September 18, 2020

Denying Hitler’s war against human values

We were distressed to read of the effort by the Christian Civic League of Maine to interfere with the fifth annual Civil Rights Team Conference in Augusta on April 15. By passing out anti-gay literature and by “observing” a number of workshops deemed suspicious by the League, these self-proclaimed defenders of “Christian values” provided the assembled students a first-hand view of anti-diversity and anti-civil rights at work.

We were especially distressed to read in the Christian Civic League’s newsletter that a former member of our board, Judith Isaacson, a distinguished Maine author and survivor of the Auschwitz death camp, was portrayed as a tool of the “pro-homosexual lobby,” whose efforts to discuss the plight of gays during the Holocaust was “a disgusting ploy” and “a distortion of the facts.”

Holocaust deniers, those who disavow the destruction of six million European Jewish lives, have peddled their lies and distortions for well over three decades. Now, it seems, a new group of deniers has targeted the suffering of gay men during the Nazi years in an effort to duplicate those same lies and distortions.

Just last month, a state legislator in Minnesota suggested that gays were not persecuted by the Nazi regime and that “there’s been a lot of rewriting of history.” There is, of course, a method to this madness, both in Maine and in Minnesota. Clearly, denying that gay men were victims of the Nazis and died in German concentration camps would help the effort to strip gay men and lesbians of state protection laws against discrimination.

Yet the story of gays during the Holocaust years is a much different one than these deniers seek to tell. The murder of six million European Jewish men, women and children has been called Hitler’s War against the Jews. It was a war waged by hundreds of thousands of people, including the German military, Nazi SS, and a bureaucracy of people who were responsible for locating the Jews, creating laws against them, taking away their possessions, rounding them up, transporting them to ghettos, labor and death camps, and ultimately murdering them.

But the Nazis were also fighting a second war, one that we can term a war against human values. Millions of non-Jews who did not fit into the vision of a new Aryan world were simultaneously murdered. Among them were the Sinti and Roma peoples, commonly called Gypsies. Another group were the Jehovah’s Witnesses whose religious beliefs did not allow them to pledge their loyalty to Adolf Hitler or to serve in the German army. A third group of people were those with certain handicaps, such as physical or mental problems. The Nazis called them “useless eaters,” whose lives were “unworthy of life.” There were countless other groups as well.

One of the least known groups to come under the Nazi terror was Germany’s gay community. From the very beginning of the German Empire in 1871, German homosexuals were persecuted under a specific law, Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code. The law was enforced or not enforced depending on the whims of Germany’s ruling elites. Indeed, during the post World War I Weimar Republic, the only constitutionally democratic regime in German history to that point, Paragraph 175 was nearly stricken from the books.

But as soon as the Nazi party captured power in 1933, new efforts were made to enforce the law and in 1935, the same year as the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws were created, Paragraph 175 was made even harsher.

Gay men were beaten, tortured, castrated and subjected to cruel medical experiments. About 100,000 of them were arrested on charges of homosexual offenses during the Third Reich, and 50,000 were convicted and sent to prison.

Of that number, between 10,000 and 15,000 were sent to Nazi concentration camps. There, they were subjected to all the terrible treatment reserved for those in the very depths of the Nazi hell. Most gay men were murdered within the first few months of arriving in the camps. Three out of four died in the first year of imprisonment. At least 60 percent of gay men in the concentration camps died, the second highest rate and exceeded only by the Jewish death rate.

For nearly three decades after 1945, few gay survivors came forward with their stories. Unbelievably, Paragraph 175 stayed on the German law books until it was repealed in 1969. Some gay men were forced to serve the remainder of their prison time in German jails even after the end of the Third Reich.

Unlike Jews and most other victims, gays were denied financial compensation for their suffering, qualifying only in part after German re-unification in the early 1990s and receiving full recognition as victims of the Nazis only in December 2000.

Since 1985, the Holocaust Human Rights Center of Maine has been an advocate for human rights, values, and dignity. Beyond educating about the Holocaust and its consequences, the Center has celebrated diversity and struggled to protect basic human rights where they are threatened.

The denial of gay suffering during the Holocaust is a distortion of the historical truth and a veiled effort to deny members of the gay community a legitimate foundation for the protection of their civil rights.

The Holocaust Human Rights Center of Maine will speak out on behalf of gay victims and all other victims of hatred and intolerance. We will provide a voice for those voices stilled forever by the unspeakable evil of Nazism.

Julius E. Ciembroniewicz, M.D. is president, and Sharon Nichols is executive director of the Holocaust Human Rights Center of Maine.

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