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Nazi concentration camp badges, primarily triangles, were part of the system of identification in Nazi camps. They were used in the concentration camps in the Nazi-occupied countries to identify the reason the prisoners had been placed there. The triangles were made of fabric and were sewn on jackets and trousers of the prisoners. These mandatory badges of shame had specific meanings indicated by their colour and shape. Such emblems helped guards assign tasks to the detainees: for example, a guard at a glance could see if someone were a convicted criminal (green patch) and thus likely of a "tough" temperament suitable for kapo duty. Someone with an "escape suspect" mark usually would not be assigned to work squads operating outside the camp fence. Someone wearing an F could be called upon to help translate guards' spoken instructions to a trainload of new arrivals from France. Some historical monuments quote the badge-imagery; the use of a triangle being a sort of visual shorthand to symbolize all camp victims. Also, the modern day use of a pink triangle emblem to symbolize gay rights is a response to the camp identification patches.
The system of badges varied between the camps, and in the later stages of World War II, the use of badges dwindled in some camps, and became increasingly accidental in others. The following description is based on the badge coding system used before and during the early stages of the war in the Dachau concentration camp, which had one of the more elaborate coding systems.
Shape was chosen by analogy with the common triangular road hazard signs in Germany that denote warnings to motorists. Here, a triangle is called inverted because its base is up while one of its angles points down.
People who wore the green and pink triangles were convicted in criminal courts and may have been transferred to the criminal prison systems after the camps were liberated.
Single-triangle badges in various colors visible on Sachsenhausen concentration camp detainees.
Single-triangles visible on Sachsenhausen detainees.
Specimen indicating a Jehovah's Witness.
More Sachsenhausen detainees.
Triangles visible on trousers of Dachau detainees.
U.S. Army photo of Buchenwald survivor Benedikt Kautsky.
Liberated Neuengamme survivor standing on the right has a triangle patch with a top-bar.
Like those who wore pink and green triangles, people in the bottom two categories would have been convicted in criminal courts.
Sachsenhausen detainee with glasses in the foreground wears a two-color ID-emblem.
Disabled Jews with a black triangle on a yellow triangle, meaning "asocial Jews". Buchenwald, 1938.
Part of a Dachau roll call—badges visible on detainees.
In addition to colour-coding, some groups had to put letter insignia on their triangles to denote country of origin. Red triangle with a letter, for example: "B" (Belgier, Belgians), "F" (Franzosen, French), "H" (Holländer, Dutch), "I" (Italiener, Italians), "J" (Jugoslawen, Yugoslavs), "N" (Norweger, Norwegian), "P" (Polen, Poles), "S" (Republikanische Spanier, Republican Spanish) "T" (Tschechen, Czechs), "U" (Ungarn, Hungarians), "Z" notation next to Black Triangle (Zigeuner, Gypsy).
Also, repeat offenders (Rückfällige > "Backsliders") would receive bars over their stars or triangles, a different colour for a different crime.
Later in the war (late 1944), to save cloth, Jewish prisoners wore a yellow bar over a regular point-down triangle to indicate their status. For instance, regular Jews would wear a yellow bar over a red triangle while Jewish criminals would wear a yellow bar over a green triangle.
Many various markings and combinations existed. A prisoner would usually have at least two, and possibly more than six.
"Limited Preventative Custody" detainee (Befristete Vorbeugungshaft häftling, or BV) was the term for general criminals (who wore green triangles with no special marks). They originally were only supposed to be incarcerated at the camp until their term expired and then they would be released. However, when the war began they were confined indefinitely for its duration.
Erziehungshäftlinge ("Reformatory Inmates") wore E or EH in large black letters on a white square. They were made up of intellectuals and respected community members who could organize and lead a resistance movement, suspicious persons picked up in sweeps or stopped at checkpoints, people caught performing conspiratorial activities or acts, and inmates who broke work discipline. They were assigned to hard labor for 6 to 8 weeks and were then released.
Polizeilich Häftlinge ("Police Inmates"), short for Polizeilich Sicherungsverwahrt Häftlinge ("Police Secure Custody Inmates"), wore either PH in large black letters on a white square or the letter S (for Sicherungsverwahrt - "Secure Custody") on a green triangle. To save expense, some camps had them just wear their civilian clothes without markings. Records used the letter PSV (Polizeilich Sicherungsverwahrt) to designate them. They were people awaiting trial by a police court-martial or who were already convicted. They were detained in a special jail barracks until they were executed.
Some camps assigned Nacht und Nebel prisoners had them wear two large letters, NN (for Nacht und Nebel - "Night and Fog") in yellow.
Soviet prisoners of war (Russisches Kriegsgefangenen) assigned to work camps (arbeitslager) wore two large letters, SU (for Sowjet Untermensch - "Soviet Sub-Human") in yellow and had vertical stripes on their uniforms done in oil-paint. Although they often worked at hard labor and were treated as sub-human by their captors, they were the lucky ones. For various reasons (not to mention that it was official government policy and standard military practice), most Soviet prisoners died of neglect (untreated wounds, exposure to the elements, or starvation) or were shot out of hand before they could reach a camp.
"Labor Education Detainees" (arbeitserziehung häftling) wore a white letter A on their black triangle. This stood for Arbeitsscheuer ("Work-Shy Person") - designating "lazy" social undesirables like Gypsies, petty criminals (e.g., prostitutes and pickpockets), alcoholics / drug addicts, and vagrants. They were usually assigned to work at labor camps.
Asoziale ("Anti-Socials") inmates wore a plain black triangle. They were considered either too "selfish" or "deviant" to contribute to society or were considered too impaired to support themselves. They were therefore considered a burden. This category included pacifists and conscription resisters, petty or habitual criminals, the mentally ill, and the mentally and / or physically disabled. They were usually executed or euthanized.
The Wehrmacht Strafbattalion ("Punishment Battalion") and SS bewahrungstruppe ("Probation Company") were military punishment units. They consisted of Wehrmacht and SS military criminals, SS personnel convicted by an Honor Court of bad conduct, and civilian criminals for which military service was either the assigned punishment or a voluntary replacement of imprisonment. They wore regular uniforms but were forbidden rank or unit insignia until they had proven themselves in combat. They wore a reversed (point-upwards) red triangle on their upper sleeves to indicate their status. Most were used for hard labor, "special tasks" (unwanted dangerous jobs like defusing landmines or running phone cables) or were used as forlorn hopes or cannon fodder. The infamous Dirlewanger Brigade was an example of a regular unit created from such personnel.
A Strafkompanie ("Punishment Company") (SK) was a hard labor unit in the camps. Inmates assigned to it wore a black roundel bordered white under their triangle patch.
Prisoners "suspected of [attempting to] escape" (flucht verdächtiger) wore a red roundel bordered white under their triangle patch. If also assigned to hard labor, they wore the red roundel under their black Strafkompanie roundel.
A Prisoner-Functionary (Funktionshäftling), or Kapo ("boss"), wore a cloth brassard to indicate their status. They served as camp guards (Lagerpolizei), barracks clerks (Blockschreiber), and the senior prisoners at the camp (lagerältester), barracks (blockältester) and room (stübenältester) levels of camp organization. They received privileges like bigger (and sometimes better) food rations, better quarters (or even a private room), luxuries (like tobacco or alcohol), and access to the camp's facilities (like the showers or the pool). Failure to please their captors meant demotion and loss of privileges - and an almost certain death at the hands of their fellow inmates.
Detainees wearing civilian clothing (more common later in the war) instead of the striped uniforms were often marked with a prominent X on the back. This made for an ersatz prisoner uniform. For permanence, such Xs were made with white oil paint, with sewn-on cloth strips, or were cut (with underlying jacket-liner fabric providing the contrasting color). Detainees would be compelled to sew their number and (if applicable) a triangle emblem onto the fronts of such X-ed clothing.
Stutthof detainee 29659 – Lidia Główczewska: P on a red triangle for Polish political enemy.
Auschwitz detainee Ignacy Kwarta wears a red P-triangle: a Polish political enemy.
Dachau survivors toast their liberation. The man standing in center between the bottles wears a P triangle.
Foreign forced laborers
|Arbeitssheu / ("Work-Shy")|
Asozial / ("Asocials")
Roma and Sinti males
|Markings for repeaters|
|Inmates of Strafkompanie (German: punishment companies)|
|Markings for Jews|
Jewish race defiler
Female race defiler
Applicable marks were worn in descending order as follows: inmate number, repeater bar, triangle or star, member of penal battalion, escape suspect. In this case, the inmate is a Jewish convict with multiple convictions, serving in a Strafkompanie (penal unit) and who is suspected of trying to escape.
Pole: "P" on a red triangle
Czech: "T" (the German word for Czech is Tscheche) on a red triangle
Member of the armed forces: red triangle, an enemy POW or a deserter.
Triangle-motifs appear on many postwar memorials to the victims of the Nazis. Most triangles are plain while some others bear nationality-letters. The otherwise potentially puzzling designs are a direct reference to the identification patches used in the camps. On such monuments, typically an inverted (point down, base up) triangle (especially if red) evokes all victims, including also the non-Jewish victims like Slavs, Poles, communists, gays, Roma (see Porajmos), the handicapped (see Action T4), and Soviet POWs. An inverted triangle colored pink would symbolize gay male victims. A non-inverted (base down, point up) triangle and/or a yellow triangle is generally more evocative of the Jewish victims.
On the Klooga Jewish victims' memorial.
On a Wöbbelin memorial stone.
Boulder (in Lindenring) "for 2000 women" victims of Ravensbrück.
On a Cap Arcona incident memorial.
At the Neustadt-Glewe concentration camp memorial.
F-triangle at Mauthausen-Gusen honors French victims.
B-triangle incorporated into the Belgian Political Prisoner's Cross
On a Langenstein-Zwieberge memorial (pictured on an East German stamp).
P-triangle on the Polish medal for camp victims.
In the Berlin Nollendorfplatz subway station, a pink triangle plaque honors gay male victims. (Photo by: Manfred Brueckels.)