Paragraph 175 and the Pink Triangle

While every time and place poses conditions unique to its peoples and challenges as variable as the weather, I believe history has lessons to teach.  In The Life of Reason — Vol. I, “Reason in Common Sense” the Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The pink triangle today is a prominent symbol used by members of the LGBTQ community and our allies.  Since the 1990’s, signs bearing a pink triangle enclosed in a green circle have been used to identify “safe spaces” for queer people.  Although the pink triangle has been reclaimed as an empowering symbol, it is a reminder to never forget the past — to recognize the very real discrimination and persecution LGBTQ people still face around the world.

Though it is foolish to offer 1:1 comparisons between the ascension to power of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany with resemblances to the the rise of xenophobic populism in the United States and Europe — since to do so would result in trivializing one of the most horrific episodes in human history — certain parallels between the rise of fascism in the Germany of the early 20th century and the ascendency of nationalism in the early 21st century need to be explored.  You can draw your own conclusions.

But first, we must narrow our focus.  I want to highlight parallels I see in Nazi portrayals and understandings of sex, sexuality, gender, and gender expression, focused on their anti-gay, anti-sex(uality) education in schools agenda which sounds, modified for today’s language, like a primer in the bigotry of the religious-Right in general and the American culture warriors in particular.

The Nazis acted on and broadened Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code dating back to 1871 and the unification of Germany:

Unnatural fornication, whether between persons of the male sex or of humans with beasts, is punished with imprisonment, with the further punishment of a prompt loss of civil rights.

Nazi ideology suggested that homosexuals (males who had sex with other males) lowered the German birth rate, that they are “potential oppositionists” and enemies of respectable society, and that sexual relations between people of the same sex in-and-of-itself will cause them to lose their “sense of shame,” thus undermining the overall morality of society which will inevitably bring about the “decline of social community.”  Homosexuals endangered, recruited, enticed, and corrupted youth, and it was possible that left unchecked a homosexual epidemic could spread.

The words are different but the ideas are the same today:  pedophiles pursuing a “gay agenda” will be the downfall of society and cause the collapse of the nation and ultimately civilization.

While Nazi ideology and practice rejected lesbianism as well, they did not criminalize same-sex contact between women, as they had in Paragraph 175 of the Penal Code, because they believed that so-called ‘Aryan lesbians’ could produce Aryan children for Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich.

Hitler, a Catholic, proposed eliminating all sex and sexuality education from the German school system, suggesting parents should take on the primary responsibility for this instruction within the home.

The Nazi regime consolidated its sexual oppression when head of the Gestapo Heinrich Himmler reorganized the Reich Criminal Police Bureau to centralize operations by creating a national file on male homosexuals, transgender people (referred to as “transvestites”), and what they referred to as “wage abortionists” (women and their doctors).  Himmler established The Reich Office for Combatting Homosexuality and Abortion, which in 1938 alone conducted 28,882 arrests of male homosexuals and 28,366 arrests for abortion.  Before you say “it can’t happen here,” do you recall when Donald Trump told Chris Matthews during a televised town hall, “there has to be some form of punishment” if abortion were made illegal nationwide?

The common thread running through Nazi ideology regarding sex and sexuality was an attempt to control people's bodies and therefore control their minds through a kind of social coercion aimed at perpetuating the myth of male dominance necessary for maintenance of a patriarchal society.  The cisgender heterosexual Aryan male is the ideal, where the cisgender heterosexual Aryan female at least had a specific purpose, which was of course to make more cisgender heterosexual Aryan males; nowhere was this more shockingly obvious than in Himmler’s Lebensborn program that had the goal of raising the birth rate of ‘healthy and racially pure’ Aryan children via extramarital relations by SS officers with unmarried women deemed to have suitable health and racial hygiene.  All others fell into the category of inferiors.

Jews topped the list of inferiors, according to the Christianity-inspired anti-semitic Nazi ideology.  Also included were those with congenital defects, but less obvious (yet no less persecuted) were those who violated the “rules” for the reproduction and maintenance of the patriarchal system — homosexual men.

A downward-pointing pink triangle was sewn onto the shirts of homosexual men in concentration camps — to identify and further dehumanize them.  It is estimated 100,000 homosexual men were arrested and between 5,000 and 15,000 were placed in concentration camps.  Just as Jews were forced to identify themselves with yellow stars, homosexual men in concentration camps had to wear a large pink triangle (brown triangles were used for Gypsies, red for political prisoners, green for criminals, blue for immigrants, purple for Jehovah's Witnesses, and black was reserved for a category called “asocial people,” which included prostitutes and lesbians).

At the camps, homosexual men were treated especially harshly, by guards and fellow prisoners alike. “There was no solidarity for the homosexual prisoners; they belonged to the lowest caste,” wrote a gay Holocaust survivor, Pierre Seel, in I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual:  A Memoir of Nazi Terror.

An estimated 65% of homosexual men in concentration camps died between 1933 and 1945.  Even after World War II, both East and West Germany upheld the country’s anti-homosexuality law, and many homosexuals remained incarcerated until the early 1970’s.  In 1972, The Men with the Pink Triangle, the first autobiography of a gay concentration camp survivor, was published.  The law was not officially repealed until 1994!

I said I would leave you to draw your own conclusions, thoughtful reader, and I will.  Just remember this: as Antonio says in Act II, Scene I of Shakespeare’s The Tempest"What's past is prologue.”

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