Author: Heinz Heger
Trigger Warnings: Death, blood, torture, rape, coerced sex, homophobia
It has only been since the mid-1970s that any attention has been paid to the persecution and interment of gay men by the Nazis during the Third Reich. Since that time, books such as Richard Plant’s The Pink Triangle (and Martin Sherman’s play Bent) have illuminated this nearly lost history. Heinz Heger’s first-person account, The Men with the Pink Triangle, was one of the first books on the topic and remains one of the most important.
In 1939, Heger, a Viennese university student, was arrested and sentenced to prison for being a “degenerate.” Within weeks he was transported to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp in East Germany, and forced to wear a pink triangle to show that his crime was homosexuality. He remained there, under horrific conditions, until the end of the war in 1945. The power of The Men with the Pink Triangle comes from Heger’s sparse prose and his ability to recall–and communicate–the smallest resonant details. The pain and squalor of everyday camp life–the constant filth, the continuous presence of death, and the unimaginable cruelty of those in command–are all here. But Heger’s story would be unbearable were it not for the simple courage he and others used to survive and, having survived, that he bore witness. This book is harrowing but necessary reading for everyone concerned about gay history, human rights, or social justice.
This is an absoutely horrifying book. It goes into detail about all the atrocities committed by the Nazis. In learning about concentration camps, you hear about what was done to Jewish people, but gloss over the fact that criminals, Romani people, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals were there, too. Homosexuals were especially singled out for hatred, harassment, and torture, although the German ones were treated slightly better than Jewish people by virtue of being German, even if they were “filthy degenerates.”
All the homosexuals in the camps were gay men, but the book actually explains why – lesbians were considered still useful because they could be bred regardless of how they felt about it. That’s its own kind of horrifying.
This book also goes into a lot of detail about how concentration camps were run, which is something I don’t remember hearing from other accounts – their power structures, the delegation of work and the kind of work they did, and the pecking order between the different “triangles” (inmates were color-coded by offense – yellow for Jews, pink for homosexuals, green for criminals, red for political prisoners, etc.). One thing that the narrator focused on was how prisoners with more power would take “lovers” – other men that they would have sex with in exchange for favors like easier work and more food – despite being straight, and they still viewed men who loved other men as degenerates. Several times, the narrator presents situations like that and then points out how sex with other men was fine if it was to satisfy your urges, but degenerate if you genuinely loved the other man.
This book is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. I learned a lot, but about the depths of Nazi cruelty and the realities of suffering in the death camps. But it’s really a story that needs to be told. Homosexuals were denied reparations after being freed because homosexuality was a crime and criminals were not considered innocents who deserved reparations. This is part of history I never learned about in history class, and it’s important to know – even if reading about it is heartwrenching.