I cannot give a comprehensive account here of the legal and social circumstances that led to the persecution of homosexuals during the Nazi era. Instead, I would like to discuss the conditions of their internment.
There is no doubt that Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code, which severely punished any homosexual activity, exclusively pertained to men. This doesn’t mean that lesbian women in the “Third Reich” were exempt from prosecution and persecution; however, other legal treatment was applied to them instead of Paragraph 175. In Nazi logic, lesbians were not entirely excluded from reproductive roles, and they continued to be seen as women who had the potential of becoming mothers. They were therefore prosecuted based on the penal code’s “asocial decree”, which frequently them with prison or sent them to concentration camps labelled as tramps, as “work-shy”, or as prostitutes.
Gay men, on the other hand, were considered perpetually excluded from the reproductive process as they were “permanently affected by this virus”, even after a single same-sex act (according to the pseudoscientific verdict of Nazi doctors). For this reason, they were targeted by Paragraph 175, which was codified in 1872 and, after 1935, expanded and more severely punished.
Consequently, homosexual activities were no longer punishable by six months in prison but suddenly threatened with up to a five-year sentence in a penitentiary. For repeat “offenders”, this sentence could be extended to up to ten years. Many convicted men were interned in concentration camps, where they would be branded with the “pink triangle” for all to see.
How were the various detention sites different from each other? Did it even matter whether you were in a prison versus a penitentiary versus a concentration camp? Weren’t they all under totally despotic control, and weren’t gay men killed in all three types of sites?
When considering these tragic fates individually, the parallel isn’t completely false: in all three types of detention site, the “Paragraph 175s” were on the lowest rung of the prisoner hierarchy, with solidarity and support from other prisoners either non-existent or circumstantial at best. In all three, there were fatalities: we now believe that more than half of all gay men interned by the “Third Reich” were killed in custody.
Detention in a jail (a standard prison without forced labour) or in a penitentiary (a more severe prison facility with forced labour) came with a release date, set by the judgment of a court. That meant, despite all of the abuse and harassment in these prisons, there was a fixed date you could expect to be released by, and “good behaviour” might bring early release. Trial procedures and prison sentencing were under the jurisdiction of the judiciary system, and while policies under this Nazi criminal justice system were definitely harsh and inhumane, they absolutely cannot be equated to those of the concentration camps.
Many of the “175s” served their standard prison sentences in regular prisons and would then, just as they had exited the prison gates after serving their time, be seized by the police or the Gestapo and placed into “protective custody”: in truth, this was an immediate transfer to a concentration camp. This “protective custody”, unlike judicial sentences, was indefinite in length, and the concentration camps were not under the authority of the judiciary but of the SS and Gestapo.
It also frequently happens that pink triangle prisoners are very negatively judged in the recollections of other concentration camp survivors, even long after the liberation of the camps. Sometimes this may be related to the fact that a large number of other young men were regularly the victims of sexual violence carried out by their fellow inmates (not by the “175s” but by other prisoners who were exploiting their dominance in the camp hierarchy). An essential differentiation seems not to have taken place here.
Therefore, the words spoken by the Auschwitz survivor Kurt Hacker to dedicate a commemorative plaque to the “pink triangle” prisoners, added to the memorial site in Mauthausen in the 1980s, prove all the more remarkable. The director of the memorial at that time, Hacker stated:
“You have suffered the same wrongs in this camp as we political prisoners did and as the Jews did. You were beaten like dogs in this camp. Therefore, it is high time that you have a place where you can remember the people you have lost.”
The plaque in Mauthausen was the first, and for a long time remained the only, commemoration of the Paragraph 175 concentration camp victims.
It seems self-evident to us today that concentration camp victims who bore the “pink triangle” are valued as equally as all other victims. In an international context, however, we are still a very long way from making this an established truth. During discussions held by the Comité International de Mauthausen about the theme for this coming year’s annual liberation anniversary events, we have once again decided to hit the breaks on giving a commemorative focus to Mauthausen’s gay and lesbian victims. It isn’t that Comité International de Mauthausen delegates find such a recognition unimportant – but they are (justifiably) worried that recognizing and honouring this group of victims could cause them great difficulties with the judicial authorities in their home countries. It isn’t just that Germany’s Paragraph 175 remained in force until 1994, or that that deep homophobic prejudices still exist today: in many European countries, even the act of remembering these victims is met with massive opposition.
Text: Andreas Baumgartner
Fotos: Propagandafotografien der SS
Andreas Baumgartner, a historian in Vienna, has spent over 20 years researching the Mauthausen concentration camp. He serves as head of the organizing committee for the annual commemoration events that mark the anniversary of Mauthausen’s liberation and is general secretary of the Comité International de Mauthausen.