the gay holocaust

The men with the pink triangle

Since the 2005 United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7, the 27th of each January marks the International Holocaust Remembrance Day or the International Day in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, an international Memorial Day that commemorates the victims of the Holocaust, that is not only the Jewish people who faced the ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish question’ they posed to the ‘purity’ and ‘superiority’ of the Aryan race but also the hundreds of other persons belonging to minority groups that were imprisoned in concentration camps and/or killed between 1933 and 1945 by Nazi Germany, among them Jehovah's Witnesses, Roma, Afro-Germans, homosexuals, people with disabilities, etc. This date is far from accidental as it was on 27 January 1945 when the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by the Red Army marking the end of World War II. According to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s statement for the observance of the Holocaust Victims Memorial Day in 2008, ‘the International Day in memory of the victims of the Holocaust is thus a day on which we must reassert our commitment to human rights,’ while at the same time, he urges us to ‘go beyond remembrance, and make sure that new generations know this history.’ 

 Along with the foundation of respective national remembrance days, memorials, and monuments in many countries around the world, we have witnessed over the last decades the attempts of these minority groups to reclaim their history and their right to memory and memorialization engaging in a feverish mnemopolitics as a core part of their own identity and history. If ‘we must apply the lessons of the Holocaust to today’s world’ as Ki-Moon’s inspirational words read, then we must recognize that the history of the Holocaust continues to be after all these decades an unfinished archive open to interpretations and reappropriations on both sides on the history, an ever-replenished archive not only of events and official documents, but of feelings, thoughts, memories, and oral narratives as well. This archive fever keeps the history, the violence, and the injustices alive as it allows the past to haunt the present, a ghostly presence and reminder that Nazism which gave rise to and justified such atrocities is far from over but rather many of its ideological components permeate our current predicament on a planetary level. 

For Michel Foucault, a thinker who spilled much ink on Holocaust as a paradigm of today’s biopolitics, a form of governmentality and a cluster of technologies of power, modernity is inextricably linked to this state racism whose most despicable expression can be found in the Nazi ideology and its implementation to the carceral archipelago of concentration camps. Biopolitics marks a significant historical transformation from a politics of sovereignty to a politics of society where ‘wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital’. In addition, biopolitics is a power exerted on the level of both individual body and population, that is on the ‘level of life’ itself. 

As he puts it, biopower focuses on ‘the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population.’ In this context, state racism is an indispensable component of the modern biopolitical nation-state since such racism is one ‘that society will direct against itself, against its own elements and its own products […] the internal racism of permanent purification, and it will become one of the basic dimensions of social normalization.’ These remarks are particularly pertinent in the case of Thid Reich where the Aryan race ‘is portrayed as the one true race, the race that holds power and is entitled to define the norm, and against those who deviate from that norm, against those who pose a threat to the biological heritage.’

Having said that, it should not come as a surprise that LGBT+ persons were among the victims of the Holocaust. When it comes to gay men, the pure Aryan race could not have been anything less than hyper-masculine imbued with the ideal of the enclosed, that is non-penetrable, autonomous, and phallic body. This individual body of the model citizen and soldier mirrors both the social body and the body politic to which the former serves as a powerful metaphor, the idealized image of ‘the society that be defended’ at any cost against any imaginary evil that threatens to undermine its purity and integrity. Due to this rationale, female homosexuality was not prosecuted – except in annexed Austria as it was considered less threatening to the National Socialists. A gay man after all was a traitor both to his gender and to his race. 

Furthermore, the stigmatization literally on the level of the skin and clothes of those ‘abnormal’ bodies acts as a mechanism of social coherence via the construction of an abject and monstrous other against whom the collective we is constituted as such. One could argue that a component of this state racism Foucault so eloquently describes is what could be called state homophobia, keeping always in mind that racism and homophobia usually contaminate one another resulting in a racialized homophobia or a homosexualized racism. The homosexual male body as penetrated and feminized is a body that corresponds to a politics of contamination at the level of the body politic, to a porous state with open borders that appreciates heterogeneity and does not demonize vulnerability. 

According to Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, during National Socialism, 

 ‘Significant numbers of gay men were arrested, of whom an estimated 50,000 received severe jail sentences in brutal conditions. Most homosexuals were sent to police prisons, rather than concentration camps, where they were exposed to inhumane treatment. There they could be subjected to hard labour and torture, or they were experimented upon or executed. An estimated 10-15,000 men who were accused of homosexuality were deported to concentration camps. Most died in the camps, often from exhaustion. Many were castrated and some subjected to gruesome medical experiments. Collective murder actions were undertaken against gay detainees, exterminating hundreds at a time.’

The legal basis for these prosecutions was the so-called paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code which criminalized homosexual acts which had fallen out of use up to a certain extent from the 20s to the rise of Hitler. It should also be noted that Berlin was a ‘gay capital’ of Europe at the beginning of the 20th century with a rich gay and lesbian community thriving as the various organisations, cafés, bars, publications, and cultural events from this period testify. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science was violently looted and closed in 1933 and this world-leading research on sexual diversity and queerness was destroyed. 

For many decades, the ‘Gay’ Holocaust was considered to be a less important aspect of Holocaust history that tended to focus exclusively on the fate of Jewish people due to the persistence of homophobia in the following years. Not even memory can escape homophobia. However, the gay community has struggled for this silenced part of history to be heard and officially recognized and symbols, such as the pink triangle, one of the Nazi concentration camp badges that distinguishing those imprisoned as gay men, were reappropriated as positive symbols of resistance and pride. These visual tropes as well as mottos that evoke the theme of silence were mobilized especially during the AIDS crisis by gay men in an attempt to call out the state made-in-the-USA this time homophobia and criminal indifference towards the AIDS victims. 

* The quotes above are from Foucault, Michel,

  •  The Will to Knowledge: History of Sexuality - Volume I (1976)
  • ‘Society Must be Defended’- Lecture Series at the Collège de France, 1975-76 (2003) 

*Four of the pictures above depict memorials and monuments dedicated to the memory of the LGBTIQA+ victims of the Holocaust in Sydney, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Tel Aviv respectively.