A Modern Sacred Band? Homosexuality in Nazi Germany

Homosexuality was illegal in Nazi Germany. However, history paints a far more nuanced picture of same-sex relations in the Third Reich.

Apr 30, 2024By Ryan Stalker, BA in History & Political Science

homosexuality nazi germany


Throughout the history of warfare, perhaps no theme has remained as constant as the semi-mythical bond shared between brothers in arms. From the heavily armored hoplite of ancient Greece to the defenders of Ukraine, the shared hardships of military life have forged an unparalleled bond among warriors.


But the nature of that bond has been drastically different throughout history. Relationships between comrades have been platonic and, on occasion, romantic.


But how did those relationships work in one of the most homophobic societies—Adolf Hitler’s Germany—of the 20th century?


This article will examine the complex history of same-sex relations in 20th-century Germany until the end of World War II and how various political and cultural groups viewed homosexuality.


The Backdrop: Sexuality in the Imperial German Military 

ww1 french anti german propaganda
A French propaganda postcard depicting the Kaiser as a cross-dresser. The homosexuality of the officer corps was the source of several scandals in the decades leading up to the war. Source: LGBTQ Nation

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By the end of the First World War, the world that had started the conflict was gone. It had been destroyed in revolutions that toppled empires and shook societies to their very core.


When the conflict began, masculinity was inextricably linked with soldierly stoicism, bravery, and moral cleanliness. This ideal picture of the German soldier was rooted in “Prussian discipline,” which called for order, diligence, emotional self-control, and duty to one’s nation.


The soldier who did his duty, controlled his emotions, and served his nation was the highest aspiration for a German of the early 20th century.


But this ideal was shattered by storms of lead and clouds of gas.


Many soldiers could not cope with the stresses of modern war; as a result, they looked for an outlet, a way to escape the carnage and industrial-scale slaughter that surrounded them.


For many, this escape came in relationships with local women or a trip to the military-organized brothel.


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A British army propaganda poster trying to warn its troops about the dangers of venereal disease in army brothels 1916. Source: Buzzfeed


For others, this release came from their comrades. This escape could be something as simple as playing cards or as “scandalous” as an affair.


One officer, writing to sexologist Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, recounted his experiences during the war:


“One day, there came an ensign from the cadet corps, Count L., with whom I immediately fell in love… He returned my love entirely. Soon, we became inseparable friends, and the major and other older officers rejoiced at the splendid relationship which had grown up between superior and subordinate… When we didn’t go out of an evening, we dismissed the servants and sat for a long time arm in arm, in close embrace, saying many tender and lovely things to each other… For two whole months we enjoyed our love [and] happiness together.”

(Cited from Jason Crouthamel’s excellent work An Intimate History of the Front: Masculinity, Sexuality, and German Soldiers in the First World War)


And as the guns fell silent and the soldiers returned home to a new Germany, they brought with them a very new view of masculine identity.


Sexuality in the Weimar Republic

magnus hirschfeld sexologist
Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a leading German sexologist and gay rights advocate during Weimar, n.d. Source: Scientific American


Weimar has sometimes been portrayed as a veritable paradise for LGBTQ individuals. This generalization, however, misses the mark.


Despite being the home of the modern world’s first homosexual rights movement, same-sex relations remained illegal under Paragraph 175 of the criminal code, at least for men. Additionally, most Germans viewed the LGBTQ minority with disdain, only tacitly approving sexual freedom if it was confined to the bedroom.


Nonetheless, Weimar’s “relative” openness allowed for a cultural debate on the “morality” of homosexuality across the political divide.


One side of the spectrum was best represented by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a sexologist and the founder of Berlin’s Institute for the Science of Sexuality in 1919. Hirschfeld argued that homosexual men embodied a “third sex” that combined masculinity and femininity. Many homosexual veterans embraced his concept, arguing that their ability to maintain both a “hard” masculine side and a “soft” feminine side made them the ideal comrade.


Not everyone shared Hirschfeld’s views, of course, including other LGBTQ activists. Adolf Brand began publishing Der Eigene (“The Own”) in 1896. Brand agreed with Hirschfeld’s belief that homosexuality should be decriminalized and society should be more tolerant.


Despite their vision of a better future for homosexual men, Brand vehemently opposed Hirschfeld’s claim that homosexual men were more effeminate than straight men. Brand argued homosexual men were essentially bisexual, equally capable of loving both men and women.


adolf brand 1924
Adolf Brand in a 1924 engraving. Source: Torpedo the Ark


Brand and his followers strongly advocated a “return to the Greek ideal” as the mainstay of same-sex relationships. Pederasty—which literally translates as “love of boys”—was a practice in ancient Greece where a young boy (at or over the age of 16) would be paired with an older man who would educate them on all matters.


These lessons could range from philosophical debates, how to hunt, perform a trade, conduct themselves as a citizen, and engage in sexual activity. To Brand and his followers, these intergenerational relationships would help create a more cohesive and unified society.


Another strand of thought was popularized by Major Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing, the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung. Röhm’s conception of homosexuality can best be described as a hyper-masculine bond between brothers in arms. One way to express that bond was through sex.


Röhm vehemently rejected Hirschfeld’s view that homosexual men were effeminate. To him, homosexual men who had fought in the trenches of the Great War had learned the one universal truth of mankind: “only the real, the true, the masculine [ideal] held its value.”


ernst rohm sa brownshirt
Ernst Röhm, the openly gay leader of the Sturmabteilung, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary organization, 1933. Source: IMDB


As Nazism transformed from a Bavarian fringe movement to a national political juggernaut in the late 1920s and early 1930s, political opponents on all sides attacked Röhm for his sexuality.


The veteran defended himself, viciously attacking the upholders of the traditional status quo. As he wrote in his memoirs, published during the Nazi’s rise to power:


“Nothing is more phony than the so-called morality of society. The term shelters every kind of loose conduct. I want to state straight away that I am no goody-goody and I do not wish to be considered as such, and neither am I ‘morally upright,’ for in my experience the morals of the morally upright are not so far removed from looseness.”


With his power as the undisputed leader of the SA, Röhm went about creating an organization that mirrored his image. The young, ultra-nationalistic recruits of the brownshirts were taught that homosocial relations were the bedrock of society. These relations often manifested in violence, sport, or training—all of which had a high degree of homoeroticism and male closeness.


hitler youth boxing
Shared physical activity was a favorite tact of the Hitlerite regime to build a sense of community. Röhm’s SA took this to extremes, 1937. Source: British Pathé


Hitler and the other Nazi elites tolerated Röhm and the SA for as long as they were useful. After Hitler became Chancellor, however, Röhm continued clamoring for a violent national revolution in which his brownshirts, the pinnacle of masculinity and Germanic society, would reign.


Röhm refused to back down throughout 1933 and into early 1934, preventing Hitler from reaching a compromise with the conservative officer’s corps that controlled the Reichswehr.


After much prodding by Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS, and President of the Reichstag Hermann Goering, Hitler infamously purged the SA during the Night of the Long Knives in June 1934.


Röhm’s homosexuality, long-known to the elites of the NSDAP, was publicly revealed in the aftermath to partially justify the slaughter of the “ludicrous apes” of the SA.


However, the death of Röhm and the dismantling of the SA was just the beginning of Nazism’s odd relationship with homosexuality.


A Political Issue: Homosexuality vs. Lesbianism 

german nightclub berlin nazi police
Police guarding the Eldorado nightclub in Berlin, 1933. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


Shortly after the Nazi seizure of power, they began clamping down on the gay rights movement that had sprung up in Weimar. Newspapers, journals, and publishing houses were closed. Organizations (such as Hirschfeld’s Institute for the Sexual Sciences) were dissolved, and their property was seized by the state.


The police (augmented by the regime’s political police, the infamous Gestapo) began standing watch at nightclubs, bars, and other gathering places frequented by the LGBTQ community.


All levels of government vehemently enforced paragraph 175. Local police forces had kept a list of men they believed to be engaging in same-sex relations; by order of the Party, these lists were sent to the Gestapo. Men were detained and questioned. Some were beaten; others were sent to concentration camps.


At the camps, homosexual prisoners (identified by a pink triangle) were abused by their fellow prisoners and the guards.


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Wilhelm Frick, Reich Minister of the Interior from 1933-1943 and the Reichsprotektor (Governor) of Bohemia and Moravia from 1943 until the end of the war, 1933. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


While lesbianism was forbidden, it was not technically illegal. No legislation (like Paragraph 175) outlawed same-sex relations between women. So why did the Nazis seemingly crack down on homosexuality and only pursue lesbians half-heartedly?


This is because Nazi ideology believed that Germanic men were the future of their state (and race’s) survival. To survive, their race needed, in their eyes, Lebensraum (living space). The only way to acquire land was by force. This meant war.


If there was to be another major contest of arms (as the Nazis always wished there to be), then the state couldn’t risk their men being unprepared for war. They could not allow them to become “emasculated” through homosexuality.


Wilhelm Frick, the Reich Minister for the Interior, expressed this sentiment quite clearly when he said, “men practicing unnatural lechery between men must be persecuted with utmost severity. Such vices will lead to the disintegration of the German people.”


Homosexuality was, in the Nazi psyche, a weakness that, if left unchecked, could cause the ultimate destruction of the Aryan Race.


Homoerotic Comradeship in Hitler’s Germany

nazi propaganda poster aryan boys
A poster promoting the comradery among German youth. The caption reads, “We build body and soul,” mid-1930s. Source: Calvin University


Perhaps paradoxically, despite the Party’s fear of homosexuality, homoerotic worship of the male body remained a constant in Nazi media. The fit, young, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan was, in the eyes of the Nazis, the future of Western civilization. The ideal German everyone should aspire to be.


Good German boys, whether as members of the Hitler Youth, laborers in the Reich Forestry Service, or as soldiers in the Wehrmacht, were expected to bond with their comrades


But what was acceptable behavior?


The matter was concerning enough that, during the Second World War:


“Medical personnel (in the Wehrmacht) received detailed instructions for preventing homosexual acts from taking place in communal quarters at the front; officers, for their part, were instructed to keep an eye out for sexual horseplay, nude swimming, and ‘an overheated sexual atmosphere.’”


But what constituted “an overheated sexual atmosphere”? The regulations continued explaining that “sexual jokes, songs, and stories [are an] integral part of comradely bonding.” But at no point should this “degenerate into “sexual aberrations.”


The vagueness of the directive left much room for commanders to interpret what was merely comradery or sexual deviance. But what happened when soldiers were found engaging in sexual deviance?


Sexual Deviance and Forgiveness?

josef thorak comradeship paris exhibition nazism
Josef Thorak’s Comradeship, presented at the Paris World Exhibition in 1937. Source: J. Willard Marriot Digital Library


It’s impossible to know the experiences of most German soldiers during the Second World War. Anywhere from 3.4 to 3.8 million German soldiers were killed or missing by the end of hostilities. Many millions of survivors never talked about their experiences. Plus, engaging in sexual activities with their comrades was, at the time, illegal. Many men may have also been ashamed of their actions. Nonetheless, the few German military documents investigating §175 violations provide valuable insight into this fascinating topic.


In early 1940, two SS recruits—aged 17 and 18—were found lying naked in bed together. At their court-martial, the SS tribunal found that “lying side by side in a bed does not in itself constitute an indecent act in the sense of the criminal code.” The men went unpunished, and the investigation was immediately closed.


Rather than being convicted in a show trial before the People’s Court (pictured here), the recruits went unpunished, 1944. Source: Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County


Another SS man, a sergeant, was a guard at SS headquarters in Berlin. One evening in March 1941, the sergeant invited his male lover to join him on duty. During the night, the two stopped the elevator between the floors and had sex in the confines of SS headquarters. Despite investigating the incident, the sergeant had friends in high places. The investigation was closed when the sergeant was promoted later that year.


In early 1945, a Wehrmacht officer was convicted of violating §175 and executed—one of the few instances in which soldiers tried for “immoral acts” were executed. But the court martial did not sentence the officer to death for sleeping with his men. He was executed because he used his rank to force himself on his men; the abuse of his station, not his sexuality, was the impetus behind his fate.


The previous year, in late 1944, an SS soldier, Hans G., was sentenced to death for “five completed and two attempted homosexual acts.”


felix steiner ww2 german waffen ss general
Major General Felix Steiner, the commander of the Third SS-Panzer Corps, wrote directly to Heinrich Himmler to appeal for mercy on behalf of Hans G., 1944. Source: World War II in Color


Despite the initial sentence, the commander of the Third SS-Panzer Corps, Lieutenant General Felix Steiner, wrote a letter of appeal to Heinrich Himmler:


“I do not believe his action can be judged to be the consequence of a sick or depraved disposition, because he has never before come under suspicion of similar offenses or a similar disposition. Rather, this really does seem to be an example of sexual deprivation… In my opinion we have here a strong psychic and erotic aberration that has been formed by the conditions of war. The accused is certainly no national parasite, since he has continuously been in action of the most dangerous kind for his country.”


The outcome of the case is ultimately unknown. Nonetheless, in Steiner’s letter, he claims that Hans is not an “effeminate” homosexual because “he has continuously been in action of the most dangerous kind for his country.”


He was, therefore, not the person who would bring about “the disintegration of the German people,” as Frick put it a decade and a half earlier. He was a good German who deserved to redeem himself through combat.


Conclusion: The Complicated Case of Homosexuality in Nazi Germany

ww1 ww2 german comrade propaganda poster
A propaganda poster praising comradeship during the First World War disseminated by Goebbels shortly after he became Minister of Propaganda, 1933. Source: Calvin University


Ideas of culture, sexuality, and identity are never easy to pin down, especially in a hyper-masculine, authoritarian, and destructive society like Nazi Germany, where being outed as a homosexual or lesbian could carry draconian punishment.


Nonetheless, the rather odd politicization of homosexuality in Nazism provides another lens through which to view one of the most destructive societies the world has ever seen.

Author Image

By Ryan StalkerBA in History & Political ScienceRyan is a contributing writer who’s never lost his passion for history. Especially interested in the intersection of conflict and identity, Ryan has also worked as a scriptwriter for various political, history, and true crime YouTube channels. He holds BAs in History and Political Science from Oakland University. In his spare time, Ryan enjoys playing video games, reading mythology, and watching all the documentaries he can get his hands on.