ON JANUARY 27, 2023, the world observes International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an occasion to honor not only the six million Jewish victims but also the five million others who were murdered by the Nazis, including political opponents, Roma and Sinti peoples, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people with disabilities, and homosexuals. Those in the last group have sometimes been called the Nazis’ “forgotten victims,” a phrase that glosses over the extent to which LGBT survivors have been systematically ignored and actively silenced in the eight decades since Hitler’s defeat.
From 1933 to 1945, the Nazis destroyed Germany’s vibrant queer community and arrested over 100,000 LGBT Germans. The concentration camp administration implemented a color-coded badging system to label the alleged crime of each inmate. Queer women were labeled with a black triangle, the mark for “social deviants.” Queer men sent to concentration camps under Paragraph 175, Germany’s national law criminalizing “indecency between men,” were marked with a pink triangle.
After the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, they transferred pink triangle prisoners with time left on their sentences to local prisons, where they were forced to finish serving their terms. When East and West Germany were founded in 1949, both new countries wrote Paragraph 175 into their criminal codes. While East Germany reverted to the pre-Nazi version, West Germany opted to retain the harsher Nazi version. West Germany arrested 100,000 gay men from 1949 to 1969, when the law was amended but not fully repealed. In this atmosphere of continued persecution, in the 1950s fourteen gay men applied for compensation as victims of the Nazis. The government denied all of their applications.
In the early 1970s, advocating for the recognition of the Nazis’ homosexual victims became a central tenet in the nascent West German gay liberation movement. In 1972, members of RotZSchwul, a leftist gay group in Frankfurt, used the pink triangle as a symbol of gay rights activism for the first time. Groups across Europe and North America soon adopted the pink triangle, transforming the concentration camp badge into an international icon of activism, community, and pride.
In May 1985, an East Berlin group called Lesbians in the Church traveled to the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp Memorial for the 40th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat. They planned to lay a wreath in honor of the lesbians who had been imprisoned and killed there. When the women departed the train to make their way to the memorial site, East German State Security apprehended them, only releasing them after the official commemoration ceremony was finished. That same year, a coalition of gay groups in Munich applied to install a pink triangle monument at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial to honor the gay men who perished there. The application was denied repeatedly over the next ten years.
In 2002, the government of a newly unified Germany announced plans to fund a national memorial to the Nazis’ gay victims. At the same time, it broke with over fifty years of precedent by finally acknowledging the men persecuted under Paragraph 175 as victims. This meant they were at long last eligible for compensation. However, no gay survivors came forward to claim the reparations. Thus not a single survivor has received any compensation from the German government.
The Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism was dedicated in Berlin in 2008. In many ways, it signaled a victory in the decades-long quest to officially honor the Nazis’ queer victims. Nevertheless, the national memorial highlighted a debate over whether lesbians and trans people should be honored alongside gay men, as they were not named in Paragraph 175 and were not arrested systematically or in large numbers. Only in April 2022 was a monument to the lesbians imprisoned and murdered at Ravensbrück given a permanent placed on the memorial grounds.
If we are to truly honor all of the Nazis’ LGBT victims, we must not only continue to bear witness to their suffering but also commit to combating the ideologies, policies, and laws that robbed them of their humanity and ultimately their lives. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a call to remember and also to act.
W. Jake Newsome, PhD, is a public scholar of German and American LGBTQ+ history and author of Pink Triangle Legacies: Coming Out in the Shadow of the Holocaust.
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