On Feb. 28, 2019, we mark the observance of the 1933 signing of the Reichstag Fire Decree, the 86-year-old order that allowed the Nazis to escalate their atrocities against all manner of minorities. With contemporary right-wing tactics growing ever more cruel, it’s an important time to reflect on the methods that allowed crimes against humanity to spread in the past.
As in most of the western world, LGBTQ people already faced terrible abuse in Germany before the Nazis came to power. But under the Nazi regime, persecution grew far worse thanks to the expansion of powers allowed by the Reichstag Fire Decree.
Prior to the ’30s, Germany had become a haven for queer people across Europe. Lax enforcement of anti-gay laws meant that cities like Berlin were relatively safe havens, and far more progressive than the United States.
But under Nazi rule, a cultural force emerged that pushed for a national ideal — anything different from an imagined perfection was seen as needing to be exterminated. That sentiment grew far uglier in February 1933. Hitler had only been appointed Chancellor a few weeks prior, but there were already plans to suspend civil liberties. Then, on Feb. 27, 1933, a fire of unknown origin erupted in the Reichstag, home of the German parliament.
Hitler seized upon the fire as proof that communists were attempting to overthrow the government, and used that to push for already-formulated plans to crack down on minority groups. With the Reichstag Fire Decree signed, Germans instantly lost the right to a free press, to assemble, to privacy and to own property.
Immediately authorities began ransacking LGBTQ gathering places, kidnapping anyone they suspected of being queer. Support groups for queer people were banned. Books and research concerning sexual orientation and gender identity were burned in bonfires. By March 1933, queer people were being sent to concentration camps. The descent into atrocities took only a matter of weeks.
Once the Reichstag Fire Decree granted Nazis the power to kidnap and kill queer people, it was virtually impossible to escape the horrors. Thousands of gay men were seized, tortured and killed. Many were subjected to ghoulish medical experiments. It was not unusual for the camps to boil gay men’s testicles until they detached from their bodies; violent rape and death by beating was common; guards used gay men for target practice.
The Nazis employed actual evil scientists, who conducted deadly experiments on queer people. Some were forced to endure outlandish hormone treatments; others were used as sex slaves; others were subjected to burns in attempts to find a “cure” for homosexuality.
Nothing the Nazis learned from their “experiments” yielded useful information. There were no scientific advances as a result of this torture — simply horrific human rights abuses.
Despite prisoners being freed after the war, it took many decades for the LGBTQ victims of the Nazis to obtain justice — or even recognition. It wasn’t until this decade that Germany finally granted marriage equality.
It may seem unthinkable today that a society once thought of as tolerant and accepting could slide so quickly into unbelievable cruelty. But it happened, it took a world war to end, and an emergency declaration from a ruthless ruler, the Reichstag Fire Decree, made it all possible.