Giles, Geoffrey J. “The Institutionalization of Homosexual Panic in the Third Reich,” in Gellately, Robert and Nathan Stoltzfus, eds. Social Outsiders in Nazi Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Subject: An article about how the Nazi regime defined and persecuted homosexuality in Germany between 1933 and 1945.
Main Points: Giles is, in my opinion, the preeminent US scholar of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, and his work is always based on meticulous scrutiny of German primary sources. This article is no different. Giles breaks this article into 6 subsections:
- “Hitler’s Indifference and Himmler’s Homophobia” – In this section, Giles shows that homophobia was not one of Hitler’s obsessions. Instead, he remained rather indifferent to homosexuality (even against allegations that there were homosexuals in the highest of Nazi ranks), focusing instead on the consolidation of power and the elimination of the “Jewish question.” Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, was indeed homophobic, Giles argues, possibly stemming from an incident in his youth. After the purge of high-ranking Nazi homosexuals in June 1934, Giles argues that Hitler hyped up homosexuality as the excuse for the purge to assuage his guilt at having a long-time loyal supporter murdered (Ernst Röhm).
- “The Dimensions of Homophobia” – This section explores four different dimensions to the Nazis’ anti-homosexual policies. First, there was a cultural side to these policies: outrage at nudist or homosexual organizations, publications, and nightclubs. Second, ideological opposition to homosexuality complemented cultural hostility. Ideological opposition includes the definition of “manliness” and how homosexuality was essentially a defilement of manhood. Though, there was a fine line to balance, because it was believed by most German (not just Nazis) leaders at the time that homoeroticism could actually strengthen the bonds between men (238), though the preferred term for this bond was “comradeship.” Homosexual acts were a perversion and violation of the close-knithomosocial world of many of the Nazis’ “men leagues.” Third, was the political dimension of Nazi homophobia. It was believed by many that homosexuals would band together by a sense of loyalty to one another that superseded loyalty to the state and party. As a result, if homosexuals were allowed into leadership positions, they would only offer promotions and new positions to fellow homosexuals, until a series of gay cliques ran the Nazi party, and thus, Germany. And lastly, there was a social dimension to the Nazi policies against homosexuals. Giles explains this dimension in terms of population control. “The German population had suffered a serious bloodletting in the First World War,” he writes (239). So, any challenge to a growing birth rate was a threat to the German people and nation, which is why abortion and homosexuality were policed by the same bureaucratic office.
- “Definitions of Homosexuality” – This section was most interesting, but one of the shortest unfortunately. Here, Giles shows how there was no clear definition of what homosexuality actually constituted. Most homosexuals at the time went by the original definition of Paragraph 175 (anti-sodomy law), which labeled only anal penetration as “unnaturally indecent.” So, mutual masturbation, caressing, and even kissing were not necessarily considered homosexual at all – by those doing the caressing or by those enforcing the law. In fact, Giles gives evidence that suggest such male-male sexual acts (like mutual masturbation) were fairly common in the homosocial world of the military and labor service and was viewed as normal, healthy men letting out some sexual frustration in the absence of women. Therefore, when the definition of indecency in Paragraph 175 was purposefully generalized in 1935, there was a lot of outcry from all sides when men who by no means considered themselves “homosexual” were being arrested and permanently labeled as such.
- “Modes of Persecution” – Explores the different types of punishment that “175’ers” faced. Himmler believed that sexologists were wrong about homosexuality being inborn – at least for the most part. He felt that 98% of “homosexuals” were actually men who had been seduced by “true” homosexuals. That is why, most men prosecuted under 175 were sentenced to a time of hard labor, or a stint in a concentration camp for reeducation. This was meant to get them back on the right track. A harsher punishment was reserved for “true” homosexuals (pedophiles and rapists): castration or a life sentence in a concentration camp.
- “Denunciation” – This section shows that most arrests of homosexuals were made because of denunciations by fellow citizens. Beyond some anecdotes, this section is not particularly enlightening, except in reiterating the common confusion about what actually constituted a “homosexual” act.
- “Wartime Radicalization” – Giles concludes by showing in this section how there was a radicalization of the Nazis’ persecution of homosexuals during once the Second World War broke out, reaching 168 convictions under Paragraph 175 per month during the war years. But, Giles curiously doesn’t really make a conclusion as to why this radicalization happened. I can only conclude that it probably had more to do with a fear of needing to shore up manhood and reproductive goals during wartime.
My Comments: This article was helpful in gaining some statistics as well as showing that, even though Hirschfeld was German and writing during this time, the medical discourse of a total and separate “homosexual” hadn’t taken hold in larger parts of the public and military yet. The result was that men who had been placed in a homosocial environment, where even homoerotic bonds were somewhat encouraged, were taking part in what we’d today label “homosexual” acts without ever considering themselves homosexual, or even abnormal. This is just more evidence for the socially constructed nature of (homo)sexuality.
For more book reviews on modern German history or the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews.