The Case of the Pink Triangle: An Introduction to Gay and Lesbian Persecutions During National Socialism
Dr. Sébastien Tremblay
Gedenktafel Rosa Winkel (Pink Triangle Memory Plaque) on the wall of the metro station Nollendorfplatz in the borough of Tempelhof-Schöneberg in Berlin. The monument was a project by the Allgemeine Homosexuelle Arbeitsgemeinschaft and the Berlin chapter of the Ökumenische Arbeitsgruppe Homosexuelle und Kirche in memory of the homosexual victims of the national socialist regime. It was unveiled in June 1989. Photo by the author.
In 1987, a German young man named Tommi was driving in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, enjoying a ride on the motorway, stopping at a gas station. While taking a small break, probably buying some fuel for his car, he met two lesbian women delighted to make his acquaintance. Tommi’s car had attracted their attention with its bigger than life pink triangle painted on the hood. Through the pink triangle, a symbol then quite en vogue in the LGBT community on the European and North American continents, the two women had recognized him as a member, or at least a sympathizer, of the queer community. After exchanging some thoughts they joined an activist group together in Düsseldorf, the regional capital.
For some, Tommi’s story is one anecdote among a myriad of others, where the pink triangle is at the core of a discourse on queer identities. This might be surprising for others, as the symbol was first used by the national socialist regime to brand non-heteronormative men or men suspected of being non-heteronormative. The Nazis had forcefully pinned the pink triangle on the uniforms of prisoners in concentration camps. This was not a unique case, as other prisoners were also forced to wear symbols of other colours to brand them as communists, Jewish or other more abstract categories such as ‘criminals’ and ‘anti-socials.’ The last two categories could include doctors performing abortions, sex-workers or youngsters parts of youth organizations banned by the regime. However, not every non-heteronormative man was identified with a pink triangle. What is more, one should not forget that some men were deported for multiple reasons, for instance for being Jewish and for being accused of being ‘sexual perverts.’ (Hájková 2018; 2021). Lesbians were usually not imprisoned for ‘being’ lesbian and were not branded with pink triangles. However, this does not alter the fact that the regime was oppressing women who desired women, for example, forcing them into hiding. (Schoppmann 1993). Being lesbian or a woman desiring/having sex with other women was also sometimes an aggravating factor for other forms of persecutions. Similarly to men who desired men, women who desired women were also targets of homophobia in the camps, from the guards and from other prisoners (Eschebach 2012; Hájková 2021).
In this small review of the symbol’s story, I map the development of the pink triangle from its original role as stigma to its multiple reinventions as an icon of empowerment in the second part of the twentieth century. The triangle’s journey is an international one and offers many methodological insights for historians trying to understand both social movements and memory culture (Jensen 2002, Newsome 2016, Tremblay 2020). Indeed, the various key moments of this voyage are not necessarily superposing each other or replacing each other, but are only one part of a plurality of debates surrounding Germany’s violent history, as well as the fights for queer rights at the end of the century. In what follows, I start by drawing a small portrait of the persecutions of queerness (I focus here on homosexualities) in Germany before and during National Socialism. I will then briefly look at some of the ways in which the pink triangle was used in West Germany and the United States in the 1970s and onward.
The persecution of male-male sexualities was not always a given prior to the unification of the many German States at the end of the 19th century (Beachy 2014). For example, Karl Heinrich Ulrich, a lawyer from Hannover, famously discussed his theories about sexuality and same-sex desire while in Bavaria (Leck 2016). Inspired by codes of law coming from the Napoleonic era, which considered it sinful, yet not worthy of criminalization, the Bavarian government did not legislate against male-male sexualities (Whisnant 2016). This does not mean that non-heteronormativity was culturally or morally accepted. The case was completely different in Prussia, where male-male sexualities were conceived as not only morally inacceptable, but also a crime. When the German Reich was founded, the Prussian origins of the Empire gave birth to a German penal code made in Berlin including the infamous paragraph 175 (hereafter §175), criminalizing ‘unnatural acts,’ for example sexual acts between consenting males (Tobin 2015). The paragraph was also used to prosecute cases of bestiality, but statistics during the Weimar era show how it was mainly used to prosecute men after the war (Dickinson 2007). Recent research in the history of sexualities and in German history has shown the normalization of certain aspects of ‘deviance’ in the Weimar era (Marhoefer 2015). Still, a change of mores in certain urban centres did not always equal lesser sentences or better life conditions for everyone. The political zeal of some police forces, repeated sex scandals, and the scapegoating of sexual minorities by the Left and by the Right (not only homosexual males but also trans* individuals and homosexual women) led to a particular poisonous climate. Some historians have pushed forward the thesis that sexuality played an important role in the fall of the Republic of Weimar and the rise of the NSDAP (Dickinson 2014; Marhoefer 2015).
The national socialist regime was not always consequent in its view on sexuality, for example in its policies on reproduction, but moved fast against homosexuality (Herzog 2005). This took many forms as Hitler moved against some of his closest allies of the first hour, executing Ernst Röhm, a known homosexual. The regime also closed, sacked, and burned the Institute of Sexual Research funded by Magnus Hirschfeld. The institute’s archives and papers, the biggest collection of work on sexualities at the time, were burned in 1933 on the Opernplatz (now Bebelpatz) at the centre of Berlin under the encouragement of Joseph Goebbels and ecstatic students.
Book burning and destroying renowned research on homosexualities and trans* studies was not the only path followed by National Socialism. Although, as previously mentioned, §175 precedes the NSDAP, its coming to power remains unequivocally a milestone in the history of the persecution of male-male sexualities in Germany. For the Nazis, non-heteronormative sexualities were on the same level as venereal diseases (Herzog 2005). Seen as an affliction, it could be treated; it could be violently forced out of German men. Consequently, it also meant that the ‘community of the people’ (Volksgemeinschaft) needed to be protected from the dangers of such an infection. National socialist officials provided modifications to the original text of the law in June 1935. In this new alliteration, homosexual acts were not the only thing being prosecuted. The act of intercourse or anal sex ‘contrary to nature’ could from that moment on also include an act of simple lewdness between two men. Moreover, the implication of this newly reinforced law considered an attack on the general sense of shame or the intention of debauchery as an act of felony. Queer men were then harassed, surveyed and persecuted, based on list compiled during the Weimar era, but also following denunciations by their fellow citizens. Thousands of them were deported in concentration camps where they were often branded with a pink triangle stitched on their uniforms. In Austria, queer women were also persecuted under a different part of the penal code. As previously discussed, if they were not legally persecuted in Germany, the historiography of the last decade has demonstrated how women desiring women were also structurally oppressed, living in fear and in hiding and often qualified as ‘anti-socials’ (Marhoefer 2016; Huneke 2017; Hájková 2021)
Directly after the war, the Liberation of the camps was not synonymous with joy and freedom for queer men and women. When the Allies started to reform and void most of the legal fundaments of the national socialist atrocities, they did not include a reassessment of §175. For the Allies, the legal persecution of male homosexuality predated National Socialism and was therefore a common crime, not a discrimination tainted by the ideology of the regime. This had many repercussions for queer men. On one side, it means that some of these men who came out of the horrors of the camps were forced back into prison to finish their sentences (Micheler 2012). Many judges sympathetic to Nazi ideology or even some who were convinced Nazis were also able to evade the harshest penalties of a failed denazification process. This implies that men convicted under §175 were facing the same judges after Liberation and convicted under the same law. The academic world was another example. Researchers who had lost their doctorate following accusations under §175 were not allowed to retrieve their diploma (Nicolaysen 2015). The political climate was also against any form of commemoration of homosexual suffering until the end of the 1960s. For example, in an interview with the London Sunday Express, the then mayor of Dachau declared that: “you must remember that many criminals and homosexuals were in Dachau. Do you want a memorial for such people?” This led the German-Jewish historian Hans-Joachim Schoeps to famously declare that real Liberation only happened for homosexual men in 1969, the year where §175, in its Nazi alliteration, was finally reformed in the Federal Republic of Germany. After multiple reforms, the law was finally abolished in 1994.
This liberalization means that queer men were finally free to create associations. This is considered the birth of a new homosexual movement in Germany in the second part of the twentieth century (Gammerl 2021). Men are not the only ones who created associations. Lesbians were also politically actives, sometimes working with gay men and sometimes forming their own groups with their own perspective in a fight against both postwar homophobia and patriarchy (Ledwa 2019). Numerous groups were created across the FRG. One of them, the Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin (HAW) fought against discrimination in the western part of the divided city. They exchanged with other groups such as the Homosexuelle Aktions-Gemeinde in Munich, the Homosexuelle Aktion Nürnberg, the short-lived Homosexuelle Aktion Köln, the Paderborner Aktion Homosexualität, the Aktionsgruppe Homosexualität Osnabrück, etc. Together, they re-discovered the fate of the men who had worn the pink triangle in concentration camps, the torture they had endured, and the silence forced upon them after the war (Griffiths 2021). For many of the men and women in the 1970s, the fact that the Nazi version of §175 had outlived the regime highlighted continuities between German fascism and their reality in the FRG. They created reading circles and organized events denouncing their oppression. They also felt a personal connection with queer victims of the Nazis. One of the books they read was The Men with the Pink Triangle, the memoirs of a man named Josef Kohout. The book was framed like an autobiography, but is actually based on recollections by Kohout, shared in numerous interviews recorded by Johann Neumann. Neumann finally published himself the book under a pseudonym: Heinz Heger. Rediscovering the persecutions and suffering of the Nazi era and realizing how homosexuality was still taboo, partially criminalized, as well as rejected socially, groups such a the HAW decided to reappropriate the stigmata associated with the symbol (Tremblay 2019).
Activists started to use the pink triangle on their flyers and on posters during demonstrations. On one hand, using the pink triangle as a symbol allowed them to give visibility to the fate of all the men who were not recognized as victims of fascism after the war and underline what they perceived as historical continuities, as a tainted legal system of oppression in the Federal Republic (Jensen 2002; Newsome 2016; Tremblay 2020). This should be understood as an impulse for recognition outside the social group or the imagined community, at thirst for justice and the legitimization of a fight for civic and human rights. On the other hand, these activists also branded themselves with a pink triangle to shush away what they perceived as a façade of heterosexuality, that is, the privilege of certain homosexuals who were able to ‘pass’ as heterosexuals in mainstream society and refused to show solidarity with the rest of the imagined community. This should be understood as an impulse inside the social group, a call for solidarity, using history to revert a stigma in a more emancipatory form of politics. In that sense, using the pink triangle could be compared to the many slurs, which have been recuperated by activists throughout the second part of the twentieth century: gay, queer, butch, etc. Some organizations went a little bit further semantically, such as the groupPink Triangle Wuppertal (Rosa Winkel Wuppertal) in the city of the same name or the militant publisher Pink Triangle Publisher (Rosa Winkel Verlag) (Tremblay 2019).
From then on, the pink triangle became international. In the 1970s, the U.S. Germanist James Steakley covered the history of the homosexual movement in Germany in a Canadian homosexual journal: The Body Politics. An essay in three parts, Steakley’s piece introduced the readers to the persecutions of homosexual men during National Socialism. His piece was one among many in the 1970s and 1980s. Queer men and women in North America discovered the symbol and started to use it as well. One man, Martin Sherman, a Jewish gay man, was inspired by these discussions when he wrote Bent, a fictional play narrating the lives of two queer prisoners in Dachau, both convicted under §175 and forced to wear a pink triangle. Premiering on West End in London and gathering massive success on Broadway in New York City afterward, the play was translated in German under the name Rosa Winkel (pink triangle). German homosexual associations organized evenings at the theater, for example in Cologne, where they discussed the significance of Nazi atrocities for their quest against discrimination and for human rights. The play’s review in national newspapers also allowed the pink triangle some visibility in the FRG. Indeed, almost all reviews of Bent mentioned the symbol and its origins.
Hence, these back-and-forths over the ocean not only raised awareness for a history of violence and trauma, but also gave new meanings to the symbol. At the heights of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, queer organizations fighting against draconian governmental measures used the triangle (Tümmers 2017). For example in Germany or the United States members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (or ACT UP) recuperated the pink triangle as a symbol of hope and as a warning. Now pointing upwards on posters and on t-shirt, the symbol alluded to the fear of a new Holocaust, of state-sanctioned violence against people living with HIV/AIDS. This fear is easily observable during this period. One can found caricatures in Bavarian homosexual magazines comparing the governmental measures to Nazi concentration camps. In New York City, ACT UP demonstrators created a float during Pride week, including a fake concentration camp, distributing flyers, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the pink triangle (Faderman 2015).
All in all, the pink triangle is at the centre of this tension between the appeal of emancipation and the idea to anchor a fight for rights in a past of discriminations. Reminding each other of the possible dangers of homophobic violence or of an imminent destruction, homosexual activists were advocating for a new social cohesion of their social group, using a collective memory of a traumatic past to fight for a utopic future: a world without homophobia. As an image, the triangle became an important factor of transnational queer politics, as it was easily recognizable. Mapping its visual history shows how intellectual exchange took place beyond written texts during the twentieth century. Multilayered, the triangle was referring to National Socialism, to the HIV/AIDS crisis, to the long fight for rights in the postwar era, etc. It united homosexuals and gave them a noticeable coat of arms.
Yet this symbol also comes with its own problems. I now finish this piece by underlining two of them. If uniting multiple fights under one banner helped the gay and lesbian political movements of the twentieth century to find common ground and build a collective identity based on collective memories it also excluded some perspectives and narratives. First, this connection between persecutions of homosexualities and National Socialism universalized a transatlantic origin story into a world story, erasing some nuances in the history of sexualities outside of the Euro-American world. This is without doubt connected to the representation of National Socialism as the ultimate evil of the century and the commemoration of its crimes, a central aspect of liberal politics since 1945. This lumping together of all non-heteronormative or queer collective memories silences alternative models of memories and identity formation. Second, focusing on perpetrator categories or on criminalization §175/the pink triangle forced a legal framework for the recognition of victimhood. This had for consequences, that lesbian or queer women who were also oppressed during the so-called ‘Third Reich,’ were not deemed worthy of commemoration for a long time, as their oppression had not been attached to a pink triangle, a badge for the horrors committed against them (Evans 2014, Huneke 2017). In that regard the symbol was used in historiographical debates of the end of the twentieth century to give some people a voice, but also to erase nuances, universalize one particular narrative, and silence other forms of victimhood.
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