Walking through Dachau was surreal. I have always learned about concentration camps from history books, but being in the place where so many of these terrible acts actually happened made it seem a bit more real. One of the many questions that flooded into my head as we walked through the camp was one that probably crossed everyone’s minds: How could anyone ever do something so horrible to another person? I obviously cannot step into the minds of those who committed these acts, so I can never truly understand, but I feel that dehumanizing prisoners played a large part in the cycle. Dehumanization was accomplished through many different ideologies and forms of propaganda. One of the main attempts to dehumanize prisoners and “enemies” was the triangle classification system.
Before seeing the framed ‘key’ of different triangles and symbols on the wall of the museum, I never understood the extent of this system. It was shocking to me that a person could simply become a colored triangle. The SS used the triangles for easy identification of prisoners. Among the first to be classified as enemies were the political opponents (communists, social democrats, trade unionists, etc.). Those with this classification were given an inverted red triangle. Similarly, spies, enemy POW’s, or deserters from the German army were also given red triangles except they were upright. Jehovah’s Witnesses were given a purple inverted triangle after being banned in 1933 because they refused to take part in the army and say the oath of obedience to Hitler. Other “religious dissenters” such as Catholic priests, Christian Preachers, and Rabbis were also given a purple inverted triangle. Male homosexuals were given a pink inverted triangle (along with those who committed rape, pedophilia, or bestiality). The “asocials” were given black inverted triangles. This group of people included a wide range of people: prostitutes, the mentally ill, beggars, alcoholics, the homeless, the mentally impaired, gypsies (sometimes given a brown triangle instead), etc. A green inverted triangle was given to long-term criminals. Immigrants who were not yet citizens were given blue inverted triangles. Jews were given yellow stars (or double triangles)— sometimes with another colored inverted triangle on top of the first yellow triangle to further classify their incarceration. Other various symbols were used in addition to the triangles. For example, a black and red bullseye was given to escape suspects, the capital letter of the country one was from was used to convey nationality (ex: P = Polish), special inmates were given brown armbands, and a yellow inverted triangle on top of a black triangle classified Aryan women who were classified as “race defilers.”
Quality of treatment of prisoners was based on their reasons for incarceration. In Dachau, German and Western prisoners were kept in the front barracks. As the barracks became further from the front, the prisoners became less important and less human. In result of being less important, these prisoners were treated more unfairly. Jews, Poles, and soviets were among those in the back barracks with Jews being the most poorly treated. The triangles allowed the SS to quickly glance at the prisoners, decide where they would belong in the ranked barracks and immediately decide how they “deserved” to be treated.
This system reduced human beings to their “crimes,” races, and beliefs—essentially, they were reduced to their colored triangles. Their treatment and eventual fates were decided by a triangle that was sewn into their uniforms. This system, like the Holocaust, feels very abstract and distant from any reality that I have ever experienced or could ever imagine experiencing. I will never understand how prisoners felt, how guards felt, personal reasons for actions, or how these actions could have even taken place at all.