What was Germany's Paragraph 175?

  • by Liz Highleyman
  • Wednesday January 11, 2006
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January 1898 (108 years ago this month): The German Reichstag debates reform of Paragraph 175, a law criminalizing homosexual conduct.

In effect for more than a century, Germany's Paragraph 175, which criminalized homosexual activity between men, sent thousands to their deaths and ruined the lives of countless others.

In 1871, King Wilhelm I instituted a new penal code after unifying several kingdoms to create the country of Germany. Taken from the old 1794 Prussian code, Paragraph 175 made "unnatural fornication between persons of the male sex or by humans with animals" punishable by imprisonment; the law never applied to women.

Paragraph 175 was repeatedly debated by legislators and opposed by early gay rights pioneers such as Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfeld. Arguing that homosexuals should not be punished for their innate nature, Hirschfeld gathered 6,000 petition signatures against the law. In early 1898, Social Democratic Party leader August Bebel introduced a repeal measure before the Reichstag, but it failed by a large margin.

During the Weimar Republic era, a burgeoning queer subculture developed in Berlin and other German cities. Yet even during the "roaring '20s," some 1,000 men were arrested under Paragraph 175 each year. In 1929, a Reichstag judiciary committee recommended liberalizaton of the law, but the changes were still pending when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933.

Espousing traditional values and exploiting the public's existing prejudices and fear of social change, Hitler soon consolidated his political control. According to the Nazi ideology of nationalism and racial superiority, homosexuality was a symptom of decadence and a danger to the state because it did not lead to procreation. But the Nazis' homosocial cult of masculinity attracted considerable suspicion. Accusations of homosexuality were employed in turf battles between various Nazi factions, and were used by political opponents to discredit the regime.

Hitler banned homosexual organizations, ordered the closure of nightclubs that catered to gay men, lesbians, and transvestites, and halted the sale of publications with homophile or sexual content. The regime encouraged citizens to denounce suspected homosexuals, cultivated a network of informants, and forced arrested men to name others. An untold number of queer men and women went into hiding, entered sham marriages, immigrated to safer countries, or committed suicide.

In June 1935, the Nazis imposed a stricter version of Paragraph 175, subjecting any man who "commits lewd and lascivious acts with another male," or "permits himself to be abused" for such acts, to 10 years of penal servitude. In section 175a, the revised law defined forced sex, sex with a dependent or subordinate, sex with a youth under age 21, and prostitution as "severe lewdness," while section 175b prohibited bestiality. Previously, "unnatural acts" had usually been interpreted as anal or oral intercourse, but the revision prohibited any type of homoerotic interaction. In the ensuing years, convictions for homosexuality increased ten-fold, reaching a peak of more than 8,500 in 1938, and an estimated 100,000 during the entire Nazi era.

While most men convicted of homosexuality were held in regular prisons, others – especially repeat offenders – were remanded to "preventive custody." Some received reduced sentences if they agreed to undergo castration. By one estimate, between 5,000 and 15,000 men accused of homosexuality were sent to concentration camps, where about two-thirds died.

In the camps, these men were marked with the letter "A," a black dot, the number "175," or a pink triangle. They were subjected to harsh conditions, including forced labor in quarries and munitions factories. Former inmate Heinz Heger later told how he was made to watch a young gay prisoner being tortured by drunken SS guards, who sodomized him with a broomstick. Pierre Seel saw his lover Jo ripped to shreds by dogs. Some "175ers" were used in medical experiments, including infection with typhus fever and implantation of testosterone capsules to "reverse hormonal polarity."

In April 1945, Allied forces defeated the Nazi regime, but the ordeal was not over for men charged with homosexuality. The Allied Military Government sent some to regular prisons, while others were freed and later re-arrested. In 1950, East Germany reverted back to the pre-1935 version of Paragraph 175, and the law was eliminated in 1988. West Germany retained the Nazi version until 1969; the law was revised in 1973 to criminalize only sex with minors under age 18. Paragraph 175 was voided entirely on March 10, 1994, when East and West German laws were reconciled following reunification.

For many years following World War II, homosexual survivors of the Nazi regime remained invisible, largely because homosexuality was still illegal. Not only were they denied reparations, but many found it difficult to obtain jobs with Paragraph 175 convictions on their record. With the success of the gay rights movement in the 1980s and 1990s, however, some survivors began to speak out and demand justice. On May 17, 2002, the German parliament pardoned all men convicted under Paragraph 175 during the Nazi era – of whom only a handful were still alive – but left intact an equal number of convictions imposed between 1946 and 1969.

"I suspect that some people prefer to remain silent forever, afraid to stir up the hideous memories," Seel said a few years before his death in November 2005 at age 82. "As for myself, after decades of silence, I have made up my mind to speak, to accuse, to bear witness."

For more information

Epstein, Rob, and Jeffrey Friedman. 2000 (documentary). Paragraph 175 (Telling Pictures).

Heger, Heinz. 1980, 1994. The Men with the Pink Triangle: The True, Life-and-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps (Alyson).

Grau, Gunter, and Claudia Schoppmann (eds). 1995. Hidden Holocaust?: Gay and Lesbian Persecution in Germany, 1933-1945 (Cassell).

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, 1933-1945." Online exhibit at www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/hsx.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.