The Nazi war on gay people: Survivors speak out

The film Paragraph 175 reveals the forgotten ‘Holocaust’

By Peter Tatchell

London, UK – 12 April 2017


The film, Paragraph 175, was a ground breaker when it was first released two decades ago. It records the eye-witness testimonies of gay men who had survived Nazi concentration camps. They refute the mainstream “neo-revisionist” history books and documentaries about the Third Reich, which shockingly ignored or dismissed the Nazi war against gay and bisexual men.

Peter Tatchell reviews the film Paragraph 175:

“We must exterminate these people (homosexuals) root and branch … We can’t permit such danger to the country; the homosexual must be entirely eliminated”.

With these chilling words, the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, set out the Nazi master plan for the sexual cleansing of the Aryan race.

Heinz F was a care-free young gay man living in Munich in the early 1930s. He had no idea of what was about to happen. “I didn’t fully understand the situation”, he admits to the film-makers with pained regret. One morning, out of the blue, the police knocked on his door. “You are suspected of being a homosexual”, they told him. “You are hereby under arrest”. “What could I do?”, he asks, struggling to hold back the tears. “Off I went to Dachau, without a trial”.

After spending a year and a half in Dachau, Heinz was released but soon rearrested and sent to Buchenwald. He was stunned to discover the grisly fate of gays. “Almost all the homosexuals … nearly all of them (he breaks down crying) … were killed”.

Heinz miraculously survived a total of eight-plus years in concentration camps. Following the war, he never spoke to anyone about his experiences. He was afraid. Gay ex-prisoners were regarded as common criminals – not victims of Nazism. With tears trickling down his cheeks, he laments: “Nobody wanted to hear about it”. Then a quivering half smile flickers across his tearful face: “Thick skin, eh?”

Heinz is one of only eight known gay holocaust survivors who are still alive. Together with five others – and one lesbian – he recalls the homophobic witch-hunts of the Third Reich in the gut-wrenching film, Paragraph 175. Narrated by Rupert Everett, the feature-length documentary is by the US directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who won an Oscar for their AIDS film, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.

“Paragraph 175 explores a history that has not been told”, says Epstein. “We felt a particular urgency to record what stories we could while there were still living witnesses to tell them”.

The dignified, defiant testimonies of the gay survivors refute the “neo-revisionism” of mainstream holocaust histories that neglect the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.

Historian Martin Gilbert’s book, Never Again, purports to be “a comprehensive account of the holocaust”. Yet the fate of non-Jews merits only one two-page chapter and the mass murder of queers is dismissed in a single 13-word sentence.

If Gilbert had similarly ignored or belittled the suffering of Jews he would be condemned as a revisionist. Some people might say his downplaying of gay victimisation is also a form of revisionism.

The film Paragraph 175 rescues historical truth from half a century of amnesia and censorship. There is no happy ending, but the beginning is full of joy and hope.

Before the nightmare years of Nazism, Berlin was the queer capital of the world. Jewish lesbian, Annette Eick, who escaped to Britain shortly before the outbreak of war, recalls with fond nostalgia: “In Berlin, you were free. You could do what you wanted”.

The city boasted dozens of gay organisations and magazines; plus over 80 gay bars, restaurants and night clubs. In his narration, Rupert Everett describes it as “a homosexual Eden”.

Although homosexuality was illegal under paragraph 175 of the criminal code, prior to the Third Reich it was rarely enforced. In the Reichstag, MPs were on the verge of securing its repeal. A new era of freedom seemed to be dawning. Then came Nazism.

Within a month of assuming power in 1933, Hitler outlawed homosexual organisations and publications. Gay bars and clubs were closed down soon afterwards. Stormtroopers ransacked the headquarters of the pro-gay rights organisation, the Institute of Sexual Science, and publicly burned its vast library of “degenerate” books. Before the end of the year, the first homosexuals were deported to concentration camps.

Gad Beck was, in those days, a precociously gay Jewish schoolboy, sweetly innocent about homophobia. “I had an athletics teacher … One day we were showering together and I jumped on him. I ran home to my mother and said: ‘Mother, today I had my first man'”. Luckily, his parents accepted his homosexuality. But they feared for his future. He remembers their reaction: “They said: ‘Oh my god, he’s Jewish and he’s gay. Either way he’ll be persecuted. This cannot end well'”.

But Beck survived, although nearly everyone around him perished. Two of his lovers were seized by the Nazis. “I met this beautiful blonde Jew. He invited me to spend the night. In the morning the Gestapo came … I showed my ID – not on the list. They took him to Auschwitz. It had a different value then, a night of love”.

Later, Beck tried to free another lover, Manfred, from a Gestapo transfer camp by posing as a Hitler Youth member. This incredibly dangerous deception was successful, but as they walked to freedom, Manfred told Gad he could not abandon his family in the camp. Beck watched helplessly as his lover returned to be with them. He never saw Manfred again.

In 1934, the Nazis stepped up their anti-gay campaign, with the creation of the Reich Office for Combating Abortion and Homosexuality. According to Himmler: “Those who practice homosexuality deprive Germany of the children they owe her … our nation will fall to pieces because of that plague”. The police were ordered to draw up “pink lists” of known or suspected homosexuals. Mass arrests followed.

At the age of 17, in France, Pierre Seel was detained by the invading Germans, who rifled local police files on homosexuals. “They saw our names of these lists”, he says. “I ended up at the camp in Schirmeck”.

“There was a hierarchy from weakest to strongest. The weakest in the camps were the homosexuals. All the way at the bottom”.

“I was tortured, beaten … sodomised and raped!”, Seel screams in anguish. “The Nazis stuck 25cm of wood up my arse … (it) still bleeds, even today”.

His lover Jo suffered a worse fate. “He was condemned to die, eaten by dogs. German dogs! German Shepherds!”, Seel shouts with rage. “That I can never forget”.

The Nazis again intensified the war against what they called “abnormal existence” in 1935, broadening the definition of homosexual behaviour and the grounds for arrest. Gossip and innuendo became evidence. A man could be incarcerated on the basis of a mere touch, gesture or look.

Later, Himmler authorised a scientific programme for the eradication of “this vice”, with gay prisoners being subjected to gruesome medical experiments – including hormone implants and castration.

From 1933-1945, up to 100,000 men were arrested under Paragraph 175 for the crime of homosexuality. Some were sent to prisons; others to concentration camps. The death rate of gay prisoners in the camps was 60 per cent, the highest among non-Jewish victims.

Heinz Dormer spent nearly ten years in prisons and concentration camps. In a quivering, barely audible voice he remembers the haunting, agonised cries from “the singing forest”, a row of tall poles on which condemned men were hung: “Everyone who was sentenced to death would be lifted up onto the hook. The howling and screaming were inhuman … Beyond human comprehension”.

This ‘homocaust’ was an integral part of the Holocaust. Contrary to false histories that claim the persecution of Jewish people was completely distinct and separate from the victimisation of other minorities, the genocide against Jews and queers was part of the same grand design for the racial purification of the German volk. The Nazis set out to eradicate all racial and genetic “inferiors” – not just Jews, but also gay, disabled, black, Slav, Roma and Sinti people.

Even after the Nazi defeat in 1945, gay survivors continued to be persecuted. Men liberated from the concentration camps who had not completed their sentences were re-imprisoned by the victorious Allies to serve their full time. Since they were regarded as criminals, unlike other concentration camp victims, all were denied compensation for their suffering. The German government for many decades refused to pay reparations to gay survivors. As a further insult, the former SS guards were awarded better pensions. Their work in the concentration camps counted toward their pension entitlement, whereas the time spent in the camps by gay inmates did not.

Many Nazi doctors, including those who experimented on gay prisoners, were never put on trial at Nuremburg. The most notorious of all, SS Dr Carl Vaernet, was allowed by the British military authorities to travel to Sweden to receive ‘medical treatment’ for a faked illness. From there, he escaped to Argentina, where he lived freely until his death in 1965.

Paragraph 175 remained in force in Germany until 1969. Some gay Holocaust survivors, such as Heinz Dormer, were repeatedly re-arrested in the post-war period and again jailed. In the 1950s and 1960s, the number of convictions for homosexuality in West Germany was as high as it had been during Nazi rule.

The film Paragraph 175 is the last testament of the remaining few living victims of Nazi homophobia. It will indict for all time, not just the perpetrators of the Holocaust, but also the victorious Allies, successive post-war German governments and “neo-revisionist” historians.

• A version of this article was originally published in The Independent (Tuesday Review), 12 June 2001.