Nazis and Nailbombers: Fighting the Fascists

from the pamphlet Radical Chains: Sexuality and Class Politics, published in 1999.

On 30 April 1999, a nail-bomb killed three people and injured dozens more. It exploded in the Admiral Duncan pub in Old Compton Street, the heart of gay Soho.

The work of one maniac, now safely behind bars? Even if David Copeland (as we go to press, the man charged with the bombings) is the bomber, and even if he acted alone, an outbreak of racist and anti-gay terrorism has deeper roots, and wider implications, than one man’s twisted psychology. After all, various extreme right-wing groups claimed that they planted the bombs – in other words, even if they didn’t, they wish that they had.

Homophobia kills. And campaigners against homophobia have to be part of the fight against the threat posed by fascists.

Hitler’s persecution

Nazi Germany systematically persecuted homosexuals from 1933 until 1945. In Autumn 1933 – just six months after Hitler became Chancellor – the first concentration camps were established, and the first gay prisoners were sent to them.

Germany already had a law – Paragraph 175 – which made sodomy illegal. In 1935, it was extended to include all forms of sexual contact between men, and the courts convicted men for kissing, or even visual contact. In September of the same year, the new ‘Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour’ was enacted, making sex between a Jew and a non-Jew illegal as ‘race defilement’. Those found guilty were sent to the concentration camps. The camps gained an influx of new gay prisoners in 1936, when police raided gay bars on a massive scale. Their intention was that athletes and journalists attending the Olympic Games would be presented with an image of a ‘morally clean’ Germany.

In all, probably between five and fifteen thousand gay men were sent to the concentration camps. Initially, they were labelled with a yellow stripe or bar with the letter ‘A’, or with a large, black dot with the number 175 (a reference to the anti-gay law). Then, when the SS introduced a colour-coding system for all groups of concentration camp inmates, gay men were made to wear a pink triangle – a symbol since reclaimed by the lesbian/gay/bisexual liberation movement as a badge of pride and defiance. Under the same colour-coding system, political prisoners wore a red triangle, ‘asocials’ (including some lesbians) a black triangle, and Jews an inverted yellow triangle under another triangle, forming a six-point star.

Experiments were carried out on gay camp inmates to test whether homosexuality could be chemically ‘cured’. The experiments frequently killed their subjects.

Nazi Germany also repressed scientific investigation into sexuality. ‘Sexology’ sought to understand sexuality and challenge prevailing sexual attitudes. Although scientists have not always been kind to lesbian, gay and bisexual people, scientific enquiry is a progressive thing, and in 1930s Germany, was on the side of sexual liberalism, rights and equality. So the Nazis denounced it as ‘Jewish science’, and drove sexologists such as Magnus Hirschfield, Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich into exile. The ‘Nazi Committee Against the Un-German Spirit’ smashed up research centres and burned books.

After the defeat of Germany in World War 2, reports of Nazi persecution of lesbian, gay and bisexual people were suppressed. Gay victims of the Nazis were not compensated for their suffering, and it was to be several decades before accurate accounts were published. Why hide such appalling suffering? In 1945, male homosexual activity was illegal in the USA, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, in Britain, and in both parts of the newly-divided Germany. The governments of these countries saw nothing wrong in imprisoning gay people. Indeed, gay and bisexual men liberated from the camps could be re-arrested in any of these countries.

Fascist ideology and homosexuality

In 1928, a German Nazi Party official statement explained that ‘Those who are considering love between men or between women are our enemies. Anything that emasculates our people and that makes us fair game for our enemies we reject’. Fascists view gay men as weak, and same-sex desire as a weakness that threatens the strength of a nation to fight.

Fascist homophobia is also based on a drive to reproduce the ‘master race’. As well as making ‘race defilement’ a crime, the German Nazis carried out mass executions of disabled people, labelling them ‘subhuman’. They set up a special office, the ‘Reichs-Centre for the Fight Against Homosexuality and Abortion’ in the headquarters of the criminal police. And they awarded the ‘German Mothers Cross of Honour’ to women who produced many racially-pure, Aryan children.

Fascists seek to impose the traditional (heterosexual, nuclear) family model, with its restricted role for women. Nazi propagandist Engelbert Huber stated in 1933 that “In the ideology of National Socialism, there is no room for the political woman … (Our) movement places woman in her natural sphere of the family and stresses her duties as wife and mother … The German uprising is a male phenomenon’. In Britain today, the British National Party calls for the recriminalisation of homosexuality and abortion; attacks inter-racial relationships; and trumpets ‘family values’.

The fascist threat now

A fascist group are not simply politicians with a set of right-wing policies chasing after votes. A fascist movement is a mass movement of people who accept its reactionary ideas and fight for them, politically and physically.

Fascism means the destruction of democracy; and a fascist movement sets out to smash the labour movement in order to achieve its aims. Many of the conditions which have spawned a growth of the fascists in the past exist today. There is poverty, unemployment and social exclusion. There is popular and institutional discrimination against groups in society who can be used as scapegoats – black, Asian, Jewish people; lesbian, gay and bisexual people. And there is a Labour government elected to serve the hopes and aspirations of working-class people, but betraying the people who elected it – just as there was during the 1970s when the National Front became strong.

Consider two factors that might at first sight appear contradictory … Firstly, after two full years in office, the ‘New Labour’ Government has done nothing to change the legal second-class citizenship of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. The age of consent remains unequal after Jack Straw scuppered legislation to equalise it in 1998 in order to secure safe passage for his Crime and Disorder Bill. Section 28 remains in place; consenting same-sex activity can still get you nicked; and there is no new law against discrimination in employment, housing or immigration. As well as being bad enough in itself, legal discrimination fertilises the ground for violent bigots. At the same time, though, there is an apparent establishment consensus that bigotry – or violent bigotry, at least – is bad, and that we are all ‘one nation’ together. But Britain is not one nation: it is divided into classes, with inequalities in many respects getting wider. While people are excluded from wealth and social justice, some will also exclude themselves from the establishment consensus and turn to hatred. Actually, these two factors are not contradictory. The Government and the ruling class may say that they are against prejudice, but their actions continue to foster division and bigotry.

The long arm of the law

Put bluntly, lesbians, gay men and bisexuals can not trust the police to protect us.

The police do not take homophobic violence seriously. Many homophobic attacks are not even reported, due to the (well-founded) fear that the police will treat the victim as a criminal. There is widespread homophobia within the police force, and routine harassment of gay people, venues and meeting places. If that sounds similar to the experience of black people at the hands of the police, then that is no coincidence.

Outrage! claimed that after the Old Compton Street bomb, the police held a secret meeting with Stonewall, to the exclusion of other lesbian, gay and bisexual groups. This is wholly unacceptable: Stonewall has no mandate to speak for all of us; it does not even have a democratic, representative structure. Outrage! also accused the police of issuing warnings to selected gay groups and businesses, not to lesbian, gay and bisexual people generally. The police (and the Government) have no right to hand-pick the ‘community leaders’ they want to deal with. They will usually pick the most compliant, least troublesome, most ‘respectable’, least demanding – not the most representative.

Instead, the police should hold open discussions with communities under threat. They must be made to report to, and be held accountable by, elected committees that represent all interested sections of the community. Complaints against the police should not be investigated by the police themselves, but by independent, publicly-accountable bodies with the power to investigate properly and take appropriate action. The McPherson report into the Stephen Lawrence murder, and the Government’s response to it, fell well short of recommending the measures for police accountability that are needed.

Ban the fascists?

Many anti-fascists call for the BNP to be banned. Such legislation would be framed as banning groups defined as ‘extremist’ or beyond the pale of respectable society. This may be aimed at fascists now, but could easily be used in future against socialist organisations, the labour movement, lesbian/gay/bisexual publications and so on.

This is not idle speculation – laws introduced in the past to suppress fascists have gone on to be used against the left; and gay groups and publications have repeatedly been censored in the name of protecting ‘decent’ society.

To advocate that the state arms itself with the power to ban is to hand it a weapon it can use against us. Instead, we should rely on our own power to fight the fascists, alongside our allies and as part of the labour movement.


The scum who used nailbombs to terrorise London in April 1999 targeted areas of some degree of integration. Brixton and Brick Lane are established black and Asian communities where white people also live and hang out. Old Compton Street is a gay area where straight people happily socialise. The bombers no doubt hope that as well as causing death and injury, their actions deter heterosexual people from going to gay areas; and that lesbian, gay and bisexual people become suspicious of and hostile to ‘outsiders’ (heterosexuals).

It is important that we do not give in to this. Violent homophobes do not represent straight people in general, many of whom are potential allies against bigotry.

Disunity in the German labour movement helped Hitler come to power. The reformist Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Communist Party refused to work together against the Nazis, who were able to take power without a shot being fired in resistance. Instead of different campaigns engaged in sectarian competition, we need a united front against the fascists. We need united campaigns with open, democratic structures.

But there is also a ‘unity’ we can well do without – unity with people who claim to oppose fascists, but who serve the system that breeds them, and who propagate the reactionary ideas that fascists build on. We can not trust the ‘anti-fascism’ of Tories who attack workers and inflame racism; nor of the likes of the Catholic Church who condemned the Old Compton Street bomb with one breath, and denounced gay sexuality with the next. A ‘popular front’ with such as these politically disarms our fight against the fascists.

How to fight the fascists

It is no accident that fascist ranks have increased when the labour movement has been weak. When, like now, a Labour Government is selling out working-class people, those whom it betrays will turn against it. That is almost inevitable: what is not inevitable is where they turn to. To apathy? To anarchism? Back to the Tories? To the fascists? Or to class-conscious struggle for socialism?

To fight the fascists effectively, we need to make the labour movement fit to fight them, and to present people alienated and discarded by capitalism with a convincing alternative. That means challenging the Labour Government’s betrayals; making the unions fight in the interests of their members; and insisting that the workers’ movement makes itself accessible to all those groups to whom the fascists present a particular threat – including lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. When people of all sexualities and races stand side by side for working-class people’s interests, the ground becomes barren for fascists.

So lesbians, gay men and bisexuals have to wait for the labour movement to get its act together then? No! Fascists present a direct, physical threat to us, and we (and our allies, and other communities under threat) are entitled to defend ourselves. That means physically breaking up fascist meetings, paper sales and demonstrations, and it means refusing fascists a platform. This is not a general argument for attacking or censoring anyone whose ideas we find offensive – that is both an ineffective strategy and undermines the notion of free speech that we need and should champion. But fascists are a special case: they are on a war footing against our communities, and self-defence is no offence.

To further starve the fascists of their ideological fertiliser, we should step up the action against all homophobic and racist bigotry, including from people who stop short of planting nail-bombs. We should take protest action against MPs who vote against equality, newspapers which print homophobic tirades, racist and anti-gay immigration laws, employers who discriminate … there is a long list of legitimate targets. Most lesbian, gay and bisexual people’s experience of homophobia is not from organised fascists, but from legal discrimination, harassment and ‘everyday’ prejudice. The work we do against routine homophobia is part of our fight to beat the fascists.

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