Triangles and Tribulations: The Politics of Nazi Symbols
By R. Amy Elman, PhD
PUBLISHED IN JOURNAL OF HOMOSEXUALITY VOLUME 30, No. 3, 1-11
Author retains copyrights 1996, All Rights Reserved. Please do not use without the expressed written permission of the author.
R. Amy Elman is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Kalamazoo College where she teaches on the Holocaust and other European issues from a feminist perspective.
The author wishes to thank Katinka Strom, Marigene Arnold, Peter L. Corrigan, Gail Griffin, and Donna Hughes for encouraging her work in this area.
Correspondence may be addressed: Department of Political Science, Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo, MI 49006. Or, firstname.lastname@example.org
ABSTRACT: This article explores the politics of “reclamation.” Its focus is on pink and black triangles, currently used as symbols for gay and lesbian pride and liberation. Previously, these same identifiers were worn by those destined for annihilation during the Holocaust. I suggest that, in [re]claiming these markers, activists, however well intentioned, run a path dangerously close to historical denial.
I stood before a t-shirt shop in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. There, hanging in the window was a white t- shirt emblazoned with a tree. Within the tree a pink triangle dangled like a leaf from a branch. Beneath the graphic, the designer inscribed: “The family tree stops here.” This specific attempt to embrace comically an alternative to conventional heterosexuality struck me as tragic as the ever-homophobic Nazi Heinrich Himmler, Chief of the SS, who exclaimed, “We must exterminate these people root and branch. . . . the homosexual must be eliminated” (Plant, 1986, p. 99). Apparently unaware that gay men (and lesbians) can procreate through the sexually uncomplicated procedure of intercourse, Himmler depicted the homosexual man as a “traitor to his own people” who must be “rooted out” for his failure to reproduce. Consciousness of the Holocaust fades. Amnesia cloaks the distasteful irony of contemporary jest.
First adopted by American gay men in the early 1970s after the Stonewall riots of 1969, the pink triangle is now promoted by many as an international symbol of gay and lesbian pride and liberation. (1) This article explores the history associated with this symbol and argues against its use as an affirmation of gay identity more generally and lesbian identity in particular. Because the pink, down-turned triangle served as a distinctive emblem of Nazi heterosexism which signified and even hastened the destruction of gay men, I argue that it should be abandoned as a positive symbol for the movement. Like all Nazi symbols, the pink triangle is unregenerate. Moreover, the lesbian adoption of pink triangles conceals the specific struggles associated with being lesbian by conflating the experiences of lesbians with those of gay men.
As Julia Penelope notes: “Our invisibility, even to ourselves, is at least partially due to the fact that our identity is subsumed by two groups: women and gaymen” (1992, p. 48). Consequently, the truths of lesbian history and present being often dissipate because lesbianism itself, autonomously, is rendered socially unthinkable (Frye, 1983; Hoagland, 1988; Raymond, 1986, 1989; Robson, 1992). This condition is exacerbated by the gender-neutrality of the “queer melting pot” (Miriam, 1993). Lesbians have lost their autonomy (i.e., their “lesbian nation”) and, not coincidentally, their distinctive symbol of pride. The lavender two women symbol is nearly extinct.
It is unseemly that girls and women long taunted by forced pink, feminine identifiers are now, as lesbians, to believe that a pink triangle signifies gendered rebellion. Failure to critically assess this situation contributes to an ever-increasing inability to distinguish between those strategies and associations that enhance visible integrity with those that seek to destroy it.
The Third Reich utilized a myriad of colored triangles to classify the various groups of peoples they interned in concentration camps. (2) The colors of the triangles were as follows: red for political dissidents, green for criminals, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, blue for emigrants, brown for Gypsies, black for lesbians and other “anti-socials,” and pink for homosexual men. The pink triangles symbolized the femaleness of this group of detainees whose masculinity was diminished within the context of Nazi heterosexism. Additionally, the pink triangles were generally larger than other triangles because the Nazis wished gay men to be especially visible (Rector, 1981). Jews, by contrast, were marked by six-pointed, yellow Stars of David within which the word “Jew” was inscribed.(3)
Pink triangles identified the thousands of gay men who were sent to concentration camps as “175ers.” (4) The number 175 refers to the paragraph within the penal code, adopted in 1871, that criminalized male homosexuality. The law was later broadened by the Nazis in 1935 to include any form of “lewdness” between two men. This meant that “as little as a mere kiss or an embrace, or even fiction with homoerotic content” was a crime for which the “criminal” was to serve six months (Fernbach, 1980, p. 11). After 1936, homosexual men were deported to concentration camps, and while at no time were they sent en masse, as gay men, to the extermination camps of Auschwitz, few survived the concentration camps. (5) Still, the persecution of gay men was never “wholesale or systematic” (Oosterhuis, 1991, p. 248). Unlike Jews, whose religious affiliation was routinely noted on birth certificates, or leftists, whose political sympathies were determined by party lists, gay men were not as readily identifiable. More importantly, “homosexuals were the only group . . . not singled out for immediate extermination in countries conquered by Nazis . . .” (Plant, 1986, p. 100). This was because Himmler believed that “homosexuality among subject peoples would hasten their . . . demise” (Plant, 1986, p. 99). Consequently, non-German homosexuals were often not punished as were their German counterparts. Indeed, during the Olympic Games of 1936, some Berlin gay bars were permitted to reopen and police were ordered not to bother foreign gay visitors (Plant, 1986, p. 110; Rector, 1981).
The regime’s reaction to male homosexuality was not uncomplicated. Although male homosexuality was vigorously denounced and out(ed) gay men usually paid the penalty with their lives, homoeroticism was a central component of “male bonding” within the Reich’s all-male paramilitary organizations (e.g., the brown-shirted SA, Sturmabteilung [storm troops], Hitler Youth, and even the elite black-uniformed SS, Schutzstaffel [defence echelon]). (6) When complaints of blatant homosexual behavior within the SA reached Hitler, he stated that the private lives of officers “cannot be an object of scrutiny unless it conflicts with basic principles of National Socialist ideology” (Plant, 1986, p. 61). It was only when the SA proved unruly that Hitler demanded the killing of his gay SA chief Ernst Rohm and the immediate expulsion of other gay men from the SA and the Nazi party. Nonetheless, homoeroticism continued to characterize the nationalist propaganda that fueled the movement (Theweleit, 1987). “Some homosexual artists even enjoyed the protection of Nazi functionaries” (Oosterhuis, 1991, p. 248). Moreover, even the interactions that Hitler had with his immediate subordinates were tinged with an element of the homoerotic. Hermann Göring once said of Hitler, “Every time I face him, my heart falls into my trousers” (Leidholdt, 1983, p. 21). Throughout the reign of the Third Reich, many distinguished gay men lived undisturbed in Germany while thousands of others perished in concentration camps.
The Nazis did not unanimously regard male homosexuals as biological degenerates. Many believed that homosexuality was a contagious, though curable, social disease. Indeed, barely 2 percent of those found guilty of being gay were considered “incorrigible.” “Re-education” provided a possible cure for the majority of others (Oosterhuis, 1991, p. 249). Heinz Heger, who was interned first at Sachsenhausen and later in Flossenberg, explains it was thought that “those of us in the pink triangle category [could] be ‘cured’ of our homosexual disposition by compulsory regular visits to the brothel” (1980, p. 96). There the Nazis forced Jewish and Gypsy women into sexual slavery and watched to determine if the “175ers” had been sufficiently cured. Castrations and injections of testosterone were also used to “convert” gay men to heterosexuality (Heger, 1980; Plant, 1986).
BLACK TRIANGLES: LESBIANISM OBSCURED
The fact that the pink triangle is regarded as a symbol of gay and lesbian liberation is disturbing because pink triangles were exclusively worn by those men the Nazis had identified as gay. (7) By contrast, “The average lesbian enjoyed a kind of legal immunity” (Plant, 1986, p. 27). This was not the result of a greater acceptance of lesbianism. Rather, love between women was so intolerable that lesbian existence had been vociferously denied. Later, in 1910, measures to criminalize lesbians were considered but then promptly abandoned. Feminist opposition proved politically effective (Faderman & Eriksson, 1990, p. xv; Steakley, 1975, p. 42). (8) Consequently, paragraph 175 never extended to lesbians. Yet, as we will note below, male-dominated society would find “more suitable ways to suppress any kind of female independence” (Fernbach, 1980, p. 10 [my emphasis]). (9)
The most effective way to render lesbians powerless was to sever their connection(s) to other women. With the rise of Nazism, lesbian meeting places and private homes were raided and their visibility was concealed (Faderman & Eriksson, 1990, p. xx). (10) “Lesbians,” writes Irene Reti, “were among those women imprisoned as asocials considered a threat to German society before 1939” (1993, p. 95). (11) All asocials were identified through black down-turned triangles. These detainees “were considered stupid, unable to communicate, lacking the courage to stand up for a brother [sic]” (Plant, 1986, p. 160). The SS “despised” them because “the color of their triangles was an insult to their own black uniforms” (Plant, 1986, p. 160).
It is politically significant that the asocial category was not exclusively lesbian; it was a diverse grouping that included prostitutes, vagrants, murderers, thieves, and those who violated laws prohibiting sexual intercourse between Aryans and Jews. Precisely because the asocial group was so heterogeneous, lesbians were not as readily identifiable as were gay men whose pink marking exclusively signified their homosexuality. Universalizing the pink triangle today renders lesbians almost as invisible as the black triangles did in the past. Failure to appreciate this obscures some vital aspects of fascist history.
Even within the newly established Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. one is unable to find any accurate information on lesbians. (12) The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust is accessible via the museum’s computer center. Search commands involving the word “lesbian” execute the release of information that focuses exclusively on male homosexuals. The pink triangle and paragraph 175 appear on screen as if one could assume that both the triangle and the law extended to lesbians. At a time when Holocaust deniers readily prey on any errors and use them to explode the credibility of scholarship concerning the Holocaust, one must be exceedingly careful with the facts.
In an attempt at historical accuracy, some lesbians wear black triangles. It is understandable why a lesbian, possessing a desire for historical precision, might wish to regard herself as the descendant of black-triangled women as distinguished from pink- triangled men. Yet, this is an unsatisfactory solution because the issue of historical accuracy is inextricably linked to an ethical question that is too rarely asked and impossible to answer definitively. Still, that question, put simply, is this: Is it not unethical to suggest that a symbol whose horrific use has denoted the destruction of a group of people be claimed as a symbol of liberation? And, what might it be like for survivors to witness the sight of what to them is so brutal a symbol?
While young gay men and lesbians have the luxury to put on and take off the symbol of hatred that the pink and black triangles represent to many of us, those who have survived the camps cannot erase the tattooed numbers from their skins. They are as permanent and painful as the memories that cannot be extinguished.
THE YELLOW STAR & THE JEWISH COMMUNITY
The Jewish community does not wear yellow stars. That is not because anti-semitism is dead. (13) Rather, the Jewish community rightfully rejects for itself anti-semitic emblems and labels. The community is very much aware of the politics of symbolism. In the first stages of anti-semitic policy, the Nazis insisted on undoing assimilation. The Zionists, by contrast, insisted that Jews combat anti-semitism by displaying “their Jewishness with pride” (Dawidowicz, 1986, p. 176).
In response to the first organized ban on Jewish businesses on Boycott Day, April 1, 1933, Zionists insisted that Jews wear the yellow star and “Wear it With Pride.” (14) This statement, issued by Robert Weltsch, editor of a Jewish newspaper, was one of the most popular slogans issued at the time — “more than six years before the Nazis actually forced the Jews to wear the badge” (Arendt, 1977, p. 59). The slogan was specifically directed against the assimilationists, whom the Zionists blamed for betraying the Jewish community. (15)
In hindsight, Weltsch later stated that “he would never have issued his slogan if he had been able to foresee the developments” (Arendt, 1977, p. 59). Ironically, the star facilitated the enforcement of residence and movement restrictions for Jews. It was an additional control measure that permitted police to detain any Jew, anywhere, at any time. More importantly, “identification had a paralyzing effect” on the Jewish community. Constantly identifiable and scrutinized, Jews became more docile and responsive to Nazi orders than ever before. This, the Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg suggests, was the most devastating function served by the yellow star (1961, p. 121).
It is incongruous that those pursuing liberation can reflect upon the past and insist, as Robert Weltsch could not, that any Nazi symbol can be utilized with pride for the purpose of liberation. With the exception of gay men, no other group that has survived the camps has proudly claimed the identifier that denoted their demise. Yet, unlike any other persecuted group, the requests of gay men to be commemorated as the victims of Nazism has gone largely ignored (Heger, 1980, pp. 114-115; Rector, 1981, pp. 139-141). This is not because historians dispute their victimization “but because most seem not to care” (Rector, 1981, p. 123). While the refusal to acknowledge Nazi tyranny against gay men is inexcusable, embracing the symbols of such persecution is likely to offer affirmation only among those ignorant of or careless with the past. Indeed, the adoption of such symbols might have the unintended consequence of concealing rather than promoting consciousness of the Holocaust. (16)
The feminist philosopher and Holocaust scholar, Joan Ringelheim, asks: “Can we so blithely reclaim and make right what has caused so much oppression without some careful scrutiny of our motives and politics?” She considers the use of words like “kike” and “faggot” to suggest that attempts at “reclamation” cannot be accomplished “without retaining some of the negativity that infests and infects the oppressor’s use of the words” (Ringelheim, 1993, p. 386). Similarly, I claim that the “transformed” pink (or black) triangle cannot be altered through “reclamation.” The down-turned triangles never really belonged to those marked by them in the way that “reclaiming” would suggest. Furthermore, in utilizing them as a symbol of pride one is implicitly promoting a denial of their horrific dimension. Consequently, wearing Nazi triangles may even be interpreted as a form of revisionism.
Why not, instead, adopt the symbols of life and love rather than sadism and destruction? Why has the rebellious color become pink and not lavender? Why not two male symbols or two women’s symbols? The answer, in part, may be historical ignorance. It may also be internalized heterosexism; the willingness to embrace the very symbols of one’s destruction reflects an incredible degree of hatred and self-contempt. In an age of AIDS and historical revisionism, it is frighteningly coincidental that the current identifiers are symbols from a period of death and totalitarianism. The triangles cannot be extricated from their use in concentration camps where, to quote one survivor, “love became corrupt excitement for the slaves and sadistic entertainment for the overseers” (Lengyel, 1993, p. 129).
One cannot effectively eliminate oppression by mimicking the language, actions, and symbols of the oppressor. To best avoid the “valorization of the oppressor” (Ringelheim, 1993), we need our own spaces, language, and symbols if we are ever to claim a future that is markedly different from the past. In “repackaging” the cruel symbols of Nazism, we do not transcend the parameters established by them; rather we delude ourselves into thinking we have control– we become complacent and perhaps complicitous in our own undoing.
1. In a political culture that Americanizes history, sexualizes dominance and is undeniably imperialistic, this should come as no surprise. For a thoughtful examination of the Americanization of the Holocaust, read Paul Gourevitch’s (1993) article on the National Holocaust Memorial Museum. He has several significant insights, including the resemblance of particular exhibits to peep-shows.
2. For Hebrews, the triangle was a symbol of truth (Cirlot, 1962, p. 223). Within cosmic, geometric symbolism, triangles symbolize connection between heaven and earth (Cirlot, 1962, p. 16). In the Greek sacred alphabet, triangles represented the vulva of the “Mother Delta” (Walker, 1983, p. 1016). It is understandable, given the Nazi’s contempt for truth, Jews, and all that is female, that the Third Reich utilized the triangle, down-turned, to denigrate those whom they forced to wear them.
3. Jewish gay men were forced to wear a yellow triangle beneath the pink one. From this combination, the six-pointed Jewish star of David was formed. Additionally, Jewish communists wore the yellow triangle beneath the red and so on (Rector, 1981, pp. 131-132).
4. Harry Oosterhuis notes that German researchers estimate that between 5,000 to 15,000 gay men died in these camps (1991, p. 248). This figure does not include those who were interned and later released.
5. For one of the few primary accounts, read Heger’s The Men with the Pink Triangle (1980).
6. The SA was Hitler’s mass paramilitary organization that proved particularly important before his seizure of power. It was organized to protect Nazi meetings, oppose rival political parties (often through street brawls), and distribute propaganda. The SS was relatively elitist. It was a fighting force that also ran the concentration camps.
7. The Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles reports: “One of the major problems of the Nazis’ treatment of the homosexuals is the lack of authentically documented material on the subject” (in Rector, 1981, p. 108). As little documentation as there is on male homosexuals in the camps, there is even less on lesbians. While Heinz Heger provides an invaluable memoir of gay survival (1980), we have no lesbian account. And because gay men were formally criminalized and conspicuously categorized by pink triangles, they were visible. Consequently, there are some references to their treatment within the camps. By contrast, lesbians were “hidden behind a double veil of hypocrisy and silence” (Laska, 1993, p. 264). This section explores this concealment.
8. For example, the League for the Protection of Maternity and Sexual Reform adopted a resolution in 1911 that termed the proposal to criminalize lesbians a “grave error” that would merely “double injustice” (Steakley, 1975, p. 42).
9. Gay men were, and are, conceived as singularly synonymous with “homosexual” and publicly persecuted as such via criminal proceedings; contempt for lesbians, then as now, was expressed through concealment and a “repudiation of women who organize in their own behalf to achieve public presence, significance, power, [and] visible integrity” (Dworkin, 1993, p. 28).
10. Prior to this, there were approximately 60 meeting places for lesbians in Berlin as well as an exclusively lesbian paper, The Girlfriend: Weekly for the Ideal Friendship (Faderman & Eriksson, 1990, p. xxi).
11. Thereafter, the war against them abated as almost all efforts focused on the extermination of European Jewry.
12. Andrea Dworkin writes: “In the museum, the story of women is missing” (1994, p. 54).
13. For a comprehensive survey of antisemitism in the United States from colonialism to the present, read Dinnerstein (1994).
14. It is interesting to note that the yellow badge originated as a symbol of official protection during the Middle Ages when it was occasionally extended to Jews within Muslim lands. The badge served as a reminder to Muslims that it was forbidden to attack Jews (Biale, 1987, p. 67). The badge, thus, simultaneously distinguished and protected Jews. This history is likely to have, in part, inspired the Zionists to adopt this particular symbol.
15. In turn, assimilationists blamed Zionists for their persecution. They asserted that Zionists, who insisted on their distinctiveness as Jews, were an obstacle to peaceful co- existence. Moreover, assimilationists insisted that Jews remain faithful to the “German spirit” (Dawidowicz, 1986, p. 174). Both Zionists and assimilationists failed to note that the grave error they had committed was not in their conduct (to assimilate and be German or be Jewish with pride), but to have been born Jews (Elman, 1989). With the privilege of hindsight, one may note, as did Sartre, that “the true opponent of assimilation is not the Jew but the anti-Semite…” (Sartre, 1969, p. 143).
16. Over the last few years I have often asked those wearing pink triangles to explain their meaning. Rarely have I received an accurate answer. Most reply only that the triangle symbolizes gay and lesbian pride. Moreover, with the exception of Holocaust survivors who I have heard object to its being worn, those outside of the gay and lesbian communities are even less familiar with the historical associations of the triangle. I strongly suspect that one of the appeals of this symbol is precisely its obscurity. That is, the pink triangle is a “discreet” signifier.