“This is not just history”: Exhibit at the University of Minnesota documents the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany


German Nazis tried to eliminate homosexuals as part of the “final solution” to “cleanse” their society of “undesirable elements” like Jews, Gypsies…and gays. An exhibit, Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945, documenting that aspect of the Nazi policy, will be displayed from April 2 through May 11 at the Elmer L. Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota.

The exhibit is part of a series of programs called “Discrimination by Design” showing that German prejudice toward gay men dates from 1871 with the passage of an anti-sodomy law called Paragraph 175 and it continued after World War II.

“The persecution of homosexuals was based on Paragraph 175, which continued as a law after the camps were liberated—and that context means that gay men should be understood as having a special experience,” said historian Elizabeth Haven Hawley. “Hence this important exhibition.”

Artifacts from three University of Minnesota departments—the Children’s Literature Research Collections; the Center for the Holocaust and Genocide Studies; and the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies—will be displayed along with the traveling exhibit created by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The USHMM exhibit contains reproductions of about 250 photographs and documents that show how the Nazi regime rallied support for the eradication of homosexuality, killing thousands of people in the process and destroying the lives of countless others.

“People coming to Andersen will be able to gain more context about the exhibition from the display, which will highlight the way that gender played a role in Nazi ideology and in the attempt of the Nazi leaders to establish their movement as a defender of cultural social structures,” Hawley said.

Hawley, who is program director at the Immigration History Research Center, will provide drop-in discussions and tours of the exhibit on three Fridays: April 6, May 4 and May 11. (Tours can be arranged at other times by emailing Hawley at ihrc@umn.edu.) She will discuss “the social, economic, legal and industrial setting in which Nazism flourished and the persecution of gay men took place.” One other public lecture and three films will be shown as part of the “Discrimination by Design” program.

The USHMM exhibit has been touring the United States for a decade. The exhibit first came to Minneapolis in 2003 after a Minnesota legislator had denied that gays were persecuted by the Nazis, and this year the exhibit appears as the state debates a proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage.

One of the planners who helped bring the exhibit here said the timing is a coincidence. “We are not oblivious to the fact that these debates are under way, but we feel there is no parallel between Nazi Germany and the United States today,” said Laura Zelle, director of Tolerance Minnesota & Holocaust Education, the education arm of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“By doing ‘Discrimination by Design,’ we hope to draw attention to the dangers to all of us by marginalizing any minority groups, including our GLBT neighbors,” Zelle said. “At this time in Minnesota, there is an opportunity to educate people on how law is used to marginalize minorities.”

The term Holocaust, Hawley said, refers to the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. During this era, the Nazis also targeted Roma (Gypsies) the disabled, some Slavic peoples, including Poles and Russians, and a variety of political, ideological and religious dissidents. 

Although German society had become relatively tolerant of homosexuality in the 1920s, Hitler’s rise resulted in a massive and violent backlash, especially after a 1935 revision of Paragraph 175. “The growing visibility and acceptance of homosexuals in some circles challenged traditional social norms. As liberal and left-wing activists campaigned to promote homosexual civil rights, conservatives…fought to preserve and even expand restrictions against homosexuality,” the exhibit states.

Along with “race hygiene” to “cleanse” society of Jews and Roma minorities, the government sought to punish aberrant social behavior and terrorize homosexuals into sexual and social conformity.

On Oct. 10, 1935, the government established the Reich Central Office for Combatting Homosexuality and Abortion with agents to practice surveillance and persecution. Exhibit materials say that agents used “castration as a cure for a degenerate sex drive.”

The medical, cultural and political debates about homosexuality centered around gay men to whom the laws were applied the harshest. Lesbians were seldom prosecuted. The science of eugenics legitimized legal restrictions on marriage and child rearing as officials charged that homosexuals were predators corrupting youth and endangering public morality.

Families of homosexuals were also subjected to government restrictions and surveillance because Nazi theorists declared that a predisposition to homosexuality was heredity.

More than 100,000 men were arrested between 1933 and 1945 and more than half were sentenced to prison with hard labor and “re-education” where they were brutally treated by guards and fellow inmates, the exhibit says. Homosexuality was called a mental illness and gays were considered dangerous.

A St. Cloud State professor drew a strong connection to the current debates over the definition of marriage when the exhibit opened at SCSU earlier this year.

“This is the living dynamic story of how human beings continue to be labeled, dismissed, and marginalized,” said SCSU religious studies Professor Joseph A. Edelheit. “This is not just history. History is dismissible. Do not think that this chapter is done.”

Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.