A man in make-up and pearls condemning transgender people may seem counterintuitive, but Milo Yiannopoulos is hardly the first gay reactionary. The case of Ernst Röhm, the highest-ranking gay Nazi, presents an interesting study in the construction and containment of masculinity by the right.

Röhm was Hitler’s right-hand man as head of the Sturmabteilung (SA, the Brownshirts), the Nazi paramilitary wing. Instrumental in the rise of the party via the street-fighting and extra-judicial murders of the late 1920s and early 1930s, Röhm’s sexual orientation was no secret after the mid-1920s. Hitler either ignored it or said it was immaterial, depending on who he was talking to, including other Nazis.

Röhm opposed his party’s stand on Paragraph 175 of the German penal code, which made male homosexual acts illegal. This made some German homosexuals think he might ultimately tone down the Nazi stance. That was always wishful thinking, but became especially moot after 1934’s “Night of the Long Knives,” when Röhm and others were massacred as Hitler consolidated his power. (Earlier, the Social Democrats, one of the few parties to campaign for the repeal of Paragraph 175, showed itself willing to gay-bait Röhm.)

As Eleanor Hancock explains, Röhm, his face scarred from war wounds, stressed a hyper-masculinity to counteract contemporary views of homosexuality as feminine. A First World War veteran, Rohm “attached paramount importance to the values of militarized masculinity.” This aligned with Nazi views of the homosocial Männerbund. Such all-male organizations of warrior-comrades were supposed to be united under the banner of discipline and order against the threatening “wave” of the bourgeoisie, women, Jews, socialists, Bolsheviks, all of whom represented weakness, chaos, and disorder—in short, the Weimar Republic. Röhm suggested that the line between homosocial and homosexual, however, was potentially fluid.

Hancock says that Röhm “challenged the privileging of heterosexual over homosexual masculinities. If Röhm’s masculinity reassured some Nazis, it threatened others. His open homosexuality may have threatened the psychological security of some other National Socialists, creating a form of ‘male homosexual panic.'” She goes further, wondering if “the purge of the SA and the killing of Röhm represented the literal correlative for the suppression and repression of the homosexual desires in their own Nazism?”

Even before Ernst Röhm was murdered, the Nazis had begun cracking down on homosexuality, banning organizations, burning books, and arresting the first of some 100,000. Around 15,000 gay people were sent to concentration camps, where some were experimented upon in bizarre efforts to find a “cure” for sexual orientation, a foreshadowing of American psychological and later fundamentalist efforts to try the same thing.

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Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Apr., 1998), pp. 616-641
University of Texas Press