Gay Prisoners in Concentration Camps
as Compared with Jehovah's Witnesses
and Political Prisoners
By Ruediger Lautmann
Historians in Germany argue about how universal the
historical character of national socialism was. One conservative faction
would like to view the communist system as responsible for fascism. Because
Marxism was victorious in Russia, the Fascist parties were able to win in
Italy and Germany. This speculation claims that the destruction of social
class distinctions by the Bolsheviks prepared the way for racial murders of
the Nazis. The extermination of the Jews is presented as a distorted copy
of a previous model, rather than as a unique occurrence. Other social
scientists have protested against viewing Nazi crimes in such a
relativistic way. They see an aura of normality being created and fear that
the basic anti fascist consensus in the Federal republic might end. They
are also apprehensive about the analogy to current politics and warn
against a restoration by means of history.
The dispute concerns the question: Is the Holocaust
continuous with the rest of European history, or does it represent a unique
event, a break in the continuum of history? Such exciting and dangerous
speculation belongs to a sort of metaphysical thinking that has a long
tradition in German historiography. As a sociologist, I would like to take
a more modest starting point: Is what the Nazis did to their internal
enemies unique or totally surprising?
Investigating concentration camps from a sociological
perspective, one does not confront a phenomenon that is singular and
interesting, while at the same time ordinary and banal. No special
attention is given to the "actors of history." Investigation into
the structure and procedures of the concentration camps inevitably leads to
comparison with other institutions and some form of differentiation. A
morsel of normality is discovered in the atrocities, without in the least
Regarding Nazi atrocities in this way has its price; it
represses emotion. It focuses on details, rather than on the Holocaust as a
whole. Understanding the preconditions of a terror means studying its
construction, develop ment, and operation in detail. In this essay, I would
like to consider the aims of the terror and concentrate on the non-Jewish
categories of prisoners, using homosexuals as an example.
Extermination or Reeducation?
The concentration camp was one weapon in the campaign to
bring state and society into conformity with fascism. If physical
extermination formed the most frightful instrument of that policy, it was
not the only one. A range of attempts were made to isolate people and to
use fear to inhibit "undesirable" behavior. Whatever the reasons
for imprisonment, all incarcerations were the result of Nazi ideology and
posed a danger to the prisoner's life. The categories of prisoners differed
from one another in how they were selected and treated. Those groups whom
the Nazis deemed inimical but not racially undesirable were not completely
rounded up, but taken only in random samples They also fared differently
within the camps. Homosexuals, political prisoners, and Jehovah's Witnesses
are among the groups who were sent to the concentration camps for
reeducation. They were supposed to renounce their particular orientation.
The very fact of their incarceration restrained their ideological comrades
outside the camps from becoming active in the struggle against Nazism.
Democratic freedom makes pluralism possible. In
democracies, deviations from the norm concern not only criminality but also
sexuality, ethnicity, religion, and attitudes toward work. The Nazi system
was concerned with deviations in all these areas. It classified political,
sexual, religious, and working-attitude deviations in separate categories.
In all probability, the Hitlerian state required these definitions of the
enemy and was, in its own terms, correct in its choice of these groups.
Within a society, minority and separationist groups represent a seedbed of
possible revolt. Homosexuality has always and everywhere existed. Hitler
considered homosexuality as a predisposition that could not be changed. It
was assumed that a homosexual orientation could not be eliminated, that
only its manifestations could be blocked. Thus, the pink triangle worn by
the homosexual in the concentration camp represented the Nazis' intention
to reeducate him. Severe measures were in fact intended only as
behavioristic conditioning: a way to cause unlearning through aversion.
No credence was placed in a simple change of opinion by
homosexuals, such as was granted to Jehovah's Witnesses, who were not taken
entirely seriously, or even to political prisoners. Two categories were
seen among homosexuals: the constitutionally hard-boiled homosexual and the
occasional offender. Since in neither case was the Aryan status of the
homosexual in doubt, all could remain alive. If necessary, homosexuals were
to be castrated, but they were permitted to continue to work. As a matter
of policy, extermination was therefore restrained. In practice there were
other contrary impulses on the part of the SS, and those who wore the pink
triangle met an unusually harsh fate. The social controls directed at
homosexuals within the camp represented a continuation and an
intensification of social controls imposed by society at large.
Continuity of Social Control
At the beginning of this essay, I mentioned the
questionable attempt of some historians to deny the uniqueness of the Third
Reich, to historicise it and to externalize responsibility. This approach
has nothing to do with the connection I would like to establish here
between society as a whole and society inside the camps. This continuity
remains within the German context and does not seek its origins outside the
frontiers of the Reich. The concentration camp was an extreme instance of
social control. It mixed ordinary and singular characteristics of social
regulation. For example, it was and is "normal" to categorize and
stigmatize people; it is "singular" to ascribe total uselessness
to a certain group. It is "normal" to organize the life of an
inmate; it is "singular" to view the life of a prisoner as being
of almost no value. It is "normal" to devalue homosexual
activities and to impose certain disadvantages on those who engage in them;
it is "singular" to impose this devaluation by physical force and
without constitutional procedures. It is "normal" (up to the
present day) to stigmatize homosexuals; it is "singular" to
attempt to eliminate homosexual life-styles and to destroy the subculture
completely by organizing police raids.
The closer a prisoner's category was to the heart of
Nazi ideology, the more dangerous his circumstances in the camp.
Furthermore, the more repressively a group was controlled in society, the
harder the fate of its members within the camp. Increasing the number of
those sentenced, and imposing stricter rules in the military and party
organizations, was followed by an increased death rate in the camp. The
more marginal the social position of a group, the more marginal their
position was within the camp.
The prisoners with the pink triangle had certainly shown
"precamp" qualities of survival, but they did not get a chance to
apply these qualities in the camp. Because their subculture and
organizations outside had been wantonly destroyed, no group solidarity
developed inside the camp. Since outside the concentration camp homosexuals
were regarded as effete, they were given no tasks of self-administration
inside the camps. Since every contact outside was regarded as suspicious,
homosexuals did not even dare to speak to one another inside (as numerous
survivors have reported in interviews). Since homosexuals were generally
regarded as worthless, their fellow prisoners had a lower regard for them.
Thus, few accounts of the pink triangles exist, and those that do exist
have a spiteful flavor.
Differences between Prisoner
To regard the prisoners according to their categories
means distinguishing between major and minor sufferings. Is that
permissible? We could even ask: Is social science still possible after
Auschwitz? Nevertheless, various developments have virtually given a
positive answer to these questions. After 1945 differences in the fate of
different groups of prisoners have been recognized by differences in
compensation. Research, too, has given varying degrees of attention to the
different groups of victims. The color of the assigned triangle (i.e., the
prisoner category) was the basis for a collective fate.
In my empirical research, I have sifted all extant
documents to examine the names and data on all concentration camp prisoners
registered as being homosexual.' I found the data for about 1,500
homosexuals (This is a complete survey of the quite incomplete documents).
I chose as control groups Jehovah's Witnesses (about 750) and political
prisoners (200). Each category of prisoner seemed to possess a
characteristic social profile. If we look at the distribution according to
age upon committal to a camp, the Jehovah's Witnesses predominate in the
somewhat older age group (from 35), and the homosexuals in the second
somewhat younger one (20-35). Committal figures have regular curves, which
are quite different for the three groups. For homosexuals the year 1942
marks the peak (with a quarter of all committals), and for Jehovah's
Witnesses the years 1937 and 1938 (half of all committals) are the peaks.
The committal figures for the politicals remain at the same level, with a
slight rise toward the year 1944. The death rate for homosexual prisoners
(60 percent) was one and a half times as high as for political prisoners
(41 percent) and Jehovah's Witnesses (35 percent). Some background
variables, such as professional status, marital status, and number of
children, have been considered.
Death Rate According to Category and Professional Status
Lower Lower Middle All
Classes Middle and Above (%)
(%) (%) (%)
Homosexuals 54.6 52.6 50.1 53.0
(328) (114) (219) (661)
Jehovah's 34.5 36.6 34.6 34.7
Witnesses (374) (52) (81) (507)
Politicals 40.2 38.9 42.9 40.5
(122) (18) (28) (168)
Note: Figures in parentheses are based
on social groups of a prisoner category, insofar as its fate is known
(dead, liberated, or released).
Thus far, the individual variables tested do not cancel
the connection between the victim group and the risk of death. Reading the
many reports and asking the prisoners' committees (which still exist today)
about the prisoners with the pink triangles, one repeatedly learns that
they were there, but nobody can tell you anything about them. Quantitative
analysis offers a sad explanation for the extraordinary lack of visibility:
the individual pink-triangle prisoner was likely to live for only a short
time in the camp and then to disappear from the scene. After four months,
one in four had left; after a year, one in two. It was otherwise for the
Jehovah Witnesses and politicals: after a year four out of five and two out
of three, respectively, were still in the camp. This thinning out is due to
deaths: three out of four deaths among the homosexuals occurred within the
first year after their committal. In comparison with the red and violet
triangles, the pink triangle seems to signify a category of less value. The
destinies of Jews and homosexuals within the camp approximate each other.
In the concentration camp, both groups found themselves at the bottom of
the current hierarchy below the non-Jewish racially defined groups of
The collective devaluation of the wearers of certain
triangles supports the idea of a connection between internal camp treatment
of the marginal groups and the sociostructural control they were subjected
to in society at large. With regard to the homosexuals, there were many
reports of how the SS deliberately treated them brutally and how the other
prisoners looked down upon them. This contrasts with reports stating that
Jehovah's Witnesses were admired outside the camp or that politicals were
full of respect for one another's activities. Analytical scientific
literature also draws the connection between the prestige of a triangle and
the treatment of the victim category concerned. Insofar as the pink
triangle appears at all in the historical literature, the tendency is in
the direction of antihomosexual prejudice.
Survival Rate According to Category and Marital Status
Married Single, Divorced, Widowed
Homosexuals 51.4 47.7
Jehovah's 66.2 66.3
Witnesses (361) (146)
Politicals 65.4 52.4
Note Figures in parentheses are based on
social groups of a prisoner category, insofar as its fate is known (dead,
liberated, or released).
Survival Rate According to Category and Number of Children
Homosexuals 56.6 49.2
Jehovah's Witnesses 62.9 59.8
Politicals 60.3 56.9
Note Figures in parentheses are based on
social groups of a prisoner category, insofar as its fate is known (dead,
liberated, or released).
There is a tendency of the literature to associate the
pink triangle with the criminal green. The few surviving pink-triangle
wearers were treated similarly by state and society after 1945, when
cautious attempts toward compensation were finally and definitely rejected.
Interviews with such survivors revealed that for many years they never told
anyone they had been in a concentration camp. The extreme devaluation was
accepted as a self-evaluation. Gay interest groups arose again only in the
1950s, and the movement as a whole took until the 1970s to return to the
position it had held in 1932. Noticeably often, ex-wearers of the pink
triangle report that they subsequently got married. (Berenbaum, 200-206)
1. See my book Seminar: Gesellschaft und Homosexualitaet (Frankfurt am
Main, i 1977), chap. 8, especially pp. 325-65. For some descriptive
results, see my article The Pink Triangle: The Homosexual Males in
Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany, Journal of Homosexuality 6
(1981):141-60. This is reprinted in Salvatore J. Licata and Robert P.
Peterson, ed., Historical Perspectives on a Homosexuality (New York,
Berenbaum, Michael, Ed. A Mosaic of Victims: Non-Jews Persecuted and
Murdered by the Nazis. NY: New York University Press, 1990.
Source: The Nizkor Project.