Why Gay History?
A talk given by Prof. George L. Mosse
Madison, Wisconsin-March 30, 1996
I do not want to talk in abstractions today, but rather use a concrete example to illustrate why the study of Gay history can help us not only to understand our past but also point to the future, to the nature of the obstacles which have to be overcome on the road to equality, not just ill will, stupidity, homophobia - such words must be given substance, a proper dimension to be meaningful, they must be situated within their context. Only in this way can we know what obstacles have to be overcome.
It was in the twentieth century that the repression and persecution of homosexuals reached it's most virulent form. My concrete and relevant example will be the most severe persecution of homosexuals in modern times, namely that of the National Socialists in Germany. I am not concerned here with how many died or with Gay life ( such as there was) under the Nazis, but rather with the context of persecution- it is this that seems important in the long run. And though after 1933 Gays were actively persecuted and condemned to death unless they could prove that they had mended their ways, the Nazis here as elsewhere invented nothing new, but merely took the hopes and fears of society and brought them to their extreme boiling point. The very success of National Socialism was that it worked in familiar contexts, used already present traditions, and worked with already existing prejudices.
When we look at Gay persecution, it seems of little importance that homosexuals provided less the 1% of the population of Concentration Camps, but rather that we still face problems endemic to modern society which the Nazis could exploit so well. The bottom line of the Nazi persecution is not just what it can tell us about National Socialism, but about the society in which the persecution was set, and which in its essentials is still with us today.
At the time, and until relatively recently, the Nazis were regarded as opponents of bourgeois society, their leader supposedly a working class house painter- thugs without any education, indulging in objectionable behavior. And indeed their speeches and writings did attack the fat, rich and cowardly bourgeoisie. In Hitler's speeches bourgeois meant indecision, whimpiness, and unsoldierly, unmanly behavior. Nothing in these tirades touched on bourgeois respectability, an image the Nazis were keen to project. Respectability, meaning good manners, behavior, normative sexuality and gender division, was the mirror through which society saw and defined itself. All this is thoroughly documented through anti-pornography and prostitution legislation, legislation against all nudism that was implemented almost immediately after the Nazis attained power.
But what has this to do with our own fate?
If one looks at all those whom the Nazis persecuted an important pattern emerges. Les us take as an example a proposed law of 1943 called the "Law for the treatment of those unable to sustain a community." Note the basic accusation: Who are they? Those who refuse to work, vagrants, the permanently dissatisfied, the disabled, beggars, the mentally impaired and homosexuals. Jews and Gypsies must be added to that list. What do all of these have in common?
They represent the exact opposite of the ideals society is supposed to stand for: the work ethic, being settled, moderation and control over one's passions, and especially control of one's sexuality. Moreover, all these virtues are not merely inward aspects of character; most important, they leave their mark on the body and the face. It was assumed that one could at a glance distinguish between the virtuous and those without virtue; that their appearance gave them away. This is especially important for us, as the Nazis regarded themselves as a "male state," a Mannerstaat, and the male body became an all present symbol of the regime. Not any male body, but one corresponding to an ideal of male beauty which had become normative and whose origins lay in a Greek ideal as seen through the eighteenth-century German art historian Winckelmann; a male body that is harmonious, a vision of quiet strength with no surplus fat or sudden motions. This male body mirrored the ideals of society: it reconciled order with dynamic tension and moderation, an image of harmony in a world that always seemed at the brink of chaos.
Those who could not sustain a community are the exact opposite of the ideal: disproportionate, their passions out of control, no moderation, always in motion. Moreover, all such outsiders look essentially alike. Caricatures are important here, the stereotypes they picture determine to a large degree how insiders and outsiders are viewed by society. The Nazis wanted to free society from those who had always been marginalized as sick and unmanly.
Though Gays were said to be unable to sustain a community, they nonetheless were accused of forming a community among themselves. This community was, once again, the very opposite of the norm, the foil of a true state: it worked not in the open but by conspiracy, it did not fight openly like men, but instead, subverted and undermined. In short, Gays were a menace not just because of their illness which like all serious illnesses could be infective, but because they formed a hidden state within the state, and so endangered the nation. The same identical accusation was leveled against the Jews; here all outsiders shared a common fate.
And Gay history confronts all of this.
Starting in the nineteenth century homosexuality was thought to be a neurotic illness (Jews also were thought to be especially susceptible to insanity). Here immoderation, excitement, bodily contortions are also shared traits of all outsiders. But what did "elimination" mean? Normative society marginalized, excluded and even imprisoned, but it did not think to exterminate whole groups of the population- surely an important difference.
What then gave National Socialism it sharp edge, its willingness to erase these outsiders, which meant completely eliminating them from society?
Racism made the difference, and though it did not seem to affect Gays directly, -most, after all, were Aryans, -it did affect them nevertheless. Racism like National Socialism did not invent anything new but worked with the already existing prejudices of society; it gave them a much more decisive focus. For in racism nothing was vague and indeterminate, all was concretized around stereotypes, familiar symbols which could be seen and touched. Every book which seeks to explain and advocate racism is first and foremost a picture book. Stereotypes, after all, came alive for National Socialism not only through sculpture or in pictures but also through the familiar human form, the so-called "Aryan looks" which were so much prized. The stereotypes of insider and outsider are opposed to each other, the superior race and the inferior races.
Where do Gays fit in here?
They play a different role than Jews or Gypsies who were clearly stigmatized as an inferior race unable to sustain community. That was not a possible classification for Gays who could after all be Aryans and belong to the superior race. Here an older medical distinction was useful, that between "real" homosexuals and those who only pretended to be homosexuals, who had become gay through being seduced in their youth. Those Gays who followed their true, inherited, bent "raised decadence to a principle" they were the sworn enemies, traitors to their race as Heinrich Himmler put it. If it is true that 10% of all Germans are Homosexuals, he continued, then the German people will die. Here as in the case of Jews and Gypsies the analogy was made to an infectious illness with deadly consequences. This was telling in an age ever more concerned with matters of health, and which had reason to fear plagues like Syphilis, Hitler's own peculiar nightmare
It was typical that Gays in occupied countries like Holland or France were not really persecuted, for it was only proper that lesser peoples were left to be destroyed from within. Thus in France known homosexual collaborators like Bonnard or Cocteau, for example were not touched.
But here a problem enters which has been considered a taboo up to now: the certain attraction which National Socialism had for some prominent Gay's. The self consciously male state, male bonding, male beauty- all this made its mark here as well. Self hatred must also be considered here. In the prospectus for a proposed Homo Monument in Berlin to those persecuted by the Nazis, it would be appropriate to mention that homosexuals could be perpetrators as well as victims. However, this is very difficult to verify or quantify. There is no reason to believe this was a widespread phenomenon. However, Der Eigene - the first homosexual journal published in Germany on a regular basis and founded in 1903- was nationalist and even racist. But Nazis closed it down nevertheless.
We should remember that throughout the modern age the outsider always wanted to become an insider and it was no different for Gay's. But here too Nazis brought out the extremes: some Gays assimilated to an overtly hostile regime which however, wanted not only to erase not all homosexuals but homosexuality itself.
It is all the more distressing that even anti-Nazis and anti-fascists treated the existence of homosexuals in a manner which did not differ at all, but was identical with the Nazis own image of Gays, The Nazi leadership was pictured as a coterie of homosexuals, a perception which was encouraged by the Nazi's self proclaimed image as a male state. Anti-fascist literature made the most of this accusation, even though some of its authors were privately ambivalent. Thus Klaus Mann who had cause to complain, wrote that " the homosexuals are the Jews of the anti-fascists." The Communists also lent strong support to denigrating and persecuting homosexuals( the Nazis after all, had depicted them as lacking respectability). Bertold Brecht made Hitler out to be a homosexual, and from Soviet Russia Maxim Gorki wrote, that "if you exterminate the homosexuals, fascism will vanish."
Such propaganda was certainly a good means to discredit the Nazis in the eyes of respectable people. But homosexuals themselves joined in this effort, and this illustrates the extent to which during these pre-war years the focus was upon the defeat of the Nazis at all costs- here the means evidently justified the ends. But in addition it can demonstrate the power and scope of the anti-Gay prejudice: Gays themselves believed in their stereotype and tried to overcome it (just, once again like the Jews). They unthinkingly joined in this anti-fascist propaganda.
The history of Gay persecution under the Nazis, thus, is not a simple tale of numbers and camps, but has much deeper roots. To be sure, many, perhaps, most gays escaped: they faked a cure which could be done even in the camps. Moreover, Gays were freed by the judiciary if not enough evidence was forthcoming. ( often gays were re-arrested on leaving the court house), for during most of the Nazi regime the judiciary functioned normally.
But above all Gays disguised their real nature, and they could do it much more successfully, then, say, the Jews, for they had ample practice in masking themselves, taking on and even championing what society regarded as normal. At every turn Gays confronted the ideals of normative society: they both were able to join if properly disguised, and at the same time were the victims of those very ideals.
Here I must repeat what I said at the beginning: The Nazi persecution basically continued the traditional, already existing, policy of marginalization, of seeing homosexuality as the enemy of normative society. Perhaps our society always needs an enemy for its own self affirmation, and finds it in those who are perceived to be different. Racism transformed discrimination into a struggler of life and
death; it brutalized all it touched through its concept of an unending, permanent, war. Gays became foils in that war, not all of them, but those believed to be true homosexuals. Racism always thought in stereotypes and not in terms of individuals, and here it wanted to erase homosexuality but not those homosexuals who could be cured. The metaphor of disease was uppermost, one which was familiar and readily understood.
But, above all, homosexuality had become a metaphor, a lightening rod, for the fears of modernity, all present in the perception of gays, in the Gay stereotype, in pictures and in people's minds. The frightening speed of time, the uncertainty, the rapidity of change as opposed to the security of tradition, led to people to seek shelter in the normative, the familiar, and the solid. The outsider was always the foil. Homosexuals could pass, as other minorities could not, but they also cut at the root of our society, endangering gender division and respectability.
Why then Gay history?
So that we can learn- perhaps even from the extreme experience which I have talked about- that basic to the desire for extermination, in this case as in others, are traditional concepts of sickness and health, of virtue and vice. Racism made prejudice deadly, but it could not have worked without exploiting the existing trends and fears of respectable society. Racism is not just directed against blacks or Jews or Gypsies, but serves to give a deadly cast to society's traditional ideals and conventions. These ideals in modern times were always regarded as under siege, though in reality they are familiar and generally accepted as the cement of society.
This then is what Gays basically still face today as they did then - both as temptation and as the foe- though the frontiers of the permissible have been extended to an extent unimaginable earlier. The question is how much the foundations upon which our society rests, and which I have mentioned so often, have shifted. Therefore attention must still be paid to the traditional obstacles to true emancipation. Basic in turn are the stereotypes which serve to define insiders and outsiders, for we live in a visually centered age.
To be sure, we must fight the day to day battles, but the study of Gay History can get us to confront the underlying factors which drive the persecution itself. These are not always on the surface or found in the heat of the moment, but are found in our society's self image and its defensive posture. These factors have in the last years allowed a greater room for Gay emancipation, and yet it is highly doubtful whether the tempo and confusion of modernity will cease and with it the search for security- the traditional and the familiar which has always been so attractive to most people, but can be deadly for those like Gays who are not only different, but whose difference challenges the very pillars upon which respectability rests.
The Nazis had a hierarchy of evil with the Jews as the driving force. But "incurable" Gays were close to the top of their list of enemies. Both were connected for the Nazis, as indeed the "outsider" presented an evil chain which bound humanity. Both are to quote Morel in his essay on Degeneration (1857), "morbid derivations from an original type." Here again there is continuity and a fringe opinion becomes central: The number of Jewish homosexuals was thought to be extraordinarily high. Jews are feminized, unmanly, have a "soft weakness of form" and are therefore at risk of being homosexual.
When a prominent Jew, Walter Rathenau, unmarried, became German foreign minister, the accusation of homosexuality went into high gear, while French Prime Minister Leon Blum was pictured as a cross dresser.
Gay history can not only tell were Gays stand in the fabric of society itself, what role they play in society's self image, but it can also highlight the obstacles which we have to overcome, the factors which make prejudice so effective and long lasting.
There has been little change in the perception of Gays for over a century, in how they are perceived and pictured. If we want to change all that we must know where we stand.