William Shirer’s history of the Third Reich erases gay persecution
By Peter Tatchell
Homophobic histories of Nazism ignore Hitler’s war against gay men
International Business Times UK – London – 15 September 2015
READ & COMMENT: http://ibt.uk/A006NLZ
This year we’ve commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. There has been an outpouring of new books and documentary films about Nazism and the struggle against it, as well as heart-breaking accounts of the shattered lives of the many victims of the Third Reich.
Most of these histories have been written from the point of view of the triumphant Allies. This has always been the case.
It is now widely accepted that what we call history is usually written by the victors, from accounts of the ancient Roman and Persian conquests to the present day.
Less acknowledged is the fact that history often reflects the prejudices of the era in which it was written.
This is also true of histories of World War Two. A classic example of this prejudice concerns histories of that war written in the four decades after 1945. Almost without exception they either ignored the Nazi persecution of gay people or they echoed the shared homophobia of the Third Reich and the Allies.
One of the worst examples of this homophobic historical narrative, but not the only one, is William Shirer’s acclaimed landmark volume, The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich.
I read it with great admiration as young student in the early 1970s. It affected me profoundly. Stunned that so many people did nothing to challenge Nazism prior to the outbreak of war, I vowed never to ignore tyranny and injustice.
But re-reading Shirer today, as a gay man knowledgeable in gay history, I am angry. There is not a single reference to the Nazi persecution of homosexuals in a massive book that purports to be the definitive, seminal account of the Hitler regime.
For all its undoubted strengths, The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich is a partial, prejudiced history.
With no obvious justification and considerable insensitivity, it ignores a small but significant element of Nazism – the terror campaign against gay and bisexual men. This erasure of the suffering of homosexuals from the historical record has some alarming parallels with the way revisionist historians have attempted to downplay the mass murder of Jews.
It is the responsibility of a history writer to record the whole truth, and not to suppress unpalatable facts. When historical accounts omit substantive fragments of the events they profess to record, challenging this denial becomes an imperative for those of us who value the integrity of documented history.
Thankfully, most intelligent people are now aware of the Nazi hatred and persecution of homosexuals. However, this is largely due to Martin Sherman’s much lauded play and film, Bent, rather than the efforts of historians like Shirer. There is, alas, still little public awareness of Nazism’s concrete acts of homophobic victimisation.
It is, or ought to be, the obligation of historians to reveal the full extent of all Nazi oppression.
Shirer’s book reveals many relatively minor aspects of the Third Reich. He does not, sadly, provide similar details with regard to the decimation of gay people.
This raises important issues about the way history is often biased by the popular prejudices existing at the time when it was written – in Shirer’s case by homophobic intolerance.
Despite Shirer’s arguably false or partial history, which was first published in Britain in 1960, it has been repeatedly republished since then without corrections or addendums.
At 1,245 pages in length, it is a massive text. Shirer goes into meticulous detail about virtually every aspect of Nazism, but not the victimisation of gay and bisexual men.
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. To point this out is not victim-scoring, gays versus Jews. Rather, it is an attempt to draw attention to the common suffering of both social groups while highlighting that the suffering of Jews is acknowledged but the suffering of gays is not.
Ignoring the Third Reich’s ‘genocidal’ policy towards homosexuals is bad enough, but Shirer also explicitly stirs up homophobia. He disparages the homosexuality of some of the top Nazi leaders, denouncing them as “notorious homosexual perverts.” Their homosexuality is referred to as “moral degeneration” and evidence of their “depraved morals.” Citing rifts within the Nazi hierarchy, Shirer panders to the crudest homophobic stereotypes when he says that they “quarrelled and feuded as only men of unnatural sexual inclinations, with their peculiar jealousies, can.”
Instead of using morally neutral language to refer to the homosexual orientation of top Nazis, Shirer resorts to prejudice-loaded epithets which attack their gayness, not their fascism. He forsakes the historian’s sacred duty of objectivity for anti-gay abuse. It is almost as if Shirer sees a linkage between the homosexuality of certain Nazi chiefs and their monstrous crimes against humanity.
History is turned on its head. While remaining silent about the gay victims of Nazism, Shirer portrays homosexuals as key perpetrators of the fascist state. The truth is that only a handful of senior Nazis were gay and they were murdered on Hitler’s orders in 1934.
The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich is, in parts, a homophobic tract masquerading as objective history. Yet most of the world’s prestigious historians were unstinting in their praise. “Documented, reasoned, objective…The classic history of Nazism”, said Hugh Trevor-Roper (later Lord Dacre) at the time of first publication. “Perfectly balanced…a great record”, wrote Bernard Levin.
Although an eye-witness news reporter in Germany from 1926-41, Shirer’s book makes no mention of the Nazi anti-gay terror. Headline-making attacks, such as the ransacking of the headquarters of the German homosexual rights movement by fascist students and storm troopers on 6 May 1933, do not merit even a footnote. Shirer does, of course, cite the notorious Nazi book-burning in Berlin four days later but fails to acknowledge that many of the 20,000 torched volumes were from the trashed headquarters of the gay movement, the Institute for Sexual Science.
Likewise, Shirer’s history ignores the Nazi outlawing of gay rights groups, the closure of gay bars and magazines, the criminalisation of the intent to commit homosexual acts, the creation of the Reich Office for Combating Abortion and Homosexuality, the compiling of ‘pink lists’ by the Gestapo, the mass deportations of homosexuals to the concentration camps and the introduction of the death penalty for gay sex.
Although it would have been easy for Shirer to slip in a few brief references about these acts of homophobic terror, he never bothered. The persecution and mass murder of queers was not, apparently, deemed a worthy historical fact.
We know that after the war Shirer had access to biographical eye-witness source material which detailed the Nazi oppression of homosexuals. He chose to exclude it.
Shirer’s own bibliography cites Eugen Kogon’s book, The Theory and Practice of Hell, which came out in 1950. Written by an ex-Buchenwald political prisoner, it documents the grisly fate of homosexuals: “(they) had to slave in the quarry. This consigned them to the lowest caste in the camp during the most difficult years…virtually all of them perished.”
Shirer should have been aware of the recollections of Himmler’s doctor. Published in 1947 and again in 1957 as The Memoirs of Dr. Felix Kersten, a whole chapter is devoted to Himmler’s fanatical obsession with the extermination of gay people.
In 1959, the leading Nazi Rudolf Hoess 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.
As a scholar of the Nazi era, Shirer would surely have read these books. Yet in the original edition of The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich, and in the many subsequent reprints, he makes no reference at all to the Nazi terrorisation of gay men.
While citing extensively the gruesome medical experiments on concentration camp inmates, Shirer does not even mention the experiments on homosexual prisoners in Buchenwald, which Eugen Kogon’s book openly acknowledges. These included castration and hormonal implants by the SS-Sturmbannfuhrer, Dr. Carl Vaernet (medical abuses that were never cited during the Nuremburg doctor’s trial and for which Vaernet was never prosecuted).
Prior to subsequent reprints of Shirer’s book, the author or his publishers could have effortlessly added a footnote or short appendix on the Nazi war against homosexuals, which was known about in gay circles from the late 1960s. More recent editions could have included information from Richard Plant’s book, The Pink Triangle (Mainstream Publishing, 1987) or from the German historian, Gunter Grau’s volume, Hidden Holocaust? (Cassell, 1993).
Grau’s book is a compendium of Third Reich documents held in the former East German state archives. It presents a mass of letters and directives on the purges of homosexuals by Adolf Hitler and other top Nazis like Heinrich Himmler, Josef Meisinger, Roland Freisler, Martin Bormann and Reinhard Heydrich.
It is difficult to believe that all Shirer’s omissions were mere oversights. His eradication of the pain Hitlerism inflicted on gay people points to a clear and premeditated 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. Yet when he writes out of history the Nazi persecution of homosexuals his ‘neo-revisionism’ passes unchallenged and without rebuke. Never Again!