Dutch homosexual men during the German occupation
My historical novel Unspoken is about Dutch working class gay men in the nineteen-thirties and forties. The main character, Stefan Doffer, is a married man who falls in love with another man in a time when love between men was not considered acceptable by society. In the following article, I’ll tell a bit more about the position of homosexual men during the German occupation of Holland in 1940-1945 and why the story is different from what some readers might assume.
Since the nineteen-seventies, the idea had taken form, as part of a growing self-awareness of gay people, that not only had Dutch homosexuals been victims of Nazi persecution, the fact had been purposely ignored by historians. No one seemed to be interested in the suffering of what had to be at least hundreds, perhaps thousands, arrested and deported to the concentration camps for no other reason than their sexuality. Even after their suffering and death, they were ignored into silence. The proof was out there, if only someone would bother to look.
During the last 30 years, several historians have looked into the archives. The Dutch government reserved considerable funds for research. After all, in Hitler Germany gays had been actively persecuted, the German anti-homosexuality law had been in use in the Netherlands and there was reason to assume that Dutch gays suffered the same fate as their German brothers during the 1940-1945 occupation.
But what historians actually discovered in the archives told a different story than that of merciless hunted down homosexuals.
Allow me to go back in time a bit. Dutch society of the nineteen-thirties was homophobic. Calling it anything else would be ridiculous. Homosexuals were considered to be either sick, criminal or both. This was reflected in Dutch law and legal practice. Though homosexuality was legal as such, male or female same-sex contact between an individual above the age of 21 and a minor was punishable with up to four years of imprisonment according to Article 248bis of the penal law. The age of consent for heterosexuals was sixteen.
The idea behind this law was that homosexuality was something that a young person could catch from an older person. Like a contagious disease, yes. Youth needed to be protected against the predators and judges simply refused to believe that a 17 year old boy could actually want to have sex with a man. It wouldn’t be until 1971 until Dutch parliament removed this Article. It had become clear that whatever the reason(s) for some people to be gay, it was never the result of seduction. Between 1911 and 1971 around 5000 gay men and women have been prosecuted because of 248bis.
On the other hand, two adult males in a romantic/sexual relationship ran the very real risk of being subjected to absolute social rejection, even though Dutch law left them in peace. It might not be too far from the truth to speculate that many, if not most, Dutch gay men before the Sixties were married family fathers. Hidden from others and hidden from themselves. The ideal of marriage was absolute and not open for any real discussion. As a writer I can imagine that ideal spilling over into the minds of some homosexual men, but that didn’t mean that finding a special friend and live as-if married was an option for more than a very small minority. Any form of (legal) recognition or protection of such pairs wouldn’t be on the menu for many years to come.
This was the society the Germans found when they defeated the Dutch troops in May 1940. But their idea about homosexuality and sex between men was not quite the same as that of the Dutch authorities. In Germany any form of sex between men was punishable, regardless of age. This lead, in Germany itself, to approx. 100.000 arrests, half of which ended in convictions and around 15.000 gay men ended in concentration camps. Less than half of those men survived.
The introduction by the German authorities of Article VO 81/1940 in occupied Netherlands was done with the intention to treat Dutch homosexual men (lesbians didn’t count) the same as German ones. It meant that any form of sex between two males of any age was punishable for both. That in itself meant a high number of (potential) victims, because now not only those who were convicted of same-sex contact with boys under the age of 21 could be put into prison, but also those who so far had been ignored. Dutch policemen and judges were supposed to execute the anti-homosexuality law. Germans had near to no active involvement in this, except when German citizens were directly involved. Their priority lay firmly with the Jews, and about 75% of the Jewish population of Holland had been murdered by May 1945.
A steep growth of arrests and convictions was to be expected. In the judicial archives, however, a very different picture emerges. Dutch police and judges more or less continued what they did before “the war” and they would continue to do so after the liberation until the nineteen-sixties, namely arresting men (and women) for having sex with same-sex minors. It’s hard to speculate about the exact reasons why, but Dutch police and judges hardly followed the German rules and the Germans didn’t seem to have done much to challenge that. A matter of priority? The relative invisibility of homosexuality? A certain hesitation to support German rule? I dare safely say that friendly thoughts about gay men didn’t play a role in this.
Continuity is the key word here, in which the German occupation in itself made a very limited difference in the treatment of homosexuals. If you want to have a clear picture, you’ll have to look at the ongoing story between 1911 and 1971.
The number of arrests of men under VO81/1940 is estimated at a couple of hundred, of which 138 were seen by a judge. To put this in context: of the Dutch population of 1940, around 300.000 were homosexual if using a conservative estimation of 3%. There’s no reason to assume that the number of arrests will proof to be much higher after the serious work already done by historians. No one ended solely for being gay in German concentration camps. I would be ashamed to make light of what it must have meant for the individual men to find themselves subjected to anti-gay laws, but it doesn’t change the fact that only a small minority of gay men were arrested purely for what they did in bed and even less ended in jail. Law and practice concerning homosexuality varied considerably in the Dutch reality of the German occupation, and it shows that one should be extremely careful with assuming that German and Dutch stories about the treatment of homosexuals are more or less equal. They are not.
There’s even an indication that for some gay men life could be fun at least some of the time. Due to the enforced curfew, sleepovers became unavoidable. There were parties. In 1944 a café owner in The Hague changed her establishment into a gay bar for commercial reasons. Despite the obvious risks, some men had sexual contact with German soldiers. The circumstances deepened friendships. Homosexuals started to think differently about themselves. Between “some of us have proven to be worthy human beings instead of sick degenerates” and being able to marry, lies a sea of time and an ocean of struggle, but things were changing.
It’s good to remember that the vast majority of homosexual men (and women) disappeared in the crowd. Homosexuals were part of every category of victims, simply because they were part of Dutch society, whether that society wanted them or not. They suffered and died as Jews, as resistant workers, forced labourers, so called anti-socials, Sinti, during bombardments, as soldiers, detainees in Japanese camps in Indonesia, from starvation and sickness during the winter of 1944.
In short: while the climate for homosexuals in the time-frame of Unspoken (between 1935 and 1945) was absolutely negative, and the German anti-homosexuality law was in use during the occupation, there is no reliable indication that gay men have been actively persecuted, although individual arrests and convictions have been made. So far, historians haven’t been able to find any names of Dutch homosexuals who were transported to concentration camps for the sole reason of their sexuality or sexual behaviour.
Do I have to tell that this absolutely doesn’t mean it was all in all a good old time for gay men? Or that many individuals felt lost, isolated and scared? Surely not.
For some readers this article might be news, for some it might be something they’ve known for years, but I do hope it’s a bit more understandable why I wrote Unspoken the way I wrote it.
Pieter Koenders, Homoseksualiteit in bezet Nederland, 1983
Pieter Koenders, Tussen christelijk reveil en seksuele revolutie, 1996
Anna Tijsseling, Schuldige seks, 2009
Klaus Müller, Doodgeslagen, Doodgezwegen, 2005
Marian van der Klein en Theo van der Meer, Gevangen in slachtofferschap, http://www.vertrouwen.nu/art%20Gids.pdf