Remembering the Persecution of Homosexuals During the Nazi and Fascist Regimes

Luca De Cristofaro

Disclaimer: The intended purpose of the following article is to raise awareness of the systematic persecution and execution of homosexuals during WWII. It is not the intention of the author or the organization to diminish the pain of other social groups affected by the Holocaust. 

January 27th is the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day dedicated to commemorating all the social groups that were murdered, persecuted, and stripped of any type of dignity. The group that was most notably targeted was the Jewish community – which lost two-thirds of its population- with an estimated death toll of 6 million people. Other targeted groups included Roma people, political opponents, people with disabilities, and homosexuals, amongst others. The death toll of the aforementioned groups combined is 11 million

In the last few decades, more attention has been given to the other social groups that were deported to concentration camps and then murdered. One particular group coined a new word to express the persecution and systematic extermination of its community during the Holocaust, the word is “Homocaust”. The expression is a combination of the terms “homosexual” and “holocaust”, and its use is sometimes controversial. Male homosexuals were the main target as sexual acts between two men were considered unlawful and depraved. Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code clearly stated that acts of “unnatural indecency” between men are grounds for imprisonment. What is peculiar about Paragraph 175 is that it came into force following the German Reunification in 1871. This means that within Germany, hostility against sexual minorities was not a new trend however, in 1935 Hitler decided to improve paragraph 175, extending the grounds for imprisonment.

Although there were discussions about the introduction of a law openly condemning homosexuality or homosexual acts in Italy, the decision was made to not include any reference to homosexuality in the “Codice Rocco” (the Italian Criminal Code). Having a law clearly referencing homosexuality meant acknowledging the existence of homosexuals in Italy. When deliberating for the exclusion of any clause condemning homosexual acts, the commission in charge of the redaction of the Codice Rocco stated that “with luck and pride”, homosexuality was not common enough to justify the existence of such a law. Despite the lack of legislation, homosexuality was not condoned in Italy, but homosexuals were considered to be “instigators of public indecency”, and many were incarcerated for it.

Just like other unwanted and undesired groups, homosexuals were sent to concentration camps. In the camps, the inmates had different patches that would categorize them. Male homosexuals were forced to wear a pink badge in the shape of a triangle. Lesbians were categorized as “asocial” and had to wear black badges. Further, pseudo-scientific experiments were carried out at the expense of homosexuals. The majority of these experiments were psychological and hormonal tests, designed to attempt to find a cure for homosexuality.  

The remembrance of this specific category is very different when exploring the two main countries responsible for the Holocaust. An important element to keep in mind is that homosexuality was not decriminalized at the end of the third Reich, nor ten years later, nor twenty. Paragraph 175 was reformed in Western Germany in 1969, but it was only voided after the reunification of East and West Germany in 1994. After 1945, various “communities of memory” were involved in the ever-growing process of commemorating a social memory. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, queer movements in Germany started reclaiming their space in history. Only in the ‘90s did the Bundestag decide to recognise and invest in the creation of monuments remembering this forgotten group.

In Germany, from Frankfurt to Berlin, many visible monuments to remember the persecution of homosexuals during the Nazi regime can be found. However, the most well-known monument is in the country’s capital, Berlin, in Tiergarten park.

Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, Source: Artforum.com

The memorial is a large, cubic-shaped, and imposing monument made of concrete. On one side, there is a small window that allows visitors to see a clip of a gay couple forever locked in a kiss. The contrast between the imposing geometrical structure and the intimate and tender film that can be seen on the inside is what makes this memorial so unique and well-thought-out. According to the creators of the monument, Elmgreen and Dragset, the memorial symbolizes the “character of a living organism subject to dynamic change rather than a static and final statement”. 

In Frankfurt, another important monument dedicated to the remembrance of homosexuals persecuted during the Nazi regime can be found: the Frankfurter Engel (Angel of Frankfurt). This statue was the first memorial of its kind and is situated in the center of Klaus Mann’s square. 

Frankfurter Engel, Source: Frankfuter-Engel.de

On the southern side of the Alps in Italy, the remembrance of the persecution of homosexuals is slightly different than in Germany. As previously mentioned, in Italy there was no law explicitly condemning homosexuality, however, three measures were taken. The first measure was a public warning, demanding a stop to the unlawful acts, otherwise, serious measures would be taken. The second measure was the admonition, which was similar to a house arrest, with a duration of up to two years. The third measure was confinement, which was internal exile. Usually, homosexuals were exiled to the Tremiti Islands. 

Despite the active participation of the fascist regime in the persecution of homosexuals, in Italy, the remembrance of these persecuted homosexuals is not particularly honored. The memorials for the persecutions are few and far between and the ones that do exist are not as elaborate as their German counterparts. In some cities like Bologna and Trieste, plaques with pink triangles have been installed either in cobblestone or outside institutional offices.

Arcigay is the main organization in Italy that is, and has been, fighting to shed light on the “homocaust”. The realization of the commemorative plaques is the result of their active advocacy with political institutions over the years

Plaque in memory of homosexuals persecuted during the nazifascist regime, Source: Arcigay Trieste

Remembering the horrors of the Holocaust, in all of its facets, is a moral imperative and civic duty that must be carried out whether through an imposing monument, a plaque, or an online article.

The difference in remembering the persecution of homosexuals during the Nazi and Fascist regimes raises the following questions:

  • Why does Italy not have a standardized system of remembrance of homosexuals persecuted during the fascist regime? 
  • How did the two totalitarian regimes shape the future societal acceptance of sexual and gender minorities? 
  • How can more visible monuments influence the commemoration of such persecution?
“Meditate che questo è stato:
Vi comando queste parole.
Scolpitele nel vostro cuore
Stando in casa andando per via,
Coricandovi alzandovi;
Ripetetele ai vostri figli.”
“Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them into your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children.”

Primo Levi


Suggested Readings

Accolla, Dario, “Omocausto: il passato rischia di tornare. E non troppo lontano da qui”, Il Fatto Quotidiano, 27 Jan. 2021.

Oettler, Anika, “The Berlin Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under the National Socialist Regime: Ambivalent Responses to Homosexual Visibility.” Memory Studies, 2019.

Schlagdenhauffen, Régis, La commémoration des victimes homosexuelles du nazisme: Berlin, Paris, Amsterda, Sociologie. Université de Strasbourg, 2009.

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