Though old German laws against homosexuality–most notoriously Paragraph 175 of the German penal code–persisted through the Weimar republic, the 1920s were a time when German homosexuals not only successfully pressed for greater freedom, but also made Germany, Berlin particularly, an attractive destination for gays and lesbians from all over Europe. Gays and lesbians had their own public clubs, publications, and though the laws proscribing their sexuality remained on the books, enforcement was not a priority in major cities.
Among Germans on the political right, this increasing tolerance of homosexuality signified the weakness and decadence of the Weimar republic and of democracy in general. For the Nazis, it signified something more. To them, homosexuality, particularly male homosexuality, weakened the German race, feminizing men, stunting the German birth rate, and reducing the Aryan male’s drive to succeed in the racial struggle.
When the Nazis backed their way into power in 1933, they directed the police to vigorously enforce laws against homosexuality. Gay clubs were disbanded. Gay publications were banned. Homosexuals, particularly male ones, were arrested and sent into “protective custody”. There they were singled out for harsh treatment, either because their overseers hoped to “cure” their homosexuality through humiliation and torture, or because it amused them to work their gay prisoners to death.
In 1935, the Nazis were no longer content with enforcing extant laws on homosexuality, so they designed their own (from the U.S. Holocaust Museum):
On June 28, 1935, the Ministry of Justice revised Paragraph 175. The revisions provided a legal basis for extending Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Ministry officials expanded the category of “criminally indecent activities between men” to include any act that could be construed as homosexual. The courts later decided that even intent or thought sufficed. On October 26, 1936, Himmler formed within the Security Police the Reich Central Office for Combating Abortion and Homosexuality. Josef Meisinger, executed in 1947 for his brutality in occupied Poland, led the new office. The police had powers to hold in protective custody or preventive arrest those deemed dangerous to Germany’s moral fiber, jailing indefinitely–without trial–anyone they chose. In addition, homosexual prisoners just released from jail were immediately re-arrested and sent to concentration camps if the police thought it likely that they would continue to engage in homosexual acts.
For gay men, Germany during the 1930s was an increasingly deadly environment. For lesbians, the situation was oppressive, but not as likely to become violent. While gay men were considered a threat to the fecundity and fighting spirit of Germany, lesbians were not. The exact logic of this, like the logic of many Nazi notions, is bewildering, but basically the Nazis regarded gay women as less threatening because they saw women in general as less important socially and politically. In the early years on Nazi rule, women were purged from the professions and pushed to stay at home and be mothers. Because women were always passive sexually–according to Nazi teachings–lesbianism was no barrier to being a good wife and mother.
This is not to say lesbians avoided persecution. Many lesbians did end up in concentration camps, but their lesbianism was usually secondary to other factors in their incarceration–Jewishness, failure to show enthusiasm for the regime, and/or connections to opposition groups. Unlike gay men, lesbians were not required to wear the pink triangle in the camps and were not singled out for harsher treatment on the basis of their sexuality. Lesbians who avoided the camps had to deal with the realities of economic discrimination against women in the Third Reich, which could impose serious financial hardships on single women who could no longer hope to rise into the professional class. Marriages of convenience were common, often to gay men who hoped to avoid Nazi imprisonment.
To read more about this, visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s website. Particularly interesting is their symposium on Nazi persecution of homosexuals. (Annoyingly, it’s available only in RealAudio. Kids, ask your parents.)