The pink triangle (German: rosa Winkel) is a symbol used in German concentration camps between 1933 and 1945. Inverted pink triangles (two points up, one point down) were sewn onto the uniforms of male prisoners convicted of homosexuality. With Gay Liberation since Stonewall in 1969, the inverted pink triangle became an international symbol of Gay pride and the Gay rights movement.
Germany’s National Socialist government under Adolf Hitler attempted to cleanse German territory of people who did not belong to Hitler’s vision of the superior Aryan race, including Jews, Germans with mental and physical disabilities, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma, Slavs, Soviet war prisoners, and homosexual men within the German population. Millions of people perished in concentration camps as a result.
Concentration camps issued color-coded badges. Jews had to wear a yellow star of David (a symbol that was also used in ghettos), Jehovah’s Witnesses purple, political prisoners red, antisocial individuals (vagrants, Roma and Sinti, and women who avoided the company of men in favor of other women) black, and criminals green triangles. Men convicted under paragraphs 174, 175 and 176 of the Reich Penal code dealing with homosexual behavior wore pink triangles.
Oppression of Homosexual Men
The Nazi campaign against homosexuality targeted more than one million German men who were denounced as antisocial parasites and enemies of the state. Homosexual men were accused of keeping the birthrate down, endangering public morality, and subverting traditional values. For the good of the state, male homosexuality had to be eradicated from the Master Race.
Officials did not seek to kill all homosexuals, however. In Nazi eugenics (the study of hereditary improvement of the human race by selective breeding), women were valued primarily for their ability to bear children. The state presumed that women were still capable of bearing children whether they enjoyed the company of men or not. Lesbians were not systematically persecuted under Nazis, but they nonetheless did suffer the loss of their own gathering places and associations. Similarly, the Nazis generally did not target non-German homosexual men unless they were active with German partners. Nevertheless, the Nazi state terrorized German homosexuals into sexual and social conformity, leaving thousands dead or maimed, and destroying the lives of many more.
Besides taking for granted the ability of women to bear children regardless of what they thought of whoever got them pregnant, it was almost unimaginable in the Nazi worldview that women would be sexually attracted to women, so the primary targets of the homosexual purge were men. Any contact between men could be reason for arrest and conviction. Rosa Listen (“pink lists”) were compiled with the names of suspects. Some homosexual men emigrated because of increased police scrutiny. The vast majority began to conceal their homosexuality and many chose to marry women. Others committed suicide.
In the summer of 1940, convicted homosexual men accused of having seduced more than one partner were sent to concentration camps after completing their prison sentences. Such preventive detention could be shortened if the individual underwent castration, either voluntarily or, after 1942, by order of a camp commandant.
Paragraph 175 was part of German Penal Code from time of the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm I. As part of a massive rewriting of the penal code, Nazis revised Paragraph 175 and put it into effect in 1935. Paragraph 175a specifically imposed up to ten years of hard labor for indecency committed under coercion, indecency with young males under the age of 21, and for male prostitution. The revision emphasized homosexuality as criminal behavior, resulting in new judicial interpretations since criminalized homosexuality was no longer described only as unnatural. Even before the new law went into effect, Nazi courts expanded the range of indecent acts beyond the single offense prosecuted under the old law. The revised law did not mention homosexuality between women.
Most of imprisoned homosexuals were from the working class. They were less able to afford private apartments or homes, so they found partners in places what put them at bigger risk of discovery and police entrapment. More than 100,000 men were arrested. Approximately 50,000 men served prison terms as convicted homosexuals, an unknown number were institutionalized in mental hospitals, and hundreds were castrated under court order.
Conditions in the Camps
Prisoners marked by pink triangles were given especially harsh treatment in the concentration camps. According to survivor accounts, homosexuals were among the most abused groups. Easily identified by their pink triangle badges, homosexual prisoners were subject to physical and even sexual abuse by SS concentration camp guards. Most fellow prisoners shunned them, leaving them isolated and powerless within the prisoner hierarchy. When labeled with the pink triangle, inmates might find themselves in a situation where, paradoxically, they could only survive if they had sex with male prison guards, bringing further resentment against them from their fellow prisoners.
Between 5000 and 15,000 homosexual men officially labeled as such were imprisoned in concentration camps. Many died from starvation, disease, exhaustion, beatings, medical experiments (some designed to find a cure for homosexuality), and execution. Nazis purposefully categorized some political prisoners as homosexuals, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
Continued Persecution after WWII
After the liberation of concentration camps at the end of World War II, many pink triangle prisoners were simply imprisoned again by the allies. Even though former concentration camp guards could receive a government stipend, those survivors imprisoned for homosexuality received nothing but further persecution. Most of them died before their tribulations were recognized as unjust. They had nobody to turn to for help, restitution, or to tell their stories. The Nazi amendments to Paragraph 175, which turned homosexuality from a minor offense into a felony, remained intact in Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) until 1969 when homosexual relations between men over the age of 21 were finally decriminalized. Some survivors were found by Gay-friendly scholars, and their lived experiences of the concentration camps were recorded for posterity.
Sites utilizing triangles that honor homosexual victims of the Nazi regime are in various cities in Germany and Austria, such as a red granite triangular plaque in Nollendorfplatz, (Berlin–Schöneberg, Germany), triangular plaques in concentration camps at Mauthausen (Austria), Dachau (Germany), and Neuengamme (Hamburg, Germany), a square plaque with a pink triangle in the center in the Buchenwald concentration camp (Weimar, Germany), “Injured Angel” bronze sculpture with scarred neck and clipped wings (slanted to outline a triangle) in Platz Schäfergasse/Alte Gasse (Frankfurt, Germany), and a stone memorial made of two pink granite pieces on the bank of the Rhine River at the Wallraf–Richarts–Museum (Cologne, Germany).
Outside of Germany and Austria, triangle monuments include a plaque with a prominent pink triangle at the Holocaust Centre (Nottinghamshire, Britain), a mottled pink triangular granite block in Montevideo (Uruguay), a triangle-within-a-triangle set in the ground at Villa Cassarini (Bologna, Italy), a gravestone inlayed with a pink granite triangle in the Municipal Cemetery in Anchorage (Alaska), and a large metal hollow triangular monument in Meir Garden (Tel Aviv, Israel).
Three monuments are especially striking in design: the Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial built by Dr. Kitty Fischer in honor of a homosexual inmate who brought food to her and her sister at Auschwitz that features a large raised pink triangular monument with black pylons behind it and through it (Sydney, Australia), the Homomonument (Amsterdam, the Netherlands) with three large triangles (one raised, one even with the ground, and a third down a flight of steps leading to a canal, set at the points of a larger triangle containing them all), and five triangular-shaped granite pylons and large triangle set in the ground in Pink Triangle Park (San Francisco).
Pink Triangle as Gay Enclave
Pink Triangle is also a nickname for LGBTQ enclaves of Edinbourgh and Glasgow in Scotland. In Mexico City, a well known Gay neighborhood is known as Zona Rosa or “Pink Zone.”
Heger, Heinz, The Men With the Pink Triangle: The True, Life-and-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps. Alyson Publications Inc., Los Angeles, 1994.
Plant, Richard. The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals. New York, H. Holt, 1986.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Washington, D.C. Holocaust Encyclopedia. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/ (accessed November 14, 2007).