This week we cover the Pink Triangle and the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Once a home of vibrant queer progressiveness, Germany dissolved into a dark place of bigotry, anti-semitism and extreme homophobia. We trace Hitler’s dissent of hate from his overthrow of power in 1933 to the end of the war.
As he ordered thousands of gay men imprisoned in concentration camps alongside the Jewish prisoners. Forced to face the fate of hard labor, torture, medical experiments, rape, starvation, and death. These men endured the horrors of the Holocaust along with millions more. We do want to warn our listeners that we discuss extreme violence and that this episode may not be suitable for all. But for those who can, we challenge you to learn about this important piece of history. Because if we do not learn about the past, we will repeat the past.
Today we discuss one of the darkest times in our world history. A time when several minority groups were singled out and persecuted by an evil regime. And as has so often been the case, our queer siblings were among the persecuted. As you mingled in a pride festival this past month or waved your hands at passing parades; perhaps as you marched in a parade yourself. You most certainly saw a few upside-down pink triangles. Either on banners or small pins worn on jackets and t-shirts. Often accompanied by the phrase Silence = Death. And perhaps you wondered what these pins symbolized. Or maybe you know they stem from the concentration camps during World War II. Either way, today we are going on a journey back in time and across the ocean to Germany 1933.
A crowded stadium resounded in cheers as the new chancellor of Germany stepped up to the microphone. It was January 30, 1933, and the Nazi party had won their election with 230 votes, almost double that of any other party. A small man – with an atrocious mustache – stepped forward and began to address the crowd. As his brief speech hit it’s peek he cried:
Peasants, workers, and bourgeoisie must all join together to provide the building blocks for the new Reich. The government will, therefore, regard it as its first and foremost duty to re-establish Volksgemeinschaft – the unity of spirit and will of our volk. It will preserve and defend the foundations upon which the power of our nation rests. It will extend its strong, protecting hand over Christianity as the basis of our entire morality, and the family as the germ cell of the body of our Volk and State. It will reawaken in our volk, beyond the borders of rank and class, its sense of national and political unity, and its resultant duties. It will establish reverence for our great past and pride in our old traditions as the basis for the education of our German youth. It will declare a merciless war against spiritual, political and cultural nihilism. Germany must not and will not drown in anarchistic communism…
The stands thundered with applause and adoration. Finally, a hero to save the Christian population from the threats to their nation. Of course, we know the biggest threat to their spiritual revamping was the Jews. And in the following decade over two-thirds of Jewish individuals living in Europe would be killed by the Nazis. The rest would be rounded up and imprisoned in horrendous concentration camps. These would be their homes for over 10 years. As they suffered incredible physical abuse, forced labor, torture, and every indignity known to man.
But while the Jews were the primary target, there were other groups who also suffered at the hands of evil. They were called “undesirables”, and their undesirable traits were marked on their clothing with colored upside-down triangles. Red was for political prisoners, Green for criminals, Blue for immigrants, Purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Brown for gypsies, Black for anti-socials, and Pink for homosexuals. If an individual was a Jew, their upside down triangle would overlap a right side up Yellow triangle. So, for instance, a Jewish homosexual would have an inverted pink triangle over top a standard yellow one.
The pink triangle is the most commonly known symbol and is the basis of our subject today. However, the black triangle was also used for the queer community. Anti-socials was a term given to lesbians, bisexual women, sex workers, and transgender men. It was also attributed to murderers, thieves, and Aryans who had sexual relationships with Jews. The majority of these individuals went to the camps. But some avoided them, depending on their activism in other areas, and their defiance of the Third Reich. However, even if allowed to live in Germany as so-called “free individuals”, they still faced harsh social isolation and discrimination. Helped by a biased stigma literally stitched to the front of their clothing.
Just a few weeks after Hitler took over, the first concentration camp opened in Dachau in March of ‘33. This camp was designed for Red Triangles (political prisoners). While the camps were classified as prisons, in reality, they had no outside supervision or judicial review. Which means they were often just used as killing camps. The Holocaust Encyclopedia writes of the following purposes of the camps:
- To incarcerate people whom the Nazi regime perceived to be a security threat.
- To eliminate individuals and small, targeted groups of individuals by murder, away from the public and judicial review.
- To exploit forced labor of the prisoner population. This purpose grew out of a labor shortage.
The lie that concentration camps were built to keep the German people safe, is as audacious as the lie of American private prisons. Supposedly allowed only in order to ease the burden of the government. Or that ICE is merely trying to control the border crisis and not, in fact, facilitating ethnic cleansing. Just as Hitler’s people promoted propaganda that the prisoners were well treated and in good health, so we see a repeat of these patterns in various parts of the world today. In fact, the Nazis even went so far as to establish Theresienstadt. This was a hybrid concentration camp that served as kind of a weigh station for individuals on their way to the killing camps. It also housed prominent elderly Jews and was used to deceive the public into a false perception of the Camps. While several thousand Jews and prisoners did die at Theresienstadt, it was nothing compared to the horrors of other camps.
And it is exactly this type of propaganda that lead the German people into believing the enslavement and persecution of “others” was justified. Even morally accepted and required – for the good of the nation. Which is why, when homosexuals were declared sexual deviants – predators, pedophiles, rapists, etc – the public felt it was only safe to brand these individuals and throw them to the camps. But it wasn’t as if these laws hadn’t been on the books for decades. Since 1871, Germany had declared in Paragraph 175 of the Unification Act that “unnatural indecency” was illegal. This was later clarified in 1877 to mean those who engaged in intercourse with someone of the same sex. But even though these laws were in place, Germany itself was quite a hotbed of the sexual revolution.
Berlin, in particular, was oozing with queerness. In 1896 the first gay magazine in the world was published by German Adolf Brand. And titled Der Eigene (The Self-Owning). It sold to approximately 1500 people a month A year later, Magnus Hirschfeld established The Institute of the Science of Sexuality. Which was devoted to understanding sexual orientations and gender identity. And was in fact, one of the original pioneers in transgender studies. It was Hirschfeld himself who coined the term, transsexual. In addition, the Institute also founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee which was one of the first organizations to ever lobby for queer rights. The city was so LGBTQ friendly that by the 1920’s it was considered the gay capital of Europe. But all of that would begin to fall with the rise of Hitler.
One of Hitler’s first acts was to order the editor of Der Eigene’s house searched and ransacked. All of Brand’s publishing materials were confiscated as well as his financial assets. He was then harassed and beaten into publicly declaring that he was ending his activism for gay and bisexual men. In February, the Nazi’s moved on to the gay clubs and any other kind of queer organization or group. By March they were raiding the Institute of the Study of Sexuality. Head administrator Kurt Hiller was severely beaten and then sent off to the camps. Later he would manage to escape and flee to London.
Magnus Hirschfeld was still considered a respected scientist, though Hitler’s patience for Magnus sex research was wearing thin. In May of 1933 – while Magnus was on a business trip to Switzerland – the Institute was raided again. This time over 25,000 books, journals, and pictures were burned in the streets. As Joseph Goebbels (head of propaganda) gave an invigorating speech, about the evils of homosexuality, to a gathering crowd. At this point, any of the staff (several of whom were transgender) that wasn’t rounded up by the Nazis, fled the Institute and Germany altogether. It is important to remind everyone that when far-right bigots declare that transgender people are “new” or a “trend” – the majority of research that had been gathered and placed in the Institute’s library was destroyed. Hundreds of years of documentation that Hirschfeld had gathered around the world.Thousands of studies, countless personal stories, and verified accounts. All burned and suppressed. Our history is not new. It merely lies at the bottom of the hateful rubble.
Hirschfeld declined to return to Germany after the raid on the Institute. He understood that Hitler’s “allegiances” were fleeting. And that it was only a matter of time before Hirschfeld himself would wind up in a camp. Which was an accurate prediction of the temperamental leader. On June 30, 1934, Hitler turned on his own men. The Night of the Long Knives is an infamous evening in Nazi history. Ernst Roehm was the head of the SA – which was the military branch of the Nazi party. Not to be confused with the SS, who were Hitler’s personal henchmen and often the villians in any movie about the Nazi’s. Roehm was a long time supporter of Hitler, and he was an openly gay man. Which is why many queer SA soldiers believed they were safe from Hitler’s open disdain for queers. They believed they were different because they served the Fuhrer. Much the same way there are LGBTQ people for Trump and Pence. The same way we are sure there are – or were- gay supporters of Vladamir Putin and other current homophobic leaders. Siding with those who hate you in order to find validation is nothing new.
In fact, it was the SA lead by Roehm himself who ransacked and burned the Institute of Science of Sexuality. Even though the SA was riddled with homos, much to Hitler’s chagrin. When the magazine Der Eigene had been in publication and Adolf Brand had been free, the organization had “outed” Roehm to the public several times. But nothing was done and Roehm believed that was because he and his men were different. Blogger Boaz Neumann wrote of this perceived “difference” in a great article linked on our script, The Nazi’s Tolerated Gays, Then Everything Changed. Neumann wrote of Roehm:
My discussion of Roehm is based on the research of Australian historian Eleanor Hancock [author of the 2008 book “Ernst Roehm: Hitler’s SA Chief of Staff”]. As a gay person in a society that identified homosexuals as “feminine” – after all, we are talking about the Weimar Republic of the 1920s and ‘30s – he consciously cultivated a contrary ideal of a “manly” homosexual. “Masculinity,” from his point of view, was based, among other traits, on courage, honor, decency, discipline, and fraternity.
We should remember in this context that fascist movements in Europe as a whole, and in Nazi Germany in particular, had their origins in the collective male experience of the trenches of World War I. In contrast to “manliness,” Roehm identified the “feminine” with cowardice, compromise and hypocrisy – especially among of the bourgeois society – as well as with pacifism.
The fact that an openly gay man- as bigoted and close-minded as he was – became one of the highest ranking officers of the Nazi regime seems astounding from the outside. And Roehm was very open, even advocating for sexual freedom. He wrote in his 1928 memoir:
The struggle against the cant, deceit, and hypocrisy of today’s society must begin with what is most basic in life, that is, the sexual urges…. If this struggle is successful, only then will it be possible to rip the masks off the illusions of all of life’s social and legal arrangements.
In his writings, Roehm seems as progressive as Hitler did in his public speaking. Pretending to walk the line of tolerance as long as individuals didn’t violate a “moral” code. Hitler even publicly defended Roehm to the critics. Claiming that the struggling homosexual was working to fix himself. And when the SA General offered to resign, Hitler waved him off. It seemed the Furhor seemed so tolerant. Yet as Roehm watched the books of the Institution of Sexuality burn, he could not believe that Hitler was planning to destroy all queers. Even his devoted, gay, SA soldiers and their leader.
At around 4:30 am on June 30, 1934, SS troops stormed the barracks of the SA soldiers and the hotels of the SA leaders. Dragging some of them literally out of the bed of their lovers. One leader in particular- Edmund Heines – and his bedfellow were taken directly outside the hotel and executed immediately. Others were dragged off to prison cells and later sent to the camps. Approximately 85 men were killed that evening with 1,000 more sent to camps. As for Roehm, Hitler fabricated threats of a coup and charged Roehm as the ring leader. The loyal officer was executed later that day. Though there were a few reasons for Hitler to want the SA stripped down and restructured, one of the core causes was the rampant homosexuality. In order to move forward, Hitler needed a straight, white, Aryan race. And the queers would only muddy the waters.
We want to take a moment to clarify our stance on a few issues. First, we have no sympathy for these SA officers. Regardless of their fate, these are the same individuals who gleefully rounded up Jewish citizens for the ghettos. Who harassed and hounded their fellow – more effeminate- queers. Who beat and bloodied anyone who defied the Fuehrer. In fact, the SA was so aggressive that their image had become kind of a problem for Hitler who was ever the brilliant propagandist. By eliminating some of the trouble makers in the SA, and absorbing them under his full command, Hitler killed two birds with one stone. The SA was brought back in line and the homos were gone.
The other point we want to make as we venture into talk of the concentration camps is this; we realize the Jews are the biggest victims of the Holocaust. Not just in their numbers, but in their suffering. Many other groups – such as the Jehovahs Witnesses, the anti-socials (lesbians, queer women), the gypsies and such, were seen as less of a threat. Many of these people, including gay men, were seen as possible converts. That in time they would change their ways and get on board with Nazism. Or even that they could be cured. In fact, some of the early conversion therapy used in the U.S. was from experiments done on German gay men. However, the Jews could not change their race. They could not be cured, they could not be converted, they were the lowest of the low. And because of this vile thinking, some of the Jews who suffered the most were Jewish gay men.
In 1935 the Nazis revised paragraph 175 of the 1871 law which made homosexuality or any “expression” of homosexuality illegal. The slightest sign of homosexual tendencies- aka effeminacy – could land a person in jail for s decade. A lustful look, a touch in the wrong place, even a rumor of queer acts was enough to bring the Gestapo to a suspect’s home. The Nazi brutes kept records of possible homos called pink lists. And in the following decade, over 100,000 men were arrested for violating paragraph 175 and at least half were sentenced to prison. Approximately 5,000-15,000 of those men were sent off to concentration camps. Those arrested were in addition to the gay Jewish men already imprisoned.
Once the men arrived at the camps they were immediately segregated. The Nazis believed that homosexuality was contagious and also equated gay men with rapists and pedophiles. The prisoners were branded with the pink triangle on their clothing and were reviled by both the guards and the other prisoners. Pierre Seele was a survivor of the camps and said of the isolation:
“There was no solidarity for the homosexual prisoners; they belonged to the lowest caste. Other prisoners, even when between themselves, used to target them.”
Studies from records show that homosexual prisoners more often received the heaviest of labor and rarely were put on light duty. This was in line with the “Extermination Through Work” Initiative. Which was literally the practice of working select prisoners to death. Those bearing the pink triangles were assigned to Buchenwald and Flossinger. There they mined granite for 12-16 hours a day. In the extreme heat, with little water or food, running on the bare minimum of sleep. Later in the war, they were forced to build weapons for the German army.
When the men weren’t working, they were often being bullied, tortured, beaten and raped by the prison guards. Many of the men were castrated. Several had their testicles boiled off in hot water. Some were tortured in other ways. Pierre had 25 centimeters of wood shoved up his rectum. He also watched his lover Jo be torn apart and eaten by starving dogs. In typical homophobe hypocrisy, many of the gay prisoners were used as “Doll Boys” by the guards and SS Officers. Forced to be sex slaves in exchange for food and protection. One survivor, Rudolf Brazda, told of how he was pulled from the labor camps. A Kapo (prison guard) on the site assigned Brazda to work in the infirmary instead. One day when they were alone, the Kapo grabbed Brazda and began kissing him. Daily Brazda was assaulted by the guard, but he never spoke a word because the Kapo kept him from certain death at the quarries.
But perhaps the most disturbing part of the camps were the experiments. The Nazis are notorious for the evil and horrific experiments they performed on the Jews, especially children. And the homosexuals were no exception to their torture. The doctors had several ideas on how to make the homosexuals straight. Carl Vaernet- a back doctor in his civilian life- headed up one of the most infamous experiments on gay men. He took 17 gay prisoners and surgically inserted an artificial sexual gland in their groin. The gland would release testosterone periodically. Two men died from the infections. A few men claimed the gland made them straight. Overall the experiment was scrapped. But that didn’t stop the doctors and guards from trying.
Heinrich Himmler, a staunch homophobe, ordered the pink triangles to have sex with the camps female sex slaves once a week. In almost every concentration camp there was a brothel where Jewish women and lesbian women were assigned as sex slaves. Male prisoners (gay and straight) were so-called “rewarded” by being forced to have sex with the women. Often the acts were performed in front of a group of onlooking guards who jeered and taunted the prisoners. If a man couldn’t get it up, he was dragged away and beaten. While sex therapy was a good time for Himmler and his SS goons, the idea of turning homosexuals straight through sex conversion therapy was an honest belief. Considered as legitimate research.
Another experiment performed on gay prisoners had nothing to do with curing their sexuality. It was designed to find a cure for Typhus fever. Which left the prisoners with a fever, headache, and rash. Eventually leading to delirium and finally death. They also placed the men under sunlamps so hot it burned their skin and caused them to pass out. The men were then cooled until they awoke and the experiment started all over again. The point of this latter study, if there was a point, is unknown.
And of course, this was all in addition to the daily suffering within the camps. The lack of food, the overcrowded quarters, the rampant lice, rats and bugs. The stench of death pervaded the air. The cruel guards who often used the prisoners’ triangles as target practice. The freezing winters and the blistering hot summers. The loneliness and despair. Millions of people slaughtered, starved or worked to death. Simply for who they were. Simply because they did not fit into a few men’s ideas of what humans should be, look like, and act like. At least 6,000 homosexual men were killed in the camps. Most certainly thousands more who were never outed but fell into another of the Germans prejudiced categories. If statistics are proved true – and at least 10 percent of people are gay or lesbian – then hundreds of thousands of queer Jewish people died alongside their families and friends. And that number doesn’t include anyone who identifies anywhere else on the queer spectrum.
The Holocaust and World War II were a devastating loss of life. But also a loss of culture, of faith, of education, of understanding, of humanity as a whole. We will never truly recover from what those 12 years did to our Earth. We must always remember that tiny steps of hatred and depravity often result in miles of progress lost. In later years, the LGBTQ movement would reclaim the Pink triangle as a badge of honor. And a reminder of what can happen when we do not confront hate. When we stand by in silence. Because in many cases, silence does equal death. There are still 78 countries where homosexuality is illegal, many of these countries have harsh prison penalties and even death sentences. There are also countries where homosexuality isn’t officially illegal – such as Russia -but the violence is just as brutal. We still have a long way to go.
Your recommended resource is The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals by Richard Plant.
Pink Triangle Organization – https://www.thepinktriangle.com/history/symbol.html
Time Magazine – https://time.com/5295476/gay-pride-pink-triangle-history/
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pink_triangle
Concentration Camps – https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/concentration-camps-1933-39
11 Facts – https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-holocaust
Berlin pre-nazis – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_culture_in_Berlin
Institute of Science of Sexuality – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institut_f%C3%BCr_Sexualwissenschaft
Roehm, Night of the Long Knives – https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/holocaust-remembrance-day/.premium.MAGAZINE-the-nazis-tolerated-gays-then-everything-changed-1.6869815
Buchenwald – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/8905527/
Brazda – https://m.spiegel.de/international/germany/i-had-always-been-blessed-with-good-fortune-at-98-gay-concentration-camp-survivor-shares-story-a-772667-2.html