The 27th of January 1945 marks the liberation of the concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz has long since become the synonym for the German horrors of a state-guided, industrialised genocide of Jews, Sinti and Roma, prisoners of war, and those deemed undesirable within the Nazi state and society, such as (but not limited to) disabled people homosexuals, so called ‘antisocial individuals’, and ‘criminals’.
Since a 2005 UN resolution, 27 January is observed as International Holocaust Remembrance Day – in Germany, it has been a national day of commemoration since 1996. The homosexual victims have been listed as a victim group for decades. However, this year will be the first time that the German (and Austrian) governments will specifically commemorate the queer victims of the NS regime. Why is it that sexual and gender identity became central topics of commemoration only with such delay?
Before we can answer this question, there are some points to highlight. Firstly, sexuality and the Holocaust are two topics seldom combined, and when they are, it seemingly causes instant discomfort, as pointed out by Anna Hákovjá (2018). Secondly, another difficulty is speaking about the experiences of those in the past using contemporary terms. The label queer, which the following text will use at some points, is an anachronism. It is used to summon a variety of practices and gender identities, without serving the social construct of the gender binary that divides heterosexuality and homosexuality. The term homosexuality will be used when it is appropriate to the historical context. Thirdly, a parallel comparison of the persecution of homosexuals and the oppression of lesbians or queer people within the NS regime with the Shoah is, to quote scholars like van Dijk, non-logical. There was no ‘gay holocaust’, rather, the prosecution of non-conforming gender and sexuality aimed at ‘re-education’ and punishment (van Dijk, Ostrowska, Talewicz-Kwiatkowska 2002:16) rather than at total extinction. However – as Adorno famously put it in Education after Auschwitz – ‘to quote or haggle over the numbers is already inhumane’ (Adorno 1971:89).
To commemorate queer Holocaust victims is to recognise how gender, sexuality, and fascism have always been intertwined, reinforced, and reproduced by each other and cannot be thought of as separate throughout a history that began much earlier than the Nazi regime and ended much later.
Paragraph 175 was established in the German criminal code in 1871, persisted through the fall of the German Empire, and remained enshrined in law during the short life of the Weimar Republic. There, it was disputed and its abolition even considered in 1929. However, under the revisions of 1935, paragraph 175 was tightened and expanded. Beforehand, intercourse-like actions between men were punishable and needed to be proven; following the revision, the sheer suspicion of being homosexual was enough for persecution. Approximately 50,000 men were found guilty and sentenced to prison or labour camps; ten thousand were sent to concentration camps between 1936 and 1945 (Grau 2013:171).
One of them was Karl Gorath, who was denounced and arrested in 1939 and sent to the concentration camp Neuengamme after finishing his prison sentence. When he refused to reduce bread rations for Russian prisoners, he was subsequently deported to Auschwitz Stammlager and later to Mauthausen. After the liberation of Mauthausen, Karl Gorath was in 1947 again charged for violating – the still in force – paragraph 175. Not only was he prosecuted under the same paragraph 175, but he also found himself before the same judge. This shows a continuity of Nazism and repressive thought in Germany despite the glorified discourse around de-Nazification (or Aufarbeitung) and reckoning with the past.
Gorath was sentenced to five years in prison in the newly founded BRD, by the same institutions and actors, and under the same law. He spent another five years in prison and sought no parole, saying, ‘I did not want mercy – not from this state and not from its justice’. (as above, Huetter)
Due to his criminal record, Gorath was deemed unsuitable for employment. His pension entitlement was reduced based on calculations including his time spent unemployed and his time spent in the concentration camps, impoverishing him. Lawsuits challenging the pension decision and asking to be recognised as a victim of the Nazi regime, and therefore eligible for compensation, were denied until his death in 2003. §175 was abolished in 1994. The battle for legal compensation for homosexual victims of the Nazi regime went on until 2017.
Women and trans-people were not even recognised as distinct groups worth remembering, as they did not have their own category in the criminal code of the NS regime. However, while they were not subjected to prosecution for their sexual practice and identity by law, queerness or suspected queerness served as a justification and intensifier of persecution, as was the case with Elli Smula. She was imprisoned after being denounced for participation in drunken and homosexual acts and was later sent to Ravensbrück. She was categorised as a political prisoner, with the notation ‘lesbian’. She died either of an injection from SS Doctor Herta Oberheuer in 1942, or as a result of the conditions of the concentration camp in 1943. The axes of power and persecution at play in the case of Elli Smula were varied but, nonetheless, based on the Nazi ideology of racial purity and genetic superiority.
To recognise the heterogeneity of persecution does not serve to establish a hierarchy of victimhood, but is an important means of analysing and understanding German fascism and the continuity of Europe-wide queer oppression. The queer lens enables us to see victims of persecution beyond the classifications of the NS regime and make their stories of resilience and resistance heard.
To engage in queer remembrance breaks the cycle of silence and concealing of queer identities such as Fredy Hirsch, an athlete and Zionist who worked with Maccabi Hatzair. Fredy Hirsch, who was Jewish and German, emigrated to Prague after the Nuremberg Laws came into force in 1935 to flee the increasing persecution of Jews and gay men. There, he later organised activities for the children of occupied Prague. When deported to Theresienstadt, he became a youth supervisor, even convincing the SS to hold Maccabi games inside Theresienstadt in 1943. Openly gay and Jewish, living with his partner in the Ghetto, Hirsch was well-known and admired for his constant efforts to make life in Theresienstadt survivable and bearable for the children. When he was deported to Auschwitz, he became the supervisor of the so called ‘family camp’ children’s block, helping children to survive and to receive a minimum of education and hygiene despite the death camp conditions. When it was decided that everybody from the camp was to be murdered by gas, Hirsch went with the children to the ‘quarantine’ camp, although he was warned against it. However, he was unwilling to be spared if he could not save the children. He was later found comatose; it is disputed if it was suicide or a murder to prevent an uprising. He was transported with the children into the gas chambers.
What we can learn from even these three individual stories is that dignified remembrance must include a look at the present, must include a fight against existing discrimination and marginalization so that crimes like the Holocaust will truly ‘never happen again’. The minimal representation of queer and feminist perspectives and remembrance in general is symptomatic of a neglect of those requisites for dignity. Pluralistic commemoration is a difficult task that not only the German state, but German society as a whole, have to manage. In acknowledging and diversifying the frame of remembrance, we allow memory, thus the past, to manifest in the present. To show the significance of historic acts for contemporary society, acknowledgment is a must. To understand the significance of the acknowledgment of queer victims of the Nazi regime it is vital to examine the history of prosecution of homosexuality in the NS regime and beyond, and to engage in the task of a queer holocaust history.
The late remembrance of queer victims of the Holocaust mirrors the complexity of dealing with a persecution that didn’t end in 1945 and the intersection of sexuality and society in research and memorial culture. Whether they were incarcerated through Paragraph 175, and then from 1938 on marked with the pink triangle in the concentration and death-camps; whether they were denounced, marked, and stigmatized as criminal or antisocial; or whether they were the countless others who suffered discrimination and violence within the concentration camps – it is vital to remember them. It is also an example that demonstrates the complex relation of the German state with its own history of fascism as well as of the repression of non-heteronormative people up to the present day. It serves as a cautionary and informative tale about the interpretative sovereignty of a perpetrator state towards its victims as well as the possibilities for redemption and the need for intersectional perspectives. The policies of remembrance are political. Thus, the question of recognition of queer victims of the Holocaust must be one of redefining and abandoning the inhumane categories of the NS regime, rather than reproducing them within remembrance.
So, this 27 January 2023, when queer victims of Nazi Germany will be commemorated, we will have space to remember and honour them without imposing the inhumane categories that led to their persecution. Queer remembrance can thereby serve as a powerful intervention in politics, culture, and social representation that uncovers the stories of those who have always been part of history, but who were previously hidden in silence.
Jördis Spengler is a research associate and doctoral candidate at the Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel. Her primary fields of research and teaching concern survivor centered approaches towards sexualized violence, intersectional perspectives of social injustice, as well as anti-bias and anti-discrimination pedagogy. Together with Isa Zimmer she founded the education project “V.I.E. – violence.intersectionality.education” (@v.i.e.info / www.vie-info.de) where they give lectures, workshops and seminars.
Adorno, Theordor W. : Erziehung zur Mündigkeit, Frankfurt/M. 1971
Gat, Rubi: Dear Fredy, Israel 2017
Grau, Günter (Ed.): Homosexualität in der NS-Zeit, Frankfurt 2013
Kogon,Eugen: Der SS-Staat, Stockholm 1947
Ostrowska, Joanna; Talewicz-Kwiatkowska, Joanna; van Dijk, Lutz (Eds.): Erinnern in Auschwitz. Auch an sexuelle Minderheiten, Berlin 2020
Sofsky,Wolfgang: Die Ordnung des Terrors. Das Konzentrationslager, Frankfurt/M. 1993
 For the whole story of Karl Gorath, see http://www.joerg-hutter.de/karl_b_.htm#Karl
 See also: https://www.antidiskriminierungsstelle.de/DE/ueber-diskriminerung/diskriminierungsmerkmale/sexuelle-identitaet/paragraph_175/paragraph_175_node.html
 See Dear Fredy, documentary, 2017 by Rubi Gat.
˝To be part of such a diverse group helped me realize that our goals are more similar than I used to think before.
Ben, DialoguePerspectives participant