to them as soon as they left their camps, even resulting in subsequent imprisonments. Deeply homophobic societal attitudes resulted in the erasure of the Holocaust’s gay voices, with victims disbarred from sharing their grief. Upon returning, Pierre Seel was disowned by his godfather, married a woman to further hide his sexuality, and encountered numerous hostile reactions as he came forward with his testimony in the 1980s. Catherine Trautmann, Strasbourg’s former mayor and later a Socialist MEP and minister of culture, even refused to shake Pierre’s hand at a commemorative event.
Reading such accounts of the persecution of gays and lesbians under Nazi Germany, stories which have only recently come to light, is undeniably heartbreaking. I’m sure that anyone, regardless of their personal beliefs, would feel shocked and indignant towards such horrific treatment. Remembering the Holocaust in museums and ceremonies is something we all do so well, but when it actually comes to putting its memory in action, we are not so proactive, especially when our internal prejudices are challenged.
In many parts of the world, the systematic and legal persecution of the LGBTQ+ community is not relegated to the history books: it is a present-day reality. Homosexual activity, in various forms, is still criminalised in over one third of countries, with 10 maintaining the death penalty as a sentence. This is not including the many nations where, as much as same-sex relationships may be legal, there are severe restrictions on LGBTQ+ people’s expression and rights. Ranging from Chechnya to countries in Africa and even certain states in the US, we see how sanctioned violence against gay people, or routine discrimination, is not a problem of the past.
But the story of the Holocaust shouldn’t just remind us of what is happening in the world right now, but of the insidious danger in complacency. Prior to the Third Reich, while homosexual activity was technically illegal, the Weimar Republic saw revolutionary advancements for the LGBTQ+ community. Gay nightlife flourished in Berlin, while the Bund für Menschenrecht (League for Human Rights), a pro-homosexual activist organisation, reached 48,000 members in 1929 and published the popular lesbian magazine Die Freundlin. Ten years later, these movements were shut down and gay people were routinely targeted and rounded up. Homophobic sentiments were far more prevalent in the early 20th-century than they are today, but it is vital to remember that the Holocaust saw a regression of ideals, a reactionary response to the supposed “liberal ills” of Weimar Germany. As LGBTQ+ rights continue to advance in the west, we must never take them for granted. The far-right today may place its main focus on immigrants, Muslim and Jewish communities, but it’ll come for the LGBTQ+ too – and anyone else it perceives as undesirable.
Anyone today who holds a homophobic worldview can’t ever fully mourn the Holocaust, since it’s that specific mentality which not only resulted in countless deaths 70 years ago, but also fuels the systematic persecution of the LGBTQ+ community and many others today.
If we want to truly honour the memory of victims like Pierre, to give him the justice he truly deserves, we need to fight to ensure his experience remains something of the past.
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