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 Under the influence of the French Revolution, Bavaria repealed in 1813 the law that imposed penalties on homosexual unions.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.
In 1943, Himmler issued a new decree allowing homosexuals who submitted to castration and demonstrated good behavior to be released from the camps. Some of them took advantage of this ruling, although “walking out the gates of the camps” did not mean they were no longer under the “care” of the Nazis. They were assigned to the penal Dirlewanger division and sent into combat, which equaled a death sentence. The death rate among the soldiers in this division, which was notorious for its brutality towards Russian partisans, was extremely high.
Homosexuals were subjected to medical experiments. A Danish endocrinologist, Carl Vaernet, castrated 18 homosexuals in the Buchenwald camp and then injected them with high doses of male hormones. The goal of the experiment was to discover whether they would be interested in the opposite sex following such procedures. The results remain unknown, since a yellow fever epidemic in the camp caused the experiment to be suspended. Vaernet carried out similar experiments at the Neuengamme camp.
At the end of the war, the majority of homosexuals were freed from camps in both parts of divided Germany. However, the homophobia directed against them by the public remained strong. Article 175—the basis for sending thousands of innocent people to concentration camps—remained in force in the DDR until 1967, and in West Germany until 1969. There were some American and British lawyers who demanded that homosexuals convicted under Article 175 serve out their full sentences. For instance, if someone had been sentenced to eight years and served five years of the sentence in prison followed by three years in a concentration camp, the lawyers demanded that the person return to prison to serve out three years. The number of people forced to “complete” their sentences in this way is not known. To this day, no financial compensation has been paid to the victims of Nazi homosexual policies, despite the fact that the German government offered compensation to victims of Jewish ethnicity, political prisoners, and other groups that survived the concentration camps. Only the homosexuals were passed over. Many people deny that the homosexuals have a right to any such compensation, stating that victims with an alternative sexual orientation were justly imprisoned, and “had no one but themselves to blame.”
Significant numbers of the homosexuals who survived the war found themselves unable to return to their families or hometowns following their camp experiences. There were many reasons for this. Above all, however, shame and the fear of being stigmatized motivated homosexuals to change not only their addresses but everything else that could have been associated with their earlier lives.
The attempts that homosexuals made to conceal their pasts in the camps combined with the attitudes prevailing in postwar Europe to make it difficult for researchers to find many of those who had been sentenced under Article 175. As one of those researchers, Richard Plant, noted in his book The Pink Triangle: “Despite the fact that they no longer had to wear the pink triangles that designated them, they remained marked to the end of their lives.”
To My Comrades – from Karl…
Gays were imprisoned in Auschwitz Concentration Camp, just as in all the camps. If researchers into sexuality are correct in estimating that four percent of the European population has homosexual tendencies, this would mean that there may have been approximately 16,000 gays and lesbians among the 400,000 registered Auschwitz prisoners. Although this is hardly a small number, we know nothing about them to this day, because this subject has been nonexistent in the historical research on Auschwitz. One reason for this is the fact that sexuality in general, and same-sex relationships in particular, are covered-up in our society and represent a zone of taboos and various fears. Homophobia is widespread in Judaeo-Christian civilization, and speaking of homosexuality in the shadow of the Holocaust strikes many citizens, and not only the ordinary ones, as tasteless. A group of orthodox Jews in the USA recently threatened to boycott the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington as long as the Museum depicted the persecution of gays.
Another reason is the fact that their sex lives were simply not an issue for the majority of male and female prisoners in Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Conditions there forced them to renounce entirely any sort of romantic interests, especially with the ubiquitous terror from the SS and capos combining with chronic undernourishment to extinguish their sex lives and eliminate the associated physical reactions. Survivors have stated that the women stopped menstruating, and the men had neither erections nor nocturnal emissions. Sex life was possible in the camp only for those who enjoyed better living conditions and belonged to the narrow caste of the “privileged,” such as capos, foremen, scribes, flegers, block supervisors, room wardens, and the like.
In Auschwitz, as in all the concentration camps, the sexes were segregated—with the short-lived exceptions of the two “family camps”, for Jews from Theresienstadt (Sept. 8, 1943 – June 12, 1944) and Roma (Feb. 26, 1943 – August 2, 1944). Heterosexual contacts among haftlings occurred, but rarely, since men in labor details working on an occasional basis in the women’s camp, such as the dachdeckers or the electricians, had access to the women’s blocks.
Generally, however, camp conditions directed the sexual drive towards members of the same sex. “Dance parties” in the so-called “asocial block” in the Birkenau women’s camp are familiar from the memoirs of Fanja Fénélon and Olga Lengyel. Memoirs by former prisoners also feature occasional references to piple, who were young Jews and Poles, often mere children, taken under the protection of prisoner functionaries who exploited them for various personal services that sometimes included sexual ones. Such relationships also occurred in the women’s camp.
It would nevertheless be incorrect to assume that everyone who maintained homosexual relations in Auschwitz Concentration Camp was a gay or a lesbian. It would be even more incorrect to assume that those prisoners, or even the majority of them, had been imprisoned in the camp for homosexuality. While the Nazis did generally regard everyone with sexual preferences outside the petit-bourgeois norms as “community pests,” they did not necessarily see it as imperative to physically eliminate them, especially if they belonged to the “master race.” The Nazis deliberately treated “perverts” in a differentiated, plainly inconsistent way.
For instance, approximately 50,000 men were penalized for homosexual behavior in the Third Reich. Yet only 5,000 of them (or perhaps two or three times that number) ended up in the concentration camps. The Nazis found this sufficient as a general deterrent. Female homosexuality was not subject to penalties, either under the criminal code or under Third Reich police policy. There was no separate category of prisoners designated as “lesbians.” Among all the camp documentation that we know about, there are two or three women with the notation “lesbian” next to their names. They were probably not arrested for their “perversion,” however, but rather because they were Jewish (as is indicated by the fact that they were classified as “political” prisoners).
Lesbians were indeed imprisoned in Auschwitz Concentration Camp, but because of crimes that the police viewed as “very serious.” They wore green, black, or red triangles, sometimes combined with yellow ones. As opposed to the situation at Ravensbrück, “reeducation” was not meted out to Auschwitz prisoners for alleged lesbian behavior in the camp. This may be because “reeducation” had already been discarded in the concentration camps by late March 1942, when the first women arrived in Auschwitz. In the camps, therefore, the situation was the same as in German society at large: lesbians were open to condemnation, but not to prosecution.
The situation for male homosexuals in the Third Reich was completely different. Articles 175 and 175a of the German criminal code made “promiscuity between men” a crime. Those convicted of it were threatened with deportation to a concentration camp. The German criminal code applied only to citizens of the Third Reich. Other laws applied in the occupied countries. For instance, the German police paid no attention to “promiscuity” between Polish men. If a German man had “promiscuous relations” with a Pole, however, they were both subject to harsh penalties. As a rule, the German was sent to a concentration camp and the Pole executed, with no trial in either case. This is why the majority of the prisoners designated as homosexuals in the concentration camps were Germans. Of the 97 men identified by name as homosexuals in Auschwitz, for instance, 96 were Germans.
Homosexuals, marked with the pink triangle, made up a separate category of prisoners in the concentration camps. They occupied the lowest rung on the ladder of the German prisoner population. Generally looked down upon by “politicals” of all nationalities, they suffered harassment not only from the SS, but also from their “green” and “black” fellow prisoners. They were isolated, and every attempt that they made at contact with other prisoners brought them under suspicion of “initiating promiscuous relations.”
All this meant that homosexuals had far smaller chances than the average prisoner of surviving the camp. We know about the fate of 64 gay Reichsdeutsch prisoners in Auschwitz; 51 of them, or 80%, died in the camp.
One of the German prisoners who died in Auschwitz concentration camp was Ernst Ellson, born in Duesseldorf on February 18, 1904, of Jewish religious denomination, bachelor, who resided with his parents in Essen. The vice squad, then responsible for supervising places—certain bars and, above all, public toilets—where gays regularly met, had him under observation from 1935. In mid-November 1940, Willy M., a male prostitute, was caught in the act. Under interrogation, he identified Ellson as an occasional client. The police arrested Ellson on November 22. Since he was a Jew, the criminal police, following procedure, notified the Gestapo, which brought charges. On March 14, 1941, the municipal court in Essen sentenced Ellson to four months imprisonment, with time off for the period he had already spent awaiting trial, for “perverted promiscuity” under Article 175 of the penal code. Ellson was scheduled to be released on March 23.
The criminal police regarded the sentence as too lenient. They therefore requested that the Gestapo “take the appropriate measures.” On the day of Ellson’s release from prison, he found a Gestapo agent waiting for him outside the prison gates with a “temporary preventive detention” order. On April 18, the Berlin Gestapo issued an arrest warrant on the following grounds: “Ellson . . . is a threat to the existence and security of the nation by reason of his having committed perverted promiscuity. . . . It is to be feared that, if left at large, he will persist in behavior that is harmful to the national health. . . . “ The warrant was signed by Reinhard Heydrich.
Here is how the further fate of Ernst Ellson and his parents played out: he was sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp in a collective transport on May 16, 1941. His elderly parents were committed to the Holbeckshof transit camp in Essen-Steele on April 25, 1942, and transferred from there on July 21 to the Theresienstadt camp, where they died. Ernst Ellson was sent to Gross Rosen Concentration Camp on September 15, 1942, and transferred to Auschwitz on October 16, 1942. On November 26, 1942, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp commandant’s office notified the Gestapo in Duesseldorf that Ernst Ellson “ . . . died of pneumonia in the camp hospital on November 23, 1942 at 9:30 a.m. in the morning. . . . The family should be informed that his remains were cremated at the cost of the state and the urn deposited at the urn cemetery at the crematorium here.”
Both the reason for Ernst Ellson’s death and the cemetery where his ashes were cremated were fictitious. It bears remarking that this gay Jew survived a year and a half in the Buchenwald and Gross-Rosen camps. Five weeks in Auschwitz were enough to finish him off. This indicates the conditions and rigors prevailing in Auschwitz, in comparison to other camps. The number of prisoners with the pink triangle in Auschwitz was always relatively low. On January 20, 1942, there were 22 of them in the Auschwitz I-Main Camp, and on August 21 of that same year there were 28 of them in the entire Auschwitz complex. However, there were also men wearing other triangles who had an attraction to their own sex. For instance, the “recidivist criminal” Franz Waldhauser, a Reichsdeutsch, wore the green triangle even though he had been sentenced to five and a half years hard labor for “perverted promiscuity and blackmail and theft in a homosexual situation” on November 28, 1935 and sent to a concentration camp on May 30, 1940. Another, similar instance of a prisoner wearing the green triangle, and a Reichsdeutsch, was the capo Michael Unger. He forced a twenty-year-old German Jew to have anal relations in the Buna camp in early 1944. The incident came to the attention of the camp administration. After interrogation, the victim was punished with 25 lashes with a club for “fulfilling a request for perverted promiscuity.” There is no further trace of Unger in the camp records, and we therefore do not know whether he was castrated, as was, according to Hermann Langbein, the usual practice in such cases in Auschwitz.
Homosexuals also reached Auschwitz concentration Camp as “political” principles. Some of them were arrested for political reasons with no reference to their sexuality. Others managed to change their prisoner category on such occasions as transfers between camps. This is what Karl Gorath did. He wore the pink triangle in Neuengamme Concentration Camp, where he was assigned to labor as a fleger. He and four of his fellow flegers were transferred to Auschwitz at the beginning of June 1943. On June 11, he was registered in Auschwitz Concentration Camp as a schutzhäftling, that is, a political prisoner. He was evacuated to Mauthausen in January 9145, and survived. He settled in West Germany after the war.
In his camp memoirs, Gorath recounts that he was made a block supervisor in Auschwitz. He made friends there. Two younger Poles, Tadeusz and Zbigniew, became his lovers. He came back to the site of the Auschwitz camp 50 years later to show his gay friends the small room he lived in on the top floor of one of the blocks.
He told them: “I had my own room as a block supervisor . . . it was right here . . . this is where I spent the happiest days of my life . . . with Zbigniew. . . .” His voice broke off when he spoke with tears in his eyes about how only once in his life he experienced such deep love from another man, and that it was “here, in the camp, among all the misery surrounding us, never before, and never again—never more: I met the love of my life in Auschwitz.”
Later, he learned in the Archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum that Tadeusz and Zbigniew had both died in Auschwitz. Before going home to Germany, he and his friends placed a wreath at the foot of the memorial in Birkenau, in memory of all the gay victims of Nazism. Next to the wreath, Karl left a small bouquet of pink roses with a handwritten note that read: “To my comrades Zbigniew and Tadeusz – from Karl.”
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.
The article Homosexuals. A Separate Category of Prisoners was published in the Pro Memoria periodical, published by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp Victims Memorial Foundation in Oświęcim