When we think of symbols the Nazi regime forced people to wear, we think of the yellow star of David enforced on Jews. But another symbol, forced on gay men persecuted by the Nazis, has since been reclaimed by the very community the Nazis sought to oppress: the pink triangle.
Symbolism and imagery have always been at the forefront of human expression: from cave paintings to heraldry to modern logos. They have been used to express and influence emotions not just in their creators but those around the creators: nostalgia, pride, love and identity (as well as to sell things).
As well as using symbols to inspire belonging (the swastika) and fear (the death’s head skull or Totenkopf worn by the SS), the Nazi regime effectively used imagery to evoke feelings of ‘otherness’ in the populations under their control. This applied both to those they deemed ‘other’ otherwise known as ‘useless mouths’ and in those they deemed acceptable. The most famous of these symbols and imagery is the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear.
Before the Nazis
There was legislation against (male) homosexual acts in Germany prior to the Nazi party being formed at all: Paragraph 175 was made law shortly after Germany became unified in 1871. However, Germany, in urban areas anyway, was a far more permissive society than others in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. This was partly due to Police chiefs (such as Berlin Police Commissioner Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem in the 1880s) prioritising other crimes over enforcing Paragraph 175.
Germany, and Berlin in particular, also had a flourishing academic community who did not necessarily view homosexuality as the ‘deviance’ that others in Europe did; a notable figure in interwar Berlin life was Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, a sexologist who founded the Institut für Sexualwissenshaft (an Institute for Sexual Science) on Tiergartenstrasse. The Institut had a museum that encouraged schools to visit, and also campaigned for better sex education, contraception, and women’s rights. Hirschfeld, himself a gay Jewish man, coined the words ‘transvestite’ and ‘transsexual’, and worked with local police to limit arrests of cross-dressing people.
The atmosphere in Berlin began to change dramatically in 1933. Mere weeks after coming to power on 30th January, Hitler’s Brownshirts – the colloquial term for his Sturmabteilung (SA) or storm troopers – began to crack down on bars friendly to what would now be the LGBT+ community and suppress gay rights groups and publications. Paragraph 175’s stipulations were extended, and later in 1935 expanded to five years’ imprisonment without even any physical contact being required for conviction. The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was attacked and ransacked in May 1933, resulting in some of the most famous images of the Nazi regime’s book-burning. Its director, Karl Hiller, was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp before managing to flee to Prague and then to London.
Homosexuality, to the Nazis, went against the ‘natural order of things’ i.e. the function of the nuclear family as central to Germany’s future success. Nevertheless, some men who had homosexual relationships managed to rise in the Nazi party to high levels, most notably Ernst Röhm who headed the SA and even went so far as to describe himself as “same-sex oriented”. Röhm and other high-ranking men who had homosexual relationships were purged – arrested and killed or forced to commit suicide – by another faction of the Nazi party in 1934 in the Night of the Long Knives. This event, marking the eradication of gay men in Germany’s ruling party, was actually praised by the British press as Hitler “cleaning up”.
People as categories
A detailed system of categorising and documenting their prisoners was implemented early on in the timeline of Nazi concentration camps – beginning at the concentration camp Dachau. This system was that prisoners on their uniforms wore different coloured triangles, pointing downward, depending on the category they were imprisoned under. Jews wore yellow (sometimes still stars rather than triangles). Political prisoners wore red, often with a letter representing their nationality. Criminals wore green. Men persecuted under Paragraph 175 and sent to concentration camps had to wear a pink triangle (although some of the earliest prisoners before the triangle system was introduced were forced to wear the letter ‘A’, which stood for arschfike, meaning arsef*cker, demonstrating the desire by the Nazis to single out men they saw as deviants).
The choice of pink as the colour for homosexual men could possibly be partly influenced by pink actually being seen for centuries as a manly, strong colour and pink for homosexual prisoners thereby being a cruel commentary on this tradition (blue was a dainty colour used in iconography of role model women like the Virgin Mary and therefore seen as more feminine and used for girls). This choice by the Nazi regime also then played a role in the reversal of the symbolism of pink and blue after 1945, and partly because of its role in defining men who were seen by society even to this day as not being ‘proper men’ pink became a colour for girls – a feminine colour.
What about lesbians? Were they persecuted and categorised under the Nazis? Simply, yes: lesbian women by not marrying and having children were not perpetuating good Aryan families. Lesbians were not officially included in Paragraph 175 and did not have their own category in the Nazi system: they were included in the category of ‘asocials’ that had to wear black triangles, although a few were forced to wear the pink triangles. The black triangle category of asocials also included homeless people, alcoholics, prostitutes, and Roma and Sinti people who like Jews were seen by Nazis as racially inferior; there is a marked absence of people who wore black triangles in survivor testimony and in Holocaust education as a whole today.
Lack of choice
The key thing about the Nazi categorisations of people is that it took away one crucial way of what makes us human: that ability to choose how we define ourselves. It took away the agency and control of how millions of people would describe themselves. Just as many the Nazis classified as Jews would not necessarily have labelled themselves first and foremost as ‘Jewish’, men who had sex with men would not necessarily have labelled themselves as ‘gay’ even if it had been safe in society for them to do so. – just as LGBT+ people wouldn’t necessarily view their sexuality or gender as the only part of their identity today. Our sexuality is a part of who we are, and to many especially in the LGBT+ community it is an important part, but it is not the only thing to describe us and sum us up as people.
The Nazis took away that choice, and in the case of men labelled with a pink triangle added to the ‘othering’ of any queer or gay man in the eyes of society and even their fellow prisoners. There was a hierarchy of prisoner categories within concentration camps, with gay men wearing a pink triangle sometimes being given more back-breaking work in forced labour than other non-Jewish prisoners. Homophobia existed in concentration camps, and anti-gay and anti-lesbian phrases and feelings are very much part of survivor testimony: for example, “inhuman acts” amongst women in Ravensbrück camp. The visible labels that prisoners wore contributed to this dehumanisation.
As well as forced labour and the other atrocities of life in a concentration camp, men who wore pink triangles and to an extent lesbian women wearing black triangles were subjected to other traumatic experiences. Men wearing pink triangles were the preferred targets of the SS for rifle practice. Lesbian women and gay men were forced to engage in sexual acts together in camp brothels as a form of conversion therapy. Men wearing pink triangles were subjected to medical experiments to ‘cure’ their homosexuality, and some died from these experiments.
On liberation in 1945, no liberation came for many men who under the pink triangle of the Nazi regime had suffered so much. Paragraph 175 still existed in Germany, and homosexuality was still illegal. Their convictions were upheld, and many were re-imprisoned – some for as much as a further two decades, with their time served in the camps not being deducted from their sentences. Perpetrators of the ‘conversion therapy’ that gay men and lesbians had experienced in the camps were not prosecuted and even managed to convince the Allies that their research was valid.
East Germany relaxed the laws against homosexuality for both men and women in 1968, giving a blanket age of consent of 21. Post-war West Germany, on the other hand, upheld the expansion of Paragraph 175 that the Nazis brought in in 1935, and life for gay men remained a far cry from that of the 1920s. Although it was reformed in West Germany in 1969, Paragraph 175 was not finally abolished until 1994, after reunification.
Due to continued illegality of homosexuality and resultant homophobia and discrimination, and shame amongst survivors, the impact of the Holocaust on killing and traumatising a generation of gay men was overlooked. As we have seen, things did not return to how they were for gay men in the permissive atmosphere of the 1920s. Even remembering the victims, and the survivors, met with fierce condemnation, and to this day we still don’t know how many gay men were killed by the Nazis, let alone imprisoned. We know even less the numbers of lesbian women and trans people who were persecuted and killed. It’s also crucial to remember that the populations of Jewish prisoners, political prisoners and every other category within camps may have included people who were LGBT+ – they just happened to not be classified as such in the system. Memorials and commemorating victims evinced debate: although Dachau had memorials to the camp’s victims from the 1960s, those categorised under the pink triangle were not included until 1985. The EU only officially included homosexuals amongst the victims of Nazi persecution in 2005. Even today, the UN does not highlight sexuality in their official definition of genocide. And people belonging to the LGBT+ community still face not just discrimination but death, even in some European countries, just for being who they are.
The story and role of the pink triangle itself didn’t end in 1945 either, but in a very different way. Gay rights groups began to use the pink triangle in the 1970s, as a way of reclaiming the trauma done to people like them, partly influenced by the memoir of a prisoner and pink triangle wearer. The black triangle also began to be used as a queer or lesbian symbol. Then, in the 1980s, homosexual men began to be pursued by a new threat: AIDS. The six-person collective who founded the Silence=Death Project in New York in the mid-1980s inverted the symbol of the gay community’s previous persecution by the Nazis, and made a pink triangle pointing upwards its logo. They also deepened the colour of the triangle from the Nazi pale pink to a fuchsia colour.
Using the pink triangle icon came about because they could not find a photograph that summed up their aim – to get gay people in particular talking about AIDS and taking steps to keep themselves and others safe, and to address the silence of politicians on the subject. Their now iconic poster is simple but by using this choice of iconography, even with its horrific associations, speaks to what it is to belong under a banner. Their aim, and the aim subsequently of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) when they adopted it too, was to unite the gay community and to reclaim their own narrative and their own dignity. A little like reclaiming the word ‘queer’, it was important to tell their own story and have a say in how the world sees them.
To use images as well as words to tell our own story is what it is to be human. Today, we can celebrate the pink triangle, pointing both upward and down, as part of the story of gay rights and the progress that society has made in acceptance. We still have far to go in this progress.
We must also never forget those persecuted under the downward-pointing pink triangle, and ensure that we continue to talk about and learn about all those who were persecuted by the Nazis for simply being who they were. By learning about them, we can discover other aspects of them as humans, as people – other ways they may have chosen to define themselves. By learning about them, we can give them back a small part of the human right to choose.
Alex Joseph, Visitor Operations Manager
Learn more about the LGBT Community and the impact of the Holocaust:
From Prejudice to Pride: A History of the LGBTQ+ Movement by Amy Lame
The Glamour Boys: The Secret Story of the Rebels who Fought for Britain to Defeat Hitler by Chris Bryant
I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror by Pierre Seel
The Men With The Pink Triangle by Heinz Heger
The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals by Richard Plant
Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity by Robert Beachy
The films Cabaret (1972), Bent (1997) and Aimée & Jaguar (1999), and the documentary Paragraph 175 (2000)