The pink triangle

Posted October 22nd, 2008 in History. Tags: .

The Nazi persecution of homosexuals was strangely contradictory in nature. While officially condemned for their negative effect on the nation’s reproductive rate, gay men often held high offices and rank in the Nazi government and military. In addition, a rigorous legal distinction was drawn between gay men and lesbians. Homosexuality of either gender among non-Aryan races was almost completely ignored.

Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code, made law in 1871, criminalized homosexual behavior between men. In 1935, it was revised to expand the list of prohibited behaviors and to make the punishment more severe. This revision represents a change in Nazi opinion regarding the origin of homosexuality, prompted in part by the Night of the Long Knives.

Ernst Rohm, the leader of the SA “brown shirts,” was known to be gay. Perhaps because of him and other known homosexuals holding positions of power in the Nazi regime, the Hitler Youth was reportedly referred to as the “Homo Youth.” In fact, the Hitler Youth expelled 4800 youths between 1934-39, 1200 of which were explicitly expelled for being gay. The elite SS officers weren’t immune to this “racial impurity.” Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, admitted that as many as a dozen men were expelled from their ranks each year for homosexuality. Himmler’s own nephew, SS officer Hans Himmler, was among these. He was eventually incinerated at Dachau wearing a pink triangle.

Upon discovering that Rohm was planning a coup, Hitler used Rohm’s sexuality as a partial justification for his 1934 attack on Rohm’s forces. After removing Rohm and the SA, Hitler replaced him with the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. Himmler’s appointment marked the true advent of Nazi homophobia.

Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of the Berlin Institute for Sexual Science, held that homosexuality was an innate genetic trait held by a small percentage of the population. In other words, he didn’t believe it was a disease that you could catch from prolonged exposure. If this hypothesis is taken at face value and applied to Nazi ideology, you’d expect the Nazi regime to be tolerant of gay men because they voluntarily remove themselves from the gene pool. The reason Nazi policy regarding homosexuals was so harsh is that Heinrich Himmler didn’t agree with Hirschfeld. Himmler believed that sexuality wasn’t innately determined but could be influenced, and he considered homosexuals to be capable of spreading their sexual preference to other Germans. As a result, Himmler viewed homosexuality as an act of treason.

It should be noted that although gay men were persecuted after Himmler took control of the SS, lesbianism was studiously ignored. Nazi officials gave five reasons for this discrepancy:

  1. Gay men couldn’t easily be forced to procreate, while lesbians could be forcibly impregnated.
  2. The Nazis believed that homosexuality was more widespread among men than women, so it represented the larger threat.
  3. They predicted an avalanche of false accusations levied against straight women who had close same-sex friendships.
  4. Because men held all the positions of power, homosexual tendencies in men had more to do with public life than lesbianism.
  5. Himmler delivered a speech in 1937 that ultimately attributed this legal distinction to the loss of two million German men from casualties incurred during the First World War. With such an imbalance, fertile males would be far more valuable to a regime obsessed with reproduction than the more abundant fertile females.

Nazi treatment of non-Aryan gays is a topic of some debate. Some authors contend that the Nazi viewpoint was one of indifference, justified through the reasoning that “inferior” races were going to be “cleansed” regardless, so homosexuals would actually aid in that purpose by limiting the reproductive rate of the races that they “infected.” On the other hand, there are some instances of governments allied with Germany undertaking this on their own. One such example would be Switzerland, where 74 people suspected of homosexual behavior were arrested in 1937.

Gay men who were arrested under Paragraph 175 became known as “175’ers” and were marked with a pink triangle. Although all concentration camp prisoners were marked with colored triangles, the “pink triangle” was reportedly larger than all the rest, and sometimes altered even further by certain commandants to be more distinguishable at a distance. As a result, prisoners marked with the pink triangle were ostracized by their fellow prisoners to a larger degree even than Gypsies or Jews.

The total number of homosexuals killed during the holocaust is very uncertain. Estimates range from 10,000 to over 1 million. The latter is usually regarded as a staggering overestimate, though. Most historians appear to hold that gay victims numbered at least 50,000 but not much more than 200,000. It should be noted, though, that aside from the obvious problems of determining how many people were actually convicted under Paragraph 175 and subsequently murdered in camps, these estimates don’t include persons who committed suicide rather than suffer in the camps.

One reason for the marked lack of information regarding gay victims is the fact that they were usually ignored as such. In this regard, the world community seems to have grouped them together with criminals interned by the Nazis. For example, the altered version of Paragraph 175 wasn’t repealed until 1969. In 1957, the West German Federal Constitutional Court not only upheld the Nazi-altered penal code, but also doubled the maximum prison sentence. Due to this attitude, only a handful of homosexuals have come forward to provide us with information regarding the plight of the men with the pink triangles.

One such survivor is Heinz Heger, who was arrested under Paragraph 175 in 1939 after his tryst with the son of a high-ranking Nazi official was discovered. Originally sentenced to a mere six months of prison, he was placed in custody afterwards and sent to Liesl. This sort of legal maneuvering was the brainchild of Himmler, who found the legal punishments of homosexuals to be lacking and decreed that they be placed in Level Three concentration camps as a form of “protective custody” after their prison sentences were served.

Heger vividly describes the utter contempt with which both the camp officers and other prisoners treated gay detainees. Despite this, his testimony seems to indicate that wearing the pink triangle in concentration camps imparted at least one advantage; camp officials and Capos often chose homosexuals as their sexual partners. The partner of a block senior or Capo often received comparatively easy work details and more food rations. Probably more than anything else, this explains how Heger managed to live through six years in concentration camps.

These instances of homosexual behavior in “emergency situations” between otherwise straight men were seen as acceptable by most prisoners. However, such liaisons had to be kept strictly secret from SS officers. Heger was, in fact, put through several of what he calls “probation periods” where his discretion was tested by his Capo partner before he allowed these relationships to continue. Apparently even this need for discretion didn’t extend far up the chain of command, though; Heger recalls a camp commander’s overtly homosexual– even sadomasochistic– actions.

In 1942, a shift in opinion occurred regarding the usefulness of gay German inmates. German speaking citizens were sorely needed to act as foremen and supervisors in factories, and as such jobs were generally performed by inmates, the supervisors were chosen from within their ranks. It is around this time that the SS leadership “rediscovered” the German nationality of the homosexuals they had incarcerated. Heinz Heger, for instance, was assigned the position of Capo in a factory in Flossenburg that primarily built Messerschmitt planes. In order to fulfill his assigned duties, Heger was forced to develop a rudimentary system of communication among prisoners who didn’t share a common language. This innovation saved his life by making him appear indispensable, otherwise he’d likely have been sent to the front lines as little more than cannon fodder.

Several “treatments” for homosexuality were suggested in the camps. Brothels were set up in the camps, and visiting them was compulsory for 175’ers. Castration was also practiced routinely. Gay men were used as exclusive test subjects in at least one known experiment, run by a Danish SS doctor by the name of Vaernet. Believing that homosexuality was caused by reduced levels of the hormone testosterone, he gave test subjects implants designed to release testosterone in a time-delayed manner.

The Nazis approached homosexuality in a manner that was far more contradictory than any of their other prejudices. Despite the fact that at one point a large portion of their own members was openly homosexual, they viciously persecuted gays in death camps. Only gay men were prosecuted– lesbianism wasn’t even a crime by technicality. Only gay Germans were persecuted by the Third Reich. Non-Aryan homosexuals– if punished at all– were mainly victims of their own governments. When pressed, the Nazi regime put gay inmates in positions of power in camps, a privilege that wasn’t extended to other categories of prisoners such as Jews and Gypsies. In addition, homosexuality stands alone as the only prejudice not to be repealed by West Germany immediately after the fall of Hitler’s regime. Mainly because of this last point, we know only the most vague quantitative details about these forgotten victims of the Nazi Holocaust.


  1. Austin, Ben. Homosexuals and the Holocaust. March 2002. Available here.
  2. Heger, Heinz. The Men with the Pink Triangle. Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, 1994.
  3. Hillel, Marc and Henry, Clarissa. Of Pure Blood. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1976.
  4. Fleming, Gerald. Hitler and the Final Solution. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.
  5. Johansson and Percy, Warren and Percy, William. Homosexuals in Nazi Germany. March 2002. Available here. DEAD LINK!
  6. Steakley, James. “Homosexuals and the Third Reich.” The Body Politic, January 1974. Available here.
Last modified February 6th, 2012

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