Paragraph 175 and the Pink Triangle

What Did They Have In Common?

Montage of three 1940's era photos: a dancer, close-up of pink triangle insignia on prisoner of Nazi labor camp, Adolph Hitler saluting passing soldiers.
In Poland, no one writes about the tragic fate of homosexuals during the Nazi era. Nothing has been published about the thousands of Polish homosexuals who became death camp victims. Ordinary embarrassment is the reason that scholars remain silent about Nazism’s homosexual victims. Robert Biedroń, “Nazism’s Pink Hell”

Holocaust remembrance is a time each year when we pay homage to the 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis between 1933 and the end of WWII in 1945. To a lesser degree, yet no less persecuted, where the homosexuals. But their stories are generally missing from any form of remembrance. Not due to any accidental historical oversight, however. The sad truth is that their liberation in 1945 brought little relief from the oppression that homosexual survivors had just lived through. Yet they along with the Jews, suffered horrendously through the Nazi persecution. But instead of liberation it opened them up to another kind of torment and even more imprisonment.

The reason was Paragraph 175, a German law that had been on the books for almost a half century, and where it remained in 1945, leaving Gays to find themselves still guilty of being lawbreakers, with many ending up back in jail.

But let’s go back to the beginning when Paragraph 175 was established, to get a firmer understanding of life in Germany and the monumental changes that took place during its half century of existence. I also think you will  begin to see parallels with what’s going on in our own country today: 

In January 1871, at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, with the joint victory by the then independent German states, they formally joined the Prussian-dominated German Confederation, which became the actual founding of the German Empire as we know it today.

Otto von Bismarck, the former chancellor of Prussia, and who masterminded the unification of the German states, became the Chancellor of the newly formed German Empire.

As a long time master in the Prussian tradition of warfare, where “men must be men”, von Bismarck made one of his first orders of business to have the new legislature declare homosexuality an “unnatural sexual offense” between men, with punishment up to six months in prison. That new law became known as “Paragraph 175” and remained on the books thru two centuries before it was finally repealed. Ironically it would never criminalize or even recognize female homosexuality.

Dr. Magnus Hirshfed
Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck.*oil on panel 1890

But 26 years later, in 1897, a Berlin physician by the name of Magnus Hirschfeld, who was interested in gay rights, founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, and later the World League for Sexual Reform. As both gay and Jewish himself, Hirschfeld was an outspoken advocate for sexual minorities.

This interested many prominent German intellectuals, who joined the committee along with a powerful women’s movement – all with the same goal – to fight for the repeal of Paragraph 175 and to bring about a better understanding of homosexuality. As a result, in spite of the legal roadblocks, Hirschfeld’s two organizations were able to help gays and lesbians find safe places to meet and congregate. 

At this point in history, Germany entered WW I as a result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was next in line to be emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was Germany’s role in the triple alliance with Austria/Hungary and Italy. But that’s a whole other subject which I suggest you look up in Wikipedia, where it’s covered quite well. 

However, I do want to add a couple of important points to connect the dots:  first, the war lasted four years, and killed approximately two million German soldiers, which left a gigantic hole in the young male population, and created huge changes in the country as a result. Not to mention how the devastating loss of the war itself kindled an incredible amount of blame, animosity and finger pointing by the numerous political factions within Germany’s borders.

It was under these conditions that the era of Germany’s experiment as a democratic government began. It was known as the “Weimar Republic”. Founded in 1919, it was a hopeful beginning after the devastation their massive defeat left them with. While the Weimar period only lasted 14 years, it was filled with huge changes and gigantic contradictions on practically every human, intellectual and artistic level. All this going on while simultaneously living through two financial disasters: First a major recession followed by a hyperinflation that totally destabilized the new government and much of the country.

Unfortunately, much of it came from the enormous debt that Germany assumed during the war. That’s mainly because they chose to borrow huge sums of money and then pay for it by printing more and more and more paper, which caused its value on the world market to continue to deflate. It became known as “Notgelt” and reached a point where people had to carry it by the wagon load just to buy groceries.

Collage of illustrated "Notgelt" ads from WW II-era Germany.
“Notgelt”, fascinating artwork. But as the value went down, the quantity increased, with many towns and cities printing their own.

To make matters worse, the government had to deal with the conflicts created by 15, yes 15 angry political parties of all stripes and persuasions. Although only a few had any real impact.

Meanwhile, on the positive side, Germany – and Berlin in particular – became a fertile ground for intellectuals, artists, and innovators from many fields during the Weimar Republic years. The politics and social chaos that the environment created ironically opened German universities faculties to leading Jewish scholars and intellectuals like Albert Einstein, Eric Fromm and Herbert Marcuse. As a result, Jewish intellectuals and creative professionals became prominent figures in many areas of Weimar culture, with five of them winning Nobel Prizes during the era.

By the early 1920s, homosexuality had become a relatively free and open topic in German newspapers, films and even literature. New bars, clubs and other meeting places for gays and lesbians were increasing almost exponentially. By the mid 1920s, Berlin alone could count at least 100 gay and lesbian nightclubs and bars. It soon became known as the “gay capital of the world.” A city where the raucous nightlife combined with new academic ideas that promoted a greater acceptance of homosexuality and gender non-conformity.

Collage of three photos from El Dorado nightclub: drag queen decked out in fur and gown with her puppy on a pedestal, front view of club, group photo of happy club-goers.
L.: Hansi Sturm – Famous Drag Queen. R.Top: Notorious Berlin night club, the ElDorado. R. Bottom: Gay men in drag, waiting for dates at the ElDorado. 

But by the mid 1920s, the rising inflation and a severe economic recession had also strengthened the ultra right and consolidated the power of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Workers Party, or Nazis, as they became known. One of his appeals was his accusation that it was the Jews who were responsible for lowering the moral standards of the Germans, while simultaneously trying to destroy the Aryan race. This caused the Weimar government to come under blistering attack for being too lenient with the currently rampant sexual behavior.

As a result, being both a Jew and a homosexual, Hirschfeld became an ideal target for antisemitic thugs first and then Nazi Brown Shirts later. He was also beaten by a gang during a lecture, while one of the thugs took potshots at his audience. But the worst came in 1933, when his Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was sacked by the Nazis and all its books were burned. While he wasn’t killed at the time, he was forced into exile in France and died two years later in 1935.

The Nazi newspaper, “Völkischer Beobachter”, was prompted to write that “Among the many diabolical instincts that characterize the Jewish race, . . . that with sexual relations, Jews always attempt to support sexual acts among siblings, between people and animals, or between men.”

Burning books from Hershfeld’s institute.

These words promoted a new epoch. The attack on Hirschfeld’s institute was the first severe step that the Nazis took against homosexuals and Jews as well. 

Soon the Gestapo compiled lists of homosexuals, and gay clubs were shut down. Some gay men even left the country while others withdrew from homosexual practices or engaged in heterosexual relationships to protect their identities.

The most outspoken anti-gay Nazi was Heinrich Himmler, the main originator of the plan to exterminate homosexuals, and who later oversaw the creation of the concentration camps that would kill many of them. For he saw homosexuals – like he saw Jews – as the incarnation of degeneracy. They were outsiders and inferior human beings who threatened the purity of the German/Arian race.

Nazi crack down on gay and lesbian bars included the ElDorado.

However, there was one Nazi leader who differed. His name was Ernst Röhm, and he was currently Hitler’s righthand man. As the creator and leader of Nazi’s fearsome paramilitary wing, der Sturmabteilung or SA, better known as the “Brown Shirts”, his tactics made the SA instrumental in the rise of the party by way of their street-fighting and extrajudicial murders during the late 1920s and early 1930s. 

Ironically, he was also gay. In fact so insufferably gay that he did not even bother to conceal it. In contrast to the gay stereotype that his party propagated, Ernst Röhm was generally considered to be a pompous, greedy loudmouth, and socially, a rude, insensitive boor. But his leadership of the SA gave Hitler an additional source of political control, which made it much easier for him to ignore Röhm’s homosexuality. As a result, Röhm became one of Hitler’s closest and most trusted friends.

But this posed a new issue. Röhm’s paramilitary SA had grown much larger than the German Military. And he began urging Hitler to make the Military a part of his organization.  This of course didn’t sit well with two of Hitler’s most trusted senior officers, Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler. Both of them didn’t like the SA’s influence on Hitler and saw Röhm as his (and their) potential rival. 

SA Commander, Ernst Röhm.

Hitler understood the problem, and with their urging ordered a series of “political” executions. But by focusing on Röhm, this would consolidate Hitler’s power and ease the concerns of the German military about the role of Röhm and his SA.

That was on June 28, 1934. But under Hitler’s orders, it was not only Röhm who was murdered, but dozens of other high level SA leaders and political rivals as well. The results became known as the “Night of the Long Knives.” But the killing actually went on for another two nights.

Hitler then saw to it that the Reichstag made the “executions” all legal.

During the next few months, Hitler exercised his increased power in a number of ways. But most important, less than two months after the murderous “Night of the Long Knives”, President von Hindenburg had just died. So Hitler took immediate advantage of it and made himself Fuhrer, which now made him both Head of State as well as Chancellor of Germany.

Then within weeks, the Reichstag passed the Nuremberg Laws, which made discrimination against Jews formally legal, and provided the Nazis with a justifiable framework for the systematic persecution of all Jews in Germany.

In 1935, Paragraph 175, which originally had only been written to outlaw sodomy, was revised to include harsher sentences including castration. Now It criminalized virtually any kind of male same-sex intimacy, even by looking at another male “in the wrong way”. As a result, the updated version became so convoluted that it made defining an unnatural sex act vague and totally dependent on the interpretation of whoever was making the arrest, be it the SS, Gestapo or police.

At this point, we need to take a further look at Heinrich Himmler – the Perfect Nazi – and his incredible rise to power, because he was essentially entrusted by Hitler with the implementation of “The Final Solution”.

Heinrik Himmler – the perfect Nazi.

In 1929, Hitler appointed Himmler as Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel, the SS. Starting with less than 300 members, Himmler’s SS served as bodyguards for Hitler and other top Nazi leaders. But by the time the Nazis came to power in 1933, Himmler had already built the SS into a force of more than 50,000 men.

But it didn’t stop there!

Within months he had assumed command of all the political police forces in every state in Germany. This built an unassailable position for his SS. Then he centralized all the police force into a single new agency in Berlin, as the German State Secret Police, or the Geheime Staatspolizei: better known as the GESTAPO.

Despising Jews and Homosexuals as he did, Himmler fanatically tried to screen applicants based purely on their physical perfection and racial purity. But since this wasn’t always possible, he did recruit members from other ranks of German society as well. Nevertheless, with their sleek black uniforms and special insignia, the men of the SS certainly felt superior to the thuggish “Brown Shirts”, the Storm Troopers of the SA.

Another upgrade occurred in 1939 when Hitler put Himmler in command of “Strengthening the Aryan race”. That gave him and the SS complete control over any newly captured Nazi territory and who was sufficiently ethnic German to remain living there. For those who weren’t, Himmler made use of his newly organized Einsatzgruppen, the SS’s mobile killing units, and their form of ethnic cleansing. 

But Himmler is best known for his role in the development and control of the Nazi concentration camps. In 1933, he established the Nazi’s first concentration camp at Dachau. Its purpose was to house political prisoners – primarily communists, social democrats, and other political opponents of the Nazi regime. The results impressed Hitler so much that he authorized Himmler to establish an entire system of concentration camps.

By the end of the war, the Nazi camp system had grown to more that a thousand camps, including concentration camps, forced labor camps, POW camps, transit camps, and killing centers. As the last of Himmler’s designated killing centers to be constructed, Auschwitz-Birkenau has become the symbol of the Holocaust and the entire Nazi death camp system. Under his direction, the Nazis murdered nearly 2,700,000 Jews, homosexuals, political prisoners, Gypsies, and other “undesirables” in his killing centers.

Since the Nazis believed that homosexuality was a contagious disease, gays were considered a nuisance and a threat to their social order. “Real” men had to be able to reproduce able-bodied children, who would then serve in all the important rolls necessary to further the Nazi ideal of an “Aryan race”.

View of a gay prisoner’s triangle, number and part of his prison uniform.

But the Nazi regime didn’t necessarily view all gay men in Germany as a monolithic group. While being gay would often result in persecution and imprisonment, other factors also shaped gay men’s lives – like racial identity, whether or not one was pro Nazi, one’s social class, who one’s friends were. Or simply one’s ability to hide one’s gayness. So gay men endured a wide range of experiences under the Nazis. But being both gay and Jewish meant no options other than facing Nazi persecution and mass murder.

However, once in the camps gays were forced to wear a PINK TRIANGLE. But gay Jews were still forced to wear the Star of David, while other groups had their own identification.

But homosexuals were always treated as the lowest of the low within the prisoner population. As a rule, they obtained the worst labor assignments. Even their fellow prisoners, who oversaw the labor details, generally refused to help them. And to make their lives worse, they were even rejected by their fellow prisoners as misfits. Plus they had limited, if any, contact with the outside world, since families had few ways to maintain contact, while their gay friends on the outside had little desire to put themselves in jeopardy by trying to maintain contact with prisoners wearing the pink triangle.

But in 1943, Himmler decided to give gays a limited opportunity to escape the horrors of life in the camps. This he did by issuing a new decree that allowed homosexuals to be released from the camps, as long as they submitted to being castrated and demonstrated good behavior! But for those who took advantage of it, it still meant they were under the “care” of the Nazis, who then assigned them to a penal division and sent them into combat – an option that essentially equaled a death sentence since the death rate in this division was extremely high.

Ironically, Article 175 did not include lesbian relationships because Himmler never saw women as a threat to his ideals. While there were lesbians in the concentration camps, they were far fewer in number.

Gay prisoners showing their pink triangles.

But by the time the war ended in 1945, it’s estimated that between 5,000 and 15,000 gays died in the camps. However this figure could be much higher since homosexuals, as opposed to Jews and Gypsies, could have easily conceal their “otherness” and not been counted.

Tragically, when the concentration camps were liberated, the gay Holocaust survivors were not recognized as victims. Instead, even after they were released, they were still considered convicted criminals. All because the Nazi-era amendments to Paragraph 175 continued to be enforced for the next two decades in West Germany. This resulted, between 1945 and 1969, in the ARRESTS OF AN ESTIMATED 100,000 GAY MEN (link to PDF ) – with some Holocaust survivors even being forced to carry out their sentences in prison. While East Germany had softer penalties, no reparations were ever provided for any gay victims, and Paragraph 175 itself was never entirely removed from the penal code until 1994, following Germany’s reunification.

Sadly gays, as a group, were too scared to speak out about what had happened to them. Consequently, there were very few direct testimonies by homosexuals about their experiences during the Holocaust. It wasn’t until 2002 that the German government finally issued an official apology to the LGBT community.