Modern history





Racial hygienists greeted the coming of the Third Reich with unalloyed anticipation. Since the 1890s they had been campaigning for social policies that put the improvement of the race at the centre of their concerns and targeted those whom they identified as weak, idle, criminal, degenerate and insane for elimination from the chain of heredity. At last, as Fritz Lenz, a long-time advocate of such measures, remarked, Germany had a government that was prepared to take such issues seriously and do something about them.1 His enthusiasm was not misplaced. From 1924 at the latest, when Hitler had read some racial-hygiene tracts during his period of enforced leisure in Landsberg prison, the future Leader considered that Germany and the Germans could only become strong again if the state applied to German society the basic principles of racial hygiene and racial engineering. The nation had become weak, corrupted by the infusion of degenerate elements into its bloodstream. These had to be removed as quickly as possible. The strong and the racially pure had to be encouraged to have more children, the weak and the racially impure had to be neutralized by one means or another.2

Seeing that Hitler offered them a unique opportunity to put their ideas into practice, leading racial hygienists began to bring their doctrines into line with those of the Nazis in areas where they had so far failed to conform. A sizeable minority, to be sure, were too closely associated with political ideas and organizations on the left to survive as members of the Racial Hygiene Society, which was taken over by the Nazis and purged in 1933. Jewish doctors, of whom more than a few were enthusiastic racial hygienists, were similarly ousted. Even Lenz found that some of his ideas, such as, for example, the theory that illegitimate children were racially degenerate, ran into heavy criticism from Nazi ideologues like Heinrich Himmler. Very quickly, leading racial hygienists in the medical profession were outflanked by a younger generation, who led the key political institutions in the field, from the Racial-Political Office of the Nazi party, headed by Walter Gross (born 1904), the National Socialist Welfare organization, the Nazi Doctors’ League, and, increasingly, the SS, all of which had their own ideas about breeding and selection that rode roughshod over the scientific and medical niceties debated in the learned journals of the racial hygiene movement. Nevertheless, the leading figures in the movement were not disappointed by the new regime. Writing personally to Hitler in April 1933, Alfred Ploetz, the moving spirit of the eugenics movement for the past forty years, explained that since he was now in his seventies, he was too old to take a leading part in the practical implementation of the principles of racial hygiene in the new Reich, but he gave his backing to the Reich Chancellor’s policies all the same.3

Practical policies were not long in coming. At the beginning of the Third Reich, Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick announced that the new regime was going to concentrate public spending on racially sound and healthy people. It was not only going to reduce expenditure on ‘inferior and asocial individuals, the sick, the mentally deficient, the insane, cripples and criminals’, it was also going to subject them to a ruthless policy of ‘eradication and selection’. On 14 July 1933, this policy took legislative form in the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring.4 This prescribed compulsory sterilization for anyone who suffered from congenital feeble-mindedness, schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis, hereditary epilepsy, Huntingdon’s chorea, hereditary deafness, blindness or severe physical deformity, or severe alcoholism. These conditions were subject to further definition by the large bureaucracy set up by the Reich Interior Ministry to administer the Law, while decisions on individual cases were taken by 181 specially established Hereditary Health Courts and appeal courts consisting of a lawyer and two doctors, acting on referrals from public health officers and the directors of institutions such as state nursing homes, clinics, old-age homes, special schools and the like, as well as social workers in the welfare system. This Law had long been an ambition of Germany’s influential racial hygiene movement, led by senior physicians such as Alfred Ploetz and Fritz Lenz, and had become a more insistent demand during the Depression. The enormous burden of welfare on the national finances had greatly increased the number and boldness of those in the welfare and medical professions who believed that many aspects of social deviance, poverty and destitution were the results of the hereditary degeneracy of those who suffered from them. Already in 1932 on the advice of the German Medical Association, a law had been proposed to allow voluntary sterilization. Now, suddenly, it was reality.5

There was nothing voluntary about the Law of 1933. Doctors were required to register every case of hereditary illness known to them, except in women over forty-five, and could be fined for failing to do so; at the same time the arbitrary and vague criteria used to define these cases left them with a good deal of latitude. Some patients agreed to be sterilized, but most did not. In 1934, the first year of the Law’s operation, nearly 4,000 people appealed against the decisions of the sterilization authorities; 3,559 of the appeals failed. As these figures indicate, the scale on which sterilization was carried out was very considerable. In 1934 alone the courts received over 84,500 applications for sterilization, roughly half for men and half for women. Of these, nearly 64,500 received rulings the same year; over 56,000 were in favour of sterilization. Thus an application from a doctor, social worker or other legitimate source was over 90 per cent likely to be approved and extremely unlikely to be overturned on appeal. In each of the first four years of the Law’s operation, over 50,000 people were sterilized in this way; by the time the Third Reich was over, the total number sterilized had reached over 360,000, almost all of them treated before the outbreak of war in September 1939.6

Three-quarters of the orders were made in respect of ‘congenital feeble-mindedness’, an extremely vague and elastic concept that placed great power in the hands of doctors and the courts: it became common, for example, to define many kinds of social deviance, such as prostitution, as forms of ‘moral feeble-mindedness’. The inclusion of alcoholism affected mainly members of the underclass. The techniques employed - vasectomy for men and tubal ligation for women - were often painful, and sometimes led to complications: the overall death-rate, overwhelmingly among women rather than men, ran at 0.5 per cent, or a total of about 2,000 people. Before long, the scale of the programme had transformed the medical profession, as all doctors had to undergo training in recognizing hereditary degeneracy (for example, through the shape of the patient’s earlobes, the patient’s gait, or the configuration of the half-moon at the base of the patient’s fingernails). University medical faculties spent much of their time writing expert reports for the courts and devised ‘practical intelligence tests’ to sort out the sheep from the goats (‘What form of state do we have now? Who were Bismarck and Luther? Why are houses higher in the city than in the countryside?’). These ran into trouble when tests in rural areas revealed an equal degree of ignorance amongst allegedly normal schoolchildren as amongst supposedly feeble-minded ones. The possibility that rank-and-file members of the brownshirts from country districts might fail the tests was enough in itself to discredit the whole process of testing in the eyes of some senior Party doctors.7

Roughly two-thirds of those sterilized were the inmates of mental hospitals, many of whose directors zealously combed through their patient files for candidates for the courts. The proportion of alleged schizophrenics was higher here; in the asylum at Kaufbeuren-Irsee, indeed, some 82 per cent of the 1,409 patients were ruled to fall within the provisions of the Law, though elsewhere a proportion of about a third was more usual. Sterilization was attractive to asylum directors because it meant that the patients could in many cases be discharged into the community afterwards. This affected particularly the younger, less severely disturbed patients, so that the better their chances of recovery were thought to be, the more likely they were to be sterilized. At the Eglfing-Haar asylum, two-thirds of the patients sterilized in 1934 were released within a few months; at the Eichberg asylum, nearly 80 per cent of those sterilized in 1938 were also rapidly discharged. This reduced running costs at a time when asylums, like the rest of the welfare system, were under heavy pressure to cut expenditure. Indeed some young women were clearly sterilized mainly in order to prevent them bearing illegitimate children who would be a burden on the community.8

The reasons given for sterilization were frequently concerned more with social deviance than with any demonstrably hereditary condition. As one doctor wrote in putting forward a candidate for the operation on the basis of ‘moral feeble-mindedness’:

In his social worker’s files he is described as a beggar or vagrant who has come down in the world. He is in receipt of a fifty per cent war injury pension because of TB of the lungs and intestine. He spends his money very irresponsibly. Smokes a lot and sometimes gets drunk. He has repeatedly been an inmate at Farmsen. He usually leaves the institution to go tramping. He has previous convictions for resisting arrest, breach of the peace, public slander and grievous bodily harm. In his welfare files it is reported that he has often disturbed the operation of the service and physically attacked officials, so that he was banned from entering the welfare office. According to Dr [ . . . ], C. is ‘a mentally seriously inferior individual who is totally without value for the community’.9

In cases such as this, sterilization appeared principally as a punishment or a measure of social control. The prospect of the man in question having children seemed to be remote indeed. Sterilizing the inmates of asylums and similar institutions was in many cases an excuse for discharging the public purse from the responsibility of maintaining them.

These were not, therefore, seriously ill people, still less those whose ailments condemned them to a life of perpetual institutionalization. Those who were too ill, too helpless or too dangerous to be let out into society were unlikely to have children and so did not require sterilization. In essence, therefore, the regime was using sterilization to crush those areas of society that did not conform to the Nazi ideal of the new man or the new woman: overwhelmingly, members of the underclass, beggars, prostitutes, vagrants, people who did not want to work, graduates of orphanages and reform schools, the slum and the street: people who could not be expected to join the Hitler Youth, give money to the Winter Aid, enlist in the armed forces, hang out flags on the Leader’s birthday or turn up at work every day on time. The new Law gave the regime the power to reach into the most intimate sphere of human existence, sexuality and reproduction, a power that it would subsequently extend to its dealings with the Jews and indeed, potentially at least, every adult German. To back up these measures, a regulation issued on 26 July 1933 blocked access to marriage loans for people who suffered from hereditary mental or physical ailments; another regulation issued a couple of months later extended this ban to child benefits. It was only a small step from here to ban racially undesirable marriages altogether.10

Against the background of reasoning such as this, it was not surprising that ‘habitual criminals’ were also one of the groups whose enforced sterilization had long been thought desirable by psychiatrists and criminologists. Local health officers, most notoriously Gerhard Boeters, in Zwickau, were vigorous in campaigning for such a measure under the Weimar Republic. The prison doctor in Straubing, Theodor Viernstein, considered that ‘enemies of the race, enemies of society’ had to be removed from the chain of heredity as fast as possible.11 Even Social Democrats such as Wilhelm Hoegner urged at least the voluntary sterilization of persistent offenders, though the Communists and the Centre Party, for very different reasons, were strongly opposed.12 Hitler and leading Nazis such as the legal expert Hans Frank were strongly in favour of including ‘habitual criminals’ in the list of those to be sterilized. But Reich Justice Minister Franz Gürtner successfully blocked such a move, both in the Sterilization Law and in the Habitual Criminals Law. He continued to do so despite pressure from eugenicists such as Ernst Rüdin, partly because officials were not convinced that it would be possible to separate hereditarily determined criminality cleanly from environmentally conditioned deviance, but mainly because they considered it unnecessary anyway because ‘habitual criminals’ were now incarcerated for life under the new rules for ‘security confinement’ and therefore could not reproduce. Nevertheless, state prisoners could be sterilized if they fell under any of the other grounds specified in the law, and prison doctors were energetic in identifying them amongst the inmates. The criteria for sterilization were extremely elastic and included the ‘congenitally feeble-minded’ and ‘alcoholics’, amongst whom a large proportion of prison inmates could be counted by a determined prison doctor. Hans Trunk, Viernstein’s successor at Straubing, for instance, proposed to have up to a third of the prison’s inmates sterilized, a figure considered too high even by the local Hereditary Health Court. It was hardly surprising that prisoners were over-represented amongst the compulsorily sterilized, with nearly 5,400 subjected to this procedure by December 1939. It was equally unsurprising that the threat of a vasectomy or hysterectomy spread fear amongst prison inmates, who often told each other the correct answers to the intelligence tests administered by the doctors and learned them off by heart.13

On the other hand, the physically handicapped were considerably less severely affected. True, one of the conditions laid down by the 1933 Law was ‘serious hereditary physical deformity’, which it declared included anyone who suffered from ‘deviations from the norm that more or less strongly prevent normal functioning’, so long as these could be demonstrated to be inherited. Whether or not they were also mentally handicapped was completely irrelevant from this point of view. State support for such people was to be effectively abolished since they were of no use to the community. Already in the Depression, Germany’s residential care facilities for the physically handicapped, which provided 11,000 beds in 1927, had been forced by financial constraints to accept only children, and even there only those whom they considered capable of recovery through treatment. Well before 1933, therefore, the distinction between the ‘valuable’ and the ‘inferior’, or people suffering from curable physical handicaps on the one hand, and severe or multiple disabilities on the other, had become commonplace in care institutions. In the light of the massive propaganda attacks launched by the Nazis against the physically handicapped in connection with the sterilization law in 1933, many families withdrew their handicapped children or relatives from these institutions, fearing the worst for them.14

But by the mid-1930s, the atmosphere was beginning to change. Doctors pointed out that at least three-quarters of physical handicaps developed after birth, and that the vast majority were in any case extremely unlikely to be passed on to the next generation. Conditions such as a dislocation of the hips were regarded as perfectly treatable. So too was club-foot, which must have come as a relief to the Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, Germany’s best-known sufferer from the condition. It was of course already too late to propose him for sterilization, and the futility of the idea that his disability was hereditary was amply demonstrated by the sound and healthy physical constitution of his own numerous offspring. Possibly the obvious embarrassment of dismissing the club-footed as a danger to the future of the race was a factor in bringing about a change of policy towards physical disabilities in the Third Reich. But the major factor was economic. Orthopaedic surgeons and physicians, fearful for their jobs should a policy of sterilization and effective abandonment of treatment be adopted, pointed out that so long as the physically handicapped were of sound mind, they could be employed in a whole variety of appropriate jobs, especially if their treatment had met with some success. They noted that successful therapy required early treatment, yet the attitude of the Nazis was causing mothers to conceal their children’s disabilities from the medical profession for fear of what would happen to them.

Local officials met on 12 October 1937 and agreed that the growing shortage of labour made it advisable to integrate the physically handicapped into the economy. Otto Perl, the founder in 1919 of the League for the Advancement of Self-Help for the Physically Handicapped, successfully lobbied for the pejorative official designation of ‘cripple’ (Krüppel) to be replaced in official documents by the more neutral ‘physically handicapped’ (Körperbehinderte), as indeed it increasingly was from 1934 onwards. Many of those he represented were of course war-wounded; but his campaigns had implications for younger handicapped people too. The result was that the proportion of the forcibly sterilized who suffered from exclusively physical disabilities remained throughout the Nazi period below 1 per cent. In 1934 Perl’s organization was officially recognized, incorporated into the National Socialist People’s Welfare under the name of the Reich League of the Physically Handicapped (Reichsbund der Körperbehinderten) and charged with the task of integrating its members into the productive economy. Those with disabilities such as haemophilia, severe progressive rheumatoid arthritis, serious spasmodic muscular contractions or chronic deformities of the hands or the spine were consigned to institutions with the instruction that they had to be given a miminal level of care. But even here, the idea of compulsory sterilization was dropped; in a land where many thousands of severely physically handicapped war veterans could be seen on the streets every day, it would have been difficult to justify such a policy to the general public.15 Still, this change of heart had its limits. The physically handicapped might be useful to the regime, but they were in no way to be full or equal members of the racial community. The emphasis placed on physical health and vitality by the Nazis already discriminated against them at school, where from 17 March 1935 onwards they were banned from progressing to secondary education, along with students who had showed ‘persistent failure in physical training’ and ‘young people who exhibit a persistent unwillingness to look after their bodies’. The way to preferment at school, university, the Hitler Youth and virtually all the other institutions of the Third Reich was not least through the demonstration of fitness to fight. Those who were not in a position to show it remained second-class citizens.16

Some doctors outside Germany also held the view that many social ills were the result of the hereditary degeneracy of certain sections of the population. Even before the Nazis came to power in Germany, twenty-eight states in the USA had passed sterilization laws resulting in the compulsory sterilization of some 15,000 people; the total had more than doubled by 1939. German racial hygienists such as Gerhard Boeters pointed to the American example in justifying their own stance; others also incidentally pointed to anti-miscegenation laws in the southern states of the USA as another example that could usefully be followed in Germany. The American eugenicist Harry Laughlin, who in 1931 put forward a programme to sterilize some 15 million Americans of inferior racial stock over the next half-century, received an honorary doctorate from Heidelberg in 1936. US eugenicists admired the German Laws in turn; and Laughlin himself proudly claimed that his own ideas had in part inspired it.17 Sterilization laws of one kind and another were passed by Switzerland in 1928, by Denmark in 1929, by Norway in 1934 and by a variety of other European countries, both democratic and authoritarian in their political structures. Six thousand Danes were sterilized, and no fewer than 40,000 Norwegians. Even more remarkably, nearly 63,000 sterilizations were performed in Sweden between 1935 and 1975. It has been argued that the Swedish sterilizations were carried out to remove non-productive people from the chain of heredity and targeted the socially rather than the racially deviant; and certainly, the welfare state constructed by Swedish Social Democracy in these decades was not racially based in the way that the Nazi state was. Still, the Swedish National Institute for Racial Biology did establish physical characteristics among the criteria for forced sterilization, and Gypsies were targeted as a supposedly racially inferior group. Moreover, in the first six years of the Third Reich, sterilization, although carried out on a scale far greater than anywhere else, was not primarily racial in character, in the sense of being based on the identification of inferior races: the people who were being sterilized were overwhelmingly ‘Aryan’ Germans, and they were being sterilized for reasons not very different from those given by the Swedish authorities and eugenicists elsewhere at around the same time.18 The real difference was to emerge only later, when the war began, as the Nazi regime turned from sterilizing social deviants to murdering them.


Applying the principles of racial hygiene to society meant sweeping away traditional Christian morality and replacing it with a system of ethics that derived good and bad solely from the imagined collective interests of the German race. This did not stop some Protestant welfare officials from agreeing with this policy, but when the Catholic Church objected to measures such as forcible sterilization, Nazi ideologues like the doctors’ leader Gerhard Wagner portrayed this as another episode in the long struggle between religious obscurantism and scientific enlightenment, a struggle which science was bound to win.19 In few areas, indeed, were the differences between conservative traditionalism and Nazi modernism more apparent than in the regime’s attitude to women, marriage and the family, all of which appeared to Nazi ideologues in the light not of conventional Christian morality but of the scientific principles of racial policy. Any overlap there might have appeared to be between conservative and National Socialist views of women’s place in society was purely superficial. Alarmed by the long-term decline in Germany’s birth-rate that had set in around the turn of the century, conservative nationalists and Nazis alike preached women’s return to the home; but while conservatives saw the key to the decline’s reversal in the revival of traditional marriage patterns, the Nazis were willing to take up even the most radical ideas in the pursuit of more children for the Reich, adding on to this the insistence that such children had to be racially pure and hereditarily untainted, principles that traditional conservatives abhorred. Abortion, deeply repugnant to Catholic morality, provided a case in point. The Third Reich tightened up and enforced more rigorously the existing laws banning abortion except on medical grounds, thereby reducing the number of officially sanctioned abortions from nearly 35,000 a year in the early 1930s to fewer than 2,000 a year by the end of the decade. But it also allowed abortion on eugenic grounds from 1935 onwards and in November 1938 a Lüneburg court created a significant precedent when it legalized abortion for Jewish women.20 At the same time, contraceptives, another bugbear of the Catholic Church, continued to be available throughout the 1930s, although birth-control clinics were closed down because of the association of the birth-control movement with left-wing, libertarian politics.21

Given their Darwinian view of world politics, the Nazis considered a high birth-rate essential for a nation’s health. A declining birth-rate meant an ageing population, and fewer recruits for the armed forces in the longer term. A rising birth-rate meant a young, vigorous population and the promise of ever-expanding military manpower in the future. Racial hygienists had pointed with alarm to the decline in Germany’s birth-rate, from thirty-six live births per 1,000 population in 1900 to a mere fifteen per 1,000 population in 1932. As early as 1914, Fritz Lenz had opined that women’s emancipation was to blame and advocated putting a ban on women going into higher education. He was critical of other racial hygienists who argued modestly that a healthy woman should give birth to eight or nine children during her life. A woman, he thought, could continue to give birth over a period of thirty years; with one birth possible at least every other year, this meant, he declared, a minimum of fifteen. Anything else was due to ‘unnatural or pathological causes’.22 The Nazis could not have agreed more. As soon as they came to power, they moved into action to eliminate what they thought of as the causes of the declining birth-rate and to provide incentives to women to have more children. Their first target was Germany’s large and active feminist movement, which was swiftly closed down and its constituent associations dissolved or incorporated into the Party’s national women’s organization, National Socialist Womanhood (NS-Frauenschaft). The leading radical feminists, including Anita Augspurg and Lida Gustava Heymann, pioneers of the campaign for women’s suffrage, and Helene Stöcker, advocate of sexual liberation for women, went into exile; apart from anything else, their pacifist convictions put them at the risk of arrest and imprisonment in the new regime. The more conservative feminists, like Gertrud Bäumer, who had dominated the movement in the 1920s, retreated into self-imposed ‘inner exile’, leaving the field open to women of openly Nazi convictions.23

The National Socialist Womanhood was led, after a fierce internal power-struggle that lasted until the beginning of 1934, by Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, a proud mother (eventually) of eleven children; her devotion to the idea of the family was unquestionable. The Womanhood was intended to provide the active leadership for a comprehensive mass organization of German women, called the German Women’s Bureau (Deutsches Frauenwerk), which would convert the entire female sex in Germany to the Nazi way of thinking.24 Once appointed to head these two organizations, as Reich Women’s Leader, in February 1934, Scholtz-Klink sprang into action, setting up a range of schemes to persuade women to have more children and to take better care of those they already had. One of the most ambitious was the Reich Mothers’ Service. This drew on the experience of old-established women’s welfare groups. It ran courses on childcare, cooking, sewing and of course racial hygiene; they had reached more than 1.7 million women by March 1939 and were funded by the sale of badges on Mother’s Day, supplemented by a small fee for taking part. Mother’s Day itself became a major propaganda event, and was made into a national holiday in 1934. Goebbels ordered all brownshirts, Hitler Youth and other Nazi Party organizations to give their members the day off so that they could be with their families; theatres were to stage relevant plays on the day and give out free tickets to mothers and families; priests and pastors were to preach sermons on motherhood. On Mother’s Day in May 1939, three million women who had given birth to four or more children each were invested with the title of ‘Mother of the Reich’ in special ceremonies held all over Germany. Their new status was signalled by the award of specially minted Mother’s Honour Crosses - bronze for four children, silver for six and gold for eight or more, an achievement considered sufficiently noteworthy for the crosses to be pinned on by Hitler himself. Wearers were allowed to jump queues in food stores, and Hitler Youth members were instructed to salute them in the street. Mothers whose performance exceeded even this, and who gave birth to ten children, were given the additional honour of having Hitler as godfather of the tenth child, which in the case of boys meant naming the infant ‘Adolf’, something which Catholic families who resented Hitler’s persecution of their Church must have found somewhat distressing.25

The involvement of Goebbels in this propaganda exercise pointed to the fact that Scholtz-Klink’s women’s organizations by no means had a monopoly over policy and its implementation in this area. As a mere woman, Scholtz-Klink enjoyed a low status in the Nazi hierarchy and was therefore no match even for relatively unsuccessful male Nazi leaders in the turf wars that were such a constant feature of the regime’s internal politics. Soon the Labour Front, the Reich Food Estate and the National Socialist Welfare organization had all taken over major areas of women’s welfare, while the Labour Front and its ancillary organizations also ran a wide range of women’s leisure activities. At the same time, the limited resources available to Scholtz-Klink meant that her women’s organizations failed to achieve the ambitious aims she had set them: they did not reach far beyond the middle-class women who had provided the main constituency for the old women’s movement of the Weimar years, and housewives were resistant to being mobilized in the service of the nation in the ways that Scholtz-Klink intended. Husbands and children were spending increasing amounts of their time outside the home in Party-related activities, in camps, or at evening training sessions. German women, as one contributor to a remarkably critical collection of addresses from women to Hitler published in 1934 complained, were falling into a ‘shadow of loneliness’ as a result.26

Moreover, government pronatalism meant in itself interference by the regime in the family, sexuality and childbirth, as pressures of all kinds were exerted on women to get married and have lots of children. The Nazi regime propagated the interests of large families by taking over the already-extant Reich League of Child-Rich Families, an organization that also became an instrument of racial engineering, since many socially disadvantaged large families were excluded from it, and the privileges it conferred, on the grounds that they were asocial or degenerate. For those that made the grade, with four or more children under the age of sixteen, there were many advantages, including priority in training, work for the father and better housing for the family as a whole, and single child supplements introduced in October 1935 and averaging 390 Reichsmarks per family. By July 1937 400,000 such families had received them. 240,000 families also received ongoing family support, and one-off grants to the maximum of 1,000 Reichsmarks per child were made for the parents to buy household goods, bed-linen and so on. From April 1936 the government added a supplementary grant of 10 Reichsmarks a month for the fifth and each subsequent child in every family. In 1938 these benefits were extended from children aged sixteen and under to those under the age of twenty-one. Tax reforms introduced improved allowances for large families on a national basis, while local governments took their own steps by reducing gas, water and electricity charges, providing free Hitler Youth uniforms, subsidizing the costs of schooling, supplementing the wages of municipal employees with four or more children, or (as in Leipzig) publishing monthly ‘honour tables’ of large families. The costs of all these measures were borne by single people and childless couples and constituted a clear incentive to have more children, especially for the worse off: a poor family with three young offspring could improve its position dramatically by having a fourth. Yet there were limits, especially in housing, where the priority that was supposed to be given to large families counted for little in the face of a continued housing shortage. Landlords still preferred to let to single people or childless couples because they used less gas, water and electricity in a situation where there was a freeze on rents. State investment in new housing actually fell from one and a third billion marks in 1928 to a quarter of a billion in 1938.27

Such problems were reflected in the fact that the decline in the percentage of marriages with four or more children continued unabated. Nearly half of all couples married in 1900-1904 had four or more children, but for those married in 1926-30 the proportion was only 20 per cent; in 1931-5 it fell further to 18 per cent, and in 1936-40 again to 13 per cent.28 The regime’s efforts counted for little in the face of a secular decline in family size that had begun decades before and was to continue long afterwards. The economic, social and cultural costs of having more than one or two children were simply too great for the Third Reich to counteract.29 Superficially, at least, it seemed to enjoy more success in reversing the associated long-term decline in the birth-rate that so concerned racial hygienists. From a low of 14.7 live births per thousand inhabitants in 1933 the birth-rate increased to 18.0 in 1934 and 18.9 in 1935. It then levelled off at 19.0 in 1936 and 18.8 in 1937 before rising slightly again to 19.6 in 1938 and 20.4 in 1939.30 By the beginning of the 1940s a commentator could claim that an extra three million Germans had been born as a direct result of policies introduced by the Third Reich.31 Yet the leap in the number of marriages, by nearly a quarter between 1932 and 1938, was mainly due to the economic recovery. People had been postponing getting married and having children because of the Depression: with well over a third of the working population unemployed, this was understandable enough. Even without the marriage loan scheme, therefore, a majority of the marriages and births that happened from 1934 onwards would have happened anyway. Other additional births reflected the greater difficulty women had in obtaining abortions after 1933; only relatively few could be ascribed directly to policies introduced by the Third Reich.32


Those policies impinged ever more closely on marriage and the family as time went on. In 1938, a new Marriage Law made it possible for a fertile husband or wife to file for divorce on grounds of ‘premature infertility’ or the refusal of the other partner to procreate. Three years’ separation and the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage were also introduced as grounds for divorce. In this way, completely disregarding the traditional Christian view of marriage as a divinely sanctified partnership for life, the Third Reich hoped to make it easier for people to marry for the purposes of having children. By 1941 nearly 28,000 people had filed for divorce on the basis of breakdown and separation, while 3,838 divorces had been granted because of premature infertility and 1,771 because of refusal to procreate. These were not very impressive figures, and made only a small impact on the birth-rate, if they made any at all. Still, in a society where divorce was still something rather unusual and generally frowned-on, they made up a good fifth of all divorces. The Vatican duly registered its disapproval with the German Ambassador. It was disregarded.33 Potentially far more intrusive was the Law for the Protection of the Hereditary Health of the German People, promulgated on 18 October 1935. This provided for the banning of a marriage where one of the engaged couple suffered from an inherited disease, or from a mental illness. As a consequence, anyone who wanted to get married would have to provide written proof that they qualified according to the Law. Local Health Offices would have been overwhelmed with requests for medical examinations had there been any question of implementing these requirements comprehensively. So in practice it was up to registry offices to demand an examination if they had any doubts about the fitness of the prospective marriage partners. Indeed some had already done so even before the Law had been passed. The demand for written proof was postponed indefinitely, and in the following years the Law was watered down by a series of amendments. None the less, it made it markedly more difficult for people to get married if they were classified as asocial or morally feeble-minded - diagnoses which had already disqualified them for the marriage loan scheme; in practice, those who fell foul of it were also likely to fall foul of the sterilization programme as well.34

Finally, illegitimacy, a persistent stigma in socially and morally conservative circles, was wholly irrelevant to the Nazi view of childbirth. If the infant was racially pure and healthy, it did not matter at all whether its parents were legally married. The logical consequences of prioritizing breeding in this morally neutral way were carried to an extreme by Heinrich Himmler, who founded a series of maternity homes from 1936 under an SS-run association called the ‘Well of Life’ (Lebensborn). These were intended for racially approved unmarried mothers, who otherwise might not receive the facilities he thought they deserved: infant mortality rates amongst illegitimate children were notoriously far higher than the national average. But Himmler’s bizarre attempt to encourage his elite to breed a future master-race was not very successful: the homes were quickly used by prominent married couples in the SS and later in the Nazi Party more generally, because of their low charges, good facilities and (especially during the war) favourable rural locations. In peacetime, under half the mothers in the homes were unmarried, though this in itself was enough to attract criticism from Catholics and conservatives. Altogether, some 8,000 children were born in the homes, hardly sufficient to inaugurate a new master-race. Nor did he have much more luck with SS officers who actually were married. An investigation carried out in 1939 showed that the 115,690 married SS men had an average of only 1.1 children each.35

Beyond all this, the Nazis also went to considerable lengths to propagate and indeed enforce an image of women that expressed their intended function of becoming mothers for the Reich. Rejecting French fashions became a patriotic duty; eschewing make-up and lipstick, widely marketed by big American firms, advertised commitment to the Germanic race; giving up smoking became a badge of femininity, as well as improving the health of the potential mother and unborn child - a result of which Nazi medical experts were already convinced in the 1930s. Parents were encouraged to present their female offspring in pigtails and dirndls, especially if they were blonde. The German Fashion Institute put on shows of new German haute couture, fighting the international dominance of Paris fashion. All this was more than mere propaganda. The district leadership of the Party in Breslau, for instance, banned women from attending Party meetings if they ‘painted’ themselves with make-up. Notices were put up in cafés requesting women customers to refrain from smoking, while the police chief in Erfurt admonished citizens ‘to remind women they meet smoking on the streets of their duty as German wives and mothers’. There were reports of stormtroopers snatching cigarettes from the lips of women whom they saw smoking in public, or giving a dressing-down to women with plucked eyebrows and strongly coloured lipstick. Newspapers and journals polemicized on the one hand against the androgynous ‘new woman’ of the Weimar years, with her cropped hair and mannish clothing, and against the sexually seductive ‘vamp’ on the other, with her fashionable allure and permanently waved hair. Physical exercise was touted as the best way for women to achieve the healthy, glowing look that the future of the German race required.36

Yet here too the Nazis ultimately failed to get their way. It proved impossible to curb the cosmetics industry, which soon found new ways of making profits. Magazines were soon full of advice to German women on how to achieve a natural look by artificial means. Shampoo companies quickly marketed new products enabling women to achieve a much-desired head of blonde hair. German-Jewish clothing firms were Aryanized, and supposedly cosmopolitan Jewish fashion designers were excluded from the trade, but international fashion was too strong to resist. Women’s magazines continued to feature the look of Hollywood stars and to explain how they achieved it. Prominent women in Nazi high society scorned the attack on fashion: Magda Goebbels often appeared in public smoking through a cigarette-holder, Winifred Wagner went to opera galas dressed in Parisian silk, and even Hitler’s partner Eva Braun smoked when he was not around and made regular use of Elizabeth Arden cosmetics. The German Fashion Institute lacked the energy to make much of an impact, and the regime’s attempt to help the autarkic economy and boost national pride by encouraging women to wear home-spun clothes ran into increasing difficulty because of the cheapness of mass-produced, off-the-peg dresses made out of artificial fibres - another product of the drive to autarky. Anxious to counter the widespread perception abroad that German women were frumpish and dowdy, women’s magazines, under instructions from the Propaganda Ministry, tried to persuade them to be elegant in appearance, especially when foreign visitors were around. The dirndl did indeed make something of a comeback during the later 1930s, but often in forms so heavily modified in the direction of international fashion styles that it was hardly recognizable any more. German women could in the end no more be persuaded to present themselves merely as actual or potential mothers than they could be persuaded to behave as such.37 This was scarcely surprising, given the extent to which the Nazis undermined traditional distinctions between public and private, the home and the wider world. While government policy penetrated and politicized the domestic sphere, Party organizations took women and children out of the home and socialized them in camps, expeditions, and meetings. The result was a blurring of distinctions that made it impossible for women to conform to the domestic and maternal roles for which Nazi propaganda was attempting to fit them. In few areas, indeed, were the contradictions and irrationalities of the Third Reich more crass than this.38

How different was all this from the situation elsewhere in Europe? Almost all major European countries adopted policies to try and boost their birth-rate in the 1930s, since almost all governments were concerned about the potential effects of the declining birth-rate on future military effectiveness. Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Russia both imposed restrictions on child limitation and offered rewards to fecund mothers, and pronatalist propaganda in France, where the decline in the birth-rate had been particularly severe over a very long time, almost reached fever-pitch in the interwar years. Fascist Italy also saw an attack on women’s work and an attempt to reduce women to the status of childbearers and childrearers, and in Soviet Russia the relatively liberal sexual atmosphere of the 1920s gave way under Stalin to a much more prudish and repressive regime. Everywhere, autonomous feminist movements declined, lost support or were crushed by authoritarian governments. Yet at the same time there were differences too. The power of the Catholic Church in Italy meant that Mussolini could not include the kind of amoral racial engineering that was the cornerstone of population policy in Nazi Germany. In Russia, while there may have been racist undertones to Moscow’s policies towards other nationalities in the Soviet empire, racism was not a central part of the regime’s ideology and there was no equivalent to the Nazi sterilization, marriage or race legislation. Moreover, while Soviet Russia frowned on make-up and high fashion, it was largely because these were ‘bourgeois’ and detracted from women’s role as workers, which - unlike in Nazi Germany - was assiduously propagated through posters featuring female tractor-drivers and steel-workers. Aside from all this, too, in Nazi Germany, marriage and population policy, like almost every other social policy, had a negative as well as a positive impact and further disadvantaged those racial and other minorities who did not conform to the Third Reich’s image of the new Aryan human being.39 And there were many of these.


One particular group which the Third Reich considered a danger on racial grounds were the so-called Gypsies, of whom some 26,000 were living in Germany in the early 1930s.40 These consisted of extended family groups that assigned themselves to one or other of a variety of larger tribes - the Romanies, the Sinti, the Lalleri - and lived a nomadic lifestyle. They had arrived in Central Europe in the late fifteenth century, some thought via Egypt (hence the English word ‘Gypsy’); in fact they originally hailed from India. Dark-skinned, speaking a different language, living largely apart from the rest of German society and relying on itinerant trades of one sort and another, they had attracted social stigma and harsh repressive legislation as territorial states emerged in the period of social and political consolidation following the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Early nineteenth-century Romantics had idealized them as both primitive and exotic, the repository of occult knowledge such as fortune-telling. But with the emergence of criminal biology towards the end of the century, legislators and administrators had begun to assign them once more to the criminal classes. Gypsies were increasingly subjected to petty police harassment because of their refusal to conform to the modern ideal of the citizen - attending school, paying taxes, registering a domicile - and their disregard for conventional notions of private property, work, regularity, sanitation and the like. Contraventions of the increasingly close net of regulations that bound society in these and other areas meant that the majority of Gypsies had criminal records, which simply confirmed law enforcement agencies in their view that they were hereditarily disposed to criminality. In 1926, the Bavarian government passed a particularly severe law against Gypsies, coupling them with travellers and the work-shy, and founded a Central Office to collect information on them systematically. Ten years later it had compiled an index of nearly 20,000 files.41

The coming of the Third Reich did not at first mean major changes for German Gypsies, except insofar as they fell into other categories of people targeted by the regime, such as criminal, asocial or work-shy. A number of regional and local authorities stepped up their harassment of itinerants, raiding their camps, moving them on from their resting-places and arresting those thought to be engaged in activities such as begging. On 6 June 1936 these efforts were co-ordinated in a decree issued by the Reich Interior Ministry, and a number of cities began to set up special camps for Gypsies, on the lines of one started in Frankfurt am Main. These were not exactly concentration camps, since the Gypsies were at least nominally entitled to come and go as they wished, and there was no attempt to impose discipline or inflict punishments. However, conditions were often very poor: the camp in the Berlin suburb of Marzahn, which held 600 Gypsies who were forcibly removed from the city in July 1936, had only two latrines, three sources of water, no electricity and too few barracks for those who did not have caravans. Disease was rife, and in March 1939 some 40 per cent of the inmates were said to have scabies. Brutal guards set their dogs on inmates who refused to obey orders. By this time there were well over 800 inmates, and the camp had its own school. Nevertheless, the majority of Gypsies continued to live in society, particularly since there was a high intermarriage rate with Germans, and many of them rented their own rooms or apartments rather than pursuing their traditionally nomadic lifestyle.42

As part of the intensified crime prevention measures he undertook in 1938, Himmler moved the Bavarian Central Office for Gypsy Affairs to Berlin and turned it into a Reich authority. His police round-ups of the supposedly work-shy netted a substantial number of Gypsies, but they were still not specifically targeted on racial grounds. It was only on 8 December 1938 that Himmler issued a decree on the Gypsies as such, although it had been in preparation for several months. The decree consolidated existing measures and centralized them under the control of the Criminal Police in Berlin. It ordered all Gypsies and itinerants to be registered and to undergo racial-biological examination. The resulting identity card would state whether the holder was a Gypsy, a mixed-race Gypsy, or a non-Gypsy itinerant; only on presentation of the card could the holder obtain a job, a driving licence, benefits and so on. The registration was carried out on the basis of police records and with the assistance of a special research institute set up in the Reich Health Office in 1936 under the leadership of Dr Robert Ritter, a young physician who quickly became the government’s favoured special adviser on the Gypsies. Born in 1901, Ritter was a criminal biologist who organized a team of researchers to visit Gypsy camps, measure and register the inhabitants, and take blood tests: those who refused to co-operate were threatened with consignment to a concentration camp. Ritter and his team combed parish records, assimilated the files of the Munich Central Office for Gypsy Affairs and compiled an index of over 20,000 people. Soon, Ritter boasted, he would have complete records on every Gypsy or part-Gypsy in Germany.43

Ritter argued that Gypsies were a primitive, inferior race who were constitutionally unable to pursue a normal lifestyle. Pure Gypsies posed no threat to society, therefore, and should be allowed to make their living in their traditionally nomadic way. There were, however, he warned, very few of them left. The vast majority of so-called Gypsies had intermarried with Germans living in the slums where they had found a home, and so had created a dangerous substratum of criminals and layabouts. Thus he arbitrarily reversed the Nazi dogma of antisemitism, according to which pure Jews were more of a threat to Germany than part-Jews. Such theories provided a pseudo-scientific justification for the police measures now undertaken by Himmler. They enjoyed widespread support amongst social workers, criminologists, police authorities, municipalities and ordinary German citizens. The decree of 8 December 1938 banned Gypsies from travelling in ‘hordes’ (groups of several families), ordered the expulsion of foreign Gypsies and gave the police power to arrest itinerants classified as asocial. It applied already existing racial legislation to Gypsies, who now had to provide a certificate of suitability before being allowed to marry. This was unlikely to be granted. In March 1939 Himmler ordered that racial mixing between Gypsies and Germans was to be prevented in future. Every regional office of the Criminal Police was to set up a special office dealing with Gypsies. It was to ensure that once Gypsies had undergone racial examination, they were to be issued with special identity cards, coloured brown for pure Gypsies, brown with a blue strip for mixed-race Gypsies and grey for non-Gypsy itinerants. By the time the war broke out, Himmler had gone a long way down the road to preparing what he called in his decree of 8 December 1938 ‘the final solution of the Gypsy question’.44


While the regime approached the ‘Gypsy question’ gradually, and initially at least on the basis of existing police practices that were only partially racist in character, and not much different to those enforced in other European countries, the same could not be said of its dealings with another, much smaller minority in German society, the so-called ‘Rhineland bastards’. The term itself was a polemical piece of nationalist terminology, referring to black or mixed-race Germans who, it was almost universally believed, were the result of the rape of German women by French African colonial troops during the occupation of the Rhineland after 1919 and above all the Ruhr in 1923. There had in fact been very few rapes; most of the children were the offspring of consensual unions, and there were, according to a later census, no more than five or six hundred of them; other African-Germans, though often regarded as the product of the French occupation, were the children of German settlers and African women in the colonial period before 1918 or in the years afterwards, when many Germans returned from the former colonies such as Cameroon or Tanganyika (the mainland part of present-day Tanzania). Such had been the nationwide publicity given to the allegations of rape, however, that they remained in the public eye throughout the 1920s. African-Germans were regarded by nationalists as the living embodiment of Germany’s shame.45

Already in 1927, proposals were circulating in the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior for their forcible sterilization, lest African characteristics should enter the German bloodstream, and these were revived almost as soon as the Nazis came to power, when Goring ordered the collection of information on the children, many of whom were now in their teens. Investigations of some of them by racial experts had reported, predictably enough, that they were inferior in every respect. But the legal basis for dealing with them on the grounds provided for in the sterilization law of 1933 was still extremely dubious, so after lengthy deliberations within the bureaucracy, it was decided in 1937, almost certainly with Hitler’s explicit backing, that the children should be sterilized on the basis of the Leader’s authority alone. A special commission was set up within the Gestapo, staffed with racial hygienists and anthropologists; branches were opened in the Rhineland; the young people in question were located and examined; and the sterilization programme, organized in secret by Ernst Rüdin, Fritz Lenz and Walter Gross, among others, went ahead.46

How it impinged on the individuals most directly affected can be seen in the case of what the Gestapo filed as ‘number 357’, a boy born in 1920 to a consensual union between a German mother and a French colonial soldier from Madagascar, who willingly acknowledged his paternity, confirmed by the mother. A medical-anthropological examination conducted in 1935 concluded that the boy’s facial features were un-German and probably negroid. By the time the sterilization policy had been decided on, he had begun work on a Rhine barge; the Gestapo tracked him down and he was arrested at midnight on 29 June 1937. Purely on the basis of the earlier confirmation of his paternity by the mother, and the medical examination of 1935, the branch commission in Cologne ordered that he should be sterilized; his mother, who had in the meantime married a German, gave her approval, as did her husband, and the boy was subjected to a vasectomy in the Evangelical Hospital in Cologne on 30 June, the day after his arrest. He was discharged on 12 July and went back to his job. Legally German, he was given no opportunity to protest or appeal against the decision because he was a minor, and it is more than likely that his parents had given their consent only under considerable pressure from the Gestapo. Many of those sterilized were younger. Girls as young as twelve were forced to undergo tubal ligation. It is questionable whether many of them really knew what they were being subjected to, or why, or what the eventual consequences for their lives would be. The actual number of those treated in this way is not known but was probably in the region of 500. After this, however, nothing much more happened to them, unless they fell foul of the regime for some other reason. A substantial number of African-Germans, indeed, managed to make a living for themselves in circuses and fairgrounds, or as extras in German movies set in the African colonies. The effects of their sterilization, physical and psychological, would remain with them for the rest of their lives.47


At the same time as they pursued these racial minorities, the Nazis also launched an increasingly intensive persecution of a much larger group of Germans. Homosexual behaviour among men, though not among women, had long been outlawed in Germany, as in most other European countries. Paragraph 175 of the Reich Criminal Code prescribed imprisonment for any man who indulged in ‘activity similar to sexual intercourse’ with another man. In other words, to secure a conviction it was necessary to show that penetration had occurred. This restrictive definition was difficult to prove and allowed many other kinds of homosexual sex to exist unpunished. Homosexual culture flourished in the free-and-easy atmosphere of Berlin and one or two other great cities in the Weimar Republic, so much so that it formed something of a magnet for homosexuals from other, more repressive countries, the most famous of them being, perhaps, the British writer Christopher Isherwood. Still, on coming to power, the Nazis were not really doing much more than enforcing the law when they raided well-known homosexual bars and meeting-places in Berlin and clamped down on the movement to abolish Paragraph 175, though the violence that accompanied these actions could certainly not be justified by any existing legal code.48

For the Nazis, homosexuals were degenerate, effeminate and perverted: they were undermining the strength of the Aryan race by refusing to have children, and they were subverting the masculine idea which so much of Nazi politics propagated. For Heinrich Himmler, whose narrow-minded bourgeois upbringing had imbued him with more than the usual social prejudices in this area, homosexuality was a ‘symptom of dying races’; it caused ‘every achievement, every attempt to achieve things in a state, to collapse’. There were millions of homosexuals in the Weimar Republic, he told SS officers in 1937, so it was no wonder that it was weak, chaotic and incapable of restoring Germany to its proper place in the world. Himmler’s pathological fear of homosexuality derived further strength from his belief that only tightly knit groups of Aryan men were fit to rule Germany and the world. Bound by close ties of comradeship, living together in barracks and camps, and spending most of their time in their own company rather than that of the opposite sex, they could all too easily fall prey to sexual urges from each other, as homoeroticism crossed the fatal boundary into homosexuality. Himmler was not only inclined to lecture the SS on the dangers of male homosexuality, he also wanted to impose the severest sanctions on any officer or man found guilty of indulging in it, all the way up to the death penalty.49

By contrast, the Nazis paid little attention to female homosexuality. In Germany, as in most other European countries, it was not against the law, and no reference was made to it in the Criminal Code. None the less, in Nazi Germany lesbians were still likely to be arrested and placed in concentration camps if they overstepped the mark in the eyes of the authorities. Prosecutions were brought before the courts under Paragraph 176 of the Criminal Code, which outlawed the sexual exploitation of subordinates by superiors in organizations like the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls. In addition, because of their unconventional lifestyle and frequent refusal to undertake what the regime regarded as women’s principal natural obligation to the race, namely to have children, lesbians were also in some cases classified as asocial. Marrying gay men as a cover (for both partners), an increasingly common practice in these circles after 1933, did not necessarily help, since the fact that such couples rarely had children also attracted the hostile scrutiny of the authorities. Lesbian clubs and bars were closed down by the police in 1933 and it was clear there was no chance of their being revived. Yet on the whole there was no systematic persecution of lesbians like there was of homosexual men. Lesbian society continued to function, especially in big cities like Berlin, though behind closed doors. Given the Nazi view of women as essentially passive and subordinate, it was not really seen as much of a threat.50

Male homosexuality on the other hand received a great deal of alarmed attention, and not just from the obsessive Heinrich Himmler. SS publications sometimes echoed Himmler’s view that what was needed was the ‘eradication of the degenerate for the purposes of maintaining the purity of the race’. But this had its limits. Medical and scientific opinion certainly treated homosexuality as a perversion. Yet as with other kinds of deviance, it tended to distinguish between a hard core of incorrigibles, which Himmler himself reckoned at about 2 per cent of the general homosexual population, or some 40,000 men, and the rest, who could be cured of their perversion by re-education. Since this was in his view best carried out in concentration camps, it was bound to consist mainly of harsh punishments, conceived of as a deterrent to further homosexual activity, a position not very different from that taken by the courts. And it was to the courts that Himmler initially had to leave the subject; for in 1933 the SS was still a relatively small organization, almost completely overshadowed by the far larger and very different SA. Led by Ernst Röhm, whose homosexuality was an open secret, the brownshirts took no action at all against homosexuals within their own ranks. Not only Röhm’s enemies, the Social Democrats, but also his rivals within the Nazi movement itself brought up his homosexuality, and that of some other leading brownshirts, as an issue on a number of occasions, notably on Röhm’s recall to the leadership of the stormtroopers at the beginning of 1931. Yet Hitler dismissed such concerns. The SA was, he said, ‘not a moral institution for the education of nice young girls, but a band of rough fighters’. The private life of its leaders and members was their own concern unless it ‘seriously contravened the basic tenets of National Socialism’. Meanwhile, anyone who attacked Röhm and his comrades for their sexuality would be expelled from the movement. This did not stop debate, either within the Party or without, over Röhm’s sexuality. But as long as Hitler considered the SA chief indispensable, it had no practical effect.51

All this changed dramatically on 30 June 1934 when Hitler struck at the SA leadership and used the homosexuality of Röhm and other figures murdered on his orders, notably Edmund Heines, to gain understanding for his actions. This gave Himmler his chance. Addressing leading members of the SS, he claimed that Röhm had intended to establish a homosexual dictatorship and bring the country to ruin, a view also expressed by Alfred Rosenberg. Homosexuality would now lead to immediate exclusion from the movement. A wave of homophobia swept across the Nazi Party and its affiliated organizations. Police forces all over Germany carried out a fresh series of raids on homosexuals and their meeting-places. Forty-eight men with previous convictions for pederasty were rearrested and sent to the concentration camp at Dachau. In December 1934, 2,000 men were reported to have been arrested in a series of police raids on homosexual bars and clubs. A new department was created within the Gestapo after the Röhm action, and given the task of compiling a card-index of homosexuals, above all within the Party. Here was another area where unsolicited denunciations began to play a role, since the behaviour in question mostly took place in private, behind closed doors. By the middle of 1935 a whole series of prosecutions of Hitler Youth leaders under Paragraph 175 was under way. Dozens of them were hauled off secretly to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin for interrogation. Once confessions had been extracted, a good number of them were sent to concentration camps for an indefinite period of time. Himmler also used the new climate to get rid of awkward opponents, such as the Silesian Regional Party Leader Helmut Brückner, who had complained of the numerous murders carried out by the SS officer Udo von Woyrsch in his area in the course of the Röhm purge. Himmler managed to get Brückner arrested for gross indecency with an army officer, sacked from his office and sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment. Brückner’s protestations that nobody had bothered about his bisexuality at the time he had had the relationship, before 30 June 1934, went unheard.52

Brückner was sentenced, as had become all too common in the legal practice of the Third Reich, retroactively, under a new Law passed on 28 June 1935. It amended Paragraph 175, providing harsher punishments for homosexual behaviour and redefining the latter in far vaguer terms than before, as an ‘unnatural sexual act’ (Unzucht). The requirement to prove that penetration had taken place was dropped. In February 1937, Himmler devoted a lengthy speech to the subject, telling SS leaders that any homosexuals found in the organization would henceforth be arrested, tried and sentenced, sent on their release to a concentration camp and there ‘shot while trying to escape’.53 Police forces all over Germany received fresh instructions on how to recruit informers in places frequented by homosexuals, while efforts to compile dossiers on all possible suspects were redoubled. It was not surprising that convictions under the Criminal Code now rocketed. In the years 1933 to 1935, nearly 4,000 men were convicted under Paragraph 175 in its unamended and amended forms; in the years 1936 to 1938, however, the number reached more than 22,000. The raids and arrests were co-ordinated from 1 October 1936 by a new Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion, building on the Gestapo department created to deal with the same area in the wake of the Röhm purge, which gave fresh impetus to the wave of persecutions.

Altogether under the Third Reich, no fewer than 50,000 men were arrested under Paragraph 175, nearly half of them in 1937-9; some two-thirds of them were convicted and sent to prison. These figures need to be seen in the perspective of the general criminalization of homosexuality in advanced industrial societies until the last third or quarter of the twentieth century, however. They appear less striking when compared with the fact that nearly 100,000 men were tried for violations of Paragraph 175 of the Criminal Code in West Germany in the twelve years from 1953 to 1965, of whom roughly a half were convicted.54 It was not until Paragraph 175 was amended in 1959 and again in 1965 that homosexual acts between consenting adult males in private were effectively legalized in West Germany; the fact that homosexuals imprisoned during the Third Reich were condemned by the regular courts under a regular paragraph of the Criminal Code has since then proved a major obstacle to their receiving recognition of their sufferings.55 These figures were also far from exceptional by international standards, though the peak of prosecutions in 1937-9 perhaps was. In Britain, gross indecency between adult males had been punishable since the nineteenth century by two years’ imprisonment; in this sense, the 1935 German amendment to Paragraph 175 was doing little more than catching up with the legal position across the North Sea. In the early 1950s around 1,000 cases of sodomy and bestiality were filed by the police in England and Wales every year, and 2,500 cases of gross indecency. These figures marked a dramatic increase over the statistics for the 1930s, when there had been fewer than 500 a cases a year of both offences combined - a jump largely attributable to the appointment of rabidly homophobic senior law enforcement officials in the intervening years.56

Yet even at this stage there was still at least one major difference between Nazi Germany and other modern states in the persecution of gay men. For on their release from prison, a substantial minority of offenders against the German Law were immediately rearrested by the Gestapo or the SS and taken straight to a concentration camp, a practice that became markedly more common from 1937 onwards. Altogether between 5,000 and 15,000 homosexuals were imprisoned in the camps over the whole period from 1933 to 1945.57 Here they were distinguished by a pink triangle sewn onto their camp uniform, identifying them as homosexuals in contrast to political prisoners (red), asocials (black), criminals (green) and so on. Homosexuals were well down the hierarchy of prisoners, subjected to brutal and contemptuous treatment by the guards, their life-span significantly shorter than that of most other categories. One investigation has reached the conclusion that their death-rate in the camps was around 50 per cent over the whole period of the Third Reich, compared to about 40 per cent for politicals and 35 per cent for Jehovah’s Witnesses. That would put the total number who died in the camps at between 2,500 and 7,500 all told.58 There was no parallel to this deliberately murderous policy in other countries, however severe discrimination may have been, or however free homophobes were to beat up homosexuals without fear of reprisal.

For those who escaped death, the alternative was sometimes hardly more palatable. A significant number of homosexuals were also subject to ‘voluntary’ castration to ‘cure’ them of their ‘degeneracy’. The legally dubious nature of this procedure did not prevent pressure being brought on inmates of prisons and concentration camps to have themselves castrated. Homosexuals in state prisons were sometimes told that they would be handed over to the Gestapo on their release if they refused consent, or put in security confinement. Some 174 men were ‘voluntarily’ castrated in state penal institutions as a result up to 1939. The number castrated in the camps is likely to have been considerably higher and probably exceeded 2,000.59 The scale of these operations put those carried out in other countries into the shade, and compulsory castration was in any case only carried out in Finland and a few states in the USA. In addition, the German Habitual Criminals Law of 24 November 1933 allowed sex offenders of all kinds to be castrated, even against their will, as advocated by leading criminologists and penal experts. Two serious sex offences were needed for this, and up to the end of 1939 just over 2,000 men had been subjected to this punishment.60 They included not only rapists and paedophiles, but also a large number of exhibitionists, who may have been offensive and irritating to the public but posed little direct physical threat to anyone. Many first-time offenders were castrated immediately and given no chance to mend their ways. The physical after-effects of the operation included constant pain, loss of body hair and growth of breasts, tiredness and obesity. To add to all this, the operation did not necessarily eliminate sexual desire. Homosexuals were not formally allowed to be castrated against their will, but for a good number of them there was in effect very little choice: the alternative to castration was perpetual confinement and probable death in a concentration camp.61 The persecution of homosexuals under the Third Reich probably only directly affected a fraction of Germany’s gay men; but the knowledge of what might happen to them if they were denounced, arrested and convicted must have struck fear into them all.62

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