Photo Credit: Leffler, Warren K / Wikimedia Commons
First they forced him to dance, and then they chained his hands and his feet to a crossbeam and beat him. One of his contemporaries described him as “effeminate.”
This is all we know of him.
There was a reference to another: a cultural attaché to a foreign embassy who, in a deep state of depression and hopelessness, “fell over dead for no apparent reason.”
There was a story of a third: a young and healthy man who, after the evening roll call, was ridiculed, spat on, and beaten by soldiers. They put him in a cold shower and forced him to suffer “alone and in silence” on a “frosty winter evening.” The next morning his fellow soldiers described his breathing as “an audible rattle.” Despite his suffering, the soldiers continued to beat and kick him. They tied him to a post and “under an arc lamp until he began to sweat, again put under a cold shower.” He died later that evening.
These are fragments of stories about gay men in Nazi concentration camps recounted in the pages of The Body Politic, a gay newspaper founded in 1971 that reached readers across the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe. The article was published long after the defeat of Hitler and the end of the Nazi regime, and far away from the death camps, the torture, and the mass murder.
The article was nonetheless viewed as news by its readers. It was the first account that many of them had ever read about the Holocaust, let alone about the persecution of homosexuals by Hitler’s regime. They learned that Nazis tortured those presumed to be homosexual, referred to gay people as “degenerates,” “weaklings,” and “congenital cowards,” and branded homosexuals with a pink triangle, forcing them to wear it on “the left side of the jacket and on the right pant leg.” The Body Politicincluded an illustration of the inverted pink triangle, which had yet to develop as a symbol within the gay community, on the first page of the article. This was probably one of the first places it was seen by many gay people.
The article appeared in The Body Politic as part of a larger series on the history of homosexuality in Germany by the notable literary scholar and historian Jim Steakley. The series appeared around the same time as “The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864– 1935),” the pamphlet that had been so influential in Jonathan Ned Katz’s intellectual, political, and personal development. Steakley’s series focused on tracking gay life in Germany from 1919 to 1933 (the Weimar period), through Hitler’s persecution of gay people before and during World War II, and from the postwar period to the rise of gay rights in Berlin in the 1970s.
Steakley’s interest in German history began when he was an adolescent and his family lived in Germany for four years. Visiting a concentration camp for the first time at age ten, he came into direct contact with the aftermath of genocide. His interest in German history was not limited to the war, however. He collected stamps of German leaders, learning their names and exploring the general history of the nation. In the summer between his junior and senior years in high school, he returned to Germany on a scholarship that sent him to Munich and to Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp that held political prisoners. “It stimulated my thinking,” he remembered.
Steakley learned much about the Nazi regime from reading John Hersey’s novel The Wall, about resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, and Leon Uris’s Exodus, about concentration camp survivors. These books raised his consciousness about Jewish history and further piqued his interest in studying history more broadly. But he distinctly remembered never reading anything about gay people in the camps. Despite the fact that gay people formed a significant portion of the Dachau prisoners, they had not been included in the early histories of the concentration camps.
After he had embarked on an academic career, Steakley returned to Germany in the early 1970s and began to dig up details about the Nazis’ persecution of homosexuals. He came across a memoir that mentioned a homosexual inmate whose scrotum had been placed in boiling water. In the course of his research, he realized that what he was uncovering had implications for gay liberation in the contemporary United States, in the sense that, as he put it, the Nazis’ persecution of gay people served as a “frightening prospect of what could happen.” Although he defined himself as a Marxist and doubted that history “could repeat itself,” he nevertheless believed that history “offered lessons.” As he explained, “The Nazis brought something to an extreme point.” The lesson was clear enough: “We had to show examples of oppression.” According to Steakley, after the start of gay liberation, many nongay people doubted gay people’s accounts of the struggles and oppression they claimed to experience. Steakley credited the work of Jonathan Ned Katz with inspiring him to look to history and with laying the groundwork for his own research, which he hoped would “advance the consciousness of society.”
Soon after Steakley returned to the United States from Germany in 1972 with bundles of photocopied notes, he went to Toronto to begin working on his series of three articles for The Body Politic. “Part of the oppression of gay people lies in the denial of our history,” read the opening line of the first article, which appeared in June 1973 (the same month as the Up Stairs Lounge fire). Steakley launched into an in-depth analysis of gay life in Germany from 1860 to 1910, writing about Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who disputed that homosexuality was a sin and instead likened it to uncommon preference, like left-handedness. Steakley chronicled the rise of the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and the unknown history of the gay movement in the 1930s. Unlike “The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864–1935),” the pamphlet that Jonathan Ned Katz read, Steakley’s research went beyond the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century homophile movement and down to the rise of Nazism and the reemergence of gay liberation in Berlin in the 1970s.
The second installment in the series, published in January 1974, detailed the persecution of homosexuals in the 1930s and during World War II. Steakley revealed that the Gestapo had lists of homosexuals. In 1933 the SS rounded up gay people and convicted 835 men of homosexuality. In 1937 the official SS newspaper, Das Schwarze Korps, called for the death of what it claimed were 2 million German homosexuals. Of those 2 million, Steakley reported, 50,000 were officially sent to camps, but overall “perhaps hundreds of thousands of homosexuals were interned in Nazi concentration camps.” The official statistics mostly counted the men who went to trial, but many others were sent “to the camps without the benefit of a trial,” and some of these men were “summarily executed by firing squads.”
Steakley’s third and final article offered an account of the gay liberation movement in Germany in the early 1970s, focusing on how leftist politics, campaigns for workers’ rights, and the student movement had paved the way for gay liberation. Throughout the article, Steakley compared German gay liberation to the American gay rights movement, noting how the success and power of the left in Germany had helped to promote gay liberation. As he explained: “The millions of women and foreign nationals in the German labor force were united on the issue of class oppression and escaped the separatism which vitiated the American left.”
Why did The Body Politic run a series in 1974 on the history of homosexuality in Germany, at the height of gay liberation, a period often hailed by historians as victorious?
The reaction to the publication of Steakley’s series signaled that many gay people in the seventies were looking for what historians refer to as a “usable past”—a connection to a previous decade or epoch that would provide legitimacy, meaning, and, most of all, a genealogy to their plight. For historians like Jonathan Ned Katz, finding a usable past became a life’s work. Steakley, like Katz, showed readers that the gay culture that arose in the 1970s was not an entirely new phenomenon. “We were living in tremendous freedom in Toronto and New York City, and that seemed like a parallel to the Weimar Republic,” Steakley said. Yet there was a “free-floating anxiety that America could become more fascist”—the awareness of “a frightening prospect,” as he said of Nazi persecution, “of what could happen.”
In the 1970s, many gay readers turned to the pages of an ever-growing gay newspaper culture in order to historically situate their culture. This expanding culture and the articles, like Steakley’s, that started to appear gave gay people a language with which to frame their predicament. In recounting the history of violence against gays in Los Angeles, for example, Rev. Troy Perry referred to the police as “the Gestapo.” A reporter for The Gay Clone explained the connection between the persecution of Jewish people in Europe in the early twentieth century and the persecution of gay people in the United States in the 1970s: “There is a tolerance among good people of discrimination against homosexuals that is similar to the tolerance of anti-Semitism that was so pervasive in Europe before the holocaust and that, at least according to some scholars, created a hospitable climate for the destruction of European Jews.” W. I. Scobie, a writer for San Francisco’s Gay Sunshine, argued that “the so-called ‘National Socialist League’ is California’s very own gay Nazi party.” In his article “Death Camps: Remembering the Victims,” he further asserted, “Today, gays suffer still under totalitarian regimes not very different from that so admired by our own ‘Gay Nazis.’” Scobie bookended his exploration of the death camps with a political call to action. The gay press made this history accessible to gay readers, partly by allowing journalists to spell out the political importance of the events they wrote about in a way that traditional history books could not. In fact, printed at the top of The Body Politic throughout the 1970s was an epigraph by the writer Kurt Hiller, written in 1921: “The Liberation of Homosexuals Can Only Be the Work of Homosexuals Themselves.”
Excerpted from Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation by Jim Downs. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. This is an excerpt from the new book Stand By Me by Jim Downs (Basic Books, 2016):