Recounting Terror and Sexual Violence: Josef Kohout’s The Men With the Pink Triangle

The Nazi dictatorship policed, prosecuted, and ultimately murdered thousands of gay men during its 12 years of rule.

Top Image: Josef Kohout, around 1950. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration.

The Nazi dictatorship policed, prosecuted, and ultimately murdered thousands of gay men during its 12 years of rule. Adolf Hitler’s regime overturned all previous attempts in Germany to decriminalize same-sex acts, to challenge bigoted stereotypes about homosexuality, and to create establishments where these men could live and socialize openly. Sterilization, castration, imprisonment, and deportation to concentration camps were among the methods utilized. Ernst Röhm, leader of the SA, the Nazi Party’s stormtroopers, had been openly gay, but Hitler had only tolerated this until he became too troublesome. The murder of Röhm during the Night of the Long Knives in the summer of 1934 was followed the next year by an expansion of Paragraph 175, the section of Germany’s criminal code dealing with sexual relations between men. In a February 1937 speech in Bavaria, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler spoke of homosexuality as “depravity” and a “plague.”  Eventually, 100,000 German and Austrian men were arrested on charges of homosexuality. During World War II, some 10,000 of them perished, mostly in the SS-run camp system.

Although the Third Reich was one of the most heartlessly homophobic regimes in modern history, practically no first-hand accounts of Nazi violence against gay men existed in either West or East Germany before the early 1970s. That is not to suggest that no one had discussed the subject. As early as 1946, Eugen Kogon, the progressive German Catholic journalist and survivor of Buchenwald, described the situation for gay men in the camps. “The fate of homosexuals in the concentration camps,” wrote Kogon, “can only be described as ghastly. They were often segregated in special barracks and work details. Such segregation offered ample opportunities for unscrupulous elements in positions of power to engage in extortion and maltreatment.” That same year, in the Soviet zone of occupation (later the German Democratic Republic), Rudolf Klimmer appealed to the Organization of Those Persecuted by the Nazi Regime to offer recognition of gay men as victims of National Socialist terror. He also tried to secure compensation for them from the East German government. Klimmer did not succeed in either venture. However, in one of the precious few signs of commitment to older Marxist ideas of equality, the East German state in the 1950s did repeal the additions to Paragraph 175 carried out by the Nazis.

According to Erik Jensen, gays and lesbians “not only met silence in the postwar period regarding the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, but they also faced the pernicious myth that homosexuals themselves formed the backbone of the Nazi movement.” Both the silence and the myth persisted for years. An attempt by the Hamburg-based Society for Human Rights to win recognition of gay concentration camp inmates in West Germany met the same fate as Klimmer’s endeavor. 

Calls for gay and lesbian liberation in the capitalist democracies in the late 1960s and early ‘70s did finally create a more open atmosphere for the history of the oppression of gays and lesbians in the Third Reich to emerge. In West Germany pathbreaking works by Wolfgang Harthauser and Harry Wilde appeared in 1967 and 1969, respectively. The partial reform of Paragraph 175 in 1969, decriminalizing sexual acts between men over the age of 21, showed that institutional change was possible.

Two years later filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim released Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt (The Homosexual is not Perverse, But, Rather, the Situation in Which He Lives.) Praunheim (born Holger Radke in 1942) had actually taken the name “Rosa” (German for Pink) to draw attention to the Pink Triangle, the identification badge assigned by the SS to homosexuals in the concentration camps. His film had an enormous impact on West German cultural life.

A year later, a Hamburg publisher issued Die Männer mit dem rosa Winkel (The Men With the Pink Triangle.) An English translation by David Fernbach, known for his translations of Karl Marx, appeared in 1980. A revolutionary work, it is still one of the very few memoirs by a gay victim of Nazism. Written by Heinz Heger, a pseudonym used by Josef Kohout (1917-1994), The Men With the Pink Triangle recounts six terrible years of incarceration in concentration camps. The book not only documents Nazi crimes against gay men but also indicts the discrimination which continued after the defeat of the Third Reich.   

Image courtesy of Amazon.

 

Kohout grew up in a Catholic family in Austria. After Nazi Germany annexed the country in March 1938, he became involved with “Fred,” the son of a Nazi Party member. The Gestapo arrested him in March 1939. A photo Kohout had given to “Fred” the previous Christmas, bearing the inscription “To my friend Fred in eternal love and deepest affection,” had been discovered and used against him. He received a sentence of six months imprisonment in Vienna. “Fred,” likely with help from his father, did not suffer punishment.  

Once he completed his sentence, Kohout was not released. He was given crushing news in January 1940: the Gestapo had decided to deport him-to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Berlin. Kohout never saw his devastated father again. In 1942 he committed suicide, “filled with bitterness and grief,” recalled Kohout, “for an age he could not fit into, filled with disappointment over all those friends who either couldn’t or wouldn’t help him.” 

During the long winter journey by train to Sachsenhausen, two criminals sexually assaulted him. Kohout went on to describe the brutal regime of forced labor and systematic violence he and other gay men forced to wear the Pink Triangle experienced there. After a year in Sachsenhausen, the SS transferred him to the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria. Kohout remained there until very late in the war, when the SS moved him and other inmates to Dachau. American soldiers liberated Kohout and his fellow inmates in April 1945.

Prisoners in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, 1938. Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (540175).

The best way to understand the horrors Josef Kohout went through in his time in Sachsenhausen and Flossenbürg is to read about them for yourself. The Men With the Pink Triangle will surprise even those who have read memoirs by Holocaust survivors. In unforgettable chapters, Kohout communicates attempts by the SS to “cure” people of homosexuality by “compulsory regular visits to the brothel” at Flossenbürg. He narrates episodes of torture and murder of gay prisoners. He chronicles the gruesome mass execution of Soviet soldiers. Candidly, he also recalls networks of protection and sexual relationships between men in the camps which test the limits of what can be deemed consensual. 

Kohout’s memoir contributed so much to the subsequent wave of books, articles, documentaries, and exhibits on the Nazi persecution and murder of gay men. Long marginalized, this history is more important than ever—in Germany and beyond—as homophobia still poses a fundamental threat to human freedom and equality. Read The Men With the Pink Triangle with this statement by Kohout in mind: 

“What does it say about the world we live in, if an adult man is told how and whom he should love?”

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