Homosexuals and the Third Reich
by James Steakley (The Body Politic, Issue 11, January/February
In recent years the pink triangle has been widely adopted
by individuals and gay organizations around the world as a symbol of gay
visibility and gay resistance. Used by the Nazis to identify homosexual
prisoners in German concentration camps, it is a powerful reminder of a
grim episode in the history of gay oppression. The first account in English
of the situation of homosexuals in Nazi Germany appeared origninally in The Body Politic as part of a series by James Steakley on the development
of an early German homosexual emancipation movement. The discovery of the
existence -- and abrupt disappearance -- of this first wave of homosexual
organization has had a lasting impact on the contemporary movement's sense
of its place in history. Perhaps no other TBP article has so jolted
the imagination and political consciousness of gay activists and other
readers. It is reprinted in full below.
"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!'
We stood on the desolate, broad square, and from somewhere a warm summer
breeze carried the sweet fragrance of resin and wood from the regions of
freedom; but we couldn't taste it, because our throats were hot and dry
from fear. Then the guardhouse door of the command tower opened, and an
SS officer and some of his lackeys strode toward us. 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 Reichsfuhrung SS, our category was to be isolated in an intensified-penalty
company, and we would be transferred as a unit to the Klinker Brickworks
the next morning. The Klinker factory! We shuddered, for the human death
mill was more than feared."
Appallingly little imformation is available on the situation of homosexuals
in Nazi Germany. Many historians have hinted darkly at the "unspeakable
practices" of a Nazi elite supposedly overrrun with "sexual perverts,"
but this charge is both unsubstantiated and insidious. Upon closer examination,
it turns out to be no more than the standard use of anti-gay prejudice
to defame any given individual or group -- a practice, incidentally, of
which the Nazis were the supreme masters. The Nazis were guilty of very
real offences, but their unspeakable practices were crimes against mankind.
That homosexuals were major victims of these crimes is mentioned in
only a few of the standard histories of the period. And those historians
who do mention the facts seem reluctant to dwell on the subject and turn
quickly to the fate of other minorities in Nazi Germany. Yet tens, perhaps
hundreds of thousands of homosexuals were interned in Nazi concentration
camps. They were consigned to the lowest position in the camp hierarchy,
and subjected to abuse by both guards and fellow prisoners; most of them
Obviously, gay people are going to have to write their own history.
And there is enough authentic documentation on the Nazi period to undertake
a first step in this direction. The words at the beginning of this article
were written by one concetration camp survivor, LD Classen von Neudegg,
who published some of his recollections in a German homophile magazine
in the Fifties. Here are a few more excerpts from his account of the treatment
of homosexuals in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen:
"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
three hundred men. Whips were used more frequently each morning, when we
were forced down into the clay pits under the wailing of the camp sirens.
'Only fifty are sill alive,' whispered the man next to me. 'Stay in the
middle -- then you won't get hit so much.'
Dr. Neudegg's recollections are confirmed in many details by the memoirs
of Rudolf Hoss, adjunct and commander of the concentration camps at Sachsenhausen
and, later, Auschwitz. Neudegg's account is something of a rarity: the
few homosexuals who managed to survive internment have tended to hide the
fact, largely because homosexuality continued to be a crime in postwar
West Germany. This is also the reason why homosexuals have been denied
any compensation by the otherwise munificent West German government.
"...(The escapees) had been brought back. 'Homo' was scrawled scornfully
across their clothing for their last walk through the camp. To increase
their thrist, they were forced to eat oversalted food, and then they were
placed on the block and whipped. Afterwards, drums were hung around their
necks, which they had to beat while shouting, 'Hurrah, we're back!' The
three men were hanged.
"...Summer, 1944. One morning there was an eruption of restlessness
among the patients of the hospital barracks where I worked. Fear and uncertainity
had arisen from rumours about new measures on the part of the SS hospital
administration. At the administrator's order, the courrier of the political
division had requisitioned certain medical records, and now he arrived
at the camp for delivery. Fever charts shot up; the sick were seized with
a gnawing fear. After a few days, the awful mystery of the records was
solved. 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."
The number of homosexuals who died in Nazi concentration camps is unknown
and likely to remain so. Although statistics are available on the number
of men brought to trial on charges of "lewd and unnatural behaviour," many
more were sent to camps without the benefit of a trial. Moreover, many
homosexuals were summilarily executed by firing squads; this was particularly
the case with gays in the military -- which encompassed nearly every able-bodied
man during the final years of the war. Finally, many concentration camps
systematically destroyed all their records when it became apparent that
German defeat was imminent.
* * *
The beginning of the Nazi terror against homosexuals was marked by the
murder of Ernst Rohm on June 30, 1934: "the Night of the Long Knives. "Rohm
was the man who, in 1919, first made Hitler aware of his own political
potential, and the two were close friends for fifteen years. During that
time, Rohm rose to SA Chief of Staff, transforming the Brownshirt militia
from a handful of hardened goons and embittered ex-soldiers into an effective
fighting force five hundred thousand strong -- the instrument of Nazi terror.
Hitler needed Rohm's military skill and could rely on his personal loyalty,
but he was ultimately a pragmatist. As part of a compromise with the Reichwehr
(regular army) leadership, whose support he needed to become Fuhrer, Hitler
allowed Goring and Himmler to murder Rohm along with dozens of Rohm's loyal
For public relations purposes, and especially to quell the outrage felt
throughout the ranks of the SA, Hitler justified his blatent power play
by pointing to Rohm's homosexuality. Hitler, of course, had known of Rohm's
homosexuality since 1919. amd it became public knowledge in 1925, when
Rohm appeared in court to charge a hustler with theft. All this while the
Nazi Party had a virulently anti-gay policy, and many Nazis protested that
Rohm was discrediting the entire Party and should be purged. Hitler, however,
was quite willing to cover up for him for years -- until he stood in the
way of larger plans.
* * *
The Nazi Party came to power in 1933, and a year later Rohm was dead.
While Rohm and his men were being rounded up for the massacre (offered
a gun and the opportunity to shoot himself, Rohm retorted angrily: "Let
Hitler do his own dirty work"), the new Chief of Staff received his first
order from the Fuhrer: "I expect all SA leaders to help preserve and strengthen
the SA in its capacity as a pure and cleanly institution. In particular,
I should like every mother to be able to allow her son to join the SA,
Party, and Hitler Youth without fear that he may become morally corrupted
in their ranks. I therefore request all SA commanders to take the utmost
pains to ensure that offences under Paragraph 175 are met by immediate
expulsion of the culprit from the SA and the Party."
Hitler had good reason to be concerned about the reputation of Nazi
organizations, most of which were based on strict segregation of the sexes.
Hitler Youth, for example, was disparagingly referred to as Homo Youth
throughout the Third Reich, a characterization which the Nazi leadership
vainly struggled to eliminate. Indeed, most of the handful of publications
on homosexuality which appeared during the Fascist regime were devoted
to new and rather bizarre methods of "detection" and "prevention."
Rudolf Diels, the founder of the Gestapo, recorded some of Hitler's
personal thoughts on the subject: "He lectured me on the role of homosexuality
in history and politics. It had destroyed ancient Greece, he said. Once
rife, it extended its contagious effects like an ineluctable law of nature
to the best and most manly of characters, eliminating from the reproductive
process precisely those men on whose offspring a nation depended. The immediate
result of the vice was, however, that unnatural passion swiftly became
dominant in public affairs if it were allowed to spread unchecked."
* * *
The tone had been set by the Rohm putsch, and on its first anniversary
-- June 28, 1935, the campaign against homosexuality was escalated by the
introduction of the "Law for the Protection of German Blood and German
Honour." Until 1935, the only punishable offence had been anal intercourse;
under the new Paragraph 175a, ten possible "acts" were punishable, including
a kiss, an embrace, even homosexual fantasies! One man, for instance, was
successfully prosecuted on the grounds that he had observed a couple making
love in a park and watched only the man.
Under the Nazi system, criminal acts were less important in determining
guilt than criminal intent. The "phenomenological" theory of justice claimed
to evaluate a person's character rather than his deeds. The "healthy sensibility
of the people" (gesundes Volksempfinden) was elevated to the highest
normative legal concept, and the Nazis were in a position to prosecute
an individual solely on the grounds of his sexual orientation. (After World
War II, incidentally, this law was immediately struck from the books in
East Germany as a product of Fascist thinking, while it remained on the
books in West Germany.)
Once Paragraph 175a was in effect, the annual number of convictions
on charges of homosexuality leaped to about ten times the number in the
pre-Nazi period. The law was so loosely formulated that it could be --
and was -- applied against heterosexuals whom the Nazis wanted to eliminate.
The most notorious example of an individual convicted on trumped-up charges
was General Werner von Fritsch, Army Chief of Staff; and the law was also
used repeatedly against members of the Catholic clergy. But the law was
undoubtedly used primarily against gay people, and the court system was
aided in the witchhunt by the entire German populace, which was encouraged
to scrutinize the behaviour of neighbours and to denounce suspects to the
Gestapo. The number of men convicted of homosexuality during the Nazi period
totalled around fifty thousand:
- 1933: 853
- 1934: 948
- 1935: 2106
- 1936: 5320
- 1937: 8271
- 1938: 8562
- 1939: 7614
- 1940: 3773
- 1941: 3735
- 1942: 3963
- 1943: 966 (first quarter)
- 1944-45: ?
The Gestapo was the agent of the next escalation of the campaign against
homosexuality. Ex-chicken farmer Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer SS and
head of the Gestapo, richly deserves a reputation as the nost fanatically
homophobic member of the Nazi leadership. In 1936, he gave a speech on
the subect of homosexuality and described the murder of Ernst Rohm (which
he had engineered) in these terms: "Two years ago...when it became necessary,
we did not scruple to strike this plague with death, even within our own
ranks." Himmler closed with these words: "Just as we today have gone back
to the ancient Germanic view on the question of marriage mixing different
races, so too in our judgement of homosexuality -- a symptom of degeneracy
which could destroy our race -- we must return to the guiding Nordic principle:
extermination of degenerates."
* * *
A few months earlier, Himmler had prepared for action by reorganizing
the entire state police into three divisions. The political executive,
Division II, was directly responsible for the control of "illegal parties
and organizations, leagues and economic groups, reactionaries and the Church,
freemasonry, and homosexuality."
Himmler personally favoured the immediate "extermination of degenerates,"
but he was empowered to order the summary execution only of homosexuals
discovered within his own bureaucratic domain. Civilian offenders were
merely required to serve out their prison sentences (although second offenders
were subject to castration).
In 1936, Himmler found a way around this obstacle. Following release
from prison, all "enemies of the state" -- including homosexuals -- were
to be taken into protective custody and detained indefinitely. "Protective
custody" (Schutzhaft) was an euphemism for concentration camp internment.
Himmler gave special orders that homosexuals be placed in Level Three camps
-- the human death mills described by Neudegg. These camps were reserved
for Jews and homosexuals.
The official SS newspaper, Das Schwarze Korps, announced in 1937
that there were two million German homosexuals and called for their death.
The extent to which Himmler succeeded in this undertaking is unknown, but
the number of homosexuals sent to camps was far in excess of the fifty
thousand who served jail sentences. The Gestapo dispatched thousands to
camps without a trial. Moreover, "protective custody" was enforced retroactively,
so that any gay who had ever come to the attention of the police prior
to the Third Reich was subject to immediate arrest. (The Berlin police
alone had an index of more than twenty thousand homosexuals prior to the
Nazi takeover.) And starting in 193 9, gays from Nazi-occupied countries
were also interned in German camps.
The chances for survival in a Level Three camp were low indeed. Homosexuals
were distinguished from other prisoners by a pink triangle, worn on the
left side of the jacket and on the right pant leg. There was no possibility
of "passing" for straight, and the presence of "marked men" in the all-male
camp population evoked the same reaction as in contemporary prisons: gays
were brutally assaulted and sexually abused.
* * *
"During the first weeks of my imprisonment," wrote one survivor, "I
often thought I was the only available target on whom everyone was free
to vent his aggressions. Things improved when I was assigned to a labour
detail that worked outside the camp at Metz, because everything took place
in public view. I was made clerk of the labour detail, which meant that
I worked all day and then looked after the records at the guardhouse between
midnight and 2 am. Because of this 'overtime' I was allowed seconds at
lunch -- if any food was left over. This is the fact to which I probably
owe my survival...I saw quite a number of pink triangles. I don't know
how they were eventually killed...One day they were simply gone."
Concentration camp internment served a twofold purpose: the labour power
of prisoners boosted the national economy significantly, and undesirables
could be effectively liquidated by the simple expedient of reducing their
food rations to a level slightly below subsistence. One survivor tells
of witnessing "Project Pink" in his camp: "The homosexuals were grouped
into liquidation commandos and placed under triple camp discipline. That
meant less food, more work, stricter supervision. If a prisoner with a
pink triangle became sick, it spelled his doom. Admission to the clinic
This was the practice in the concentration camps at Sachsenhausen, Natzweler,
Fuhlsbuttel, Neusustrum, Sonnenburg, Dachau, Lichtenberg, Mauthausen, Ravensbruck,
Neuengamme, Grossrosen, Buchenwald, Vught, Flossenburg, Stutthof, Auschwitz,
and Struthof; as well, lesbians wore pink triangles in the concentration
camps at Butzow and Ravensbruck. In the final months of the war, the men
with pink triangles received brief military training. They were to be sent
out as cannon fodder in the last-ditch defence of the fatherland.
But the death of other pink triangles came much more swiftly. A survivor
gives this account: "He was a young and healthy man. The first evening
roll call after he was added to our penal company was his last. 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. When morning came, his breathing
had become an audible rattle. Bronchial pneumonia was later given as the
cause of his death. But before things had come to that, he was again beaten
and kicked. Then he was tied to a post and placed under an arc lamp until
he began to sweat, again put under a cold shower, and so on. He died toward
Another survivor: "One should not forget that these men were honourable
citizens, very often highly intellegent, and some had once held high positions
in civil and social life. During his seven-year imprisonment, this writer
became acquainted with a Prussian prince, famous athletes, professors,
teachers, engineers, artisans, trade workers and, of course, hustlers.
Not all of them were what one might term "respectable" people, to be sure,
but the majority of them were helpless and completely lost in the world
of the concentration camps. They lived in total isolation in whatever little
bit of freedom they could find. I witnessed the tragedy of a highly cultured
attache~ of a foreign embassy, who simply couldn't grasp the reality of
the tragedies taking place all around him. Finally, in a state of deep
deperation and hopelessness, he simply fell over dead for no apparent reason.
I saw a rather effeminate young man who was repeatedly forced to dance
infront of SS men, who would then put him on the rack -- chained hand and
foot to a crossbeam in the guardhouse 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. I hope you will understand."
The ruthlessness of the Nazis culminated in actions so perversely vindictive
as to be almost incomprehensible. Six youths arrested for stealing coal
at a railroad station were taken into protective custody and duly placed
in a concentration camp. Shocked that such innocent boys were forced to
sleep in a barracks also occupied by pink triangles, the SS guards chose
what to them must have seemed the lesser of two evils: they took the youths
aside and gave them fatal injections of morphine. Morality was saved.
The self-righteousness that prompted this type of action cuts through
the entire ideology glorifying racial purity and extermination of degenerates
to reveal stark fear of homosexuality. Something of this fear is echoed
in the statement by Hitler cited above, which is quite different in tone
from the propagandistic cant of Himmler's exhortations. Himmler saw homosexuals
as congenital cowards and weaklings. Probably as a result of his friendship
with Rohm, Hitler could at least imagine "the best and most manly of characters"
Hitler ordered all the gay bars in Berlin closed as soon as he came
to power. But when the Olympics were held in that city in 1936, he temporarily
rescinded the order and allowed several bars to reopen: foreign guests
were not to receive the impression that Berlin was a "sad city."
Despite, and perhaps because of, their relentless emphasis upon strength,
purity, cleanliness and masculinity, the all-male Nazi groups surely contained
a strong element of deeply repressed homoeroticism. The degree of repression
was evidenced by the Nazi reaction to those who were openly gay. In the
Bible, the scapegoat was the sacrificial animal on whose head the inchoate
guilt of the entire community was placed. Homosexuals served precisely
this function in the Third Reich.
The ideological rationale for the mass murder of homosexuals during
the Third Reich was quite another matter. According to the doctrine of
Social Darwinism, only the fittest are meant to survive, and the law of
the jungle is the final arbiter of human history. If the Germans were destined
to become the master race by virtue of their inherent biological superiority,
the breeding stock could only be improved by the removal of degenerates.
Retarded, deformed and homosexual individuals could be eliminated with
the dispassionate conscientiousness of a gardener pulling weeds. (Indeed,
it is the very vehemence and passion with which homosexuals were persecuted
that compels us to look beyond the pseudo-scientific rationale for a deeper,
* * *
The institutionalized homophobia of the Third Reich must also be seen
in terms of the sexual revolution that had taken place in Germany during
the preceeding decades. The German gay movement had existed for thirty-six
years before it (and all other progressive forces) was smashed. The Nazis
carried out a "conservative revolution" which restored law and order together
with nineteenth-century sexism. A system of ranking women according to
the number of their offspring was devised by Minister of the Interior Wilhelm
Frick, who demanded that homosexuals "be hunted down mercilessly, for their
vice can only lead to the demise of the German people."
Ironically, the biologistic arguements against gay people could be supported
by the theories advanced by the early gay movement itself. Magnus Hirschfeld
and the members of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee had made "the
Third Sex" a household term in Germany; but the rigidly heterosexual society
of the Third Reich had no patience with "intersexual variants" and turned
a deaf ear to pleas for tolerance. The prominent Nazi jurist Dr. Rudolf
Klare wrote: "Since the Masonic notion of humanitarianism arose from the
ecclesiastical/Christian feeling of charity, it is sharply opposed to our
National Socialist worldview and is eliminated a priori as a justification
for not penalizing homosexuality."
(c) This text is reprinted here with permission of James Steakley