“An unnatural sex act committed between persons of the male sex or by humans with animals is punishable by imprisonment; the loss of civil rights might also be imposed.”
This brief clause — referred to as Paragraph 175 — was codified in Prussian-era Germany under the rule of Wilhelm I. Over the ensuing years, that clause of the Prussian penal code waxed and waned in terms of enforcement. After WWI and the rise of the Weimar Republic, Germany actually became a liberal bastion for Gay and Lesbian people in Germany with a vibrant subculture of bars and clubs that allowed them to live relatively open lifestyles.
Magnus Hirschfeld, a Polish-born Jewish physician, built his practice in Berlin, where he established the World League for Sexual Reform during the Weimar Republic era. He is widely considered to be one of the most influential advocates for homosexual and transgender rights in the 20th century and was certainly a pioneer in the movement.
That all came to a violent and crashing halt with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933 and the installment of the Third Reich — Nazi Germany. After taking office, Hitler set about codifying his antisemitism — first with boycotts of Jewish businesses on April 1, then the April 7 Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which barred Jews from all civil service positions, then on April 27, he passed the Law against Overcrowding in Schools and University, limiting Jewish access to public education.
On May 6, 1933 Nazi Germany expanded its attacks to include the LGTBQ+ community with the looting of Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sex Research, or Institute of Sexology, depending on the translation) by the German Student Union — a Nazi youth group. They seized every book in the library, which were then burned in Josef Goebbel’s infamous May 10 national book burning. More than 25,000 books deemed “un-German” were set ablaze in Berlin’s Opera Square as tens of thousands of German citizens stood in attendance.
Goebbels delivered an angry oratory against what he referred to as “decadence and moral corruption.” It’s important to note that it was largely university students carrying out the book burning — seeking to stamp out literature from Jewish authors and any ideas that contradicted the Nazi party doctrine in any manner.
The intersectionality between Jewish and other groups under Nazi rule can’t be ignored, though it was for gays for decades after the end of the Holocaust. Hitler greatly expanded the purview of Paragraph 175 in Nazi Germany, rounding up as many as 15,000 gay men and sending them to concentration camps where they were tortured, castrated and experimented upon. Gay men did not see respite upon the liberation of the camps, however, as approximately 100,000 of them were arrested in Germany between 1945 and 1969 under Paragraph 175 crimes. The law was only scrubbed entirely from German law upon reunification in 1994.
Despite this well-documented and quite recent history, however, it seems there is no shortage of American politicians and right-wing acolytes eager to repeat it. The American Library Association began monitoring book bans in 2001. In 2022, the ALA reported the greatest number of attempts to ban books on American shores since it started keeping track. And more than half of the most commonly banned titles have LGTBQ+ themes.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” is a quote commonly attributed to Mark Twain. The rhyme scheme we bear witness to as Americans right now should have every one of us looking to the near future with grave concern. As American Jews find themselves the most-targeted ethnic group for hate crimes per capita on U.S. shores — now for several years — we are again standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the LGTBQ+ community as subjects of persecution.
The culture war we find ourselves embroiled in shows no abatement on the horizon. The Evangelical Christian-right’s stranglehold on the GOP continues to inform policy and judicial activism at all levels of government — from schools and municipalities across the United States to the halls of Congress and the Supreme Court bench. The ACLU is tracking 491 bills written to abridge the rights of the LGTBQ+ community in the 2023 legislative session around the nation.
America’s decline into fascism begins with the burning of books.
The burning of people is where it leads.