Gay Life Under Nazi Rule: The Legacy of Paragraph 175 Lesson | Facing History & Ourselves
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Gay Life Under Nazi Rule: The Legacy of Paragraph 175

Students watch survivor testimony from the documentary Paragraph 175 and engage in purposeful reflection about the survivors’ important stories.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




Two 50-min class periods
  • The Holocaust
  • Culture & Identity


About This Lesson

The activities in this lesson support teachers and students as they engage with video testimony of survivors presented in the acclaimed documentary Paragraph 175. The documentary primarily focuses on the experiences of gay men who were directly impacted by Paragraph 175, a German constitutional law that criminalized same-sex relations between men.

  • How did gay men in Germany and occupied Europe experience Paragraph 175 before, during, and after Nazi rule?
  • Why do we bear witness to the events of the past, even when it is difficult?
  • Summarize the historical context and significance of Paragraph 175.
  • Examine personal testimonies in order to understand what conditions were like for gay men living in Nazi-occupied Europe before, during, and after Nazi rule.
  • Explore the ways in which survivors’ personal stories can help students consider the importance of bearing witness to difficult histories.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes the following student materials:

  • 5 videos
  • 1 handout, available in English

The History of Paragraph 175

Paragraph 175 was a law first added to the German constitution in 1871 that singled out sexual relations between men. The law was inconsistently enforced from 1871 to 1933 and was almost completely ignored in Berlin—known as a “gay Eden”—during the Weimar Republic (1918–1933).

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, his government took a renewed interest in Paragraph 175. First, the Nazi Party banned all gay organizations. A few months later, during the Berlin book-burning event, the contents of the library of the Institute for Sexual Science—led by the gay Jewish researcher Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld—were burned 1 . These early actions of the regime reflected a Nazi Party belief that homosexuality was a threat to German cultural identity and would inhibit the ability to produce more German youth. The Nazis rewrote and strengthened Paragraph 175 in 1935 and established the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion in 1936. 

The strengthened text of Paragraph 175 continued to exclusively criminalize and punish gay men. The revised Paragraph 175 cited “evidence” that could lead to a man’s arrest, including gossip that suggested a man was gay, mail correspondence between men when at least one was presumed to be gay, and any physical contact between men when at least one was presumed to be gay. Men who were caught having a sexual relationship with another man (or engaged in innuendo suggesting that a same-sex relationship was occurring) were initially sent to prison with no trial. As the Nazi regime constructed camps around Europe, most men arrested under Paragraph 175 were sent to jail or, starting in 1934, to labor or concentration camps. Paragraph 175 soon came to apply in Nazi-occupied countries, as well, as evidenced in the testimony of Pierre Seel, a French citizen and subject of the documentary, who was sent to a French concentration camp after being arrested under Paragraph 175. 

Life in the camps was particularly dangerous for gay men. According to historian Klaus Müller: 

“A pink triangle (the symbol for gay men held in death and labor camps) meant harsher treatment in the camps. Gay men suffered a higher mortality rate than did other relatively small victim groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and political prisoners. The men with the pink triangle couldn’t count on a support network within the camps, and were often treated with contempt by their fellow prisoners.” 2

When World War II ended in 1945, gay men continued to be persecuted in Germany under Paragraph 175. For many, this included arrest and detainment in jails or prisons. Gay men made choices to be careful or hide their sexual identity in order to avoid the consequences of Paragraph 175. 

In 1968 for East Germany and in 1969 for West Germany, same-sex relationships were decriminalized. While this meant that gay men would no longer be arrested under Paragraph 175, the law remained dormant in the constitution until German unification in 1994. At that time, Paragraph 175 was finally struck from the constitution. 

As of the making of the documentary in 2000, only ten known “pink triangle” survivors of labor and concentration camps were still alive. Today, all known survivors have passed away. The survivors interviewed for Paragraph 175 did not live to see the historic moment when, in 2017, Germany expunged the records of gay men who had been arrested under Paragraph 175 from 1949 to 1969 and made financial reparations to the men who were jailed for the harm that was caused. 3

The survivor and witness testimonies—firsthand accounts from individuals who lived through or encountered genocide and other atrocities—that students will encounter in Paragraph 175 can help them more deeply appreciate and empathize with the human and inhuman dimensions of an important moment in history such as this. Such testimonies supplement what we can learn from historians and secondary sources by offering unique perspectives on the difficult and sometimes impossible situations that individuals were forced to confront during past moments of collective violence and injustice.

  • 1Klaus Müller, “Introduction,” in The Men with the Pink Triangle: The True Life-and-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps, 2nd ed., by Heinz Heger (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2023), Kindle.
  • 2Müller, “Introduction,” The Men with the Pink Triangle.
  • 3See “Germany to overturn convictions of gay men prosecuted after war,” The Guardian, March 22, 2017, retrieved March 8, 2024.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

You may wish to point out the use of the word homosexual(s) as a noun in the documentary and sources in this lesson. In earlier times, referring to members of the LGBTQ+ community as homosexuals was common. While not offensive in the past, today the term is outdated and inappropriate when used as a noun, unless one is reading aloud directly from a historical document.

This lesson offers an honest account of the treatment of LGBTQ+ people—some of whom were also members of the Jewish community—during this period, including depictions of ethnic and sexual terror and individual and collective acts of violence. Some students may find the historical descriptions and firsthand accounts emotionally disturbing; we can’t emphasize enough the importance of previewing the readings and videos in this curriculum to make sure they are appropriate for your students.

We urge teachers to create space for students to have a range of reactions and emotions as they engage with the content of this lesson. This might include time for silent reflection or writing in journals, as well as structured discussions to help students process content together. Some students will not want to share their reactions to emotionally disturbing content in class, and teachers should respect that in class discussions. For their learning and emotional growth, it is crucial to allow for a variety of student responses, or none at all, to emotionally challenging content. 

It is also important to note that our experience suggests it is often problematic to use graphic images or films without context or preparation or to attempt to use simulations to help students understand aspects of this history. Such resources and activities can traumatize some students, desensitize others, or trivialize the history; therefore, we recommend that educators not engage in these types of activities.

Review your class contract with students before sharing any resources in this lesson. This will help to reinforce the norms you have established and reestablish the idea of the classroom as a brave and reflective space for students to voice concerns, questions, or emotions that may arise.

This lesson builds on information and instructional materials in our Holocaust and Human Behavior resources. Before completing this lesson, students should have already encountered instructional materials about the Holocaust and have an emerging understanding of the history of the Holocaust.

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Lesson Plans

Day 1 Activities

  • Tell students that they will learn about Paragraph 175, a law in the German constitution that criminalized same-sex relations between men. Explain that they will be watching clips from the documentary Paragraph 175 to better understand how this law impacted gay men in Germany and occupied Europe throughout their lives. Let students know that this film was first released in 2000. All of the survivors that were interviewed for the film have since passed away, and it is unlikely that any LGBTQ+ survivors of the Nazi prison and death camps are still alive today. In addition, tell students that the word homosexual(s) will be used as a noun throughout the documentary. While this usage is considered offensive today, it was not widely considered to be offensive when the documentary was released. During the historical period that the documentary examines, the term may or may not have been offensive, depending on its context and application. However, under Nazi occupation and rule, homosexual served as a very dangerous label.
  • Distribute the handout Brief History of Paragraph 175 in Germany for students to read independently and annotate using the S-I-T strategy. Once they have finished, have students share their annotations with a partner.
  • Bring the class back together to share their observations about the timeline and address any questions or misconceptions that they may have. Then tell them that many of the men who were interviewed for this documentary had never shared their stories with a public audience. Ask students: What did you learn from the timeline that could have factored into the men’s reluctance to tell their stories?

Tell students that in this first film clip, they will meet interviewer Klaus Müller, a historian involved in the making of the documentary, as he introduces four survivors of the Holocaust: three gay men and one Jewish lesbian woman. Preview the discussion questions and ask students to take notes as they watch. Then play the first clip from Paragraph 175, Looking Back at 1920s–Early 1930s Germany. When the clip is finished, have students work in pairs or in small groups to answer the following discussion questions:

  • Klaus Müller says: “I grew up in Germany, and I never ever heard about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany . . . and that I could be raised in a country where two generations ago they were persecuted. They were sent to concentration camps and many of them were killed, and I didn’t know anything about it . . .“ 
    Why do you think this history is not widely known? What impact do you think this forgotten part of history has had on the survivors? (5:05)
  • In this clip, we meet four survivors: Karl Gorath, Pierre Seel, Heinz F., and Annette Eick.
    • What emotions do the survivors convey when asked to remember their experience during the Holocaust?
    • Later, the film refers to Berlin as a “homosexual Eden.” 1 What details do the survivors share that support this description of Berlin before the rise of the Nazis? Why do you think the filmmakers included this information in the documentary?
    • Women were not criminally prosecuted under Paragraph 175, but the filmmakers included the voice of a Jewish gay woman. Why do you think the filmmakers made this choice? What can we learn from her perspective?
  • Bring the class back together to review the discussion questions as a whole group. As you listen to the students’ answers, address any misconceptions they may have.
  • 1The term “Eden,” taken from the Bible’s book of Genesis, is used to mean paradise.

Tell students that they will now watch a second clip, The Impact of Nazi Rule on Jewish Gay Youth, which shares the experiences of Gad Beck and Annette Eick when Hitler and the Nazi Party first came to power. After viewing the clip, have students discuss the following questions in small groups or with partners. 

  • What changes in school did Gad Beck see almost immediately after Hitler’s rise to power? How did these changes impact Gad’s school life?
  • According to Annette Eick, what happened in Germany that led to the rise of the Nazi Party? 
  • Both Annette and Gad were gay and Jewish. How might their identities have influenced their experience of the Nazis’ rise?

Provide students with enough time to reflect on what they learned during the lesson. They can reflect in their journals or on exit tickets if you would like for them to share their responses with you. Consider letting your students choose one of the following prompts that resonates with them: 

  • How does ___________’s story connect to, extend, and/or challenge what you know about the Holocaust?
  • What was a valuable idea from ________’s story that you want to remember? What makes you say that?

Day 2 Activities

  • Briefly summarize the lesson from yesterday, highlighting these key points:
    • Paragraph 175 was written in 1871, strengthened by the Nazi Party in the 1930s, decriminalized in 1968 and 1969, and taken off of the books in 1994. It took until 2017 for the criminal records of gay men who had been arrested under Paragraph 175 to be cleared.
    • In the 1920s and 1930s Weimar Republic, gay people in Berlin and other German cities enjoyed social acceptance and were not criminalized for their sexual orientation. Even though Paragraph 175 existed, it was mostly ignored in cities like Berlin.
    • When Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazi Party began to systematically discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. This included closing those communities’ organizations and clubs and burning their books.
  • Tell students that today they are going to look at how gay men and women experienced the Nazis’ strengthening of the consequences for Paragraph 175, how Jewish and gay identities intersected, and how the men and women interviewed for the documentary reclaimed their lives and advocated for their stories to be heard. This exploration will begin in 1935 with the rewriting of Paragraph 175. 
  • Have students view the clip Rewriting Paragraph 175 from the documentary. Then have them answer these discussion questions: 
    • Summarize how the Nazis’ view of lesbians impacted the choices that German lesbians made during this time. 
    • Why did Hitler consider gay men to be a threat to Germany’s national identity and the Nazi concepts of race and gender?
    • What consequences did gay men face when they were arrested under Paragraph 175 during Nazi rule and occupation?
  • Now tell students that they will watch another short clip, The Intersections of Gay and Jewish Life, in which Gad Beck describes the day that his “great love,” Manfred, was arrested and moved to Gad’s old school before being sent to Auschwitz. 
  • After viewing this clip, which may be emotional for students, have them reflect on the following questions in their journals:
    • What would it mean to have to hide multiple parts of your identity in order to survive?
    • What do the actions of Gad and Manfred suggest about the choices that other gay Jewish men might have had to make in this period, given the elevated risks they faced during the Holocaust?

Now tell students that they will watch a short clip, Heinz F. and the Fate of the Survivors, in which Heinz F. discusses his life after incarceration, and then they will learn the fate of the other survivors as of the year 2000, when the documentary ends. After viewing this clip, have students reflect on one of the following questions in their journals:

  • Elie Weisel once said, “‘For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.’ For not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are also responsible for what we are doing with those memories.” 1 How does the survivor testimony in this lesson help us to understand what Elie Weisel meant by this?
  • Pierre Seel, a featured survivor in the documentary, wrote the following in his book I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual upon learning about homophobic remarks from a senior member of the French Catholic Church in 1982: 

“I had to bear witness, tell everything, demand restitution for my past, a past I shared with so many others, with people who had been buried and forgotten in Europe’s darkest hours. I had to bear witness in order to protect the future, bear witness in order to overcome the amnesia of my contemporaries. Destroy my anonymity once and for all . . .” 2  

In what ways can bearing witness to difficult histories help us to “protect the future” as well as honor the dead?

If possible, have your students arrange their desks in a circle. Then facilitate a class discussion that draws on the following questions: 

  • What unique perspective does each survivor offer in their story? What connections can you make between the survivors’ stories—their experiences, actions, and/or choices? 
  • What can we learn from survivors about our moral obligations to each other?

Extension Activities

To continue your classroom study of Paragraph 175, you could engage in the following activities:

  • An in-depth study of the lives of Gad Beck and Manfred Lewin in Berlin during the Nazi regime can provide students with a deeper understanding of the challenges facing gay men in Nazi Germany. The site Do You Remember, When, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, offers a glimpse into the daily experiences and thoughts of these two companions during the late 1930s and early 1940s.
  • The book of collected short stories Am I Blue? offers insight into the challenges facing gay adolescents, with contributions from Lois Lowry and other leading writers.
  • In 2017, gay men in East and West Germany who were arrested under Paragraph 175 from 1949 to 1969 had their records expunged. In addition, they were given financial compensation for the harm caused if they were imprisoned as a result of their arrest. Students can read this article from The Guardian to learn more about the German government’s actions to repair the harm caused by Paragraph 175.

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