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TO BE SEEN. queer lives 19OO–195O

TO BE SEEN narrates the diversity of queer life in Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century and its subsequent eradication between 1933 and 1945.

Oct. 7, 2022 to May 21, 2023 | Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism, Max-Mannheimer-Platz 1, 80333 Munich, Germany |

Around 1900, queer people in Germany began gaining more and more visibility in public life – in art, culture, science, and politics. Existing role models for men and women were being questioned. Homosexual women and men as well as trans* and non-binary people achieved initial successes in their struggle for equal rights and acceptance: they organized and fought for scientific and legal recognition of their sexual and gender identity.

___ Photo of Lili Elbe, Paris 1926. Lili Elbe gained public attention for her gender reassignment. She was an important personality in Berlin's queer scene at the time. | © Man into Woman, An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex, London: Jarrolds, 1933

They met in public places, founded clubs and associations, and started magazines. New terms were coined to describe their identities and create a sense of belonging. Urning, lesbian, girlfriend, Bubi, homosexual: more than a hundred years ago there were already many expressions for what we call queer today. But as their visibility grew, so did the social and political backlash. The Nazi takeover in 1933 was a defining moment for queer people – their subculture was largely destroyed. In the postwar years, discrimination continued.

___ Police photo of Liddy Bacroff, taken after an arrest, 1933. Barcoff described themself as a “homosexual transvestite”, lived from sex work, and was convicted several times. In 1943, they was murdered in the Mauthausen concentration camp. | © Staatsarchiv Hamburg

Even decades later, LGBTQI+ history is still hardly remembered or preserved in archives. Through historical testimonies and artistic positions from then and now, TO BE SEEN traces queer lives and networks, the spaces of freedom enjoyed by LGBTQI+ people, and the persecution they suffered.

___ Alexander Sacharoff, circa 1914. The androgynous dancer created new body images and developed the swapping of clothes into a stage genre of its own.| © Deutsches Theatermuseum München

[Q]ueerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future.

José Esteban Muñoz, queer theorist, 2009


“Queer” originally referred to anything that did not fit into the usual categories. In English the word queer (meaning strange, other, suspicious), was used earlier as a derogative term for homosexuals. Since the 1990s, however, the term has been adopted by many non heterosexual and non-binary people as a positive self-designation. Within the exhibition, queer is used as a catch-all term for a variety of sexual and gender identities and practices that deviate from heterosexual ideas. The term primarily, but not only, refers to LGBTQI+ – in other words lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersexual persons. Furthermore, “queering” can be understood as a practice of combating various forms of discrimination and exclusion. Applied to gender, sexuality, and identity issues, it means casting a critical gaze at the worldview that regards a heterosexual relationship between two persons as the social norm. The rigid binary division of gender into man and woman and the associated role models are thrown into question. In the exhibition, historical self-designations are used where they can be traced through sources.


In the German Empire, politics, the economy, and society were dominated by men. The gender order, which was maintained over centuries by state and church, was strictly divided into two parts: men and women were assigned clear roles within which they must operate. People who did not conform to these role models and lived gender and sexual identities outside the normative order were ostracized. They were considered immoral, criminal, or ill. According to Paragraph 175 of the Imperial Criminal Code of 1871, sexual acts between men were forbidden and punishable by imprisonment. In Austria, sex between women was also punishable.

___ The Freundling or the Latest Revelations about the Third Sex, ed. August Fleischmann, 1902 | © Forum Queeres Archiv München e. V.

But there were individuals who rebelled against the prevailing gender order and fought for a more open society. They opposed the outlawing of homosexuality and transsexuality, advocated a change in criminal law, and assertively engaged in the recognition of their identities. New alliances and self-images emerged. Many of these pioneers paid a high price for their rebellion: they lost their jobs, their families, and their friendships, and were socially isolated.

___ Music: Claire Waldoff, Raus mit den Männern aus dem Reichstag, 1928 Painting: Emil Orlik, Portrait of Claire Waldoff, um 1930 | © Stiftung Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin Design: © Studio Erika

Meeting, moving – forging bonds

Bars and clubs, magazines, organizations, private or public places: queer subcultures and networks emerged in Germany beginning at the turn of the century and especially in the 1920s. Political goals were formulated together. People communicated using their own codes, ciphers, and symbols.

___ Photo probably taken during the shooting of the film "Different from the Others", 1919 | © Archiv der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft Berlin

The public sphere continued to be reserved primarily for men – heterosexual, white, and Christian men. But the experience of conquering one’s own spaces against all social opposition, of joining forces and stepping into the public sphere together, led to a growing self-confidence in the queer scenes. In the process, they not only fought for their own interests; political bonds were forged and coalitions formed that bridged differences. Visions for a society with equal rights for all people were drafted, and existing structures of power were questioned. But internal conflicts emerged as well, and not all queer groups pulled together.

___ Trans* people in the Eldorado in Berlin, 1926 | © bpk

Being unseen, unrecognized, invisible to others, is really the most existential form of disrespect.

Carolin Emcke, author and journalist, 2019

§ 175 des Reichsstrafgesetzbuchs

Transkript: “Paragraph 175: Perverse fornication committed between persons of the male sex or by persons with animals is punishable by imprisonment; loss of civil rights may also be imposed.”

According to Paragraph 175 of the Imperial Criminal Code, sexual intercourse between men was punishable. This provision originated in the Prussian Criminal Code and was introduced throughout Germany with the founding of the German Empire in 1871. Prior to this, homosexuality was exempt from punishment in some German states, such as Bavaria, Württemberg, and Baden, following the example of France. The paragraph was controversial from the beginning: ecclesiastical conservatives and extreme right-wing parties demanded it be made more severe; liberals, social democrats, and communists called for its abolition.

Organizations and the conquest of public space

At the end of the nineteenth century, gay men joined forces to fight against persecution based on Paragraph 175. They founded clubs and associations and sought supporters to achieve their vision of a more open society. Berlin became the hub of this movement and developed into a leading center of attraction for queer people. It was in Berlin that, in 1897, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee was founded, which aimed to achieve legal and social equality for homosexual and trans* people.

___ Advertisement for the Alliance for Human Rights, in "Die Insel", November 1927 | © Schwules Museum, Berlin

Some activists from the women’s movements joined this struggle, especially when the extension of Paragraph 175 to encompass women was debated in 1909. Their goal was far-reaching sexual and social reform: a woman’s right to sexual selfdetermination, abortion, extramarital relations, and independence from her husband. Some leading women’s rights activists lived with another woman, but only few openly identified as lesbian.

Queer subcultures flourished in the Weimar Republic. A diverse landscape of organizations emerged that represented the interests of gays, lesbians, and trans* persons. However, the struggle against Paragraph 175 was not always synonymous with advocacy for an open society. Among gay activists there were also those who paid homage to a homoerotic male cult. They excluded – in addition to women – all those who did not conform to their heroic, in some cases also racist ideas of masculinity.

___ Founded in 1896 by Adolf Brand, "Der Eigene" was the longest-running homosexual journal. With its literary-artistic contributions it evoked the image of heroic masculinity. 1926 | © Schwules Museum, Berlin

Struggle against Paragraph 175: the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee

The physician Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) came from a liberal Jewish family and began actively campaigning for the abolition of Paragraph 175 at the end of the nineteenth century. His actions were motivated by the persecution to which gay men were subjected. As a sexual reformer and founder of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, he fought against the prevailing rigid sexual morality and contributed significantly to the visibility of queer people.

___ Magnus Hirschfeld, circa 1900 | © Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Magnus Hirschfeld utilized modern means in his educational activities. The silent film drama was shot in 1919 with his active participation. It is considered the first film to deal openly with “Anders als die Andern” (Different from the Others) the subject of homosexuality. Heavily attacked by conservative and right-wing extremists, and by some with anti-Semitic motives, the film was used as an opportunity to curtail the artistic freedom introduced after the 1918 revolution. After being screened publicly for a full year, the film was banned by censors in 1920 and almost all copies were destroyed.

Excerpt from „Different from the Others” | © UCLA Film & Television Archive

“Anders als die Andern” is about a homosexual musician who is subject to blackmail. When he no longer knows what to do and files charges, not only is the blackmailer convicted, but he imself is also sentenced – for violating Paragraph 175. He is shattered by the verdict and takes his own life. Magnus Hirschfeld appears at the

When a right is withheld from you, you must fight and not give in; that is a moral duty.

Joseph Schedel opened the first meeting of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee of Munich on September 24, 1902.

Meeting places

A lively scene for homosexuals and trans* persons emerged in Germany during the 1920s. Especially in major cities, a number of clubhouses, bars, and clubs functioned as meeting places. The undisputed center of queer life was Berlin. Police authorities there followed a more liberal course than elsewhere after the end of the nineteenth century. Nearly two hundred subcultural venues are documented in the imperial capital between 1919 and 1933, about eighty of them for lesbian women.

____ Photo: The Eldorado in the Motzstrasse, corner of Kalckreuthstrasse, 1932 | © Bundesarchiv Music: „Das lila Lied”, by Kurt Schwabach and Arno Billing, recording from 1921

In conservative Munich, as in smaller cities and rural areas, fewer venues existed. Homosexual men had to resort to informal meeting places, due to the ongoing criminal persecution. They used public parks and toilets as “pick-up spots” to socialize or have sex. In doing so, they always ran the risk of being denounced or stopped by the police.

___ Advertisement for the Schwarzfischer, in „Das Dritte Geschlecht“, 1931/4 | © Stadtarchiv München

Magazines and informal networks

Magazines were an important means of communication for queer subcultures. They listed relevant clubs and bars, bookstores, and associations, and served as contact exchanges. These references and opportunities were essential particularly for queer people in rural areas, where there were no functioning networks. However, the publishers had to reckon with the banning of their print products at any time. It was not uncommon for entire print runs or volumes to be labeled as “trash texts” and confiscated.

___ Newsstand at Potsdamer Platz with the gay magazines, 1926 | © Landesarchiv Berlin

In order to avoid police persecution and social exclusion, the scene employed its own linguistic codes. Camouflage terms such as “friend”, “girlfriend”, “ideal friendship”, “friendly exchange of ideas”, or “ideal-minded” were used to refer to lesbian and gay connections. Lonely hearts ads in relevant magazines were often the only way to find like-minded people, especially in smaller towns and in the countryside.

___ Historic magazines „Die Freundschaft“ (1926), „Das 3. Geschlecht“ (1931) and „Die Freundin“ (1929) | © Forum Queeres Archiv München

Knowledge, diagnosis, control

Scientific interest in sexuality and gender was expanding around the turn of the century. The amount of sexological research and number of publications increased. Most writings described homosexuality or trans* identities as “pathological” conditions. This assumption has since been scientifically refuted. At the same time, groundbreaking theories emerged, for example Magnus Hirschfeld’s model of “sexual intermediates.” In it, the sexologist anticipated the later realization that numerous other gender identities besides man and woman exist.

___ First Congress for Sexual Reform on a Sexological Basis, 1921, from Magnus Hirschfeld, Sexology, vol. 4, plates | © Forum Queeres Archiv München

Yet, then as now, knowledge also meant power and control. People were examined, described, classified, and judged as patients. Some sexologists incorporated ideas in their research that drew on biologism and eugenics. These were spread throughout society and later played a central role for the Nazis: their conception of so-called “racial hygiene” distinguished between “valuable” and “unworthy” life.

___ The “Zwischenstufenwand” (sexual transitions wall) in the Institute for Sexology illustrated Hirschfeld’s theory that all people have male and female qualities in them. | © akg-images

A human's gender lies much more in their soul than in their body, or, to use a medical expression, much more in the brain than in the genitals.

Magnus Hirschfeld, sexologist, 1907

Early Sexology

In the nineteenth century, sexology developed into an independent, multidisciplinary science outside the universities. Experts from medicine and biology as well as social scientists and humanists worked in this new field. They espoused theories that occasionally contradicted each other and which were often politically charged as well.

___ In the two-volume Frauenbuch (1897), a “medical guidebook for women”, gynecologist and one of sexology’s early female pioneers Bridges Adams Lehmann called for a friendly coexistence of the sexes and a new relationship to sexuality. | © Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München

The driving forces in the German-speaking world from the 1860s on were the lawyer and physician Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and the physician Richard von Krafft-Ebing. Ulrichs in particular fought for the decriminalization and recognition of homosexuality. His insights into the diversity of sexuality and gender are still essential today. Other scientists understood the “third sex” as a pathological phenomenon and wanted to effect the “re-education” and “healing” of their patients with methods that were sometimes questionable. The result was often physical or psychological trauma.

___ © Studio Erika

The institute for sexology and its patients

Magnus Hirschfeld was the best-known representative of sexology in the German-speaking world. He combined a pursuit for emancipation and a scientific perspective, was a champion of decriminalization and a physician at the same time. His Institute for Sexology, founded in Berlin in 1919, became the center of the liberal-leftist sexual reform movement of the Weimar Republic. In addition to research and medical consulting, the institute operated a library, an archive, and a museum. Unlike conservative sexologists, Hirschfeld and his staff worked towards the self-acceptance of homosexuals and trans* persons.

___ Titled “Transvestites in Front of the Institute of Sexology“ this photograph was taken on the occasion of the First International Congress for Sexual Reform on the Basis of Sexology in Berlin, 1921 | © bpk / Kunstbibliothek, SMB, Photothek Willy Römer

This “adaptation therapy” or “milieu therapy” aimed to help people adapt to the queer milieu that suited them, instead of repressing their identity. Many important people from the gay community, such as Lili Elbe, were treated here. Homosexual writers such as André Gide and Christopher Isherwood visited the institute. People who today would be considered intersex were also counseled. From the beginning, the Nazis were disturbed by liberal sexology, Hirschfeld, and his institute. Many of the institute’s employees were, like Hirschfeld himself, Jewish. In 1933, Nazi students and SA members demolished the institute; Hirschfeld was on a world tour at the time and remained in exile in France.

___ Gerda Wegener, portraits of Lili Elbe, 1920s | © Wikimedia Commons / Centre Pompidou Paris

The institute grew to become a refuge for “transvestites”. This is how people who we understand today as trans* persons were called at the time. Some of them lived in the institute and earned their living there. They were particularly dependent on it. Despite the institute’s great merits, the relationship between doctors and “patients” was not unproblematic from today’s point of view.

___ Excerpts from the film “Mystery of Sex“, directed by Lothar Golte/Carl Kurzmayer, Austria 1933 | © Filmarchiv Austria

By mediating between queer people and state power, Hirschfeld and his colleagues were able to protect their patients and fight for more rights and freedom for them. But in order to do so, they cooperated with the police and the courts, thus providing the state institutions with access and control. Then as now, intersex and trans* people were rarely perceived as experts on themselves, making them dependent on the recognition bestowed by medicine and the justice system. This was accompanied by a scientific and state-regulatory view of their bodies that pushed them into the role of patients, externally controlled subjects, instead of granting them autonomy over their bodies as well as their own voice.

____ Starting in 1900, “Transvestite Certificates” were issued by a doctor, that officially certified that a person was known to be “wearing men’s clothing” or “wearing women’s clothing”. | “Transvestite Certificate” for Gerd Katter, 1928 | © Archiv der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft

Charlotte Wolff - Sexology in Exile

Female homosexuality and bisexuality received little attention in the male-dominated field of sexology. An exception was the research of Charlotte Wolff (1897–1986). The physician situated precisely these topics at the center of her work. After 1933, left-wing, Jewish, and openly lesbian women in Germany were increasingly targeted by the Nazis. Being Jewish, she emigrated to Paris in 1933, and to London in 1936. Her research on lesbian sexuality and bisexuality earned her international recognition beginning in the 1960s.

___ Charlotte Wolff, Bisexuality, German edition from 1981 | © NS-Dokumentationszentrum München

Feeling Bodies, Seeing Images

At the same time as the advancements in sexology, new notions of the body, gender, and intimacy were finding expression in art and culture. Literature, theater, film, and the visual arts offered an opportunity to question gender stereotypes and to create new roles and body images. These served as the basis for imagining freer ways of living and to lay the foundation for what we perceive today as queer aesthetics.

___ The bisexual dancer Anita Berber (1899–1928) confronted audiences with homoeroticism, nudity, and drug use, addressing issues that were taboo in the public eye, around 1925 | © Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin - Archiv Deutsche Staatsoper

While Article 142 of the Weimar Constitution promised extensive artistic freedom, censorship was simultaneously introduced for the new medium of film. Munich in particular had numerous bans on film and theater performances deemed offensive.

___ Dancer, singer, and actress Josephine Baker (1906–1975) knew how to allude to racist and sexually charged stereotypes in her dancing, circa 1930. | © Alamy Stock

[S]ome queer artists dream in images, in defiance of the straight imagination. Their eyes desire narratives of loning and pleasure, free of trauma, with illuminations of relief. Through their pictures, other ways of existing are possible.

Antwaun Sargent, 2020 Author and curator

New images of the body

In the first half of the twentieth century, artists experimented with new representations of the human body. They conceived of a wide spectrum of possible identities and sexualities situated outside the dominant categories. Artists subverted binary notions of gender, whether through ambiguities, gender-neutral codes, or playing with androgynous body images.

___ Alexander Sacharoff, Pavane Fantastique, circa 1916/17 | © Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München

In 1933, the Nazis put an end to this diversity. Avant-garde works by artists such as Hannah Höch or Jeanne Mammen were denounced as “degenerate” and confiscated, banned, or destroyed. The regime instead honored artists such as Arno Breker, Leni Riefenstahl, and Josef Thorak, who immortalized traditional gender images in monumental depictions. Such images supported the Nazi regime’s racial ideals, and endured well into the postwar period.

___ Hannah Höch in front of her easel, self-portrait (double exposure), 1930. Hannah Höch worked with clichés and role models in her art and was a significant influence on the Dada movement. | © akg-images


The works gathered here show homosexual couples and their intimate relationship with each other. At a time when gay and lesbian love could almost solely take place in secret, capturing queer intimacy within art became a political statement. The images represent an act of self-assertion within a discriminatory environment. They propose utopias and alternative realities that make togetherness possible – partly with recourse to antiquity, partly with a visionary view of future forms of loving and being.

___ Gertrude Sandmann, Nightgown and Black Pajamas, 1928 | © Anja Elisabeth Witte/Berlinische Galerie

Queer Texts

Between 1900 and 1933, many literary texts and journals appeared that accompanied the medical and legal discourse on sex and homosexuality. They ranged from erotic short stories and poems to fictionalized autobiographies and novels.

___ Klaus Mann, The Pious Dance, 1925 | © Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München

The stage as site of utopias

In the Weimar Republic, vaudevilles, theaters, and nightclubs emerged in many major cities, on whose stages a freer treatment of sexuality and gender identities was allowed. Stage celebrities became role models for alternative gender roles, with drag performances developing into a genre in its own right.

___ Dance study by Alexander Sakharoff, 1912 | © Wikimedia Commons

The 1920s, often referred to as “golden” years, were by no means characterized by prosperity for most citizens, even though more and more people gained access to entertainment culture. War trauma and economic hardship stimulated the need to escape the worries of everyday life.

For many people, the bars and clubs of this period were places where they came into contact with alternative gender images and homosexuality, as well as where social debates were sparked.

___ The trapeze artist Barbette enjoyed great success in Europe beginning in the mid-1920s, photographed by Dora Kallmus, undated. | © Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

The many surviving postcards of male and female impersonator stars – today mostly unknown – testify to their popularity. Hansi Sturm, Hilmar Damita, Orsano, and Wilma Waldeck were celebrities of the scene who played with gender roles and turned conventions on their head in their shows, and not only in front of queer audiences.

___ Postcards of female and male impersonators, circa 1900–1930 | © Schwules Museum Berlin

Life under dictatorship

After the Nazis took power in 1933, every form of queer life was threatend and continued to exist only in private spaces or secret locations. Hopes for a tacit tolerance of homosexuality by the Nazis were finally dashed after the murder of Ernst Röhm, chiefof- staff of the SA (Storm Troopers). The period of open persecution had begun.

During the first major Nazi raids against homosexuals on October 20, 1934, 145 men were arrested in Munich alone. Paragraph 175 of the penal code was made more severe in June 1935: any act between men bearing sexual suggestion was now punishable.

___ Ernst Röhm and Adolf Hitler in Nuremberg during the Reich Party Congress, 1933 | © Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München

About 57,000 homosexual men were sentenced to prison, and between 6,000 and 10,000 of them were deported to concentration camps, of whom at least half were murdered.

Female homosexuality was not prosecuted in the dictatorship, but was socially ostracized. If lesbian women and persons who did not conform to their gender were denounced, they were threatened with police investigations, house searches, and interrogations. If political opposition, social deviance, or racial persecution additionally occurred, they faced repression or even internment in a concentration camp.

___ The graphic artist Richard Grune (1903–1983) was imprisoned almost continuously from 1934 to 1945 because of his homosexuality. After his liberation from the concentration camp, he processed what he had experienced through art. | Richard Grune, Solidarity, lithograph, 1945/46 | © Wien Museum

Because of my caring for another human being, we somehow never lost our dignity and remained people.

Margot Heumann, Holocaust survivor, 1992

Homosexuality in Nazi organizations and in the military

The proscription of homosexuality was used by various sides in the political struggle. In 1931 / 32, the Social Democrats utilized Ernst Röhm’s homosexuality to harm the Nazi Party. The Röhm case served the notion of “gay Nazis” gathering together in male associations, a phenomenon that did exist. Beginning in the mid-1930s, the Nazi regime increasingly cracked down on homosexual activity in the army, police, and Nazi associations. Intimacy between men was now punished particularly severely in party organizations and the police. Nazi propaganda labeled homosexual men as “enemies of the state” to legitimize this persecution. Nevertheless, clandestine homosexual encounters continued to occur.

___ “This is how the Führer cleaned up!”, front page of the extra issue of the Völkischer Beobachter, June 30, 1934, Berlin edition | © akg-images

Adapting to survive

After the dismantling of gay and lesbian subcultures across the entire state and the harshening of criminal law, homosexual contact took place almost exclusively in private spaces.

Fear of denunciation and persecution drove most homosexuals to hide their sexuality and conform.

___ Prisoner record card of the Natzweiler concentration camp from 1943 for Alexander (Bella) Pree, born on May 8, 1917. Pree would probably be considered intersex today. She herself felt like a woman, her passport identified her as male. She was convicted in Austria in 1936 and 1942 for violating Paragraph 129Ib, the Austrian homosexuality statute, and was castrated in the Natzweiler concentration camp in 1942/43. | © ITS Digital Archive, Arolsen Archives, DocID: 3218789

This also applied to lesbian women and trans* persons, who were not prosecuted per se. They could remain unhampered as long as they did not attract attention. Marriages of convenience were one of many survival strategies.

Certain prominent artists were tolerated by the Nazi regime despite their widely known homosexuality. The regime, which needed these stars for its propaganda, held off on persecution, and demanded that they conform in their way of living.

___ Actor Gustaf Gründgens 1937 with his wife Marianne Hoppe, with whom he had a marriage of convenience. In 1952 he adopted his partner Peter Gorski as his son – the only way to have a legally protected relationship. | © Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Scherl

Persecution and imprisonment

The Nazi regime’s treatment of homosexuals and trans* persons was not uniform. Initially, most of the men convicted under Paragraph 175 were released after serving their prison sentences. Especially since 1940 many were transferred to concentration camps. Lesbian women and trans* persons were sometimes charged with other crimes, such as prostitution or indecent behavior. Others were persecuted for political, social, or racist reasons.

____ Police photo of Liddy Bacroff, taken after an arrest, 1933. Bacroff described themself as a “homosexual transvestite”, lived from sex work, and was convicted several times. In 1943, they was murdered in the Mauthausen concentration camp. | © Staatsarchiv Hamburg, journal no.: 1734/2022

The Nazi regime’s treatment of homosexuals and trans* persons was not uniform. Initially, most of the men convicted under Paragraph 175 were released after serving their prison sentences. Especially since 1940 many were transferred to concentration camps. Lesbian women and trans* persons were sometimes charged with other crimes, such as prostitution or indecent behavior. Others were persecuted for political, social, or racist reasons.

___ Diary entry by Elisabeth (Lilly) Wust on the deportation of her Jewish partner Felice Schragenheim to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, August 21, 1944 | © Jüdisches Museum Berlin

Exile and resistance

Only a few homosexual and trans* people succeeded in escaping Nazi persecution through emigration. This option was usually only open to the wealthy or those who had international contacts and could find work abroad thanks to their education and language skills. Leaving Nazi Germany was made more difficult by the measures against capital transfer, which were tightened in 1934. The “Reich Flight Tax” reduced assets by 25 percent upon departure, the export of foreign currency was prohibited, and the transfer of bank or securities assets was made almost impossible.

___ Program of the anti-Nazi cabaret “Pepper Mill“ led by Erika Mann and her Jewish partner Therese Giehse, New York January 1937 | © Münchner Stadtbibliothek / Monacensia, EM pepper mill 14

Individual homosexual or transgender people decided to actively resist the Nazi regime, also in the territories occupied by Germany. They documented the crimes of the Nazi regime, called for resistance, carried out sabotage, committed attacks, or fought as partisans or members of foreign troops against Hitler’s Germany.

___ Jewish-French author and photographer Claude Cahun (1894–1954) and her partner put up resistance against the Nazi regime, 1945 | © Jersey Heritage Collection

After 1945

Queer history was hardly remembered or archived after 1945. To this day, we know only some of the pioneers of the queer emancipation movement. We know even less about the life of those who were persecuted, driven into exile, murdered – or simply remained invisible.

After the end of the war, queer people continued to be marginalized. Gay men in particular continued to suffer in large numbers under Paragraph 175, many of whom did not go free but were transferred from concentration camps directly to prisons.

The ongoing discrimination by state and society changed only slowly. In 1969, Paragraph 175 was reformed and criminal law liberalized. Beginning in the 1970s, new social movements emerged, including a homosexual emancipation movement. Various groups reclaimed the “pink triangle” as a symbol to stand up for the rights of queer people.

Lesbian and feminist groups also gained popularity during the 1970s. Although lesbian sexuality was not directly persecuted by the state, many suffered from the misogynistic legal situation. The legal preferential treatment of men made it difficult to live out lesbian relationships, due to discrimination in labor and marriage laws.

The emergence of HIV in the 1980s affected many gay men and trans* people: thousands became infected, developed AIDS, and died. The state did not help, but instead relied on stigmatizing measures and an aggressive rhetoric of exclusion, especially in Bavaria. For those affected, this recalled the previous period of open persecution.

Thanks to the efforts of activists, the health, political, and social situation of LGBTQI+ persons has improved since the 1990s. Today, queer people in Germany can celebrate some achievements and are also represented in politics. However, much remains to be done for LGBTQI+ equality. In many places around the world the situation is increasingly deteriorating. Trans* people in particular continue to face great discrimination.

Therefore, the commitment to queer self-determination is not over, but more relevant than ever. Because in the end, it not only ensures the preservation of LGBTIQ* human rights, but creates a more just society for all.

TO BE SEEN. queer lives 19OO–195O

Oct. 7, 2022 to May 21, 2023

Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism, Max-Mannheimer-Platz 1, 80333 Munich, Germany |

The accompanying publication is a collection of texts and artworks from the exhibition as well as essays by important contributors on queer lives in the past and present as seen from a scientific and social perspective. With contributions by Gürsoy Doğtaş, Michaela Dudley, Sander L. Gilman, Dagmar Herzog, Ulrike Klöppel, Ben Miller, Cara Schweitzer, Sébastien Tremblay and others. | Order book now

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