“Sin doesn’t lie in the act itself, but in its relation to other things.”1 Mikhail Kuzmin wrote these words in his novel Wings, which depicts a homosexual relationship between a middle-aged man and an adolescent boy. Kuzmin’s quote highlights that homosexuality was not harmful because of the sexual act itself, but in how it was perceived. In the 1930s, both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia restricted male homosexuality. Men who had sex with men were harassed, shamed, imprisoned, and even killed under these authoritarian regimes. Same-sex desire did not fit in with the hypermasculine nationalism or the patriarchal family structures that were used to legitimize and expand Nazi and Stalinist power. While most other European states also restricted same-sex sex in this period, what is interesting about the Nazi and Stalinist regimes is that they each rolled back earlier decriminalization efforts. Because these two regimes relied on a particular vision of masculinity, sexuality, and citizenship to prop up their highly militaristic states, German and Russian gay men experienced something unique in Europe: the shift from a relatively free existence to one violently repressed.
The 1871 Wilhemian law, Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code, made “unnatural” sex between males or with animals punishable by imprisonment. By the 1920s, however, Weimar Germany had a prominent gay rights movement.3 Medical experts, including physicians such as Magnus Hirschfeld, Richard von Kraft-Ebling, and Adolf Brand, began to use biology and personhood to undermine homophobia.2 These men attempted to normalize homosexuality through their writings and activism. Hirschfeld founded the Institute for Sexual Science to demonstrate that homosexuality was not a birth defect but a part of human nature. Germany was close to passing some groundbreaking decriminalization legislation in the late-1920 until economic collapse and terror ushered the Nazis into power.
By 1933, the NSDP, or “Nazi” party, had total control of Germany. In the early years of the Nazi regime, homosexuality was tolerated, or at least ignored. Hitler’s second-in-command and leader of the SA, Ernst Rohm, was a gay man. It was a public ‘secret’ that everyone knew, but no one spoke out against it. Rohm wanted to rebuild a defeated Germany from World War I by strengthening the bond between soldiers.4 Because of Rohm, some Germans feared that the military was being homosexualized. More importantly, some leaders of the Nazi party, particularly Heinrich Himmler, convinced Adolf Hitler that Rohm’s ambition to strengthen the SA was actually a play for power, a challenge to Hitler’s leadership.
In 1934, Hitler ordered Rohm and his inner circle killed in the “Night of Long Knives.” While his murder was more a political ploy than an ideological one, in the aftermath Hitler and the Nazi propaganda machine reframed that purge as one ridding Germany of homosexuality.5 For some key leaders in the Nazi hierarchy, homosexuality was a threat to the Volk, an “enemy within.” In a regime that relied on a hypermasculine trope of manhood — strong bodies, strong semen, a strong commitment to the expansion of Lebensraum for the deserving and pure German people — Hitler and Himmler wanted to ensure that their military forces were effective and focused. The military became the symbol of German masculinity: strong, loyal, heterosexual men who would return Germany to its former glory. Soldiers needed to procreate, to aid in the birthing of a new generation of “pure” Germans to replenish those lost in the Great War. They also needed to secure territory for that new generation to expand. To keep the SS and the Gestapo “pure” and focused on fighting other males, not loving them, Hitler issued the “Führer’s Decree Relating to Purity.”6 It stated that male soldiers who engaged in sex acts with other males could be sentenced to death.7
While Germany’s gay rights movement only got close to overturning Paragraph 175, in Soviet Russia that dream was realized early on. The Bolsheviks decriminalized homosexuality in 1922.8 While technical legality did not immediately usher in acceptance in the newly-formed Soviet Union, the liberalization of sexual relations was momentous for thousands of Soviet citizens. However, Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, died in 1924, and Joseph Stalin seized power. Particularly in the 1930s, Stalin ushered in a period of conservative, traditionalist, and militaristic state building. Within a decade of taking power, Stalin recriminalized homosexuality.
Introduced in 1933, Article 121 of the Soviet penal code dictated that sodomy would receive the punishment of “deprivation of freedom” for up to five years. In Soviet Russia, sodomy referred to sexual relations between two men ranging from anal intercourse or mutual masturbation. The main target of punishment by Article 121 was sexual relations between two men, but because there were societal fears of homosexuals being pedophiles, a subsection punishing adult men if they had sexual relations with minors was added. Responding to the passage of the 1933 law, Harry Whyte, a gay man who worked for the Moscow Daily News, wrote a letter to Stalin titled “Can a homosexual be considered someone worthy of membership in the Communist Party?” He demanded justification for the legislation criminalizing homosexuality. He saw no scientific, psychological, or statistical evidence among Soviet scholars, doctors, and policymakers to support the harsh legislation.
Kuzmin, the Russian poet, described male homosexual relationships in his work Wings through vivid imagery and analogies. For example, the main character Vanya is an adolescent male who is emotionally attached to an older male mentor and continually ponders what makes a couple. In one instance, Vanya is in the company of a woman Marya Dmitrievna who says that there are sinful people who have same-sex love and that their lives seem to be “like cabbage soup without salt — filling but flavorless.”9 Marya is warning Vanya that if he continues having desire for his mentor then his life will be incomplete; he will be surviving life, not living it to the fullest potential. In this way, she reflects the belief shared by most of Soviet society that male homosexuals were sinful bodies that have no purpose in life.
Indeed, the justification for recriminalizing homosexuality likely came down to the fact that the sexual revolution that accompanied the initial Bolshevik revolution did not support an authoritarian regime. Reinforcing patriarchy was essential to Stalin’s vision of the USSR. According to Susan Reid, women in the Stalinist period were expected to embrace traditional roles, be subservient to their husbands, and contribute to the means of production through reproduction.10 Men (and women, to a lesser extent) were supposed to embody the Stakhanovite mission, laboring tirelessly for the nation. Men were also expected and empowered to reinforce the role of women in the household. Homosexuality seemed to undermine these goals, and was cast as a symptom of the decadence and licentiousness of capitalism. While Whyte likened Stalin’s persecution of gay men as akin to capitalism’s persecution of women, Stalin constructed a vision of Soviet manhood that explicitly excluded same-sex desire. A Soviet man had to be devoted to increasing production, not to the whims of his male lover. A Soviet man had to produce children with his sturdy Russian housewife, not satisfying himself in the arms of another man.11
The Nazi and Soviet states were predicated on particular visions of masculinity, which maligned same-sex desire as anathema to productivity, racial supremacy, and “family.” These two states were not unique in their persecution of homosexuality in a conservative, militaristic nationalism. Germany and the Soviet Union fell in line with most Euro-American states with regards to regulating same-sex sex. And like the United States, Britain, Ireland, and elsewhere, the persecution of homosexuality continued long after the Nazi regime fell and Stalin died. Paragraph 175 was not repealed in Germany until 1994. 53,500 men were persecuted under Paragraph 175 after World War II until its abolition. Article 121 was abolished in 1993 in Russia, but LGBT people there continue to face social and legal challenges, sometimes outright violence. While each of these countries experienced early major gay rights movements, what strides were made in the 1920s were crushed and set back decades by the onset of authoritarianism.
- Mikhail Kuzmin, Selected Prose & Poetry (New York: Ardis Publishers, 1980), 52. Return to text.
- Robert Beachy, “The German Invention of Homosexuality,” Journal of Modern History 82, no. 4 (2010): 804. Return to text.
- James Patrick Wilper, “Sin and Crime,” in Reconsidering the Emergence of the Gay Novel in English and German (Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2016), 22. Return to text.
- Clayton J. Whisnant, “Nazi Persecution” in Queer Identities and Politics in Germany: A History 1880–1945 (New York: Harrington Park Press, 2016), 206. Return to text.
- Whisnant, “Nazi Persecution,” 208. Return to text.
- Richard Plant, The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2011), 116. Return to text.
- Plant, 116. Return to text.
- Dan Healey, Russian Homophobia From Stalin to Sochi (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018), 32. Return to text.
- Kuzmin, Selected Prose & Poetry, 51. Return to text.
- Susan E. Reid “All Stalin’s Women: Gender and Power in Soviet Art of the 1930s,” Slavic Review 57, no. 1 (1998): 133. Return to text.
- Laurie Essic, Queer in Russia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 5. Return to text.