SS leader Heinrich Himmler (centre) looks over the shoulder of SA leader Ernst Röhm (right), August 1933.
From Hitler’s first right-hand man to homophobic smear campaigns by the left, homosexuality and fascism have had a long, twisted relationship. What’s behind it?
For almost as long as National Socialism has existed, people have tried to connect it with homosexuality. Numerous attempts have been made to try to prove that Hitler was gay, although there is little to no existing evidence that he ever slept with anyone, man or woman. German sociologist Theodor Adorno even famously wrote, “Totalitarianism and homosexuality belong together.” The obsession has continued to this day: the protagonist of Jonathan Littell’s 2006 award winning novel, The Kindly Ones, is an SS officer whose homosexuality is seen as one of his defining characteristics.
Perhaps the fascination persists because it seems like such a paradox: the Nazi party, so hellbent on eradicating gays, was itself bursting with homoerotic imagery – masses of beautiful, strapping Aryan men in uniform. This hasn’t escaped the gay community. There’s an entire fetish subculture devoted to the idea of power and masculinity once cultivated by the Nazis – it is not uncommon to see men dressed in mock SS and Gestapo uniforms during the Folsom Europe leather fetish festival in Schöneberg.
The first gay Nazi
“The link between National Socialism and homosexuality is very closely connected with the figure of Ernst Röhm,” says sociologist and author Alexander Zinn. Zinn’s book Das Glück kam immer zu mir (Happiness always came to me) tells the story of Rudolf Brazda, the last surviving documented “pink triangle” concentration camp prisoner, who was persecuted by the Nazis for being gay and sent to Buchenwald.
The decidedly non-Aryan-looking Röhm was relatively open about his homosexuality and known within the Berlin gay subculture when Hitler appointed him SA Commander early in 1931. The Nazis’ paramilitary wing played a vital role in securing power for the party, protecting members and guarding events while intimidating and fighting other groups.
“Hitler had a tactical relationship to homosexuality,” Zinn says. “He knew that Röhm was homosexual and made him SA Commander anyway, because he needed him. Röhm was a good organiser and had the necessary military knowledge to build up the SA the way that he had planned.”
When the Nazis finally came to power in 1933, one of their first acts of oppression was to burn the library of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research, an institution that advocated the repeal of German anti-gay law Paragraph 175. Hirschfeld’s gay rights organisation Scientific-Humanitarian Committee was shut down as well, as were many of the gay and lesbian bars around Berlin’s Nollendorfplatz. But homosexuals had a powerful and unexpected supporter in Röhm, who in those early days was thought to have maneuvered behind the scenes to hinder persecution.
Homophobia in the anti-Nazi left
Homosexuals have become the Jews of the antifascists.
In June 1931, the socialist newspaper Münchener Post, which campaigned against Hitler’s rise to power, started an effort to out top Nazi officials. They published excerpts from Röhm’s private correspondence in which he discussed his homosexuality – a way to discredit a political opponent they saw as perverted and corrupting the morality of the government he ‘infiltrated’. (Röhm actually sued the Münchener Post for libel; one of the article’s sources killed himself in detention).
During and even before the golden years of the Weimar Republic, sexual liberation went hand in hand with artistic experimentation. Many leftwing politicians and members of the avant-garde were early supporters of gay, lesbian and transgender rights – but obviously not all. Friedrich Engels himself was far less progressive, as testified in a letter to Karl Marx in which he wrote that homosexuality was “extremely unnatural” and that these “pederasts” are “converting this smut into a theory”. For his part, Marx told Engels that he should pass on jokes about prominent German socialist politician Johann Baptist von Schweitzer’s homosexuality to a newspaper editor friend if they needed to discredit him. While the Nazis saw homosexuality as a threat by a small deviant group of people who were trying to force their agenda upon the masses and pollute the healthy German race, homophobic left-wingers saw it as a decadent perversion of the upper classes.
Discrediting political enemies through homophobic insults and outing went on throughout the 1930s, and Röhm was an obvious target. In 1933, Braunbuch, a book about the Reichstag fire published by the exiled Communist Party attempted to discredit the Nazis’ claims that the fire was a communist plot by portraying Marinus von der Lubbe, who was arrested for the act, as “Röhm’s toyboy”. The book was translated into many languages and several million copies were printed. Other leftist resistance and antifascist publications echoed this trend, sparking a propaganda campaign that aimed to slander the Nazi party by accusing it of being full of homosexuals. The socialist exile resistance newspaper Deutsche Freiheit wrote in 1934 that “National Socialist organisations are breeding nests for homosexuality from top to bottom – including the youth organisations – like never seen before in German history.”
As pointed out by Klaus Mann, the Weimar author, cabaret activist and gay son of famed writer Thomas Mann, in a 1934 article in the Prague journal Europäische Hefte, left-wing organisations were “making scapegoats of the homosexuals – the Jews of the antifascists.” The homophobic anti-Nazi left was unwittingly but surely joining forces with the NSDAP in paving the way for the persecution to come.
A group of blond young men in Hitler Youth uniforms. Photo courtesy of the Deutsche Bundesarchiv, CC-by-SA
By 1934, membership in Röhm’s SA had exploded to well over three million, and Hitler began to see the group as a threat. During that summer, as part of the “Night of the Long Knives”, Röhm and countless others were arrested. Around 200 died, many of whom were murdered on the spot. Röhm was given the chance to commit suicide. When he refused, he was killed. It was after the so-called “Röhm Putsch” that the Nazis began their persecution of homosexuals in full force. Hitler used the purge as propaganda against homosexuality in the party, claiming that the real reason for Röhm’s murder was that he was ridding the party of the threat of his perversion. In 1936, SS chief Heinrich Himmler created the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion. The number of convictions under Paragraph 175 doubled in 1936 and quadrupled in 1937.
“Himmler and the others fought incredibly hard against the idea that homosexuality could be practiced in men’s associations, in the SS or the SA,” says Zinn. “It suddenly seemed incredibly dangerous. It was an anti-modern reaction to the homosexual emancipation movement of the 1920s and what was described in Hirschfeld’s writings.” Zinn continues. During the Nazis’ reign some 55,000 men were deemed to be criminals because they were homosexual. Around 15,000 of these died in concentration camps.
The present day
Seventy years and the trauma of one genocide later, LGBTQ people are still the target of the far right, for whom homophobia remains a big part of the official discourse.
“The extreme right uses homophobia to strengthen their group and ideology,” says Stella Hindemith of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation project Lola für Lulu, which works to combat farright homophobia and transphobia in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. At the core of this ideology is the idea that the German race has to be protected. Logically, the most important component needed to preserve this is the German family. Accordingly, Germany’s most right-wing political party, the NPD, clearly states it in its programme: “Homosexual partnerships do not form a family and should not be promoted.”
In the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern parliament in July 2014, during a debate over the recent ban on flying the rainbow flag over Schwerin’s city hall for the Christopher Street Day Parade (the German federal government had decided to disallow the flag as well), NPD MP Stefan Köster argued, “This small minority is trying to control life in Germany. My faction will fight against this and we will not allow a minority to be placed above the well-being of the majority.” The ban was upheld.
“They advocate for women to have as many children as possible,” Hindemith explains. “The men should be like soldiers and take care of the women and children. You can imagine how this ideology stands in opposition to LGBT people. That’s why Nazis are extremely aggressive to homosexuals and transgender people.”
This aggression, as Hindemith explains, is difficult to trace, because violence against homosexuals and transgender people isn’t often recognised as actually being the result of far-right extremism and the victims might not contact the organisations who are able to provide support. Germany’s domestic security agency publishes an annual report that includes right-wing criminal activities, but there is no category for homophobic attacks.
“Many of the problems that we have today, all of the misanthropic ideologies – racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia or transphobia – they all have to do with the fact that National Socialism hasn’t been processed well enough,” says Hindemith. “You have to imagine that it is passed down through families. There were teachers and judges who were trained during the period of National Socialism and they continued to work in these jobs.”
As Hitler did with Röhm, neo-Nazis also continue to use propaganda to discredit gays within the party. Recently, there was a press uproar over rumours that Holger Apfel, ex-chairman of the NPD, was forced to resign at the end of 2013 because he tried to put the moves on a younger male NPD comrade.
A lingering obsession
If a man has sex with a man but otherwise lives up to the far-right ideal, then it can somehow be tolerated, as long as he’s not too obvious about it.
Apfel, who now reportedly lives in Mallorca with his wife, may not actually be homosexual – but that doesn’t mean nobody in the far right is. Carsten S., who is currently on trial in Munich for his complicity in the racist murders of 10 people carried out by the National Socialist Underground terror cell, came out as gay in 2000 after fleeing the group; he spent some time volunteering at an AIDS relief centre and a gay and lesbian youth organisation.
While there have been a handful of other cases of neo-Nazi homosexuality since WWII, most of those men also only came out after leaving the right-wing scene. One exception was Michael Kühnen, a leader of various far-right groups, who came out in 1986 and subsequently wrote a treatise titled “National Socialism and Homosexuality”. This treatise argued that gay men were best suited for the National Socialist struggle because they weren’t tied down by women or a family. Soon after, however, his group fractured and he died of AIDS-related complications in 1991.
To be gay and a neo-Nazi is not as paradoxical as it seems, says Hindemith. “What we know about this is that it is something that shouldn’t be out in the open,” she says. “No one should live openly as gay; then you are a “Schwuchtel” and that’s not allowed. But if a man has sex with a man but otherwise lives up to the far-right ideal, and he doesn’t talk about it, then that can somehow be tolerated. It is a strange grey zone. I wouldn’t say it’s like that everywhere, but we know that there are some Nazis who see it like that.”
Meanwhile, the fascination continues to go both ways, as a good number of out gay men continue to embrace Nazi imagery – whether subversively, as in the gay skinhead movement, or purely sexually, as in the fascist chat groups on hookup site GayRomeo. The latter sparked a think-piece on queer internet magazine Etuxx titled “Gay and brown: The new trend?” But as we know now, it’s actually a very, very old one.
Originally published in issue #137, April 2015.