A Separate Category of Prisoners
[From the Pro Memoria periodical, published by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp Victims Memorial Foundation in Oświęcim]Homosexuals were one of the distinct groups of Nazi concentration camp prisoners. The Nazis used pink triangles to designate them, and subjected them to “re-education” aimed at changing their sexual orientation. There were homosexuals in Auschwitz. It is difficult to say how many of them there were, since historians have not so far discussed this issue widely. The writers of these two articles take note of this fact. We hope that these first articles will help us to gather material for a broader study. We count on letters and statements from you, our readers.
Nazism’s Pink Hell
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.
Germany’s Golden Years The nineteenth century was the first period when voices openly defending homosexuality and refusing to condemn it were heard on a broad scale. The Napoleonic Code of 1804 served as the model for this kind of progress. Under the influence of the French Revolution, Bavaria repealed in 1813 the law that imposed penalties on homosexual unions. The government of Hannover soon followed suit. The German Reich, with Bismarck heading its government, was proclaimed in 1871, following the Franco-Prussian War. Article 175 of the unified legal code stated that “any man who permits indecent relations with another man, or who takes part in such relations, shall be subject to punishment by imprisonment.”
The Berlin physician Magnus Hirschfeld zealously opposed Article 175. In 1897, he founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, which campaigned for the repeal of Article 175 and for education on homosexuality. Prominent German academics joined members of the powerful women’s movement on the Committee. Despite many legal barriers, the Committee helped create a place where gays and lesbians could meet. Hirschfeld’s life’s motto was per scientiam ad justitiam (“through knowledge to justice”). Hirschfeld organized the first congress of the World League for Sexual Reform in Copenhagen in 1928.
The topic of homosexuality appeared frequently in the German press, literature, and film of the day. Everyone was discussing it. New clubs, bars, and other meeting places for gays and lesbians were opening all the time. There were around 100 bars of this type in Berlin alone. In the mid 1920s, rising inflation and the economic recession strengthened Nazism. The nationalist right emphasized das Volk, the purity of race and blood, and the role and sanctity of family life. The Weimar Republic came under increasingly frequent attack for condoning too great a degree of sexual laxity. The Jews were accused of lowering the moral standards of the Germans, and above all of directing efforts aimed at destroying the Aryan race and reducing the population. As Hitler consolidated his power, he accused the fledgling democracy of being a “hothouse for the intensified growth of temptation and enticement.” As a Jew and a homosexual, Hirschfeld made an ideal target for Nazi attacks. Anti-Semites organized assaults on him on several occasions in the early 1920s; a young man opened fire on Hirschfeld’s audience during a 1923 lecture in Vienna, wounding several. Hirschfeld’s friend and professional colleague Alber Moll, who was also Jewish, organized the first Congress on Sexual Research in Berlin in 1928.
For a time, Hirschfeld and his allies sought support for their efforts from the Soviet Union, but their sympathy for that country declined when increasing numbers of Soviet homosexuals began to be committed, as a result of a decree by Stalin, to mental hospitals. Soon, a Nazi newspaper was writing that “Among the many diabolical instincts that characterize the Jewish race, one specifically has to do with sexual relations. Jews always attempt to support sexual relations among siblings, between people and animals, or between men. We National Socialists will soon bring them before the law and condemn them. These deeds are nothing but vulgar, depraved crimes, and we will punish them by banishing or hanging the guilty.” These words heralded a new epoch.
The National Socialist Seizure of Power
On May 6, 1933, three months after Hitler’s election as German chancellor, several trucks drove up in front of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin. Around a hundred students forced their way into the building and began demolishing the Institute. They scattered documents around, destroyed research equipment and material, and carried the books out of the library. That afternoon, other trucks arrived full of Nazi storm troopers who finished the job. Several days later, the Nazis assembled a large crowd to watch the burning of an impressive number of books and documents, and a bust of Hirschfeld, in front of the Berlin Opera. Hirschfeld was abroad at the time (he would never return to Germany) and witnessed the destruction of his institute in a newsreel in a Paris cinema. Soon afterwards, the German government stripped him of his citizenship. On May 15, 1935, he died at the age of 67 in Nice, where he worked to his last days trying to set up an institute similar to the one in Berlin. The attack on Hirschfeld’s institute was the first drastic step that the Nazis took against homosexuals and, to a degree, against Jews as well. The destruction of the institute followed statements characterizing it as “an international center for the sale of white slaves” and “an unsupervised breeding ground for filth and contamination.” In 1930, Nazi Reichstag delegate Wilhelm Frick, later internal affairs minister in Hitler’s government, presented a plan for the castration of homosexuals, “that Jewish plague.” Nazi newspapers called for the death penalty for homosexual acts.
Many German gays, like Jews, nevertheless assumed that the Nazis would change their policies once they were in power. The cult of masculinity that the Nazis propagated blinded some. The Nazi party even “had links to” homosexuals, as the gay activist Adolf Brand wrote in 1931. What the Nazi sympathizers failed to recognize was that, as Brand went on, the Nazis “already had the hangman’s rope in their pockets.”
Hatred of homosexuals was determined by both party ideology and the personal obsessions of the leaders, and especially of Heinrich Himmler, the main originator of the plan to exterminate homosexuals. For Himmler and other Nazi ideologues, homosexuals—like Jews—were the incarnation of degeneracy. They saw Jews and homosexuals as outsiders and inferior human beings who threatened the purity of der Volk. As George Z. Mosse observes in his book Nationalism and Sexuality, the nationalist and Nazi typology presented Jews and homosexuals in a highly similar way, treating them as selfish, useless, and sexually aggressive and insatiable to the degree that they could not control their urges. They accused Jews and homosexuals of using the fact that they were different as a weapon against society. Jews allegedly “went mad” over Christian women, and homosexuals over young Aryan men. The Nazis believed in an international Jewish conspiracy and leveled similar accusations against homosexuals. One man in Germany, however was both the chief of staff of the SA [“storm troopers”] and gay; indeed, he was so insufferably gay that he did not even bother to conceal the fact. This was Ernst Roehm, Hitler’s right-hand man. His downfall, in the first days of the Reich, determined the future fate of homosexuals under Hitler’s rule. In contrast to the stereotype that his party propagated, Ernst Roehm was “pompous, greedy, a harsh father to his troops, and a boor with no sense of tact,” as Richard Plant defines him in his book The Pink Triangle. The son of a Bavarian bureaucrat, Roehm was wounded in World War I. The atmosphere of humiliation after the German defeat drew him into the current of nationalist politics. He soon became one of Hitler’s closest and most trusted friends—the only one whom Hitler addressed in the familiar du. As head of the SA storm troops, made up mostly of World War I veterans and carefully selected hooligans, Roehm was responsible for operations directed mostly against Jews and other opponents of Hitler. Such tactics played the main role in Hitler’s rise to power. Hitler ignored Roehm’s homosexuality because of the latter’s organizational success in building the SA. This state of affairs only lasted until 1925, when a quarrel broke out between the two men. Hitler banished Roehm to Bolivia; the exile trained the army there. When the SA revolted in 1929, a terrified Hitler ordered Roehm to return to Germany at once. Relations between them obviously improved; when Hitler received complaints about Roehm’s “immoral” behavior, Hitler defended him on the grounds that the SA “is not an institution of moral education for delicate maidens, but a formation of hardened fighters.” Hitler went on to add that Roehm’s “private life cannot be the object of criticism as long as he avoids falling into conflict with the guiding principles of the national socialist ideology.”
In 1932, a year before the Nazi seizure of power, several of Roehm’s compromising letters were leaked to the press and provided his enemies with additional proof of his sexual proclivities. Having become chancellor, Hitler no longer needed Roehm as he had before, and therefore had no reason to go on tolerating Roehm’s sexual exploits. Furthermore, Roehm was a radical Nazi and envisaged replacing the regular German army with SA troops. Hitler, then engaged in gaining the support of the aristocracy and industrialists, had completely different plans. Roehm and many of his old associates therefore became a stumbling block that Hitler needed to remove.
June 28, 1934 was the Night of the Long Knives: On Hitler’s orders, the SS, led by Himmler and the rivals of the SA, attacked a guesthouse on the Wiessee, a lake near Munich. Ernst Roehm and other brownshirt leaders were staying at the guest house. The attack was part of a nationwide plan to murder approximately 300 people. Roehm was one of those arrested. three days later, an SS officer entered his prison cell and handed him a revolver, saying, “I’ll be back in 15 minutes.” Roehm retorted, “Let Adolf do it. I have no intention of doing his job for him.” Roehm was executed that same day. Rumors spread that Roehm had been secretly plotting a putsch.
Statements issued on June 30 said nothing about a putsch or attempted putsch, speaking instead of “the gravest neglect, conflicts, and pathological tendencies,” creating the impression, despite the mention of the word “conspiracy,” that Hitler had intervened purely on grounds of morality. As Hitler put it in one of his less fortunate metaphors, “the Fuehrer gave the order for the merciless excision of that ulcer; in the future, he will not allow individual persons with pathological tendencies to implicate and shame millions of decent people.”
Communist propaganda exploited Roehm’s homosexuality as an example of the “true nature” of the Third Reich. In the 1930s and 1940s, both governments, Hitler’s and Stalin’s, presented homosexuality as the enemy’s aberration and deviance. Numerous films produced for propaganda purposes presented this view of homosexuality. The destruction of Roehm and his SA enabled Heinrich Himmler, the commander of the SS, to become the second most important person in Germany, after Hitler. Like other nationalists of the day, Himmler had an obsession about der Volk. In a speech to SS lieutenants in 1937, he warned that the spread of homosexuality endangered the reproduction of the nation. He went on to state that there were two million registered members of homosexual clubs; “experts” on homosexuality estimated that there were two to four million homosexuals in Germany. “This epidemic is destroying our Volk, said Himmler. “A nation of numerous children is qualified to be a global power and master of the world. A racially pure Volk with few children is on the sure road to destruction.” He went on: “We must be sure as to whether we want to go on carrying this burden [homosexuality – ed.] in Germany without being able to combat it. This could risk the end of Germany, the end of the Teutonic world. Unfortunately, things are not so easy as they were for our forefathers. For them, such an individual was simply something immoral. Homosexuals, known as Urnings, were drowned in the swamps. The respected professors who discover these corpses in the peat bogs are surely unaware that, in ninety cases out of a hundred, they are looking at homosexuals who were drowned there in their clothing and all the rest. This was not a punishment—it was simply getting rid of something immoral.”
People were not drowned in swamps in 20th century Germany. The SS came up with something far more refined for homosexuals. “These people will certainly be publicly stripped of their positions, dismissed and brought before courts. Following the court verdicts, they will be taken to concentration camps, and shot there should they attempt to escape.” Himmler wanted to establish a so-called Mannerstaadt—a state with the goal, as Moss has written, of “cooperation among men making up a commune, as a governing elite.” There was no place for homosexuals, depicted as the third sex, in a society based on strength and endurance.
What Hitler thought on the subject of homosexuality is not entirely clear. His misgivings were mostly political in nature: he feared that homosexuals could keep a small political elite under surveillance and become a state within the state. Gestapo boss Rudolf Diels recalled a conversation in which Hitler expressed the fear that homosexuals holding high office could become insubordinate purely for reason of their sexual orientation. According to Diels, Hitler once made the following analogy: “Look, if I had to choose against a girl who was incompetent but whom I loved, and one who was responsible but repulsive, I would surely decide on the incompetent beloved. In the same way, were homosexuals to seize power and influence, Nazi Germany would find itself in the hands of these creatures and their lovers.” Less than a month before Hitler seized power, all active gay organizations in Germany were declared illegal. Kurt Hiller, whom Magnus Hirschfeld had named as the head of his Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, was sent to the concentration camp in Oranienburg, from which he was released nine months later for unknown reasons. Until 1933, Roehm’s brownshirts attacked gay bars throughout the country; many were closed down and the rest forced to operate illegally. At a meeting of municipal administration officials in Hamburg on November 13, 1933, for instance, the chief of police was ordered to pay particular attention to “transvestites, and to send them to concentration camps.” In 1934, the Gestapo sent a letter ordering every police station in the country to draw up a list of “everyone who is homosexually active in any way.” In response, the Berlin police managed to draw up a list of approximately 30,000 homosexuals. In May 1935, the SS magazine Das Schwarze Korps demanded the death sentence for gays.
Additions to the legal code broadened the basis for accusations of homosexuality. On June 28, 1935, Article 175 was supplemented by a charge against any type of physical contact between two men. This was connected with the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws, which defined the differences between the Aryan and non-Aryan races. It became clear within a few months that the Nazis regarded the Jews and the Roma, above all, as the non-Aryan races. As a consequence, according to official Gestapo figures, the number of charges filed for violating Article 175 rose from 853 in 1933 to 2,106 in 1935 and 8,562 in 1938. A Central Reich Agency to Fight Homosexuality and Abortion, headed by Josef Meisinger, opened at Gestapo headquarters in Berlin in 1936. New directives made it possible to incarcerate increasing numbers of homosexuals in the concentration camps. A 1938 ruling allowed men accused of relations with other men to be sent to the camps immediately. The ruling was broadened in 1940 so that arrested homosexuals who had had multiple partners would be immediately sent to a concentration camp after serving their sentences. In his interesting work Die Verfrolgung der Homosexuellen im Dritten Reich, Wolfgang Harthauser states that the Third Reich investigated 3,261 persons on charges of homosexuality from 1931 to 1934. This statistic rose dramatically, to 29,771, in the years 1936-1939. “The fate of the homosexuals is to become fodder for the concentration camps,” a judge stated in 1935 when sentencing a man who had been watching a couple having sex in the park, and admitted under interrogation that he had been observing only the male partner. The relatively easy defeat of Roehm emboldened the Nazis to attack their most dangerous rival: the Catholic church. Nazi propaganda accused priests and monks of homosexuality. these accusations reached their apogee in 1937, when Reich Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels proclaimed during a radio broadcast that “the sacristy has become a bordello, and monasteries are places for the growth of abject homosexuality.” High-publicity prosecutions for homosexuality occurred between 1934 and 1937, but went no farther, as a rule, than accusations. In 1938, the head of the armed forces, Werner von Fritsch, was dismissed after being accused of sodomy. Von Fritsch was said to have been critical of Hitler’s plans for a for war in Europe. He stated that Germany was too weak militarily to win the war. In accusing of him of homosexuality, Hitler wanted to ridicule the military leadership and eliminate from the army those who wished to remain independent of him. In order to rid themselves of a rival, Himmler and Goering acted together and, as when Roehm had been eliminated, presented a police dossier and witnesses to support the charge of homosexual practices against von Fritsch. By the time it was shown that the dossier was about a retired cavalry officer named Frisch (which the Gestapo knew all along) rather than von Fritsch, the slander had done its work. Hitler consolidated his control over the armed forces and filled politically important posts with people he trusted.
The campaign against homosexuality eased somewhat in 1936. The Olympic Games were being held in Berlin. Some gay bars reopened and the police received orders not to detain foreign homosexuals visiting them. However, 1936 was an exception and did not lead to any cessation of the repression.
To a greater degree than gays, lesbians managed to avoid persecution. Article 175 was never extended to cover lesbian relationships, although the Nazis mulled such an option. However, Himmler did not see women as any sort of threat to his Mannerstaadt. According to the Nazis, love between two women was alien to Aryan women. In any case, it was difficult from the moment when women were excluded from holding high party posts to foresee any real threat from a “lesbian conspiracy.”
While the Nazis attempted to root out the problem of homosexuality entirely in Germany, they did not attach commensurate importance to the issue in the countries that they occupied during the Second World War, since Himmler believed that homosexuality sapped the vigor of conquered nations. As a result, no legal ban was imposed on homosexual relations. In The Netherlands, which Hitler planned to make a part of Greater Germany, the law was brought into conformity with the German code. The scope of Article 175 was extended, despite the fact that this was a country where the law had not discriminated against homosexuals since 1811. The Scientific Humanitarian Committee (NWHK), which fought for homosexual rights among other things, was disbanded. As a result, the entire gay subculture had to go underground. The Dutch police were reluctant to call on the places where homosexuals met, and no list of their names was ever handed over to the Germans.
Under Nazi plans, Poland was to remain outside the borders of the Reich. The Germans, after all, viewed its inhabitants as genetically inferior. However, the location of Poland next to Germany made the Nazis fear that degeneration could spread from the former country. Since 1932, Polish law had not contained any penalties for homosexual relations. However, Polish homosexuals were persecuted during the German occupation.
Mussolini’s views on sexual matters were not particularly strict, and homosexuals were never persecuted in his Italy to the same degree as in Germany or in other occupied countries. There was no penalty, for instance, for homosexual nudes.
Gay artists were generally not persecuted in occupied Paris as long as they were of Aryan origin. After the armistice in 1940, the pro-Nazi Vichy government accused prewar French society of decadence. The novelist, playwright, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau was one of those accused of propagating degeneracy. “Believe it or not,” he wrote to a friend, “those who now form values have decided that Gide and I are to blame for everything.” When one of Cocteau’s plays was produced in occupied Paris, someone planted two gas bombs in the theatre and several hooligans climbed on stage to insult the playwright and his partner, the actor Jean Marais. Fortunately, Cocteau never spoke out publicly on the issue. This is probably why the fascists left him in peace.
The Extermination of Homosexuals
Homosexuals were one of the specially selected groups in the concentration camps. Far less numerous than other prisoners, they experienced a hell of a particular kind. The first transport of homosexuals noted by the Nazis arrived at Fuhlsbuttel concentration camp in the fall of 1933. This was a new prisoner category. They were marked with the letter “A,” which was later replaced by the pink triangle (Rose Winkeln). As opposed to the Jews and the Roma, the Nazis intended not to exterminate homosexuals, but to “reeducate” them. The death rate among homosexuals was high, especially when compared to other groups imprisoned for purposes of reeducation. Fifty-five percent of homosexual prisoners died in the camps, as opposed to 40% of political prisoners and 34.7% of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Between 5,000 and 15,000 gays died in the camps, although this figure might have been much higher since homosexuals, as opposed to Jews and Roma, could easily conceal their otherness. Homosexuals were treated as the lowest of the groups within the prisoner population. As a rule, they obtained the worst labor assignments, and were often rejected by their fellow prisoners and treated as deviants. The camp capos who oversaw the labor details also refused to help them. They had limited contact with the outside world; it rarely happened that families maintained contact with prisoners wearing the pink triangle, and their friends outside had no desire to maintain contact with those who were in the camps. Impulses of solidarity occurred sporadically among the homosexuals themselves. As Raimund Schnabel writes in his study of Dachau, “Those whose behavior could be called perverted were seldom found among the homosexuals; nevertheless, there were some sycophants and fraudsters. The prisoners wearing the pink triangle never lived long. The SS murdered them quickly and systematically.”
Little is known about the lesbians who were in the camps. Historians are aware of only one document that lists a woman’s homosexuality as the reason for her being incarcerated in the Ravensbrück camp. The eleventh woman on a transport list to that camp, arriving on November 30, 1940, is a 26-year-old Jewish woman, Ella S. Next to her name, the word “lesbian” is written. She was placed among the political prisoners, but little is known of her subsequent fate. In Sachsenhausen, men wearing the pink triangle were separated from the rest of the prisoners in a so-called “sissy block.” More than 180 of them were confined to this former student dormitory, without any distinction among them: from unqualified manual laborers and shopkeepers to musicians, professors, and clergymen, and even aristocrats and magnates. Homosexuals were not allowed to hold any prisoner functionary positions. They were also forbidden to converse with prisoners from other blocks. It must have been feared that they would entice others into homosexual behavior. There is evidence, however, that such acts occurred more frequently in other blocks than in the one for homosexuals.
Homosexual prisoners were forced to sleep in nightshirts and to hold their hands outside the covers. This was supposed to prevent masturbation. One prisoner recalled that “anyone caught without underwear or with their hands under the covers—and there were several checks each night—was taken outside, had several buckets of water dumped on them, and was made to stand that way for a good hour. Only a few survived, especially when there was a centimeter of ice on the windowpanes. Bronchitis was prevalent as a result, and it was rare for a homosexual to come back alive from the hospital.”
A block supervisor in Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp (now Rogożnica, Poland) was notorious for exceptional cruelty. As Józef Gielo writes in his Gross-Rosen camp memoirs, “this German convict and sexual pervert lured young boys into his room and, after several days of having relations, murdered them in cold blood. He also murdered anyone who witnessed his actions, even accidentally.”
Homosexuals were assigned to particularly hard labor in Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Auschwitz, and other camps. They labored in the Sachsenhausen cement plant and in the underground factories near Buchenwald that manufactured V-2 rockets. Rudolf Hoess, who held the post of commandant of the Sachsenhausen camp before being transferred to Auschwitz, was convinced that sexual orientation could be changed through hard labor. The results of this reeducation were lamentable: the majority of the prisoners under his control died. The Sachsenhausen camp, regarded until 1942 as “the Auschwitz for homosexuals,” held large numbers of homosexuals. They labored mostly at quarrying clay and making bricks in the camp. Regardless of the weather, they had to push carts full of clay towards the machines that produced the bricks. This work was particularly difficult because the pits were almost empty; most of the clay had already been dug out of them. The half-dead prisoners pushed their carts uphill, urged on all the time by the SS men and the capos guarding them. The carts ran on tracks, but they frequently derailed and tumbled back downhill, crushing defenseless prisoners who did not even attempt to get out of the way. The sounds of breaking bones and the lashings of the blows directed at the prisoners who remained alive could be heard.
L.D. von Classen-Neudegg, who survived Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, describes the death of some 300 homosexuals laboring in the cement plant. “We learned that we were being separated by a penal order and transferred the next morning to the unit working in the cement plant. We trembled, because the death rate among workers in that factory was higher than anywhere else. Guarded by soldiers with automatic rifles, we had to run to our workplace in rows of five. They hurried us along with blows from their rifle butts and bullwhips. Forced to carry twenty corpses, those who remained alive were covered with blood by the time they got there. This was, alas, only the beginning of the hell. Two-thirds of my fellow prisoners died within two months. To kill someone attempting to escape paid off for the soldiers. For each prisoner he killed, a soldier received five marks and three days’ leave. They used the bullwhips most often in the morning, when they were forcing us down into the pits. ‘Only 50 are left alive,’ the man beside me whispered several days later. A certain sergeant told me one morning, ‘that’s enough. Do you want to cross over to the other side? It won’t hurt. I’m an excellent shot.’”
Tomasz Gędziorowski, the author of the book Widma [The Spectres] recounts the relations between a Dachau labor detail capo, Georg Schittkett, and younger prisoners: “He was a short, slender man with something feline about his movements. He moved almost noiselessly through the corridors and the cellars where potatoes were stored. His motionless face betrayed no feelings. His stony features only softened when he paused to talk with his favorites in the labor detail. They were two young boys, one from Łódź and the other a Pole from France, whom he affectionately called ‘Bubi.’ Bubi had a plump face with gentle girlish features, and there was nothing manly about the way he swished his hips when he walked. The capo’s assistant was a husky young German wearing a black triangle.”
Over time, the ‘Nazis perfected the technique of using other methods than exhaustive labor to exterminate homosexuals. In the Flossenbürg camp, for instance, they opened a house of prostitution and forced homosexuals to visit it as a form of treatment. The prostitutes were Jewish and Roma women from the nearby women’s camp. The Nazis cut holes in the walls through which they could observe the “behavior” of their homosexual prisoners. Homosexuals who were cured of their “sickness” were sent for “good behavior” to the Dirlewanger division, formed of prisoners to combat Russian partisans on the eastern front.
Robert Biedron, a political scientist, is the head of the Polish Campaign against Homophobia.
Joachim Neander, born in Gdańsk, lived in Germany until he moved to Cracow in 1999. He holds doctorates in philosophy, mathematics, and physics, and is the author of various articles including one on the Mittelbau Concentration Camp. In 2002, he held a fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and is an honorary member of the staff of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State museum in Oświęcim.