Pink Triangles: Homosexuals in the Holocaust

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Essay about the history of homosexuality in Europe, specifically Germany, and the events leading up, and during, the Holocaust. Essay focused on the homosexuals.

Submitted: August 27, 2014

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Submitted: August 27, 2014



A couple is herded onto a cattle car filled to the brink of bursting with other bodies.  They clutch to each other as the train rolls to an unknown destination.  Once there, they are drug out and separated by screaming soldiers in grey coats.  The strong ones go to the right, weak ones to the left.  They know not whether they will see each other again.  They can’t ask anyone for help, can’t look at anyone, both men have pink triangles sewed onto their grey and white striped uniforms.  One of them is killed by poisonous gas, the other beaten to death by SS soldiers.  This is the nightmare that many of the victims of the Holocaust experienced.  However, none of the persecuted social groups suffered as greatly as the homosexuals victimized during this time.  Homosexuality was a significant part of the culture of pre-war Berlin; however, during this “Golden Era” and Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, he used his growing authority to persecute and confine the “problem” of homosexuality to concentration camps where their treatment was far worse than the average prisoner’s. Even after they were liberated from the camps, they were never truly free. 

Berlin was center of homosexual activity.  “For Christopher, Berlin meant boys” (Isherwood 10). British and openly gay author Christopher Isherwood was only one of the thousands that traveled to Berlin for its blossoming homosexual culture.  For many homosexuals, Berlin became a mandatory stopping place for activity and fun around Europe. With nearly 50,000 homosexuals living in Berlin and many meeting places to congregate, the capitol of Germany was, “in the hands of homosexuals” (Tamange 50).  Charlotte Wolff, a lesbian captured by the Nazi regime, states, “Berlin, with its reputation as the most permissive city in Europe, had become a paradise for homosexuals” (qtd. in Tamagne197).

One reason for the blatant homosexual behavior in Berlin was simply because it was a time of sexual revolution, earning this era the name “ The Golden 20s.”  During this time, there were mild attitudes towards sex.  Wife swapping and group balls were common, and abortions were brushed off.  For females, an intact hymen at 16 was laughable.  For men, condoms were displayed openly on street carts (Rector 13). For homosexuals, the WHK was created; this was the first organization that acknowledged and defended homosexual rights (Tamange 80). Homosexual expression through writing was also a developing business.  For lesbian women, magazines such as “Die Freudin” (The Girfriend) and “Frauenliebe” (Female Love) published articles exposing and celebrating the female body.  Other forms of art, such as poetry, essays, and photography, were also published.  For the males, one could find articles, poetry, and photography in magazines like “Der Eigene” (The Self-Owners) and “Die Intel” (The Island) (Oswald).  Other examples of the increasingly loose morals of this time were the hundreds of gay clubs and bars popping up all over the city.

The male homosexuality club scene was mainly consisting of nightclubs and bars for middle class gentlemen.  Each had their own ambience and mood.  Some, to make it easy to identify as a gay bar/club, had very flamboyant names and styles.  Other clubs had a very “normal” appearance until one entered and were exposed to the fabulous interiors that featured music, entertainment, dancers, and drag queens (Tamange 52-53). Nightclubs like Eldorado and the Mikado were meeting places for artists, writers, actors, and other men. The fancier clubs were located on the west end of Berlin. As stated by Charlotte Wolff, “Homo bars and nightclubs sprung up not only in the trendy districts of West Berlin, but also in poorneighborhoods...”(Tamange 51).  As Wolff explained, bars weren’t only just for the middle and upper class gentlemen.  Men of the lower class had pubs and bars that were located in central or northern Berlin, often in the sketchy and shady parts of the city. These types of bars survived economically due to their usual costumers (Tamange 52). 

For the lesbian who wanted a night out on the town, many preferred cafes although many went to bars, even venturing into the bad parts of town.  There were over 50 lesbian bars to choose from in Berlin, each having a soft, feminine atmosphere (Tamange 57).  Even though bars and clubs were an excellent place for the gay or lesbian to meet, many met at masked balls. 

A club or casino usually hosted these masked balls such as In Den Zelten or DresdierStrasse, both famous casinos at the time.  Four hundred to five hundred people would meet at the clubs. Many of the men that attended would dress as women.  Once there, they danced to music and drank the night away, not worried about the neighbors despite their costumes and risky themes of homosexuality (Tamange 57). These parties usually gave way to a long night filled with lovemaking; however, one didn’t have to go to parties to find a sexual partner. 

With the sexual revolution at its peak, prostitution became a thriving activity among gay men, so thriving, in fact, that, as Stephen Spender indicates, “all one had to do was undress” to experience gay sex (qtd. in Tamange).  Prostitution among men skyrocketed during the time after WWI and before WWII.  Much of the prostitution was focused on the needs of upper class, closeted gentlemen.  Safe houses, which were basically whorehouses, started emerging so that these men could experience gay sex without fear of black mail. Many of these prostitutes were soldiers or sailors who became prostitutes merely by tradition. A soldier or sailor would charge up to two shillings for a simple walk in the park with another man.  One could assume that more money was charged for more intense services.  John Layard states his own experience with male prostitution: “It started with a pillow fight, but ended up with fists; then they made love” (qtd. in Tamagne 200). There were also child prostitutes for the pedophiles; there were men that wore tights,men that dressed as women, fake sailors, jocks, choirboys, and many more.  “D.H. Lawrence would pass for a choir boy,” W.H. Auden stated (qtd. in Tamange 199). 

During this Golden Era, there seemed to be nothing that could break its free-spirited lifestyle.  Morals were long since gone; sex was available for sale.  Homosexuality blossomed into a lovely, rainbow flower.  However, under the surface of this happy, and very sexual, society, there was a man rising to power.  This man found all this sexuality to be deplorable and a threat to the Aryan race of Germany. In order to have a successful and perfect race, there needed to be stable and healthy men.  These men had to dominate over their women counter parts.  Gay men were an effeminate threat to society.  The man with rising power, of course, was Adolf Hitler, who was struggling with re-building war-torn Germany,

After WWI, much of Germany was devastated.  Millions of families struggled to cope with the lost lives of their loved ones.  Due to the super inflation of money, many were left homeless and hungry.  With death and destruction surrounding them, the crushed citizens of Germany began to find a cause for all this.  They began to point fingers at those who seemed responsible for all that happened to them.  Their fingers were directed at Jews, Gypsies, criminals, and homosexuals.A rising leader who shared similar attitudes towards these groups only fueled their hatred towards these minorities.  This leader was Adolf Hitler (Oswald).  And as the wake of WWI dispersed, Hitler began to share his views on the rising promiscuity with public Germany. 

Hitler was a very “clean” man (even though he reportedly liked having his girlfriends and mistresses urinate and defecate on him). He had no tolerance for anything dirty or tainted.  He became extremely upset at the mention of nudity and sex.  However, being an artistic man, he accepted it in art. But after he would get home from gazing atnudes in art galleries, he resorted back to his prudish self (Rector 18).  As the common public blamed the minorities for the problems Germany faced, Hitler had his own groups to blame for too much sexual activity. 

Hitler saw the sexual “problems” in Germany as the Jews fault.  In a public rally he stated, “Jews destroy national pride, which is the strength of a nation, with mockery and shameless training…[Jews] soak up…sin” (Rector 18).  On the issue of homosexuality, however, many, including Hitler, blamed schools and colleges (Tamange 183). 

Since boys in the boarding schools did not get to see their parents often, they scarcely followed their rules.  The boys in the schools lived together, bathed together, slept together (in separate beds of course), and were not allowed to see any girls.  They were encouraged to befriend one another and, as a result, homosexual relationships became commonplace for the boys (Tamagne 183).  The results of homosexual relationships in schools only justified Hitler’s stereotypes of homosexual men. 

Hitler thought of homosexual men as weak and feminine.  Like how a country surrenders to another, he believed that a man “surrendering” to another man was what made countries fall. Weakness was what tore countries apart (Rector 33).  In rising Germany, there would be no surrendering to another man, especially when much of the male population was killed in the war. 

Due to the war, there was now a serious imbalance of the male to female reproductive sex ratio (Austin).  With the need to produce Aryan offspring, Hitler had no tolerance for any wasted seed.  Homosexuality among men was already strictly prohibited under the German Penal Code of 1871, paragraph 175 (Oswald).  This describes the laws against homosexual acts among men: 

A male who commits lewd and lascivious acts with another male or permits

himself to be so abused for lewd and lascivious acts, shall be punished by

imprisonment.  In a case of a participant under 21 years of age at the time

of the commission of the act, the court may, in especially slight cases refrain

from punishment (Oswald).

Paragraph 175 then breaks off into sub-paragraphs that deal with the different male-on-male situations including forced sex, submission to sex, blackmail for sex, underage sex, prostitution, and bestially (Oswald).  Lesbian activity under paragraph 175 was scarcely punished at all (Dynes 239). 

At the time of rising Nazi regime, many lesbians went underground.  Often, they would marry their gay friends to protect themselves and their friend.  According to paragraph 175, lesbianism was seen only as an alienation of Aryan women.  Since no women really had power at the time, it was not seen as conspiracy.  Lesbians, though “perverted,” were still women that had wombs and the capability of carrying offspring (Heger 11).  The lives of lesbian women were shaped less by Nazi power and more by the inferiority of women at the time.  Propaganda of the ideal Aryan woman portrayed women as breeders (Heger 12).  Women weren’t the only targets of propaganda, however.

Chief of the Nazi party, Ernst Röhm was considered to be one of Hitler’s best chiefs.  Despite not being openly homosexual, Ernst was widely known to be.  Due to Hitler ignoring Ernst’s sexuality, the anti-gay politics of the Nazi’s were somewhat ignored.  Things went as far as starting a conspiracy that Nazi’s supported homosexuality (Moser).  However, on June 30, 1934, Röhm, along with many others, was killed. His sexuality was then used as propaganda to show the “true nature” of the “morally degenerate” (Heger 10).  Anti-homosexual propaganda began to spring up all around Nazi controlled Germany.  Films were distributed and speeches were created to brand homosexuals as enemies of the state.Because of this, they needed to be exterminated (Rector 106).  In one of the many speeches created against homosexuality, Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler describes homosexuality as, “not just a criminal offense, but a danger to the future Aryan race” (Heger 9).  These speeches, and similar propaganda, ignited the hate of homosexuality in Germany, and, with the support of paragraph 175 and Adolf Hitler, the Nazi capture of homosexuals began. 

The arresting process of homosexuals was quite simple.  In one way, the Nazi officers would track gays down by reading their mail.  Another was called the “whole and popular sentiment,” meaning that even at the suggestion of homosexual behavior among men was enough evidence for arrest (Rector 119).  As stated by Heger, “kissing or embracing another man, gossip spread by the neighbors, or receiving a letter from a gay friend was adequate evidence” (9).  Anyone whom they didn’t like was called “faggot!” regardless of their sexual orientation, spreading the fear of being arrested through mere words (Rector 119). 

By the end of 1934, police raids and arrests became common (Heger 12). Under paragraph 175, there were about 50,000 arrests without trial.  Many of the homosexuals were taken out of civil prisons or just sent to prison without trial.  The number of civil court cases dropped after 1938 because many homosexuals were sent to prison or confined in concentration camps (Rector 119).  Gays were the first to feel the fiery wrath of Nazi genocide and experience the horrors of the concentration camps. 

In Dachau, Germany, homosexuals were the first inmates to arrive at Dachau concentration camp (Rector 135).  Once a load of homosexuals arrived at a concentration camp via train car, they were stripped of their clothes and belongings and given the standard uniform of striped pants and stripped shirt that rarely fit well.  Each of the social groups that unfortunately arrived at a camp was given a marking.  Their markings were a symbol of their crimes against the country.  For Jews, it was a yellow Star of David, for homosexuals, a pink triangle.  Rector describes the triangle’s location in relation to the shirt: “Homosexuals…were identified by a pink cloth triangle about three and one half inches high…sewn to the left breast of the jacket and on the side of the right trouser left of the prisoners uniform, with there apex of the triangle pointing downward” (127).  For every offense against a person, they were given a symbol, for example, if a Jewish homosexual was captured, they were given the Star of David and also a pink triangle (Oswald).  For many of the camps in Germany, Pink Triangles were considered to be the scum of the camp.  Some of the homosexual men tried to “upgrade” their status by trading their pink triangles with a yellow star of another inmate (Rector 127).  It was better to been seen in yellow than pink. 

The Nazis chose pink to identify homosexual prisoners so that they would be the most visible out of all the inmates in the camps (Rector 127).  Depending on the camps, homosexuals sometimes got the letter “A” sewed onto their uniforms, “A” standing for the German word “Asch Ficker,” which translates to “ass-fucker” in English (Heger 14).  Wearing the letter “A” was only one of the many humiliating and degrading rules the homosexual men had to obey.  Strict regulations were made in order for homosexual men to stay as isolated as possible from other inmates.  Homosexuals were not allowed to be within five meters of the living quarters of the other prisoners and were punished terribly if they entered them (12).  In the homosexual’s living blocks, there were 250 men crammed in each wing.  They could only sleep in their dirty uniforms and had to keep their hands out of the covers because, as stated by a block leader, “You queer ass holes aren’t going to start wanking [(masturbating)] here”(qtd. in Heger13).  If one was caught with their hands under the covers, even if they weren’t masturbating, they were taken outside of the blocks to be punished.  In winter, a common punishment was having the homosexual man strip naked.  Then, the Nazi leaders would repeatedly dump water over the victim’s body, resulting in hypothermia.  After the prisoner was minutes away from freezing to death, only then would the block leaders show the slightest bit of mercy and send the prisoner back into the block where the flimsy sheets did little to nothing for conserving heat.  This punishment usually resulted in the victim contracting pneumonia and eventually dying from it (16). With torture being a grueling punishment, working the homosexual inmates was another popular form of punishment. 

In the winter, work for the homosexual inmates started at 7 am and lasted until 8 pm.  After they were given a meager breakfast of thin flour soup and a piece of bread, they were sent to their jobs. The work consisted of shoveling snow with their hands.  No gloves were given to them as they took turns shoveling and transporting the snow from one location to another in a seemingly endless cycle.  Twenty times shoveling the snow, twenty times carrying the snow (Heger 20).  When there wasn’t snow on the ground, homosexuals worked some of the toughest jobs in the camps.  The workday in the warmer months started at 5 or 6 am and lasted to 5pm.  These jobs were tedious and pointless.  A common practice was having the prisoners haul heavy rocks back and fourth, often resulting in back injuries.  Another job was moving a steamroller around the camp by hand.  These emotionally and physically exhausting jobs were designed to break the homosexual spirit (Oswald). One way to escape the crushing work of the camps was to become a Piepel. 

If a certain prisoner caught the eye of kapo (block leader), they had no choice but to become a Piepel, or a “doll boy” (Rector 144).  Piepels were usually young, handsome men that the kapos chose to be their own personal sex slaves.  They were used to fulfill the unusual sexual fantasies that block leaders couldn’t normally do; the piepelswere disposable (144).  One example of a kapo whom used his own fair share of piepels was Ludwig Tiene.Tiene was in the camp as a criminal, a murderer to be exact.  The head officers of the camp thought it would be funny to upgrade Tiene’s title to block leader, or kapo, of the homosexual wing.  With Tiene as leader, he was able to acquire a couple of piepels.  Tiene’s sexual fantasy was exactly why he was in the camp.  He was a murderer.  Tiene would crush, gnaw, or strangle to death young, good-looking boys while he orally or anally raped them.  While Tiene was a kapo, he killed up to 100 or more men daily (143).  Being a piepel was one way for a homosexual to escape being worked or starved to death.  However, there was another way to escape the camp, and that was through medical experimentation. 

The head officers and scientist at the camp considered their work on homosexuals as, “essential to the war effort” (Rector 130).  The gay men they chose for the experiments were similar to German soldiers, both in age and physical body.  These experiments always ended in death as Rector states, “Gays had their hands, arms, feet, legs, and other portions of their bodies hacked off or blown off or shot off; their eyes blinded, they limbs broken; their bodies burned; and subjected to skin and bone grafts…all done without anesthesia” (131).  Even as the war came to a close, the doctors and staff responsible for these horrendous experiments claimed that they never wanted to actually kill all of the homosexuals, rather, they wanted to re-educate the ones that were “behaviorally” homosexual, the ones that had the potential to be cured.  The ones that couldn’t be cured were either castrated or killed (Austin).  When the camps were eventually liberated, American soldiers discovered that Pink Triangles suffered a death rate 60% higher than any other minority in the camps.  Nazi documents showed that 100,000 men were arrested and only 4,000 survived (Oswald).  As the broken-spirited and shattered men trudged out of the camps, they believed their struggles were over. However, their persecution would follow them out of the camps.

Liberation of the camps began in 1944, Auschwitz being the last to be freed on May 7, 1945 (Oswald).  But as the heavy vale of the Holocaust was lifted off their faces, the law still bared down on them.  In post-war Germany, the government still actively persecuted homosexuals and continued to justify the Nazi efforts under the belief that, “homophobic laws were around before Hitler rose to power and therefore, they weren’t to be seen as a Nazi ideology” (Heger 9).  The Nazi version of paragraph 175 was upheld and therefore, “homosexuals were still civil criminals…and not entitled restitution” (Rector 109).  Many of the freed homosexuals now faced the reality of being re-imprisoned, and many were, only this time, the time they spent in concentration camps was deducted from their sentence (Oswald).  The ones who managed to escape prison were shunned from society.  When they tried to fall into the waiting arms of their families, their relatives turned their backs on them for “shaming” their families’ names with their (now forced-open) homosexuality (Oswald).  With no friends, no family, and no lives to live for, many survivors took their own lives (Rector 115).  Instead of death, many chose to hide their sexuality and rebuild their lives by getting married or joining the armed forces. Unable to find any mutual gay friends or acquaintances, many homosexuals lived in silent shame, afraid to come out and find others like themselves (Oswald).  No more than 15 gay, Holocaust survivors have publically opened up about their experiences since their liberation (Heger 13).  It wouldn’t be until 1969 that the Nazi version of paragraph 175 was abolished (9). 

The Holocaust was a dark, ashy smudge in the history of Europe and the world. In that ash there were bodies of Jews, criminals, Catholics, homosexuals, gypsies, and many, many more.  They all ended up the same.  However, the treatment of homosexuals was far worse.  Not only were the homosexuals in hiding prior to the Holocaust, they were forced into hiding even after being freed.  They were never truly free. As the Jews, gypsies, and other celebrated their freedom, the homosexuals were pushed aside and still considered criminals.  Their silent shame floats quietly in the air next to the ashes of their friends’ and lovers’ burnt bodies. 

Works Cited

Austin, Ben S. “Homosexuals and the Holocaust.” American-Israeli Cooperative

Enterprise. 2013. Web. 23 Mar. 2013. <>

Dynes, Wayne R. and Stephan Donalson, eds. History of Homosexuality in Europe and

America. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992. Print.

Heger, Heinz. The Men with the Pink Triangle.Trans. David Fernbach. New York:

Alyson Books, 1980. Print. 

Isherwood, Christopher.  Christopher and His Kind. New York: Farror-Straus-Giroux,

1976. Print.

Moser, Bob. “Anti-Gay Religious Crusaders Claim Homosexuals Helped Mastermind

the Holocaust.” Southern Poverty Law Center SPLC., 2005. Web. 22 Mar. 2013.  


Oswald, Lewis.  “Homocaust: The Gay Victims of the Holocaust.”,

2004. Web. 23 Mar. 2013. <>

Rector, Frank.The Nazi Extermination of Homosexuals.New York: Stein and Day,

1981. Print.

Tamagne, Florence. A History of Homosexuality in Europe Berlin, London, Paris 1919-1939 Volume I. New York: Algora Publishing, 2004. Print.



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