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The Nazi Persecution of Queer & Trans People

This historical essay provides an overview of how and why the Nazis targeted queer and trans people in Germany.

A Note on Language

People have long used a variety of terms to describe their gender expression and sexual desires, activities, and identities. The Pink Triangle Legacies Project aims to be intentional when choosing what words we use to describe LGBTQ+ people in the past and present. In this essay and throughout our website, we use the terminology that an individual used to describe themselves. When that knowledge is not available, we describe their actions. 

Throughout this essay, the Pink Triangle Legacies Project has chosen to use the term queer to refer to LGBTQ+ people and communities more broadly. We recognize that some LGBTQ+ people today find the term offensive because of its use as a slur in the past, and they may never identify as queer. We respect that. 

 

In the spirit of transforming the pink triangle from a badge of imprisonment into a symbol of liberation, we join those in the community who have reclaimed the term queer in an attempt to destigmatize it, to rob the term of its power from those who use it as an insult, and instead fill it with respect, affirmation, and self-empowerment. We employ it as an inclusive and expansive term to collectively include gay, lesbian, bi, asexual, pansexual, transgender, nonbinary, and additional labels of sexuality and gender nonconformity. We also use it to describe people who may claim different identities over time, or who reject categorization altogether.


If you're uncomfortable using the term queer, we invite you to use LGBTQ+ instead. The main thing is that we are respectful of each other’s identities.

What Was Lost: Queer Life in Germany before the Nazis

After Germany’s 1918 defeat in World War I, the emperor abdicated the throne, and a democracy was established in Germany for the first time. Because the new constitutional assembly met in the town of Weimar, the government became referred to as the Weimar Republic. Under the new Weimar constitution, Germans gained more rights and civil liberties. 

 

Attitudes towards sex changed and generally became characterized by a greater degree of openness to the discussion of sex itself and of the diverse expressions of human sexuality. Christian conservatives criticized these developments, but many Germans felt that personal liberties, including sexual freedom, were integral characteristics of living in a democratic society. 

 

More tolerant and progressive policing tactics, as well as scientific, cultural, and political advocacy turned Germany’s capital city of Berlin into a queer capital of the world. Queer people with means from across the globe traveled to Berlin to experience the dynamic culture and unprecedented level of tolerance. In Berlin alone, there were over one hundred nightclubs, cafes, hangouts, and shops that catered either exclusively to a queer clientele or at least made it known that queer people were welcome. The numerous queer newspapers, magazines, and other publications had an estimated combined readership of one million throughout Germany. 

 

Berlin also attracted queer researchers and political activists. Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, for example, was a pioneering sexologist who dedicated his career to understanding human sexuality through rigorous scientific research. He argued that sexual predispositions and gender identities naturally existed along a spectrum of what he called intermediaries. Because sexuality was inborn, queer people should not be persecuted or discriminated against. In 1898 - even before the founding of the Weimar Republic - Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which is often considered the first queer rights organization in the world. As historian Robert Beachy has stated, Berlin became the birthplace of a modern gay identity.

 

In 1919, Hirschfeld established the Institute for Sexual Science, located in the heart of Berlin. It employed dozens of researchers, physicians, and community organizers who conducted research, provided healthcare and counseling, and even organized social gatherings for queer people. The Institute was a forerunner in seeking to understand trans identities. Hirschfeld worked with the Berlin Police Department to issue “transvestite certificates,” which served as an ID that aligned with the certificate holder’s gender identity. This helped protect trans people, like Gerd Katter, from being arrested under laws that classified “cross dressing” as a public nuisance. 

 

Historian Laurie Marhoefer demonstrates that this new freedom was not enjoyed equally by all in the queer community. Queer people with greater financial, social, and political influence - namely cisgender gay men - often lobbied for greater legal freedom for themselves at the expense of stricter policing of other groups of queer people who were not deemed respectable, such as those who engaged in sex work. Although changes in policing practices in Berlin led to a growth of queer spaces in the capital, this progress was less pronounced in other urban centers and was not felt in rural areas. 

 

Germany’s criminal code contained a series of laws defining “Crimes and Offenses against Morality,” which remained in effect during the Weimar Republic. One of these laws was the national anti-gay law called Paragraph 175, which had been on the books since the unification of Germany in 1871. Paragraph 175 criminalized “unnatural indecency between men,” which the court interpreted as “sex-like acts” between two men. The law did not criminalize same-sex intercourse for women; this discrepancy is explored further in this essay below. 

 

Despite the progress in queer rights in Berlin in the 1920s, the number of annual Paragraph 175 convictions nationally more than doubled during the period of the Weimar Republic. On average, 7,957 men were convicted annually under Paragraph 175 between 1918 and 1933.

Why Did the Nazis Persecute Queer & Trans People?

Defining the People’s Community

A central aim of the Nazi regime was to return Germany to its former glory by establishing a Volksgemeinschaft, or a racially-pure national community. This national community (sometimes translated as “People’s Community”) would only consist of strong, able-bodied men and women of the so-called Germanic Aryan race. Several groups of people would not be allowed to stay in the Volksgemeinschaft.

 

First and foremost, the Nazis believed that all Germans should view Jews as their primary enemy. The Nazis blamed Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I, for sinking Germany into economic depression, and for diluting the blood of the allegedly pure German race - all of this despite the fact that Jews made up less than 1% of the German population. 

 

The Nazis racialized antisemitism. They did not view Jews as people with a different religion or culture. They believed that Jews were a different and inferior race. According to the Nazis, therefore, a Jewish person could never convert because being Jewish was in their blood. That is why the Nazi policies against Jews evolved from removing Jews from German society and German land to ultimately implementing a systematic genocide that murdered 6 million Jews across Europe. 

 

Nazi leadership also argued that other groups posed a deep, racial threat to the German people. These included the Roma and Sinti, as well as people with disabilities. Once in power, the Nazis initiated the mass murder and genocide of 500,000 Roma and 300,000 Germans with disabilities. 


The Nazis targeted other groups for their beliefs or actions. This included Soviet prisoners of war, political opponents, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. According to Nazi ideology, these groups could be brutally punished and taught to change their behaviors so they could be reintegrated back into the national community. Others still, like Black people, were forced out of Germany, forcibly sterilized, and murdered.

Nazi Views on Queer & Trans People

The Nazis made their stance against the queer community clear from early on. Throughout their campaign, and especially after they gained power, Nazi politicians used homophobic rhetoric to unite the different factions of the right wing in an effort to build a coalition among conservative, religious voters. In a 1927 speech on the floor of the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament), Nazi politician Wilhelm Frick declared that “unnatural fornication between men must be prosecuted with all severity as this vice will lead to the downfall of the German people.” By 1932, the Nazis had become the largest party in parliament, and on January 30, 1933, the party’s leader, Adolf Hitler, was appointed as the nation’s chancellor to rule alongside conservative war hero President Paul von Hindenburg. The Nazis wasted no time in attacking Germany’s queer community.  

 

There are five key points to understanding why Nazi leadership saw queer people as a threat to the National Community:

 

First, because sex was the reproductive means to creating the “master race,” Nazi leadership was preoccupied with understanding and then controlling human sexuality. Queer people allegedly robbed the Fatherland of children by not contributing to the next generation of pure-blooded Germans. In 1937, the Chief of the SS Heinrich Himmler told a group of his lieutenants that “All things which take place in the sexual sphere are not the private affair of the individual, but signify the life and death of the nation.” In other words, the Nazi government considered anything that threatened the “Aryan” birth rate to be a threat to the regime itself.

 

Second, Nazis argued that homosexuality inverted the alleged natural order of genders. It supposedly turned men effeminate, causing them to forsake their role as leaders, which was believed to be a masculine role. It allegedly turned women too masculine, thus giving up their nurturing roles as homemakers who raised good Nazi children.

 

Third, out of all queer people, the Nazis believed that men who had sex with men were the most dangerous because men in Germany had access to leadership positions. Therefore, a queer man had more access to power and could do more harm to the government than a queer woman could. As such, they focused their tools primarily against queer men. They often lumped together all men who had sex with men, as well as transgender women under the label “homosexual.”

 

Fourth, German government officials feared that queer men would band together into groups or cliques. As historian Samuel Huneke articulates, Nazis feared that queer men would have more loyalty to each other than to the government and would form a “state within a state” that would challenge Hitler’s authority. A March 1937 newspaper from the SS declared that homosexuals were not just racial threats to the birthrate, but were a political threat and enemy of the state. 

 

Finally, most of Nazi leadership did not believe that people were born queer. They believed that it was a lifestyle that people chose to participate in. This meant that it was allegedly a behavior that anyone or everyone could be tempted into. That is why the Nazis saw it as so dangerous. They believed it could potentially “spread” freely throughout the population. 

 

Since they saw it as a set of actions and not as someone’s inborn identity, Nazis thought they could “cure” queer people and then reintegrate them back into German society. Because the Nazis believed they could force queer Germans to give up their lifestyle, their homophobic and transphobic policies never evolved into systematic genocide. Though the Nazis never planned to murder every queer person, it was their goal to completely eradicate queer spaces, queer culture, and queer community. They sought to establish a National Community free of queer life. We should not forget that while Nazi policies focused on stopping queer behavior, it was queer people who were the victims of that violence. The Nazis’violent policies of cultural genocide ultimately killed thousands of queer people and traumatized tens of thousands more. 

How Did the Nazis Persecute Queer People?

Because Nazis viewed homosexuality as something that could affect everyone, their first step was to remove the “temptation” from the public eye. They began by restricting access to information and banning queer publications, stating that they were a danger to Germany’s youth. In February 1933, only weeks after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, the Nazi government passed an order to shut down places of “immorality,” which paved the way for them to dismantle the extensive networks of queer meeting places, organizations, and clubs in the capital city. Two months later, Nazi college students ransacked Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science and destroyed nearly 20,000 books, articles, and rare artifacts in the famous book burnings in Berlin. The meaning of these public attacks was clear: there is no place for queer people in the new Germany.

Intersectionality

The Nazis reduced the complexity of human lives to a single facet of a person’s identity that the regime considered deviant, criminal, or dangerous. It is important for us to tell the histories of the groups targeted by the Nazis, but we must also acknowledge that labels like Roma, disabled, gay, and political opponents are rarely separate, discrete categories. Historian Anna Hájková advocates that an intersectional approach is the only way we can truly understand the lived experiences of the people whom the Nazis victimized. 

 

An intersectional approach can also help explain what may at first glance seem to be inconsistencies in the enforcement of Nazi policies. For example: Why weren’t all men arrested under Paragraph 175 convicted or sent to a concentration camp? “Overall, for women as for men, persecution often took place intersectionally - that is, same-sex sexuality was rarely the only factor,” writes Hájková. Scholar Zavier Nunn shows that the history of trans people under the Nazi regime complicates the “binaries of inclusion/exclusion” in the Nazis’ attempt to create the National Community.

 

If someone was considered an “Aryan” and it was their first accusation of being queer, law enforcement officials were more likely to be lenient. Ernst Pack was arrested three times under Paragraph 175 and served prison sentences each time. But the fact that Pack was a decorated World War I veteran, well-educated, a business owner who created many local jobs, Christian, cisgender, and considered Aryan probably helps explain why the Nazis did not send him to a concentration camp until his third arrest. Queer people were more likely to be convicted or sent to a camp if their identity also intersected with other targeted communities, such as Jews, communists, or resistance fighters. Recent research also suggests that gender non-conforming people were more likely to be denounced by the public, whether they were queer or not.

 

We must also acknowledge that some queer Germans agreed with and supported the Nazis’ antisemitism, racism, and political goals. And if those people were “Aryan” and cisgender, they had a better chance of being allowed to join the Nazi movement if they wanted to, at least in the early years. The case of Ernst Röhm demonstrates this. Röhm was one of the earliest members of the Nazi Party and he ultimately rose in the ranks to become the leader of the SA, or stormtroopers, the party’s paramilitary that protected Nazi leaders and used violence to intimidate political opponents. Röhm made no secret of the fact that he was gay, and records demonstrate that Hitler even protected Röhm’s reputation for more than a decade. By 1934, however, other top leaders convinced Hitler that Röhm was planning a coup against him. With a membership of over 3 million men, the SA could have posed a real threat. In June 1934, Hitler gave the order to have Röhm and other political threats executed in an action that became known as the Night of the Long Knives

 

Nazi leaders were clever propagandists and recognized the chance to win more followers. After Röhm’s murder, Hitler told the nation that he had the SA leader killed to demonstrate how willing he was to purge Germany of the “vice” of homosexuality. Hitler and others fanned the flames of homophobia as a way to gain more supporters on the political and religious right.

The Amendment of Paragraph 175 and the Centralization of Persecution

Paragraph 175 was sixty years old by the time the Nazis came to power. Nazi leadership felt that the existing wording put too many constraints on law enforcement and the judicial system. In June 1935, they amended Paragraph 175 so that it read “a man who commits indecency with another man, or allows himself to be misused indecently, will be punished with prison.” The definition of “indecency” was purposefully vague so that law enforcement agents and judicial officials could arrest and convict as many men as possible. As historian Geoffrey Giles demonstrates, after the amendment, anything from holding hands, a kiss, or even a look that lingered too long could be considered “indecent” and punishable.

 

During the amendment of the law, Nazi lawyers added a clause to protect youths from conviction. It gave courts the option not to convict someone arrested under Paragraph 175 if they were under the age of twenty one. This reflected the belief that people were not born queer; instead of excessively punishing a young person for making a wrong choice, they should be encouraged to live a “normal” life. 

 

The new version of the law also included severely sharpened punishments for adult men who used their positions of authority to coerce others into sexual encounters. Violations of this new subclause (Paragraph 175a) carried a prison sentence of up to ten years with hard labor. 

 

In October 1936, Heinrich Himmler established the Reich Central Office for Combating Homosexuality and Abortion. Located in Berlin, it sought to centralize the national efforts to protect the German birthrate. Officials collected so-called pink lists from local law enforcement, which contained the names of men even suspected of being gay. Entrapment, or going undercover to catch gay men in the act, became a common tool for law enforcement. Once Nazi officials or police apprehended a gay man, they would use torture to force him to turn over the name of other gay people. Using these techniques, the Nazis could make arrests of individual people or large scale raids. In Hamburg, over 230 men were arrested during a single night in 1937. In addition to fines and a prison sentence, men who were arrested under Paragraph 175 could have their licenses revoked, be fired from their jobs, have their degrees taken away, be evicted from their housing, or be kicked out of organizations.

 

According to statistics compiled by researcher Rainer Hoffschildt, after the Nazi amendment of Paragraph 175, the number of arrests and convictions of queer men skyrocketed, rising by an astounding 740%. In total, the Nazis arrested 100,000 men under Paragraph 175, and 53,480 of  them were ultimately convicted. 

Queer Women, Gender-Nonconforming People, and Trans People

While the Nazis used Paragraph 175 to arrest and charge queer men, there was not a similar law that targeted other queer people. This does not mean that other queer people were not persecuted. The Nazis used several other laws and policies to target and punish people whose gender identity and sexuality did not conform with the party’s ideals. Paragraph 183, for example, was the German law against “causing a public disturbance with a lewd act.” The Nazis often arrested trans people under the law and argued that “cross dressing” caused a public disturbance. Fritz Kitzing was a gender nonconforming person who was arrested while in women’s clothing in 1933. The Nazis charged them under Paragraph Paragraph 361, the law against homelessness and begging. And as historian Bodie Ashton’s research on trans woman Liddy Bacroff demonstrates, the Nazis did not recognize transgender identities as legitimate, and trans women were often arrested under Paragraph 175 as homosexual men.

 

There is very little research on the fate of intersex people during the era of the Holocaust. It is likely that Nazi officials and members of the medical community viewed being intersex as a disability or medical problem. Therefore, the regime may have targeted intersex people primarily as people with disabilities. 

 

Similarly, there wasn’t a single law against lesbians or queer women. Nazi lawyers debated at length whether they should include lesbians in Paragraph 175 when they amended the law in 1935. There were four main arguments for keeping the law only for men: 

  1. Women did not have positions of authority in Nazi Germany, so lesbians wouldn’t pose as direct a threat to the government as queer men did;

  2. Leaders believed that women were naturally more affectionate with each other, even in public, so it would take too many police resources to figure out what actions were acceptable and which were “indecent;”

  3. Nazis lawmakers asserted that women who had sexual encounters with each other just hadn’t met the right man yet, and they would give up their indecent behavior when they did; 

  4. The ultimate goal of the Nazi state was the procreation of the “master race.” Otto Georg Thierack, who would become justice minister in 1942 asserted that the purpose of Germany’s laws against sex offenses was never to enforce morality, but instead was to “protect fertility.” “Unlike men, women are always prepared for sex,” he said. Ultimately, officials in charge of the criminal code asserted that women could always get pregnant, by force if necessary.

 

Even though the Nazis chose not to add women to Paragraph 175, that does not mean that queer women escaped persecution. For example, the Gestapo did not need a law to authorize taking someone into “protective custody” in a concentration camp. Research by Claudia Schoppman, Jens Dobler, Camille Fauroux, and Anna Hájková shows that the Nazis often used other laws to persecute queer women, such as Paragraph 74 (sex with dependents), Paragraph 176 (child abuse), or Paragraph 183 (public disturbance). Law enforcement in Nazi Germany had multiple tools at its disposal and did not need Paragraph 175 to convict queer women. 


Nazi leadership enabled and perpetuated an atmosphere that made it impossible for queer people to live their lives openly without putting themselves in danger. “In the history of Nazism, the word persecution evokes an explicit state program,” writes historian Laurie Marhoefer. Instead of a systematic, top-down state persecution, the persecution of queer women and trans people consisted of a “complicated interaction between the prejudice of neighbors and acquaintances and the Gestapo’s methods” that put them in extreme danger. The risks that queer women and trans people faced “did not stem from a single law or from a dedicated police division. They were nevertheless quite real.”

The Complicity of Civilians in the Persecution of Queer People

The majority of Germans supported the Nazis’ heavy-handed war against groups who were officially categorized as “outsiders” and “social deviants.” Even if Germans did not agree with the stories of excessive violence they heard or witnessed, most did not protest because the terrorization was leveled against groups who were already on the margins of society and garnered little sympathy.

 

While a majority of the German citizenry did nothing to question or resist the Nazis’ campaign against homosexuality, a significant portion of the population went further and actively participated in the persecution of this community. Denunciations of queer people by neighbors, coworkers, landlords, strangers, and acquaintances played a significant role in the Nazi government’s ability to identify and persecute the queer community. Germans understood that their voice could activate the power and violence of the Nazi state against people they denounced. Statistics compiled by historian Stefan Micheler reveal that of all the Paragraph 175 cases in Nazi Germany that resulted in a conviction, approximately 30% were the result of civilian denunciations.

 

This was the case with artist Richard Grune. He had hosted a couple parties for his gay friends in the fall of 1934. Unfortunately, one of the attendees spent the parties noting the names, addresses, and professions of the men there and turned that list over to the Gestapo. In December 1934, Richard Grune and seventy other men were arrested as the result of this single denunciation. 

 

In 1938, three different people told the Nazis that the twenty-five year old Ilse Totzke “does not conform to the People’s Community” and cannot get along with anybody. Records don’t indicate if Totzke was queer or not, but photographs show wore men’s clothing and kept her hair in a masculine style that had been popular among lesbians in the 1920s. One of the denouncers mentioned that Ilse “did not receive gentlemen visitors,” and another stated that she was having an “intimate friendship” with another woman. When the Gestapo took Ilse in for questioning, they seemed less interested in her sexuality or gender expression and more worried by the fact that Ilse violated the Nuremberg Laws by having friendships with Jewish people. While her gender nonconformity and sexuality was not the reason the Nazis persecuted her, they were the reasons that civilians denounced her and thus put her on the Nazis’ radar.  

Queer Reactions & Resistance

In the face of unprecedented terror from civilians and the government, queer people navigated their new realities to survive and resist the oppressive measures being forced on them. Some entered into marriages of convenience to try to blend in and escape scrutiny from neighbors and the government. One group of lesbian friends in Berlin established a fake organization—the Charlottenburg Rowing Club—to provide a safe alibi for the fact that they continued to meet regularly.


Some queer people actively fought back against the Nazi regime. Willem Arondeus was an artist and Frieda Belinfante was a musician. Both were openly gay and lived in Amsterdam. After the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, they formed a resistance group and led the bombing of the Amsterdam registry office in March 1943 to prevent the Nazis from identifying Dutch Jews. Belinfante survived, but unfortunately, Arondeus was caught by the Nazis after the bombing and was sentenced to death in a show trial. In his final words to his lawyer before his execution, Arondeus pleaded, “Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards.”

Queer Prisoners in the Concentration Camps

Out of the 100,000 men arrested under Paragraph 175, the Nazis sent between 7,000 and 10,000 so-called “repeat offenders” to a concentration camp after serving their prison sentence. These were men who were arrested more than once or who were deemed to be a particular threat to public safety.

The Pink Triangle Prisoners

When prisoners arrived at a concentration camp, they were stripped of their possessions, clothing, and their names. They were assigned a prisoner number and a colored badge that represented the reason for their imprisonment. In the first years of the camps’ existence, each camp often had their own prisoner identification system. By 1938, the badging system had become more standardized, and prisoners were assigned a colored triangle badge on their uniform: yellow for Jews, red for political prisoners, green for ‘habitual criminals,’ purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, brown for Roma, and black for “asocials,” an umbrella term the Nazis forced on prisoners who were deemed socially deviant, including drug users, sex workers, unhoused people, and people with alcoholism. Men imprisoned as “homosexual” were marked with a pink triangle. 

 

It is not clear why the SS chose the color pink to label gay prisoners in the camps. At the time, pink was considered a color for boys, since it was seen as a softer shade of red, which was portrayed as a masculine and aggressive color. It was only in the 1940s that pink became more exclusively associated with femininity, and this transformation occurred first in the United States. To complicate matters further, the color most closely associated with German queer culture in the 1920s and 1930s was lavender, not pink. Historian Dominique Grisard hypothesizes that the Nazis’ choice of pink to mark gay prisoners may have come from a slang word at the time for male prostitutes who had sex with men: Rosarote (“pinks” or “rosies”).

 

The groundbreaking research of Rüdiger Lautmann was the first to use archival materials to teach us about the fate of prisoners with the pink triangle. In many ways, the violence that gay prisoners faced was similar to other concentration camp inmates. But, according to survivor testimony, we also know that pink triangle prisoners were often kept isolated from other prisoners, given harsher work details, and sometimes, less food. 

 

Allegedly, these harsher conditions would toughen up the men with the pink triangle and reorient them back to being straight. Pink triangle prisoners were also subjected to gruesome medical experiments that sought to discover a biological cure to homosexuality. Many pink triangle prisoners were forced into submitting to “voluntary” sterilization or castration. Historian Joachim Müller has even documented instances of the systematic murder of entire groups of pink triangle prisoners. In addition to the violence of the guards, gay prisoners also had to face discrimination and harassment from their fellow prisoners. Josef Kohout later reflected back on his time as a pink triangle prisoner, saying that they were the “damnedest of the damned.” 

 

Despite the Nazis’ official policy of trying to “cure” queer people and releasing them, the reality paints another picture. Historian Geoffrey Giles’ research shows that 65% of all pink triangle prisoners - some 4,500 to 6,500 men - died in the camps.

Queer Women and Trans People in the Concentration Camps

Queer women and trans people were sent to concentration camps, too, though it is difficult to ascertain comprehensive statistics since the SS did not label them as distinct prisoner groups. Trans and gender nonconforming people were treated based on their sex assigned at birth. Most lesbians were sent to Ravensbrück, the concentration camp for women, where they were often labeled as “asocials” and assigned a black triangle.  

 

Intersectionality helps explain why and when queer women were sent to camps. In most cases, being a lesbian was not the only reason a woman was sent to a camp. Lesbians who were sent to camps were often also Jewish, political opponents, or otherwise did not conform to the regime’s policies. And yet, the SS guards took the time to note that the women were lesbians. It clearly played a role in why those women were imprisoned.

 

There are doubtless many cases of lesbians who were sent to the camps when their sexuality played little or no significant role. Margot Heuman and Eve Adams were both queer women and both were sent to concentration camps because they were Jewish. Although they were not persecuted because they were lesbian, their histories nevertheless teach us about the varied experiences of lesbians in the Holocaust. The same could be said of queer men who were sent to the camps for reasons other than their sexuality. 

 

Some scholars have argued that because lesbians and transgender people were not targeted by specific laws and did not have their own separate prisoner category (and corresponding colored triangle), they were not really persecuted. This stance is dangerous because it relies on viewing this history through the Nazis’ own intentions and classification system to explain the experiences of the victims. The fact that lesbians and trans people were labeled as asocials rather than under their own separate category does not change that they were imprisoned and persecuted in concentration camps. The Nazi persecution of queer women and trans people was different from the Nazi persecution of queer men, but it was persecution nonetheless. 

"Liberation Was Only For Others" 

After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Allied Powers had a policy of releasing inmates who were imprisoned because of religious, racial, or political reasons, but keeping “common criminals” incarcerated. Driven by their own homophobic stances, the Allies considered the men with the pink triangle to be criminals. They transferred pink triangle prisoners who still had time left on their sentences from the liberated concentration camps to prisons to serve out the rest of their sentence.

 

The Allies also did not get rid of the Nazi version of Paragraph 175 during their attempts to denazify Germany. When East and West Germany were created in 1949, both countries had the Nazi version of Paragraph 175 written into their criminal codes. East Germany quickly reverted the law back to its original version, and as a result the number of queer men arrested in East Germany was relatively low. West Germany, on the other hand, upheld the Nazi version of the law multiple times in court, and arrested 100,000 men with it between 1949 and 1969, when it was finally amended. It was not fully repealed until 1994.

 

During West Germany’s decades-long process of acknowledging the Nazis’ atrocities and compensating the communities that the Nazis victimized, lawmakers, judges, journalists, historians, and the general public consistently regarded queer people as degenerate criminals, not victims of Nazi injustice. Until 2002, they were summarily excluded from all legislation that gave financial reparations and compensation to the Nazis’ victims.

 

When Pierre Seel reflected on his experience as a gay camp prisoner in Nazi-occupied France, he stated powerfully after the end of the war that, “Liberation was only for others.” 

Conclusion

Eradicating homosexuality and enforcing gender conformity were central components of the Nazi regime’s deadly quest to forge a “master race.” Nazi ideology racialized homophobia in similar ways that it racialized antisemitism. In other words, the regime asserted that being queer was no longer just a moral degeneracy or sin; it was a fundamental, racial threat to the reproduction of the “master race.” 

 

Top Nazi policy makers did not plan to murder every queer individual, but they did seek to completely eliminate queer spaces, cultures, networks, and communities. Their policies ultimately killed thousands of queer people. Nazi leadership promoted propaganda that depicted queer people - especially gay men - as enemies of the state, pedophiles, lecherous predators, and a threat to the Aryan birth rate. They implemented a web of oppressive laws and policies to enforce its gender and sexual ideals, and it levied violence against those who did not conform. The fascist system created opportunities for committed individuals in the regime to enact violence against or coordinate the killing of thousands of queer people. At the same time, German citizens contributed to the atmosphere of suppression and danger as they policed their neighbors’ sexual and gender expressions by denouncing queer people in staggering numbers. 

 

The result was the purposeful and violent dismantling of the most vibrant and progressive queer movement that had existed to that point. But queer people were resilient. Some took up arms or found other ways to actively resist the regime. It was impossible to live openly, but countless queer people persevered by maintaining relationships and remaining true to themselves, even if they had to do so in hiding.

Acknowledgements

This essay was written by Dr. Jake Newsome and is based on the decades of collective work of researchers, many of whom risked their reputations and livelihoods to uncover and document this history. We owe our gratitude to those who first paved the way: 

 

Manfred Bruns, Jens Dobler, Ralf Dose, Rudi Finkler, John Fout, Geoffrey Giles, Günter Grau, Wiebke Haß, Rainer Herrn, Manfred Herzer, Rainer Hoffschildt, Michael Holy, Jörg Hutter, Ulrike Janz, Burkhard Jellonnek, Klaus Mueller, Albert Knoll, Ilse Kokula, Rüdiger Lautmann, Cornelia Limpricht, Stefan Micheler, Joachim Müller, Jürgen Müller, Suzanne zur Nieden, Richard Plant, Andreas Pretzel, Thomas Rahe, Gabriele Roßbach, Claudia Schoppmann, Irmes Schwager, Lisa Steininger, James Steakley, Hans-Georg Stümke, Lutz van Dijk, Raimund Wolfert, Alexander Zinn, and the countless others who have performed research for memorials and exhibitions.

 

We also acknowledge the subsequent generations of scholars who continue to research and write this history: Bodie Ashton, Robert Beachy ,Ulf Bollmann, Jennifer Evans, Camille Fauroux, Anna Hájková, Elizabeth Heinemann, Dagmar Herzog, Erika Hughes, Samuel Huneke, Erik Jensen, Gottfried Lorenz, Elissa Mailänder, Laurie Marhoefer, Jake Newsome, Zavier Nunn, Bernhard Rosenkranz, Michael Schwarz, Dorthe Seifert, Katie Sutton, Sébastien Tremblay, Andrew Wackerfuss, and Christiane Wilke, among others. 

Sources

To see a list of English language, peer-reviewed sources used for this essay, visit the Pink Triangle Legacies Project's bibliography. For additional essays, videos, and podcasts on the topic, visit our resources page. For a list of works in additional languages, visit Dr.Anna Hájková’s bibliography on lesbians and trans women in Nazi Germany.

For questions or comments on this essay,
or to report typos or errors, please email jake@pinktrianglelegacies.org. 

Last Updated: January 27, 2024

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