The Pink Triangle
The Nazi party, which came to power in 1933, subjected millions of people to surveillance, torture, and mass murder. The Nazis killed over 6 million Jewish people, as well as other marginalized groups including gay men. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the German government even acknowledged the torture of gay men, or gave them compensation for their torment during this time (3). Let’s take a look at the progression of homophobic sentiments and actions during the war, starting with the law known as Paragraph 175.
This German law criminalized homosexual acts between men, and further prohibited bestiality, prostitution, and sexual abuse of minors. The section of the law that regulated and discouraged acts of male homosexuality lasted from 1871 to 1994, and roughly 100,00 men were arrested on its grounds (4).
The law was amended in 1935, during Hitler’s reign, and further outlawed “anything as simple as men looking at or touching one another in a sexually suggestive way, and enabled authorities to arrest people even if they had only heard rumors that people had been engaging in such behavior” (1). This addition made homosexuality a felony instead of a minor offense, and turned the persecution of gay men into witch hunt. It would last for 24 years.
One survivor explained his experience in the book “Holocaust and Human Behavior”:
“With one blow a wave of arrests of homosexuals began in our town. One of the first to be arrested was my friend... One day people from the Gestapo came to his house and took him away… Following his arrest, his home was searched by Gestapo agents. Books were taken away, note- and address books were confiscated, questions were asked among the neighbors. . . . The address books were the worst. All those who figured in them, or had anything to do with him were arrested and summoned by the Gestapo. Me, too. For a whole year I was summoned by the Gestapo and interrogated at least once every fourteen days or three weeks. . . . After four weeks my friend was released from investigative custody. The [Nazis] could not prove anything against him either. However, the effects of his arrest were terrifying. Hair shorn off, totally confused, he was no longer what he was before. . . . We had to be very careful with all contacts. I had to break off all relations with my friend. We passed each other by on the street, because we did not want to put ourselves in danger. . . . We lived like animals in a wild game park, always sensing the hunters” (2).
The Night of Long Knives
Nazis themselves were also subjected to violence against gay men“The Night of Long Knives” was a 3-day violent purge that targeted gay Nazis and was meant to rid any threat to power. One such member was Ernst Rohm, an openly gay Nazi and a close ally to Hitler (so close that there were rumors of a more intimate relationship). He was in power for several years before his execution for being gay, although many believe his murder was actually due to the threat of his expanding leadership.
The Pink Triangle
As the war continued, gay men were placed in concentration camps and were forced to wear a large pink triangle on their uniforms. The pink was meant to signify femininity, and degrade those who were forced to wear it. The triangle was easily detectable in order to indicate the individual’s position as the lowest-ranking member within the camps (4).
This identification marker also led to a difference in treatment. For example, these men were segregated from everyone else to make sure they didn’t “spread” homosexuality inside the camps, even though this is impossible. They were subject to sexual violence, such as castration or genital torture.
These people were also used as subjects of medical experiments, and were made to undergo procedures such as injections of testosterone to “make them heterosexual” (1). Researchers estimate that up to 60% of gay men in the camps were killed. For those who survived, their imprisonment went on much longer than the others. Many were re-imprisoned by the Allies, as they were still seen to have broken the laws of Paragraph 175 (4).
What About The Women
The threat was violent and constant for men. According to one researcher, “Lesbians, while also forced to go underground, were not seen as a threat to the same degree as gay men. Since women were largely excluded from positions of power, there seemed to be no real danger” (4).
In some ways, Nazis treated gay women as being “beneath the law.” As a result, the lack of persecution was far from progressive: it instead signaled the influence of patriarchal thinking, in that women were seen as irrelevant.
Educators in Germany wrote about sex and sexuality during World War II. A lot of the work that was published focused disproportionately on pregnancy, as the population was reduced given the deaths in World War I. Women who were deemed to have “superior” genes were often forced into pregnancy, in order to create the “new world” Hitler desired. Women were also given additional money as a reward from the state if they had more than three children (3).
However, we must now question the role of censorship and intimidation brought on by the Nazis. Did key sex educators mean what they were writing? Or did they write out of coercion to keep themselves safe? We don’t know what these experts or journalists were really thinking.
The Sachsenhausen concentration camp gave formal acknowledgment of homosexual men in 1999. However, it wasn’t until 2016 that German government officials set out to make official amends to this community in the same way they had the Jewish community (such as financial reparations) (4).
In today’s age, gay men have taken the pink triangle back as their own, celebrating it and paying homage to the lives lost. And while this time was incredibly difficult, historians do believe that the crackdown on Paragraph 175 encouraged more research on LGBTQ+ identities, pushing forward the idea that being gay is not a mental disorder nor a criminal act. These findings did ultimately add to a more nuanced understanding of sexuality and help give the LGBTQ+ community greater peace in the future.
- Waxman, Olivia B. “How Nazi Pink Triangles Symbol Was Reclaimed for LGBT Pride.” Time, Time, 31 May 2018, time.com/5295476/gay-pride-pink-triangle-history/.
- “Isolating Homosexuals.” Facing History and Ourselves, www.facinghistory.org/holocaust-and-human-behavior/chapter-5/isolating-homosexuals.
- Lautmann, Rüdiger. "Pink Triangle." The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies (2016): 1-3.
- Rorholm, Marnie. "Cultural Visibility of the Pink Triangle: Examining Gay Germany through a Global Leadership Lens."