Steven Heller | Essays

The Nazi Triangle

Chart of concentration camp badges worn in Dachau, c. 1936.

If the canard that Adolf Hitler was a superb art director is meant to glorify the art directorial profession, think again. Although historians say he was the "art dictator" of Germany because he spent an inordinate amount of time overseeing the art and design of the Third Reich, he nonetheless had thousands of willing "executioners," like Hugo Boss, designer and manufacturer of Wehrmacht and SS uniforms, doing the everyday work. Yet like art directors today, as Führer (leader) he received credit for everything under his domain, even those things he knew nothing about and had no hand in creating.

One such was the identification system implemented throughout the concentration camp network. No documentation has surfaced that proves Hitler had any direct input in developing the inverted triangle (known as the "Winkel") made of variously colored fabrics to distinguish homosexuals from habitual criminals from political enemies from Jehovah's Witnesses from Gypsies from, of course, Jews. But this color and symbol code (concentric circles distinguished failed escapees and were worn on prisoners' sleeves like boy scout merit badges) was initiated shortly after the Nazis opened the infamous Dachau in 1933, in a former munitions factory in Upper Bavaria. Although the camp was originally designed for the "protective custody" of political offenders, it soon swelled up with the regime's undesirables, most of who had to be segregated and then earmarked for "special treatment." It is probable that camp commandant Theodor Eicke was responsible for — or even the designer of — the classification scheme which, like the camp layout itself, became the model for all other camps in occupied Europe. (In fact, prospective camp commandants were required to complete a special "school of violence" at Dachau).

The inverted triangle was not based on the Nazi decree that all Jews wear a Yellow Star. The 1938 law that mandated this discriminatory marking did not really kick into common use around the Reich until 1941, although it was enforced in certain localities prior to that year. Still, prisoners were required to wear various markings, including a yellow right-side-up triangle behind the inverted one to indicate that he or she was, for instance, a "Jewish habitual criminal." So the Winkel prefigured (or inspired) the eventual branding of all Jews.

Neither Hitler nor the Nazis, however, invented the Yellow Star as the badge of humiliation. The concept of inequitable attire for Jews dated back to the ninth century A.D. when in the Middle East Jews were forced to wear a yellow belt and tall cone-like hat. In 1215 Pope Innocent III declared that non-emancipated "Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress." Other distinguishing labels or badges were instituted in Henry III's England and Louis IX's France. And in Austria Jews had to wear a horned hat that started out as a normal garment until declared exclusive to Jews.

The Star of David was often used in graphic art — cartoons, illustrations, etc. — to scold Jews, so it was no surprise that after the first boycott of Jewish businesses when the Nazis came to power in April 1933 stars were scrawled on storefronts and office buildings, an ironic twist on the Exodus tale of marking the doorposts with Lamb's blood to save the Jews from Plague. Yet it was only after the state-sponsored pogrom called Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) in 1939 that deputy SS chief and architect of the Final Solution, Reinhard Heydrich, put forth the official sanction of wearing of the badge. After Poland was occupied and ghettos established, ordinances governing the wearing of the star were strictly enforced: "Today an order was announced that all Jews, no matter what age or sex, have to wear a band of 'Jewish-yellow,' 10 centimenters wide, on their right arm, just below the armpit," declared an official order. During the ensuing two years Yellow Stars with "Jude" in the middle set in Black Letter type were sold throughout Germany for mandatory use. Guidelines were also established about how and where the stars could be worn, and harsh punishment was meted out if they were creased, folded, or sloppily sewn.

The Yellow Star, like the concentration camp badges, served one overarching purpose — immediate, unequivocal identification. Rules were established for how the markings would be worn to insure the inmate's status was visible to guards and others, and to further distinguish Kapos (the brutal prisoner overseers drawn often from the criminal ranks) from the basic camp population. Charts showing the markings followed a distinct format, but were often hand made by "artist" inmates, who were also called upon to produce other discriminatory signs and placards for the camps.

The Winkel system was not the only standard design scheme produced in the camps. Prior to instituting the Final Solution, even Auschwitz, administered by the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), produced currency, or Lagergeld, and stationery for prisoners' use. The former were usually small rectangular notes with a dubiously ironic text (like "work makes you free") and a colored triangle to indicate from which barrack or work battalion the user was from; latter was a self-contained mailer with a long list of restrictions from the commandant set perfectly in Black Letter.

Somewhere in the bowels of the Third Reich's bureaucracy a designer who belonged to the graphics "culture chamber," the representative, official body that sanctioned Nazi designers, produced the basic templates for these camp materials and then turned them over to skilled inmates to produce. Some prisoners used this opportunity to survive, but for most this only prolonged the inevitable.

Steven Heller is co-chair of SVA's MFA Designer as Author Program and editor of AIGA Voice. Heller is currently writing Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State to be published by Phaidon Press in 2008. His website is hellerbooks.com.

Posted in: History

Comments [30]

This is a fantastic article. Thank you.
Ahrum Hong

This was a great read, Steven. I'm surprised this good of content is not published in print.

Great article.
Joey Pfeifer

There are any number of forced id branding; it's hard to admit that it can be beautiful as designs- yet it holds a goulish fascination.
Marking certain marginal groups and minorities have been done for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Certain colours, stripes, hats, armbands have identified artisans, jesters, prostitutes, faiths, political convictions.
Thanks for the article. Much appreciated.

Surprising how little-known that fact about Hugo Boss is. I'm always reminded of it when I see a Hugo Boss ad in a gay magazine since the pink triangle in that chart was for gay men and lesbians. And that triangle, of course, has gone from being a symbol of oppression to one of celebration.
John C

Steven, I'm fairly sure you didn't mean to link to the "American Defense League" hate site regarding the Hugo Boss revelation.

AG, thanks. We've disabled the link for now — it's to a reprint of a Washington Post story — and will restore it when we find a better one.

[Editor's Note: We have changed the link to Wikipedia, which refers to Hugo Boss's work with the Nazis. The link that Steven Heller was trying to use is for a story in the Washington Post, 14 August 1997; Page B01, also contained in the references of the Wikipedia entry. This story cannot be read except by subscribers to the Washington Post.]
Michael Bierut

AG- Thanks for your comment. An indaverdent irony. I was trying to locate the original Post article on Boss and did not find in the Post archive. I did, however, find reference to the Boss revelation in an article by Heather Pringle, a Canadian journalist, and author of "The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust (Hyperion, 2006).
steve heller

Amazing that the markings, charts and guidelines were so thoroughly organized (without input from professional designers)
Impressive research as always. Didn't know about Hugo Boss either.
Kevin McDonnell

As far as I was aware Jewish Communists in Germany first started wearing armbands with the Star of David prior to the Nazis taking power.

Another great article from Mr. Heller on design and the Nazis, and a nice follow up to the recent article in Eye 62 on Nazi typography. I also didn't know that about Hugo Boss, but I guess the company wouldn't exactly shout about their nefarious past, eh?
Brad Brooks

did you know that the concentration camp dachau was built in the shape of that triangle?

mixed it up & have to correct myself: triangle-shaped is concentration camp Sachsenhausen - not Dachau.

for further reading on this subject i suggest THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF HELL by Eugen Kogen. he descibes in detail the system of pyramids and their implementation.
jay colvin

I feel pretty rotten. After watching the news today and learning of the massacre in my home state, then checking my favorite website to read about the nazi regime and how organized and effective they were in labeling humans like cattle (related with a slight air of respect - justified by the scope of a 'designer' lens) well - I don't like it. It just feels black.

I'm sorry Mr. Heller, but I need a tiny hook... Why is this being talked about - today? Are we modern designers, re-enacting a type of "survival" much like the prisoners who hand-scrawled their own oppression by way of winkels? Is there a parallel I can draw to spin in a positive way? I guess I find it disconcerting to uncover this culture and then be forced to live in the present contributing to the field designing systems and charts and wondering if the Taliban (or other 'evil' regime(s) employs (or could employ) designers like me.
Jessica Gladstone

jessica, the entry was posted on the 15th. it doesn't have anything to do with what happened yesterday.

pk - I realize that - I do. But I still think my question of why is this posted now...is relevant - in terms of a revisiting the WW2 time-period. I was just adding in that I was in a bad mood due to the news.

Jessica Gladstone

Jessica: design can be used for malign ends as well as positive ones, which this post shows; anyone in the business of using or creating symbols needs to be aware of their prior history. The Nazi appropriation of the swastika has poisoned for a very long time any use of what was previously a religious symbol, something that Mr Heller has written about. And his excellent Euro Deco book shows the use of Art Deco design by various fascist groups in the Twenties as well as the more familiar advertising examples. It's glib to continually quote George Santayana but "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", don't you think?

Regarding appropriation and reclamation, the Homomonument in Amsterdam uses the pink triangle as the basis of its design:

John C

Joe Moran

That fairly well explains why it was posted on the fifteenth then.
Joey Pfeifer

All of the above said and as interesting as the article is, in light of recent events, this appreciation of Nazi imagery does strike one as a little, um, clinical.
Peter J

The word Jude on the yellow star was not set in blackletter as stated above, but in a mockery of Hebrew script; a favourite trick of antisemitic propaganda.
Michelangelo Iaffaldano

I stand corrected about the Jude type.
It is indeed the same mockery as on the poster of the infamous film "The Eternal Jew."
steve heller

Strange. The all-yellow star meaning Jew, is missing from the chart? As if nobody were imprisoned and killed for just being Jewish? Its meaning so obvious that it did not need to be included in the chart?
Jan Egil Kristiansen

Jan, the chart is from 1936. "The inverted triangle was not based on the Nazi decree that all Jews wear a Yellow Star. The 1938 law that mandated this discriminatory marking did not really kick into common use around the Reich until 1941."
Michelangelo Iaffaldano

Looking forward to your book about totalitarian design Steven. I'm sure you know about the book by Frederic Spotts "Hitler and the power of aesthetics" which is absolutely fascinating read.

This really touches on a deeper level
Nenad Dickov

Ah another great article from Heller about Nazi design. Disturbing but very interesting. I too didn't know about Hugo Boss, another company that profitted on Nazism like Coke, IBM and others. It's also interesting to see how "Nazi Chic" has become popular in Asia, especially in Japan and Hong Kong. It shows how these symbols still have a strange appeal and attraction even today.
Steven Osuchowski

Great Post Steven!
We always enjoy reading your comments.

Please note that the Art Directors Club MW
posted the wrong date & spelling for your appearance at The United States Navy Memorial.
Iron Graphics: Branding Totalitarian States
It should read Date and time: Friday, January 11, 2008
(Date reads "Jaunary 11, 2007" at the website)

Happy New Year!

PS Can I get a signed copy for the Fieldston Design Center?
Carl W. Smith

If i'm not mistaken the word WINKEL originates from a heraldic device back to the Middle Ages . In English it is akin to the CHEVRON i.e. the mock-triangle which is worn to this day by sergeants in the British army on their sleeves.

In fact the Norse-origin Winckel, Wynkel family itself (linked to Robert de Wintona) are alleged to have been the progenitors of various medieval families in England.

Why did the Nazi's use it in an inverted form as a badge for prisoners?. They also abused other ancient symbols, such as the holy cross of the oriental religions or Swastika & invented bizarre theories about "Aryans" as an alleged master-race. All of this was symptomatic of a desire to falsify historical theories and symbolisms, which can only be seen as sinister.

Jobs | July 17