Ideas

Ideas | Kelly Kasulis

The curious treatment of lesbians under Nazi rule

British Army Film and Photographic Unit

Among the Nazi regime’s many victims, as many as 15,000 gay men were sent to concentration camps. But there hasn’t been much information on how the regime treated lesbians.

Samuel Clowes Huneke, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, stumbled across four files on lesbian couples tucked away in the Berlin State Archive in 2015. To his knowledge, historians haven’t explored most of these files in extensive detail beforehand, though they may have been mentioned in some writings. Regardless, the files paint a detailed, if small, portrait of how Nazi officials treated lesbian women in Berlin.

“These files showed a greater tolerance for lesbianism than we may have ever known,” Huneke said. “These people all led fairly open lives as lesbians. . . And in most of these cases, someone had a sort of reason to want to denounce them that had nothing to do with lesbianism in itself.”

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One of the files details the case of Margot Holzmann, a Jewish woman who lived in Nazi Berlin. Holzmann’s husband, a Chinese citizen, reported her to authorities after discovering her relationship with an “Aryan” woman named Martha Halusa. Though criminal police never quite believed that Holzmann was straight, they ultimately decided to let her go — they made no real issue of the relationship. The Chinese citizenship Holzmann acquired through marriage protected her from deportation to a concentration camp.

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In all the files that Huneke found, the women were released without charge — further proof that lesbians weren’t a priority for the Nazi police organizations. “In a lot of societies, gay men are seen as a bigger threat than lesbians,” said Edith Sheffer, an assistant professor of history at Stanford University.

Nazi doctrine tried to confine women to domestic roles by barring them from most professions and incentivizing childbirth. In most cases where courts or police even tried to persecute lesbian couples, women had more public-facing, institutional roles such as working in a factory, Huneke said. In other words, they were more like men.

“There are two theories here: One holds that gay men were persecuted because, if gay men weren’t sleeping with women, they weren’t making babies — which is bad for Nazi eugenic policies,” Huneke said. “The other argument that holds has less to do with eugenics and more so all-male cliques coming together and seizing power.”

Yet women still lived under strict social control, a detail that shouldn’t be forgotten as historians continue to uncover bits and pieces of the complex social hierarchy enforced by the Nazis.

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“This doesn’t point to the fact that women’s lives weren’t restricted or regulated — they absolutely were,” Huneke said. “They just were restricted more as women, and less as homosexuals.”

Kelly Kasulis is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @KasulisK.