Friday, 17 February 2017

Pink Triangle: Introduction

This book seeks to throw some light in a corner of modern history that has thus far remained too much in the shadows: the persecution of homosexuals under the Third Reich. Even today, four decades after Hitler’s defeat, many facets of the Nazi regime have not received full popular and scholarly attention; they have been crowded out, so to speak, by the horror of the major atrocity, the extermination of the Jews. The attempted systematic destruction of other, numerically smaller groups also caught in the maw of the Nazi terror, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Gypsies, antifascists of all shades, and nonconforming clergymen can only be presented marginally in this study. Fuller presentation must be consulted elsewhere, or, in many cases, left to future researchers.

The period directly following the collapse of Hitler’s Germany offered much immediate relief for most of the regime’s persecuted victims, in addition to giving them a platform to air to the world their undeniable grievances- but not so for the gays. For one thing, the climate of the Cold War and the conservative moralism of the Adenauer administration was not conducive to eliminating all traces of Nazi jurisprudence, not including the 1935 antihomosexual laws, which remained in effect until 1969. For another, the nature of their “crimes” was so intimate that very few wished to publicise such a sexual preference or life style. Finally- and perhaps most curious of all- the morality rate for homosexuals incarcerated by the Nazis was, it appears, relatively higher, in the camps and after their release, than that of other persecuted groups. Rea=searchers learned that the gays, marked by pink triangles, were a relatively small minority in the camps but had a proportionately higher mortality rate than, for example, the more numerous political prisoners, who wore red patches. As with all those who survived the jails, forced labour camps, and death camps, a large number died shortly afterward. Of those gays with whom researchers were able to make contact in the 1960s and 1970s, an unusually high number died before initial interviews, and many did not live to complete correspondences or accounts of their personal histories.

Thus it is no accident that the first full length report by a gay ex-inmate, Heinz Heger’s The Men with the Pink Triangle, appeared late, in 1972, followed in 1977 by the now classic investigative report, Homosexuality and Society, conducted by a team led by Rudiger Lautmann of Bremen University. This work offered the first truly reliable statistics on the persecution, arrest, imprisonment, and fate of German and Austrian homosexuals in various concentration camps. Although a few historians, notably Eugen Kogon in his pioneering Der SS Staat (1946), had called attention to the existence of gay inmates in various camps, especially Buchenwald, it remained for Lautmann and his associates to make known to a larger public the results of his definitive study carried out in part in the vast archives of the International Tracing Service at Arolsen, West Germany.

In 1980, Heger’s memoirs were translated and published in the United States and Britain. Unfortunately, they were generally ignored. On the other hand, Martin Sherman’s play Bent (1979), which based some of its plot on material in Heger’s book, was widely discussed. Bent opened the forbidden closet a crack and put the world on notice that indeed the Nazis had hounded all contragenics[1], that gays had been classified with criminals, asocials, and Jews as deviant subhumans, the cosmic lice that Hitler and Himmler had vowed to exterminate.

One might be tempted to conclude that before the late 1970s writers interested in tracing the Nazi persecution of homosexuals had little source material to draw upon. But this temptation must be resisted. For historians able to read german there was ample evidence available to prove that Himmler’s storm troopers were as eager to get rid of the gays as they were to expunge other contragenics. In fact, even for those who could read no German there was sufficient amount of statistical material and documentation on the subject- if they had wanted to focus on it.

For a long time German historians also failed to discuss the plight of the gays during the Third Reich. Quite to the contrary, a few writers such as Konrad Heiden, with a sort of coy horror, offered hints that Hitler himself might have been a homosexual or at least some kind of sexual deviant. The technique of homosexualising the enemy, employed by some émigré authors, can be understood as a thirst for revenge, but it does not excuse such gleeful illogic – they simultaneously depict Hitler as wickedly effeminate but stop short of proving that he was homosexual. What they did was to indict him by association. Because SA chief Ernst Roehm was admittedly an active homosexual, these writers concluded that the dictator himself and all of his top henchmen must have shared Roehm’s inclinations. Luchino Visconti’s cinematic fantasy The Damned (1969) was among the worst offenders in this regard. The movie featured a number of senior storm troopers in drag, thus popularising the image of a homosexual Nazi elite. More tendentiously, the film promoted the theory, believed by many intellectuals, that the incomprehensible Nazi crimes could be easily explained; the Nazis were simply homosexual perverts. (The tenacity of this view is exemplified by Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist [1971], based on the 1951 novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia.) Nor was this theory new in the post war period. A Soviet film made in 1936 stressed the same point. Gustav von Wangenheim’s The Fighters purported to tell the true story of the 1933 burning of the Reichstag. It depicted the Nazis as homosexuals- the official Communist Party line about the German Fascists. Soviet officials quietly shelved the film in 1939 after Hitler and Stalin signed the nonaggression pact. The film has never been publicly seen in the West.

But this theory offers no explanation of why writers and historians have never fully addressed themselves to the Nazi’s apparent homophobia- a fear that early on considered the gays as subhumans to be weeded out, root and branch, as Himmler put it. Take, for example, an avowedly conservative biographer, Joachim Fest. In his excellent study of Hitler and his courtiers, Fest omitted a critical historical incident. On May 6th, 1933, a gang of “outraged students” stormed the famous Institute for Sexual Research, directed by Magnus Hirschfeld, the father of the new science of sexology. For three decades Hirschfeld and his team of legal and medical associates had assembled an invaluable collection of documents, photographs and statistics about sex. For the Nazis, Hirschfeld- a Jewish physician, a homosexual, and a liberal propagandist- was an ideal target. The Fascist press had denounced him with lavish insults for many years. The eager fascist students rummaged through the building, throwing books, photos, paintings, and files into the yard: around the growing fire they sang patriotic songs about Germany’s awakening. Four days later they returned and put the ransacked building to the flame, and with it the bust of their patron-Satan, Dr Hirschfeld. Out of the country on a lecture tour, Hirschfeld never returned to Germany. He died in France in 1935.

Fest mentions Hirschfeld’s name only once, in passing, in his 764-page study of Hitler. In an earlier study, the shorter The Face of the Third Reich, Fest does justice to Roehm and his execution, but in neither work are Hirschfeld, his institute, or his writings and priceless research ever discussed.

The same omission can be found in nearly all major histories of the Third Reich; this holds true for the work of journalists, too. Consider William Shirer, the one reporter who, through his radio broadcasts and writings, presented the most penetrating image of Nazi Germany to the American public before, during, and after the war. In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959), Shirer paints a picture of Germany in the 1930s that dominated American understanding of the Nazi regime for many years. Shirer’s observations and perceptions of the destructive power of the political volcano whose eruptions he witnessed show a clear appreciation of events and personalities. Yet in none of his major works dealing with the Third Reich does Shirer call attention to Hirschfeld’s pioneering studies, the early German gay rights movement, or the subsequent Nazi crusade against the gays. Shirer’s sins of omission are matched by sins of commission. In discussing Hitler’s indifference to criminals on his staff, Shirer notes: “No matter how murky their past or indeed their present… Murderers, pimps, homosexuals, perverts or just plain rowdies were all the same to [Hitler] if they served their purpose.” In The Nightmare Years, his published diaries for 1930-1940, Shirer is honest enough to admit how naïve he had been in accepting his assignment in Germany, how he had closed his eyes to the truth because it was too painful. Although the diaries cover the year 1933, when the incineration of the Institute for Sexual Research made headlines in the fascist press, Shirer ignores the incident. Further, while he reports in detail the intrigues leading to the purge of Roehm and his followers on June 28th, 1934, he has no space to spare for the new antihomosexual laws published pointedly a year later on June 28, 1935.

It would be unjust to single out Shirer, who alerted Americans to the true threat of the swastika revolution. Yet while putting together his compendious 1959 study, he could easily have consulted two volumes written not by concentration camp survivors or gay propagandists, but rather by someone clearly involved. Rudolf Hoess, a high Nazi official, in his Kommandant in Auschwitz (1959), elaborately recounted how he attempted to “re-educate”   decadent homosexuals by assigning them to the toughest work details and by forcing them to visit female prostitutes. Also available in the 1950s were the indispensable reminiscences of Himmler’s private physician, translated into English as The Memoirs of Dr Felix Kersten (1957). In his work there is an entire chapter devoted to Himmler’s obsession with eliminating the gays. There is simply no excuse for the widespread silence on what was clearly an important aspect of Nazi ideology and action. Only Erich Fromm seems to have understood the importance of the subject. Although he did not make use of the Hoess and Kersten books, Fromm pointed out in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness that for an understanding of the homophobic strain in Germany, we must reach back to the mid-nineteenth-century homosexual emancipation movement that flourished at the same time that various strains of  xenophobia developed, mixing in their wake in the German consciousness a hatred of racial and sexual minorities such as Jews and homosexuals, along with a yearning for some charismatic figure to lead the “real” German people to victory over the problems and crises caused by these insidious threats.

One can only conclude that, for most historians, there was and still is a taboo in effect. The territory of gay history is strewn with such taboos. This book seeks to end the silence toward the fate of homosexuals under the Third Reich. That their story is an integral part of German history will, I trust, be only too evident.


[1] Contragenics is a term the linguist Richard J. Deppe has coined to encompass all those groups the Nazi regime resolved to eliminate; Jews, antifascists, gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses, nonconforming clergymen, Gypsies, etc.

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