As the Twenties saw an increase in gay activism, the Thirties shattered all these efforts. The times of the Great Depression were harsh on the LGBT community. In an era whenmost of the population lived in misery, people were drawn to conservatism and Victorian values. In this period homosexuality was declared a mental illness. Police forces were trained to detect and arrest homosexuals. Hospitals tried to cure their sexuality by forced castration, surgeries, lobotomies, and the infamous electroshock treatment. Gays were refereed to as fruits or fruitcakes and mental hospitals treating them called fruitcake factories.
In Germany, when they were elected in 1933, the Nazis put an end to the thriving gay culture that pulsated in Berlin and elsewhere. A little more than a year after their election, the scandal about the boss of the SA, Ernst Röhm, brought homophobia into the political discourse. Accused of high treason – homosexuality, one of the reasons of his arrest – Röhm was murdered on July 1st1934. There was strong evidence that he preferred men as his lovers; he’d surrounded himself with other SA-officials that were known to be homosexual. Hitler and the SS- and Gestapo-boss Heinrich Himmler saw him as a threat and, after his death, began to systematically deport gays into concentration camps, cleansingtheir rows of dangerous opponents.
The Gestapo established a whole department dealing with the aftermath of Röhm’s homosexual treason. The first raids, persecutions and arrests of homosexuals took place in the fall of 1934; they were deported into the concentration camps Columbiahaus and Lichtenburg. In 1937 the pink triangle became the symbol for gays in these and other camps. The Nazis tightened paragraph 175, making homosexuality a serious crime. In 1936, Heinrich Himmler founded the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion. While there were 800 arrests of gay men in 1932, the number increased in 1939 to almost 9000. Persecution was mainly aimed at homosexual men, lesbians were not considered to be covered by § 175.
An exceptional example and symbol of those times, both in Germany and the USA, has to be author Klaus Mann (1906 – 1949), son of the famous Nobel prize winner Thomas Mann.
Early in his childhood and youth, he discovered his preference for men and acted it out openly. Born into a family of not only writers, but also more or less open homosexuals, he became one of the establishing members of an elite LGBT community in pre-Nazi Germany. His sister Erika was an open lesbian actor, his brother Golo a gay historian. Thomas Mann himself was considered a closeted homosexual – at least The Death in Venicedeals with the attraction of an elder man to a younger boy. With theater plays such as Anja und Esther, and novels like Der fromme Tanz, Alexanderand Mephisto, Klaus made homosexuality a main topic in his work.
The Mann family had to leave Germany as soon as the Nazis started with the burning of books. Klaus left for Amsterdam in 1933 and he and his family emigrated to the USA at the outbreak of the war.
With the Manns’ biographies, it becomes clear how important the LGBT community was for Germany’s culture and literature.
But overall, a safe haven didn’t exist for homosexual people inthe Thirties and the years to follow. It took another two or three decades until it again became the subject of political and social activism.
As an aside; one year before Germany attacked Poland, Cary Grant played in the 1938 movie Bringing up Baby. Dressed in a feathery robe, when he’s asked why he’s wearing that, he responds with: “Because I just went gay.” It is the first use of this word to clearly mean homosexuality. Most people didn’t get the reference and went along with the meaning happy, care free, bringing a bitter irony to the history of the gay community at that times.