Gender and Sexuality: a Historiography and Analysis of the Holocaust

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The Holocaust: a genocide in which Nazi Germany, aided by local collaborators, systematically murdered millions of people between 1941 and 1945; an event made possible through meticulous planning and manipulation across multiple dimensions. In an attempt for ultimate control, Hitler preyed upon the vulnerabilities of pre-existing stereotypes and stigmas surrounding gender and sexuality and manipulated his followers in accepting these ideologies. In fact, is arguable that everyone involved within the Holocaust (men, women, children, homosexuals, Jews, those of minority ethnicity, etc.) may have been victim to Hitler’s manipulation. It is almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around all the horrors that occurred during the Holocaust; sadly, there was so much violence that the abuse and murders of millions of people seem to blend together. Thus, it is possible to understand how the voices of lesser known victims– such as women and homosexuals, victims of social oppression far before this genocide– have been lost amidst the chaotic roar of the Holocaust in its entirety. Yet, with the aid of Nazi authorities and Germany’s social environment at the time, sexism and patriarchal thinking, as well as homophobia thrived, proof that gender and sexuality played a large role in the development and implementation of Nazi policies.

A regime that values its population as a weapon against others is bound to be obsessed with reproduction and motherhood. In order to properly develop and implement widespread Nazi policies, the Nazi Party tried to extend its influence over all aspects of German society. Nazi ideology stated that, according to the law of nature, men and women should carry out different and separate roles. For instance, during this time period (and arguably still today) women in Nazi Germany were expected to play a submissive, domestic role within society, raise many children, and care for their home and husband. As evident in snippets from Irene Hauser’s diary entry: “We are lost without him” and “I have no power over him”, women were often dependent on men for survival. (cite) In order to compensate for the power hierarchy between genders and still ensure the support of women in the Nazi Party, Hitler implemented multiple manipulative tactics. For instance, the Nazi Party idealized the concept of Lebensborn (“Fount of Life”), or the rise of “pure” Aryan births. Thus, they honored mothers with a Mother’s Cross; a woman was considered to be 1st class if she bore eight or more children, 2nd class with six to seven children, and 3rd class with four to five. Further, in order to ensure that women at the time focused on reproduction and maternal care, the Nazi Party excluded women from all senior positions within the organization. From 1933 onwards, women were also excluded from jobs in medicine, law, school and in leadership posts.

There were certain vulnerabilities within Jewish (and other non-Aryan) women specifically during the Holocaust, such as pregnancy and abortion, that are associated with women’s biology; others, perpetuated violence against women in the form of dehumanization by sexual assault. In Ringelheim’s “Women and the Holocaust,” she describes her interviews with multiple Jewish women survivors in which the women spoke of their “sexual vulnerability: sexual humiliation, rape, sexual exchange, pregnancy, abortion, and vulnerability through their children- concerns that men either described in different ways or, more often, did not describe at all” (Ringelheim). Despite the sheer terror, dehumanization and violence of the Holocaust, most women survivors vividly recall the humiliating experiences surrounding their entrance to concentration camps: being naked and exposed amongst lusting men, both fellow prisoner and Nazi guards and stripped of their identities. For women in particular, their stories not only encompass the mortal danger of being Jewish (or Sinti/Roma, disabled, etc.), but also their fears and experiences of sexual vulnerability as women. On the other hand, while Jewish men experienced the degrading process as well, survivors have described a separate reaction all together; they appeared to be most distraught about the ways in which the women in their family were treated, almost as if they themselves were victims by way of the treatment of their women.

Although there are many stories about sexual abuse, they are not easy to come by. “Some think it inappropriate to talk about these matters; discussions about sexuality desecrate the memories of the dead, or the living, or the Holocaust itself. For others, it is simply too difficult and painful. Still others think it may be a trivial issue” (Ringelheim). Ringelheim also speaks of a survivor who was sexually abused by a number of Gentile men while she was in hiding, when she was about eleven years old. Her later comment about her experience was that it ‘was not important. . . except to me.’ This quote speaks volumes. In order for a survivor of sexual assault to completely dismiss the significance of such an act is appalling and honestly uncomprehendable. In terms of the Holocaust as a larger picture, she felt her experience was trivial in comparison. This speaks for the horrific experience of the Holocaust itself.

Further, sex was often used as a commodity in the ghettos: sexual exchanges for food or other goods for means of survival involved both Jewish men and Nazi authorities. As Anna Hajkova, author of Sexuality and the Holocaust states, “when Marie Jalowicz Simon’s memoir of life in hiding came out, readers were captivated by her matter-of-factly depiction of bartering her survival for money, help, affection, and sex: recognizing that sex was a currency, and one currency among others, is key.” From a certain perspective, however, this could lead to the false impression, and further reinforcement of the stereotype that women are dependent on males for survival. In addition, perhaps the lack of sexual abuse testimonies is also due to the reality that many women would be judged and ridiculed for terming their experiences as sexual assault, although they “consented” only because they were in survival mode; no woman wants to relive her experience in order to prove a disbeliever wrong—that is not her responsibility. This is still a pressing topic today as rapists are getting away with rape and dodging justified prison sentences; no wonder there is still such little literature on this subject, women continue to be oppressed in this way.

Even more chilling is the fact that, in her chapter Sex, Blood and Vulnerability, Bergen reports that Nazi ideology discouraged Germans from considering women associated with groups of destruction (such as Jews) as sexual desirable. In fact, Nazi ideology “constructed taboos around such women, so that the idea of having intercourse with them might seem comparable to having sex with animals or corpses. Viewed in this way… the Jewish women… sent to service the troops may have been a symptom of how much they misunderstood the Nazi genocidal project (Bergen).” In other words, most sexual acts between Nazi guards and Jewish women with camps were enacted solely to humiliate and denigrate.

In addition to their sexual dehumanization, coping with pregnancy, childbirth, and child care often made women victim to both physical and mental abuse, especially within the context of a concentration camps, such as Auschwitz where pregnancy was forbidden. Thus, many women had either abortions by choice or force. Those who were able to hide their pregnancy from Nazi gaze experienced the physical anguish of giving birth under those conditions, not being able to care for the child, and even having to kill their crying infant. Either way, these experiences are bound to be mentally and physically especially to women who became pregnant out of sexual assault; if found pregnant, and child were shot regardless of whether or not the conceivement was consensual.

On the other hand, masculinity symbolized strength, patriarchy, militarization and employment. As men held seemingly more stable positions within society than women, rather than focusing on compensating for any vulnerability, Hitler praised men for their valiancy and role in fighting for the greater good of their Germany. Throughout the Holocaust, Hitler continued to raise his men up on pedestals; in his opinion, they were heroes and soldiers and were therefore treated as such. Thus, it makes sense that over time, many of his followers developed a “God’s complex” mentality in which they believed themselves to be superior to all other minorities, religions, genders, etc. Hitler continued to reinforce these beliefs through consistent praise and desensitization. Starting at a young age in the Hitler Youth programs, young men were exposed to constant violence and prejudicialness against Jews and others deemed “alien.” For instance, on the late evening and early morning hours of Nov. 9-10, violence erupted on the streets not only Nazi official and SA units, but also children of the Hitler Youth, torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and business and killed many Jews. In other words, they became desensitized to violence and empathy at a young age and were able to justify their horrific actions over time for “the greater good” — a success of Hitler’s plan to brain-wash and his followers into carrying out his plan for a new world order of pure Aryan race.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, when the first anti-Jewish laws were passed and many Jews lost their jobs and business, Jewish men were hit the hardest. These men, whose traditional role in society was to work and provide for their families, were suddenly left with only the humiliation of no longer having a job, and the loss of their self-esteem. From the very start, Jewish men were easy targets of anti-Semitism harassment as many of them displayed full beards and traditional clothing. Thus, many Jewish wives took the responsibility of caring, and now providing, for the family, as well as managing household work. A number of observers had the impression that Jewish women survived better than Jewish men, that women “tended to outlive” men, especially in concentration camp settings (Luchterhand). Perhaps this was due to a woman’s nature to transform their habits of raising children or their experience of nurturing into the care of nonbiological family. Men, when they lose their role of provider and protector of their families, seemed less able to transform this habit into the protection of others.

As the Nazi Party was infatuated with the reproduction of future members of the Reich, it can be “easily” inferred why the party targeted individuals/groups that posed a threat to such reproductive capabilities. For instance, the regulation of marriages between foreigners and Germans was implemented in order to ensure the reproduction of “pure-blood” Aryan children. Further, in Nazi eyes, gay men and women were weak and parasitic to German society as they were unlikely to reproduce and further the “Master Race.” In this way, the Nazi ideology linked homosexuality to abortion in the sense that they went against the regimes population policy to promote a higher birthrate of a “pure Aryan” population. In the early 1930s, the Nazi Party persecuted homosexuals as part of their mission to racially and culturally “purify” Germany. As a result, the majority of homosexual organizations and gathering sites were eradicated and thousands of individuals were interned in concentration camps. Gay men, in particular, were subject to harassment, arrest, incarceration, and even castration.

Much like the topic of gender, sexuality remains an understudied topic as there are still many people who don’t recognize the persecution of homosexual individuals nor sexuality’s involvement in the differential treatment of various groups within the Holocaust. In fact, author of The Duplicity of Tolerance: Lesbian Experiences in Nazi Berlin, Samuel Huneke, discusses the recent installation of a monument to the gay victims of the Holocaust that paid tribute only to its male victims reigniting an unresolved debate regarding the experience of lesbians in the Third Reich. According to his work, some evidence suggests lesbians were not only not persecuted, but even tolerated in limited ways. Perhaps the chasm between the experiences of gay men and lesbians under Nazi rule is due to the societal beliefs that women were not as much of a risk to society as men since they were seen as the subordinate gender.

It is well known that Hitler and his followers viewed children as the foundation of a new world order. Despite their young age, they were seen as future members of the Nazi Party, essential to the implementation and survival of their society; even children were expected to assume their gender role. Through the establishment of the Hitler Youth, Hitler again used master manipulation to ensure every “racially pure” German child understood which role their gender played in society. On December 1st, 1936, Hitler decreed “The Law concerning the Hitler Youth” which mandated that all German boys (excluding Jews) would “be educated physically, intellectually and morally in the spirit of National Socialism” through the Hitler Youth from the age of ten onward. The activities may best be described in this quote from 1938 by Hitler himself:

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Gender and Sexuality: A Historiography and Analysis of the Holocaust. (2021, Mar 20). Retrieved from

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