Pink Triangles and Prison Sentences: Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals

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German police file photo of a man arrested in October 1937 for suspicion of violating Paragraph 175. Landesarchiv, Berlin/US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Scan a bookshelf just about anywhere—at a school or local library, in a university archive, or even in a private home—and there’s a good chance you’ll find at least one memoir written by a Jewish victim of the Nazis. It may be Anne Frank’s diary or a story told by a Jew who endured the unimaginable and survived the Holocaust.

Much more difficult to find would be a comparable tale written by a member of another group systematically persecuted by Hitler’s regime: homosexual men.

“It’s so vastly different from the Jewish memoir literature—thousands and thousands of these things where people were telling their own stories,” says Ted Phillips, director of exhibitions at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C., and curator of the traveling exhibit “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, 1933-1945.”

The exhibit, shown first at USHMM in November 2002, has been presented at dozens of museums, libraries, universities and LGBT centers in more than 25 states. Making its first stop in New York City, “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals” opened to the public Friday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. It remains on display through October 2.

Even before it was built, Phillips says, USHMM made a conscious decision to remember all the victims of the Holocaust, a category that includes non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, the disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma and homosexuals in addition to Jews.

Since then, it has also added information on its website and presented exhibits about other genocides and atrocities. In the fall, it was the first to publicly display photos said to have been smuggled out of Syria showing detainees tortured and killed by Assad’s regime. Earlier this month, the museum opened an exhibit about Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and another exploring “the history of efforts to hold perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities accountable through court proceedings.”

The exhibit focusing on Nazi persecution of gay men is composed of a series of chronological panels full of text, photographs and images of police records and other documents. The two-dimensional displays sit on the third floor of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which is situated at the southern tip of Manhattan near Battery Park. Lined with windows that peak out from behind the panels and stream light onto the glossy wood floor, the room has a view of the water and from some angles the Statue of Liberty.

The exhibit begins by setting the scene, explaining that German criminal law section 175, which made “unnatural indecency” between men to be “punishable by imprisonment,” had been on the books since the unification of Germany in 1871. Still, during the Weimar period between world wars, major cities like Berlin became centers of social experimentation that “offered thousands of homosexuals both anonymity and a remarkable degree of acceptance,” reads one panel. “Scores of private same-sex ‘friendship leagues,’ clubs, bars, cafes, and dance halls flourished, providing their members both support and community.” Nevertheless, hundreds of men were still being prosecuted each year under paragraph 175, which made no mention of lesbians.

In the eyes of the Nazis, homosexuality weakened the Aryan race, in part because gay men did not contribute to the effort to increase the Aryan birthrate, having “physically withdrawn their ‘generative power’ from society,” reads another panel. They “feared [homosexuality] as an ‘infection’ that could become an ‘epidemic,’ particularly among the nation’s vulnerable youth.” One Nazi diagram, for example, showed the “contagion” moving from one individual to another 28 people by means of “seduction.”

In the Nazis’ male-dominant vision of society, “the presence of lesbians was not feared” like that of gay men, Phillips explains. “It was not feared that they were a contagion weakening the sex of women because the sex of women was not important, except for being a mother and a wife.” When the Nazis rewrote section 175 in 1935, the language they used made it even easier to convict men, but still made no mention of women. Though it was discussed at length, Phillips says, the Nazis determined it would be “too difficult to know the difference between intimate female friendship and an intimate sexual female relationship.”

The new version of the law allowed courts to rule that “any contact between men deemed to have sexual intent, even ‘simple looking’ or ‘simple touching,’ could be grounds for arrest and conviction,” reads one panel. Denunciations became the major vehicle for such arrests and interrogations, with police transcripts indicating that the vague word of a third party was often proof enough.

During the Nazi regime, Phillips says, roughly 100,000 men were arrested under section 175, and roughly half of those received prison sentences after appearing in court. Some men were institutionalized in mental hospitals and some, “perhaps hundreds—were castrated under court order or coercion.”

Between 5,000 and 15,000 men were sent to concentration camps, which fell outside the legal system. There, they were made to don pink triangles to identify them as homosexuals. In German camps, where there were few Jews (most Jews were sent to camps in the eastern territories), gay men were at the bottom of the camp hierarchy and other prisoners feared association with them.

After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, the Allied powers “repealed countless laws and decrees that had underpinned the Nazi eugenic engineering for a purified Aryan master race,” reads a panel on the war’s aftermath. The Nazi version of section 175, however, was not repealed and West Germany did not revise it to decriminalize homosexual relations until 1969.

“There was an argument made by the occupying powers that there was nothing specifically Nazi about the Nazi-written paragraph 175,” says Phillips. “Remember who occupied Germany: It was the United States, France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. And all four of those countries had anti-sodomy, anti-gay laws on the books. They see nothing wrong with Germany having an anti-gay law on the books.”

Because homosexuality continued to be criminalized after the war in Germany and elsewhere and even when and where it was not considered criminal, stigma persisted, very few gay victims of Nazi persecution came forward to tell their stories. “That’s a large reason why,” says Phillips, “we know very little about the gay survivors.”  

Scholars began looking at Nazi persecution of homosexuals in the 1970s and '80s, Phillips says, recommending Richard Plant’s The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals (1986) as “the single clearest narrative of the overall history.” And by now there are—but still very few—book-length memoirs, like Pierre Seel’s I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror and Heinz Heger’s The Men With the Pink Triangle: The True Life-and-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps. Both Seel and Heger, whose real name was Josef Kohout, have passed away.

“As best we know, there are no longer any surviving gay victims from the Nazi era. Rudolf Brazda was the last known survivor of the concentration camps and he died in 2011. And he only came forward with his story maybe within a year of his death,” Phillips says. Because most men arrested under section 175 in the 1930s and 40s were in their 30s and 40s, time has run out, he says: “If there is anybody remaining, he or she is very old and living a very quiet life.”

Though the exhibit includes a quartet of brochures marked “One Person’s Story,” with some details about specific cases, one of the biggest challenges Phillips faced was the dearth of first-hand testimony. Instead of telling the story from the victims’ perspectives, as he had hoped when he set out, he had to rely on Nazi archives—and as a result to tell the story primarily from the perpetrators’ perspective.

“The lessons of the Holocaust are such that they show how fragile and how easily manipulated and destroyed social institutions can be,” Phillips says. The goal of USHMM’s work with this exhibit and beyond is to “show how people need to learn from this murderous history what we need to be doing to preserve our own democracy.”

When Phillips created the exhibition just after the start of the new millennium, the conversation about same-sex marriage had yet to become a central topic in mainstream American discourse. Nearly 15 years later, the Supreme Court is poised to make a historic decision on the matter, expected in June.

“The conversation in this country has changed so much in the near 15 years [the exhibit has] been on the road,” Phillips says. “The questions have changed with that conversation, but I generally step away from getting into the parallels. I let the visitors see how this history resonates with them about today and let them draw their own conclusions.”