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Archive Papers

Reprint from:

Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 6 (1/2), Fall/Winter 1980/81, pp. 135-139


Erwin J. Haeberle, Ph.D, Ed.D


The persecution of homosexual men, transvestites, and "race defilers" in Nazi Germany carried the traditional religious and psychiatric stigmatization of sexual nonconformists in Europe to its logical extreme. The system of prisoner markings in Nazi concentration camps and its stigmatizing function are described.


There is a long tradition in Europe and America of branding men who engage in same sex erotic behavior as wicked, dangerous, and inferior, and of referring to them only in negative terms. In medieval and early modern times the motive for this verbal stigmatization was mostly religious. When a man was called a sodomite or bugger (a corruption of Bulgar), he was thereby defined as an enemy of the people because, as everyone knew, sodomy (the sin of Sodom) and buggery (the heresy of Bulgaria) were aberrations from the path of righteousness and insults to God that invited His retribution. By ostracizing and persecuting sodomites and buggers, the faithful duly protected themselves.

In the nineteenth century, when psychiatrists began to convert sins of the flesh into mental diseases ("sexual psychopathies"), the originally religious terms "aberration," "perversion," and "deviation" came to be used as elements of a medical diagnosis. This process is observed most easily in the work of an influential French psychiatrist who had begun his academic training as a student of theology, Benedict Augustin Morel (1809-1873). In analogy to the Bible, Morel assumed the past existence of a perfect man or "type primitif" (Adam) who, after some external and infernal corruption (the Fall), became susceptible to various negative influences. The resulting general enfeeblement produced several less perfect, but still relatively healthy, human races and a number of "degenerative" genetic lines that would grow weaker with each generation and finally die out: "Degenerations are deviations from the normal human type, which are transmissible by heredity and which deteriorate progressively toward extinction". 1 It was the task of psychiatry to recognize the symptoms of degeneration in individuals and to take appropriate (mostly palliative) measures. As the medical historian Zilboorg summarized it:

Morel's attention was absorbed by the problem of degeneration. In 1857 his magnum opus appeared, a volume of seven hundred pages entitled Traité des dégenerescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l'espèce humaine. He viewed mental disease primarily as a "result of hereditary weakness. " Degeneration was a hereditary phenomenon, of course, and Morel developed a detailed method of discovering the great variety of "stigmata of degeneration " to be found among the mentally sick. These were mostly physical signs—various malformations—but also various intellectual and moral deviations from the normal.2

In the same year, 1857, another Frenchman, Ambroise Tardieu, published his Etude medico légale sur les attentats aux moeurs, which purported to be a scientific study of same sex eroticism in France. Tardieu claimed to have discovered physical evidence for an inclination toward "pederasty. " Pederasts were depraved individuals and differed not only morally but also anatomically from other men. Active pederasts had an underdeveloped, tapered penis, resembling that of a dog; the anus of a passive pederast, even before any sexual activity, was naturally smooth, lacking in radial folds.3

Under the influence of Morel, such alleged characteristics were soon regarded as "stigmata of degeneration," and for the rest of the nineteenth century "experts" all over Europe tried to find, list, and classify more and more of these stigmata for diagnostic purposes. In the opinion of most psychiatrists, "degeneration" remained the major and rarely questioned cause of sexual nonconformity. Even in 1906, when Iwan Bloch tried to escape the narrow psychiatric assumptions about sexual behavior by introducing the new, broader concept of Sexualwissenschaft, or sexology, the infamous "stigmata of degeneration" continued to haunt his mind:

We distinguish physical and mental stigmata degenerationis. To the former belong . . . malformations, such as asymmetry of the skull, narrowness of the palate, harelip, cleft palate, anomalies of the teeth and the hair, . . . abnormal and morbid states of the genital organs and genital functions, and more especially malformations of the ear, such as Morel's ear (the complete or partial absence of the helix or antihelix).... The mental degenerative phenomena comprise all that are known as "bizarre or abnormal " characters.... These phenomena comprise peculiar disturbances of the harmony of the spiritual life, characterized by lack of balance between emotion and intellect, as well as by an abnormal irritability and undue reaction to stimulation.4

Bloch, however, had developed serious doubts as to the meaning of these stigmata. Indeed, he had reservations about the whole idea of degeneration and stated that "perversions" could be found also among the healthy. Homosexuality, for example, might simply be one of many "vicious habits," like excessive smoking.5 Furthermore, even in mentally disordered persons, the "stigmata of degeneration" might be traced not to genetic but to various social causes, such as bad conditions of life or deficient nourishment, as illustrated by the rachitic bandy legs of English factory workers. To prove degeneration, therefore, one had to place much more stress upon the mental stigmata, that is abnormalities of the spiritual personality. 6

Within a few years, it became obvious that even such critical reservations could not save Morel's theory. Bloch's individual doubts gave way to widespread skepticism and finally to open rejection. Especially after Sigmund Freud had replaced the whole notion of hereditary degeneration with that of an individual, largely unconscious life history, the search for the old physical stigmata was abandoned by all serious scientists.

Nevertheless, the idea of progressive degeneracy and of its physical manifestations lived on in sexual folklore and among various reactionary political movements. After the First World War, the Nazi movement in Germany especially clung to the belief in "degenerates" and inferior races. In popular Nazi propaganda (such as in Julius Streicher's Der Stürmer), the "racially inferior" Jews always were portrayed with various exaggerated "stigmata of degeneration" (misshapen heads, crooked noses, drooping lower lips, bent legs, and so on) in order to create the image of a sickly, sexually "perverse" enemy. Because the Nazis did not believe that the Jews would die out by themselves, however, Hitler decided to have them killed.

The eventual mass murder of European Jews could not proceed without some preparation. In the absence of anatomical stigmata, since Jews did not look like the stereotype of Nazi propaganda, they had to be identified. A process of governmental stigmatization was set in motion. First, all Jews were legally forced to adopt the additional first names "Israel" (for males) or "Sara" (for females) as a means of calling attention to their outcast state. Then, for the same reason, their passports were stamped with a big "J." In 1941, they were forced to wear a yellow star on their clothing, and finally, one year later, even the doors of their apartments had to display the star. In short, what once had begun as a French psychiatric theory turned into German political practice. The "stigmata of degeneration" turned from alleged inborn physical malformations into concrete, outward marks of bureaucratic identification. Worst of all, unlike Morel's imaginary "degeneration," this bureaucratic process did indeed single out its victims and literally moved them "progressively toward extinction. "

In the Nazi view, the "degenerate" Jews with their inferior genetic heritage would infect even the healthy Nordic races if allowed to do so. Therefore, as early as 1935, Hitler's government passed a special "Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor," which proscribed sexual intercourse between Jews and non Jews as "race defilement". Offenders were sent to concentration camps together with other sexual "degenerates," such as transvestites and homosexual males. 7

Inside the camps, all prisoners were stigmatized with special markings that both justified their imprisonment and indicated the nature of their offenses. As Eugen Kogon, a political prisoner and survivor, later described it in his classic study of the camps:

Who belonged in a concentration camp according to the Gestapo? Above all, four groups of people. political adversaries, members of "inferior races " and "inferiors from the standpoint of race biology, " criminals, and "asocials. " . . .

All groups of prisoners in the concentration camp had to wear external markings which were sewn to their clothing, namely a number and triangle of a certain color on the left side of the chest as well as on the right trouser leg. Red was the color of the political prisoners.... The other colors and designations were as follows: green for criminals . . . violet for Jehovah's witnesses, black for asocials, pink for homosexuals, at times brown for gypsies.... Jews wore an inverted yellow triangle underneath their red, green, black, or other markings, forming a star with six points. The so called "race defilers", Jews or non Jews, . . . received an inverted black triangular outline over their yellow or green triangles....

In the case of foreigners, thefirst letter of their nationality was printed on the triangle: "T" for Tchech (Czech, ed.) "F" for French, . . . and so on.

Members of penal companies had a black, dollar sized dot between the lower point of the triangle and the number. Those suspected of escape attempts had red and white targets painted on both chest and back....

Colors, markings, and special designations—in this respect the whole concentration camp was a crazy farm. Occasionally there were veritable rainbow constellations. For example, there once was a Jewish Jehovah's witness as a race defiler with penal colony dot and escape target!

It must be emphasized that the markings were no absolute guarantee that the prisoner truly belonged to the category.... Indeed, occasionally it happened that, rightly or wrongly, markings were changed.8

In the original German edition of this book, Kogon provided a color chart illustrating the system of markings. The expensive color printing was dropped in the later English language edition, however, and thus it has been almost inaccessible to the general American reader. For this reason, an adaptation and slight simplification of Kogon's chart is provided here. (The present version omits the prisoners' numbers, which appeared below the triangle, but groups the various color categories together in a more methodical fashion.) It will be observed that Jewish prisoners always wore a double stigma, and that homosexual inmates were assigned the "effeminate" color pink. One should also be aware of the divisive intent behind these markings, which were introduced not merely for the convenience of the camp administration but also to set one group of prisoners against the other. Here again, the homosexual men became victims of long standing general prejudice:

Inside the concentration camp, mere suspicion was enough to label a prisoner as homosexual and thus to expose him to denigration, general suspicion, and special dangers. On this occasion it must be stated that the homosexual practice was widespread in the camps. However, the prisoners only ostracized those who had been marked by the SS with a pink triangle. 9

The fate of the various prisoner groups is a subject for specialized study; so, too, is a detailed history of religious, psychiatric, and political stigmatization. Nevertheless, the Nazi system of prisoner markings can serve as a sobering reminder of the vicious tendency inherent in all negative labeling of human beings.


1. Quoted in Franz G. Alexander and Sheldon T. Selesnick, The History of Psychiatry (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 162.

2. Gregory Zilboorg, A History of Medical Psychology (New York: W.W. Norton, 1941), p. 402.

3. See Arno Karlen, Sexuality and Homosexuality: A New View (New York: W.W. Norton, 1971), p. 186.

4. Iwan Bloch, The Sexual Life of Our Time (New York: Allied Book Co., 1908), p. 664 (translation of Das Sexualleben unserer Zeit).

5. Ibid., p. 662.

6. Ibid., p. 665.

7. H. Timpke, in Studien zur Geschichte der Konzentrationslager (Stuttgart, 1970), p. 18.

8. Eugen Kogon, Der SS Staat (Frankfurt/M., 1946), pp. 46, 50f. (The quote has been translated from the German edition. The American edition of this work is entitled The Theory and Practice of Hell (New York: 1950).)

9. Ibid., p. 263.


This paper was based on a lecture the author gave in 1980 in Washington, D.C. at a national meeting of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). For this occasion, he had prepared a large cardboard poster with the chart showing the prisoner markings (reproduced here). It turned out that many in his audience, like most Americans, had been unfamiliar with theses markings. After the lecture, he donated the poster to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which sent him the following letter:

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