A pink triangle, two-and-three-quarter inches high, worn on the left side of the jacket and on the right leg of the trousers, was the symbol which branded the homosexual inmates of the Nazi concentration camps. Most of them perished. In the words of a non-gay survivor: "I saw quite a number of pink triangles. I don't know how they were eventually killed. ... One day they were simply gone." The daily agony of their lives is recalled by Dr L.D. Claassen von Neudegg, a gay survivor of the Sachsenhausen camp:
After roll call on the evening of June 20, 1942, an order was suddenly given: "All prisoners with the pink triangle will remain standing at attention!" Our detail commander barked: "Three hundred criminal deviants, present as ordered!" We were registered, and then it was revealed to us that in accordance with an order from the Reichsfuehring SS, our category was to be isolated in an intensified- penalty company, and we would be transferred as a unit to the Klinker Brickwords the next morning. The Klinker factory! We shuddered, for the human death mill was more than feared. ... Forced to drag along twenty corpses, the rest of us encrusted with blood, we entered the Klinker works. ... We had been here for almost two months, but it seemed like endless years to us. When we were "transferred" here, we had numbered around 300 men. Whips were used more frequently each morning, when we were forced down into the clay pits under the wailing camp sirens. "Only 50 are still alive," whispered the man next to me. "Stay in the middle then you won't get hit so much."
What were the events leading to the Nazi persecution of homosexuals and the atrocities of the concentration camps?
In the early nineteenth century Germany was a loose confederation of individual separate states, and homosexuality had been effectively legalized in several of them which had adopted the Code Napoleon. However, Prussia still retained laws which punished homosexuality with imprisonment and flogging. Following the Franco-Prussian War, when King Wilhelm established the Second Reich in 1871 he reversed the general tendency towards legalization, and adopted the harsh Prussian code for the entire nation. The anti-gay law in question is Paragraph 175, which outlawed "lewd and unnatural behavior," prescribing prison sentences ranging from one day to five years.
The adoption of this code was a major setback to the work of the world's first gay rights activist, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-95). He had been arguing the case in humerous pamphlets that homosexuality was as natural as left-handedness, and that gays were entitled to full civil rights including marriage. In 1871 he was forced to stop publishing his pamphlets; eventually he went into exile to Aquilla in the Southern Appenines, where he died in 1895.
Ulrichs' fight was taken up by men such as Adolf Brand, who in 1891 published the first gay magazine, Der Eigene, which ran continuously until 1929, and by Magnus Hirschfeld, who published Sappho und Socrates in 1891. Brand, Hirschfeld and Max Spohr got together in 1897 to establish the first gay rights organization, the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäaut;res Komittee (Scientific Humanitarian Committee). Though it had only 70 members by 1900, it nevertheless had managed to publish 23 books on homosexuality in its education efforts, and eventually it managed to collect several thousand signatures of prominent people on a petition to repeal Paragraph 175.
The German gay world was thriving, in spite of the fact that between 200-300 men a year were imprisoned for violating Paragraph 175. Berlin in 1895, with a population of 2½ million, had 40 gay bars, and, according to the police, nearly 2000 hustlers. Drag balls were openly advertised in the straight media. In 1905 alone there were 320 publications on homosexuality. Groups such as the Social Democratic Workingmen's Party founded on the principles of Marx and Engels publicly supported gay rights.
A severe blow fell in 1907, when Prince Philip zu Eulenburg and other prominent men in government circles were involved in a homosexual scandal which the newspapers sensationalized into an anti-gay witch hunt. There were trials, libel suits, suicides, and a dramatic fall in the membership of gay organizations. This was partly because Hirschfeld, much to his discredit, was persuaded to give testimony identifying one of the gay men on trial as having "typical identifiable homosexual characteristics.".
In 1910 the government proposed outlawing lesbian acts. The bill failed to pass, and the controversy strengthened ties between gays and the women's movement, such as the League for the Protection of Mothers and Sexual Reform. Despite the Eulenberg scandals, the gay movement received much support. In 1917 the Soviet Union abolished all anti-gay legislation, and the German Communists supported Hirschfeld's Law Reform Proposal of 1927.
In 1919 Hirschfeld set up the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, which soon had 20,000 volumes on its shelves, and a large staff to counsel gays and to educate society. Other gay organizations were quickly established, including a gay community center and a committee to coordinate their law reform efforts.
But fascism was in the air, and we should not forget that Hirscfeld was Jewish as well as gay. As early as 1920, in Munich, he was attacked by anti-Semites, who bragged in a newspaper report that they so badly disfigured his mouth that he "could never again be kissed by one of his `disciples'." Later the same year he was attacked by the Nazis, this time left on the pavement with a fractured skull.
Showings of Hirschfeld's first pro-gay film Different from the Others (featuring Conrad Veidt, star of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) were regularly disrupted by the fascists. In one such incident in Vienna in 1923 they shot and wounded several members of the audience. The National Socialist Party issued their offical view of homosexuals on May 14, 1928:
It is not necessary that you and I live, but it is necessary that the German people live. And it can live if it can fight, for life means fighting. And it can only fight if it maintains its masculinity. It can only maintain its masculinity if it exercises discipline, especially in matters of love. Free love and deviance are undisciplined. Therefore, we reject you, as we reject anything which hurts our people.The gay movement nevertheless almost achieved its major aim in 1928: the Reichstag Committee, by a vote of 15 to 13, approved the Penal Reform Bill which abolished all homosexual crimes. But before the law could be put into effect, in 1929 the stock market crashed, the Bill was tabled, and the Nazis were swept into power.
Some of the Nazis were of course gay themselves, but it is dangerously naive to believe the the Nazis ever "tolerated" homosexuality. An instructive illustration is provided by the case of Ernst Röhm, Head of the SA or storm-troopers.
Röhm's Brownshirt militia mostly undisciplined soldiers and roughnecks from the city-slums contained many gay men, and there was debauchery in the ranks. Röhm himself was careless of his reputation: for example, in 1925 he pressed charges against a 17- year-old hustler who had robbed him the "morning after." Hitler knew of Röhm's homosexuality at least by 1927, as well as that of others such as Edmund Heines, Karl Ernst, and La Paz, who owed their promotions to their "services" to Röhm. Heines would scour Germany picking up boys for his commander, and the clique met often in Munich for orgies.
But Hitler was not yet strong enough in his own right either to quash his rival (Röhm lead a 100,000-strong army) or to maintain power without his help. He wisely decided to come to Röhm's defence: "His private life cannot be an object of scrutiny unless it conflicts with basic principles of National Socialist ideology."
When Röhm's army grew to 500,000 men by 1932, Hitler saw a threat and decided that Röhm's private life did so conflict. Party Judge Walter Buch arranged for the assassination of the gay leaders of the SA: Röhm, Count Du Moulin, Eckhart, George Bell, Stabsführer Uhl. But the plot was discovered, Buch was denounced, and Röhm and Bell fled to their friend Major Karl Mayr to find out who was behind the conspiracy.
Night of the Long Knives
Hitler removed the glove from his hand on June 30, 1934, which came to be called "The Night of the Long Knives." A body of his troops converged upon a Bavarian resort where they discovered Röhm's men in the aftermath of a "party" dramatized in Visconti's film The Damned' Röhm was found in bed with his chauffeur, and Heines in bed with another man.
Heines and his boyfriend were ushered outside and perfunctorily shot, while the rest were arrested as traitors. Simultaneously, 200 SA leaders were rounded up in Berlin and massacred. Röhm was taken to Stadelheim Prison in Munich by order of Himmler and Göring, given a gun, and told to kill himself. He refused, saying: "Let Adolf do his dirty work." They shot him down.
On the day that Röhm was murdered, Hitler issued an order to purge all gays from the army, for he feared a Secret Order of The Third Sex.
Although June 30, 1934, marks the beginning of the Nazi slaughter of gays, active persecution had begun a year earlier, in 1933, when Hitler had become supreme legal authority of the Third Reich. In that year the following events too place:
All activities of Hirschfeld's League of Human Rights were banned, and the gay emancipation movement was crushed.
Triumph of the Heterosexual Will
The stage was set for what I call The Triumph of the Heterosexual Will. I use this phrase because I think it is extremely important to recognize that Nazism was preeminently an extreme form of the heterosexual ideal, and what Christopher Isherwood called "compulsive heterosexuality." Hitler's beliefs on this matter are quite clear: "We must build a nation healthy to the core, robust in its menfolk and absolutely feminine in its women."
Contrary to insidious post-war propaganda to the effect that the Nazi regime was "riddled with homosexuals," the bulk of the Nazi leaders, including those whom we most often associate with the atrocities, were confirmed heterosexuals. Admittedly it is true that an assistant commandant at Treblinka kept a harem of boys in drag, but from an objective viewpoint this one instance is less "horrifying" than the very many more harems of women terrorized by heterosexual officers. If there is any "inherent link" between a particular sexual lifestyle and a particular political philosophy, then most of the evidence and all of the ideological evidence indicates that fascism and heterosexuality are made for one another. Let us look at some of the typical Nazi leaders:
But let us look at the more important Nazi policies and viewpoints: all of them examples of heterosexual ideology.
The voice of authority in sexual ethics was Professor Max von Gruber of Munich University, an arrogant heterosexualist. His book Sexual Hygiene the textbook of the Nazis first appeared in 1927 in an edition of 325,000 copies. It condemned homosexuality and masturbation, and preached that:
Sexual intercourse takes place within wedlock. ... The purpose of marriage is the procreation of children and their upbringing. National growth requires marriage to produce at least four offspring.Von Gruber was the guardian of Germany's racial heritage, the foremost advocate of selective breeding. Under his influence the National Socialist Teachers' Association undertook the re-education of children concerning geneology, genetics, and racial theory. By 1941, 41 training centers were preparing 215,000 teachers to propagate his theories, using as a text the Primer of Racial Hygiene.
In order to promote the heterosexual ideal, the Nazi government under Göring provided quick promotion for civil servants who married early. "Matrimonial Credits" were issued to women as an economic incentive to procreation. Under this system, interest-free loans were granted, with a 25% remission for the birth of each child. A mother producing Gruber's four-children ideal did not have to pay back any of the loan. By 1935, 650 million Reich Marks had been distributed to one million mothers.
Prostitution, though technically illegal, was tolerated because it increased the population and was believed to counteract homosexuality. In decrees issued on September 9, 1939, and on March 16, 1940, medically-supervised brothels were officially set up on the front for the use of Himmler's unmarried SS men. In 1943, 600 women from Paris, Poland, Bohemia and Moravia were recruited to supply 60 brothels, each of which served 50 clients a day. Some were used for biological experimentation: in the Klosterstrasse brothel in Stuttgart, for example, the women wore special sheathes to collect their partner's semen, which was then gathered for tests to devise a plasma substitute. (Bizarre but true.)
These brothels were supplemented by the Nazi stud-farms, called "Founts of Life" huge child-producing factories for the elite, of which there were 13 in 1944.
The women's movement was of course crushed as completely as was the gay movement. More precisely, it was perverted. "Reich Mother-in- Chief" Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, head of the Women's Association, declared: "The German woman must be such that she does, and does gladly, all that is required of her." And Frau Siber of the Ministry of the Interior declared: "In woman's womb reposes the people's future, and in her soul the heart of the nation." Women became factory workers and/or a procreatrixes while they listened to propaganda about obedience and devotion. The Nazis believed so strongly in the myth of the "mother instinct" in all women that lesbians although treated with contempt were not outlawed or sent to the camps. Lesbians would, they believed, give way to their "natural" mothering instincts if given half a chance, and, in any case, they could be forcibly impregnated if necessary. Women sent to the camps who were subsequently discovered to be lesbian, were especially liable to be forced into brothel work as a "cure" as well as a humiliation.
Hatred of Homosexuals
With such a rabidly heterosexual world-view, it is not difficult to understand the Nazi's hatred of homosexuals. In a nation obsessed with the birth-rate, homosexuality was a political crime. Rudolf Diels, founder of the Gestapo, in 1934 lectured his colleagues on how homosexuals had caused the downfall of ancient Greece. In 1935 all local police departments were required to submit to the Gestapo lists of suspected homosexuals; shortly there were 20,000 names on the index.
Reich Legal Director Hans Frank in 1938 issued orders for more rigorous surveillance:
Particular attention should be addressed to homosexuality, which is clearly expressive of a disposition opposed to the normal national community. Homosexual activity means the negation of the community as it must be constituted if the race is not to perish. That is why homosexual behaviour, in particular, merits no mercy.Himmler's Division II was responsible for the control of "illegal parties and organizations, leagues and economic groups, reactionaries and the Church, freemasonry, and homosexuality." Even after serving their prison sentences, such "enemies of the state" were taken into "protective custody" (Schutzhaft) a euphemism for internment in concentration camps.
The one man most directly responsible for the Nazi persecution of homosexuals was Heinrich Himmler. We have already noted that he was a fanatic heterosexualist. On the other side of the coin, he was a fanatic anti-homosexualist. By early 1937 gay men were being purged from his SS troups at the rate of merely one a month, but in that year Himmler gave a speech branding homosexuals as mentally diseased, effeminate, cowardly, liars, traitors, irresponsible and disloyal.
In his address to the Bad Tölz conference he ordered that gay SS men should be routed out, stripped of rank, expelled, court martialed, and imprisoned for the duration allowed by Paragraph 175. This was accompanied by private instructions to his generals:
After serving the sentence imposed by the court, they will, on my instructions, be taken to a concentration camp and there shot while attempting to escape.In 1941 Himmler sent a confidentail circular to the SS generals and to the police:
Any member of the SS or police who engaged in indecent behaviour with another man or permits himself to be abused by him for indecent purposes, will, regardless of age, be condemned to death and executed. In less grave cases, a term of not less than six years' penal servitude or imprisonment may be imposed.By "indecent behaviour" Himmler included not only copulation but "touching the body of the other person, even when fully clothed, also the act of kissing." This decision was welcomed by both Goebbels and by SS Central Office Chief Gottlob Berger. In 1942 the Reich Ministry of Justice publicly adopted the death penalty for homosexuals.
Himmler was also directly responsible for much of the anti-gay propaganda drummed into the masses. For example, he enlisted the help of scholars to prove that the "noble" race of ancient Germans solved the problem by drowning homosexuals in bogs and fens. Professor Eckhardt of Berlin University, the authority on legal history, said:
In assessing the racially pernicious sympton of degeneracy known as homosexuality, we must revert to the Nordic principle that degenerates should be exterminated.Himmler's own belief is summed up in a statement he made to Felix Kersten in 1940: "The homosexuals must be entirely eliminated."
The Concentration Camps
Male homosexuals were the lowest of the low. They were placed in the Level 3 camps: Dachau, Fühlsbüttel, Grossrosen, Lichtenburg, Mauthausen, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück and Sonnenburg. There they were placed under "triple camp discipline," which meant that they were subjected to harder work, less food, and stricter supervision than the other inmates. When they fell sick they were not allowed treatment in the clinics, and were left to die or were killed with large injections of morphine.
A survivor of one of these camps reports on the arrival of a new homosexual inmate, a healthy young man:
When he arrived, he was seized and ridiculed, then beaten and kicked, and finally spat upon. He suffered alone and in silence. Then they put him under a cold shower. It was a frosty winter evening, and he stood outside the barracks all through that long, bitterly cold night.Another survivor writers:
I saw a rather effeminate young man who was repeatedly forced to dance in front of SS men, who would then put him on the rack chained hand and foot to a crossbeam in the guard-house barracks and beat him in the most awful way. Even today I find it impossible to think back on all my comrades, all the barbarities, all the tortures, without falling into the deepest depression.
A full account of the treatment of gay men in the camps is available in Rudolph Hoess's Commandant of Auschwitz. Hoess joined the SS in 1933, and became Rapport-führer at Dachau in 1935. He did not quite approve of the whippings, but could not figure out what else to do with the Strichjungen the hustlers and most "obvious" gay men who were rounded up in the city streets and shipped to the camps: "A constant stream of reports about their activity began to flow from every block. Punishment had no effect whatever."
Hoess was later transferred to Sachsenhausen, where he found there were even more homosexuals. He regarded it as an "epidemic" and had them all placed in one block, under a commander who "knew how to deal with them." They were forced to carry out the most difficult work in the camp: pushing metal rollers for paving, working in the clay pit of the Klinker Brickworks. Hoess says:
It was hard work, and each of them had to complete a definite amount of work each day. They were exposed to all kinds of weather, summer and winter, since a stipulated number of truckloads had to be filled daily.Quotas were regularly raised; men who collapsed were dragged away often not to be seen again. The alleged idea behind the hard work was to make them "normal". This was supplemented by primitive aversion therapy and medical experimentation having little to do with so-called "cures." Neudegg recalls:
Experiments had been ordered involving living subjects and phosphorus: methods of treating phosphorus burns were to be developed and tested. I must be silent about the effects of this series of experiments, which proceeded with unspeakable pain, fear, blood and tears: for it is impossible to put the misery into words.Gay men were given the opportunity to undergo "renunciation tests" under Himmler's orders, but even if the gay men "passed" the test and succeeded in being aroused by the prostitutes provided for them, they were not released. Few of the men gave up their homosexuality. Hoess reports: "Whenever they found an opportunity, they would fall into one another's arms." And "knowing they would never be set free," they suffered additional psychological stress. Their work became even harder, and they died like flies.
Hoess observed that many gay men in his camps formed deep and lasting relationships:
Should one of these lose his "friend" through sickness, or perhaps death, then the end could at once be foreseen. Many would commit suicide. To such natures, in such circumstances, the "friend" meant everything. There were many instances of "friends" committing suicide together.But on the whole, many of the men with the pink triangles especially the Strichjungen and the most swishy gays did not give up without a struggle. As Hoess coldly remarks: "It was often not easy to drive them to the gas chambers."
The Death Toll
No one knows how many homosexual men were killed by the Nazis before and during the war. But let us look at some figures.
First, on the home front. The number of homosexual men (non-military) convicted under Paragraph 175 and sent to prison were:
These very large numbers of convicted homosexual civilians suggest a much higher figure for the front lines where most of the men were and the concentration camps (for which there are few records).
In every camp in which he served Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz, and Ravensbruck Hoess says there were "many" homosexuals. It is very clear from his account that homosexuals constituted a significant proportion of the inmates: his comments imply that there were nearly as many homosexuals in Dachau as there were Jews, which would have been about 12% of the prison population in 1936. This does not include those homosexuals who arrived at the camps by train and proceeded directly into the gas chambers, nor does it include the SS gay men who were brought to the camps and "shot while attempting to escape."
The death toll for all inmates was 8 million. It is impossible to estimate how many of them were homosexuals. But Hoess, according to his own estimate, personally supervised the extermination of 2,000,000 homosexuals, Jews, Gipsies, communists, and Russian soldiers: this would imply that he alone could have killed at least 15,000 homosexuals, the figure often cited for the total number of homosexuals killed in the concentration camps. Concentration camp records were systematically destroyed by the Nazis, and surviving records are sparse and incomplete, so there are no really reliable figures for how many men were dealt with under Hitler's "final solution" to "the homosexual problem". The estimate ranges from 430,000 (which is probably too high) to 10,000 (which is probably too low).
Detailed statistical analysis of surviving records indicates that homosexual prisoners were systematically placed in the hardest work commandos (notably the gravel pits at Dachau and the brick works where all of the homosexual inmates of Sachsenhausen worked); that the death rate for homosexuals was 50 percent higher than for political prisoners; that they received more brutal and more frequent extra punishments than the other prisoners; and that they formed the highest percentage of prisoners who were "transported" (the Nazi euphemism for transfer to the gas chambers). One survivor of Dachau reported: "The inmates with the pink triangles never lived long, they were exterminated by the SS with systematic swiftness."
By all accounts, hardly any of the homosexual inmates of the concentration camps survived. The pink triangles were spurned by all other groups in the concentration camps, and most non-gay survivors even today refuse to acknowledge the existence of their fellow gay prisoners. After the war, homosexuals were denied the reparations given by the German government to other groups, because they were still classified as criminals under German law. They were even denied state pensions to compensate for the amount of time spent in the concentration camps. They could be re-imprisoned for "repeat offences," and were kept on the modern lists of "sex offenders." The humane institutions of every country have condemned the treatment of all of the victims except for homosexuals. On annual days of mourning for the victims, few countries officially mourn for homosexuals. To the survivor's comment that "one day they were simply gone" we might add "and today are all but forgotten."
Copyright © 1975, 1998 Rictor Norton. This essay was originally published in Gay News No. 82, 6-19 November 1975. It is believed to be the first time that an article on the subject was published in a British publication. I have made some amendments in the light of new information since 1975. The sources include Jiom Steakley, "The Gay Movement in Germany" and "Homosexuals and the Third Reich," in Body Politic, Issues 9, 10, 11; John Lauritsen and David Thorstad, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935) (New York: Times Change Press, 1974); W.I. Scobie, "Death Camps," in Gay Sunshine No. 25; Hans Peter Bleuel, Sex and Society in Nazi Germany (Bantam, 1975); Gerald Reitlinger, The SS: Alibi of a Nation (Viking, 1968); Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz (London, 1959); and Gillian Rodgerson, "Out of the shadow of the pink triangle," news feature in Gay Times, November 1995, pp. 40-41; Rüdiger Lautmann, "The Pink Triangle: The Persecution of Homosexual Males in Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany,", in Licata and Petersen (eds), The Gay Past (1985), pp. 141-60.
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "One day they were simply gone": The Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals. 21 Dec. 1999, updated 10 August 2010 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/nazi.htm>.
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