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Homosexuals & the Holocaust: Gay Prisoners in the Concentration Camps

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 belittling them.

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 Categories

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.

TABLE 20.1
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 prisoners.

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.

TABLE 20.2
Survival Rate According to Category and Marital Status
    --------------------------------------------------------                    Married       Single, Divorced, Widowed                    (%)           (%)     Homosexuals     51.4          47.7                    (74)          (451)    Jehovah's       66.2          66.3    Witnesses       (361)         (146)     Politicals      65.4          52.4                    (81)          (84)    --------------------------------------------------------- 

Note Figures in parentheses are based on social groups of a prisoner category, insofar as its fate is known (dead, liberated, or released).

TABLE 20.3
Survival Rate According to Category and Number of Children
    --------------------------------------------------------                            With            Childless                            Children                            (%)             (%)    Homosexuals             56.6            49.2                            (69)            (366)    Jehovah's Witnesses     62.9            59.8                            (240)           (179)    Politicals              60.3            56.9                            (78)            (72)    --------------------------------------------------------- 

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)

Sources: The Nizkor Project

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, 1981).