Sachsenhaussen: The Camp of the Pink Triangles

Ryan J. Jones

Writer’s comment: While working as an advisor for incoming freshmen here at UCD, I was asked to facilitate a program entitled “UCD Perceptions.” This session dealt with the various aspects of diversity among UC Davis students. As a part of this program, the Summer Advising staff distributed a questionnaire that “tested” students’ awareness regarding cultural diversity. One of the questions was “What does the upside-down pink triangle symbolize and what is its origin?” Initially, I myself was unaware of the triangle’s significance. When its history was explained to me, I realized just how little I knew about the role of homosexuals in history. So when the opportunity presented itself in Professor Willis's History 3 course to research any aspect of any city at any point in its history, I was reminded of the pink triangle. I narrowed my topic down to the concentration camps in which homosexuals were interned and began my research. The topic was interesting to me because it was an aspect of history that few people consider. As academia begins to explore alternative points of view, such as those of women, racial minorities, and homosexuals, we will begin to see other sides of history. Because there are so many ways to look at history, in order to be a good historian, one must take into account a myriad of views. Only then can one begin to truly learn.
—Ryan J. Jones

Instructor’s comment: History 3 takes students on a journey through the cities of Western civilization. It begins with ancient Athens and ends with Moscow in the post-war period. Along the way, students make the acquaintance of major political figures, philosophers, and artists. They are required to write two papers during the quarter, each dealing with a different time period and focused on a particular city. Many students choose to trod well-known streets. Others, however, delve into little-known nooks and crannies of politics and culture. Some of these are dark, providing a bleak view of human nature. In his essay Ryan Jones points out that, although Jews are the best-known victims of Nazi horror, other groups were systematically brutalized as well. Ryan focuses on one specific group, homosexuals housed at Sachsenhaussen, a concentration camp north of Berlin. In the best of worlds, students view history as a “usable past,” capable of teaching lessons for the future. Ryan’s sensitive and perceptive essay demonstrates a deeply felt recognition of this concept.
—Kathleen Cairns, History Department

The Holocaust is the greatest atrocity ever committed. Millions upon millions of people were ruthlessly tortured and executed during the infamous reign of the Third Reich. The events and conditions surrounding Adolf Hitler’s rise to power have been extensively studied by historians, sociologists, political scientists, and psychologists in the hopes of preventing this state of merciless dictatorship from ever recurring. Due to the immensity of the Nazi campaign against those of the Jewish faith, that ethnic group is most often mentioned in association with the concentration camps and exterminations of the Third Reich. However, there were many other groups who were persecuted alongside the Jews. These groups include political dissidents, criminals, gypsies, the handicapped, Jehovah’s Witnesses, emigrants, and homosexuals (Heger 32). The plight of homosexuals is, perhaps, the most overlooked aspect of the Holocaust. Of all the concentration camps, Sachsenhaussen, just north of Berlin, was the most important in the imprisonment and execution of homosexuals. The conditions under which all prisoners here were forced to live were absolutely inhuman, but for homosexuals it was far worse. As the one group that was despised by both the Nazis and those who were imprisoned within concentration camps, gays were persecuted with the greatest enthusiasm, and because of the taboos surrounding their lifestyle, their tragedy was left unnoticed for nearly three decades.
      The persecution of homosexuals at Sachsenhaussen was a natural outgrowth of the Nazi idea of the “master race” and was made possible by manipulation of German law. Homosexuals, according to Nazi propaganda, did not fulfill two of the chief characteristics of the Nazi ideal, purity of blood and the ability (or in the case of gays, the inclination) to reproduce. Homosexuals were viewed as being unable to fill the roles of warrior and father that were essential to the Nazi ideal of Nordic manhood. Homosexuality was considered a disease by the Nazis, one they believed could be cured through hard labor, torture, and frequent intercourse with women (Feig 80). In order to justify the imprisonment of homosexuals, the Nazis strengthened Germany’s existent laws regarding sexual deviance. Following its amendment on January 28,1935, the famous Paragraph 175 stated: “A male who indulges in criminally indecent activities with another male or allows himself to participate in such activities will be punished with jail” (Plant 206). The paragraph goes on to include detailed situations that constituted “criminally indecent activities” as well as to suggest a sentence of no less than three years. This anti-gay law was stretched to its limit by the Nazi regime and eventually came to include such innocent gestures as hugging and smiling at other men under the title of “criminally indecent activities.” It is important to note that lesbians were not included under this law because they were still biologically capable of fulfilling their reproductive duties to the state, despite their sexual preference. Homosexual men were also biologically capable of reproduction but were considered diseased, unmanly, and unworthy of aiding in the procreation of the master race. The subordination of women was far easier than that of men because of their lower status in society. Attitudes toward lesbianism were less restrictive because close friendships between women were more common and accepted by society.
      Sachsenhaussen was one of the first concentration camps established and was well equipped for the persecution of Nazi Germany’s “degenerates.” The main feature of the town was the camp itself. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire fences and armed watch towers. The camp was divided into three important areas: the living barracks, the facilities area, and the parade-ground (Heger 29-30). The use of the living barracks was for most prisoners very basic; it was the place they slept and gained some precious moments of relative peace and solitude. This was not the case for homosexuals. Because of the nature of their “crime,” homosexuals were housed separately from other prisoners. They were forced to sleep with the lights on and with their hands above their sheets. The reason for this was put rather bluntly by the kommandant: “You queer assholes aren’t going to start wanking here!” (Heger 34). Every effort was made to prevent these “queers” from committing additional sexual offenses with one another. This special vigilance on the part of the guards and the separation from other prisoners added to the alienation felt by homosexuals. The facilities area housed the kitchens and laundry, as well as the hospital (where “research” was conducted) and the crematorium. The most horrible area in the camp was the parade-ground. It was here that prisoners met for work details, roll call and all public punishments and torture. The Jews, gypsies, and especially the homosexuals at Sachsenhaussen found this parade-ground a familiar and often brutalizing place.
      The work conditions at the Klinker Brickworks provide a clear example of the brutal exploitation of homosexuals under the Third Reich. The work detail of Sachsenhaussen prisoners was as much a form of torture as it was a way to occupy the prisoners’ time “productively” for the state. Each prisoner spent three-quarters of his day at some form of work. The most dangerous work was found in the Klinker Brickworks that were located in Sachsenhaussen itself. Undesirables, especially gays, were sent there for liquidation. Liquidation was a type of work detail that involved hard physical labor coupled with little nourishment that usually resulted in the starvation of the prisoner (Heger 38-39). Added to this exhaustive routine was the inherent danger of the work itself. Prisoners were forced to load large amounts of clay into carts which they then had to push up a steep incline. Many prisoners died when they collapsed from exhaustion and were crushed by the heavy carts. A popular game played by SS troops in this and all work details involved shooting those who attempted to escape. This game was especially profitable for the troops because they received additional pay and leave time for killing an escapee (Heger 50-51). To make the entire game easier, guards would take the hat or tool of a worker and throw it just beyond the work perimeter. The guards would then order the prisoner to retrieve the article. Many prisoners died in this fashion. The citizens of the town were indifferent to the plight of homosexuals. In many cases, the work details from the camp relieved citizens from their own responsibilities. The townspeople were more than content to let the camp prisoners do their work and suffer the brutalization of the Nazis.
      The forms of torture at Sachsenhaussen were as varied as they were physically and mentally destructive. To begin with, there were the work details such as those at Klinker Brickworks. Other forms of torture were particularly useless and were meant solely to condition the prisoners to their new role. A particularly brutal form of torture is described in detail in every available account of Sachsenhaussen. Any homosexual found with his hands under his bed blankets was subjected to the following punishment: “[He] was taken outside and had several buckets of cold water poured over him before being left standing outside for a good hour” (Heger 34-35). Most prisoners developed bronchitis from this treatment and were then sent to the hospital. As in all death camps, Sachsenhaussen’s hospital was where Nazi doctors performed much of their experiments on human subjects. These experiments invariably resulted in the death of the “subject.” Homosexuals were especially singled out for such experiments because of their subhuman standing within the camp (Rector 130-31). Efforts were also being made by scientists to find a “cure” for homosexuality. This involved regular interviews at the camp brothel, where homosexuals were forced to perform sexual intercourse with a woman in the presence of an officer. After sufficient performances on the part of the prisoner, he was then released to a penal prison. This “cure” generally worked on those who merely “dabbled” in homosexual encounters; these were men who had only experimented with homosexuality or had engaged in prostitution and occasionally served male customers. However, for those who were genuinely attracted to other men only, this “treatment” served to reinforce their aversion to encounters with women (Heger 96-98). Punishment in general was a day-to-day routine for most homosexuals. As a group, they were singled out by the SS for special punishments. Among these special punishments was the “horse,” a wooden bench to which prisoners were tied and then beaten with a bullwhip. This type of physical abuse was inflicted most often on Jews and homosexuals (Heger 35).
      The most subtle torture unique to homosexuals was that of the pink triangle. All prisoners wore a triangular patch of a different color denoting their “crime” against Germany. The patches worn by homosexuals were pink and about an inch larger than those of the other prisoners. This larger patch made homosexuals easier to pick out by the SS and by the camp leaders as well as by the other prisoners. This color code helped to keep prisoners separated both physically and ideologically. Homosexuals were the one group that was despised by all. As one gay survivor wrote, “the lowest of the low in this ‘scum’ were...the men with the pink triangles” (Heger 33). For other prisoners, gays represented the one group that was more “inhuman” than they and more easily dominated.
      Ironically, for many homosexuals the key to survival was their homosexuality. Prisoners in high positions, such as the camp senior and chiefs, would often select a homosexual as their lover. In exchange for sexual favors the chief, or Kapo, would protect the homosexual and provide him with extra food and comforts. Most homosexuals found their will to survive greater than their moral aversion to such relations. Within such arrangements, homosexuals found security and protection but little pleasure or enjoyment. The lovers of the Kapos were known as “dolly-boys” because of their youthful appearance. For the most part, the entire camp was aware of these secret affairs. Of course, these relationships were kept secret from the SS and Nazi directors. It is ironic that despite the fact that other prisoners looked down on homosexuals, they were willing to engage in homosexual relationships themselves. For whatever reason, it is fortunate for historians that these relationships occurred because they enabled many homosexuals to survive their time in Sachsenhaussen and to record their experiences there.
      An estimated 30,000 homosexuals died in the Nazi concentration camps (Heger 14; Plant 235). Their experiences there were completely forgotten until nearly three decades after the fall of Nazi Germany. The reason is that many people around the world shared and continue to share the Nazi’s views on homosexuality. Many believe that homosexuals are less than human, and some would argue that they deserved the treatment they received. If the testimonies of gay survivors from Sachsenhaussen are to teach us anything, it is that they, like the Jews and every other group exterminated by the Nazis, were victims. Their tragedy has been compounded by society’s rejection of their plight. In order to truly abolish the dangerous views of Nazism, we must first learn to accept all people as human beings, no matter what their national origin, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation may be. This must be our goal if we are to prevent the atrocities of Sachsenhaussen from ever happening again.


Feig, Konnilyn G. Hitler’s Death Camps. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1979.

Heger, Heinz. The Men With the Pink Triangle. London: Gay Men’s Press, 1972.

Plant, Richard. The Pink Triangle. New York: Henry Holt, 1986.

Rector, Frank. The Nazi Extermination of Homosexuals. New York: Stein and Day, 1981.