CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 37. . . .May 24, 2013
I cannot begin this review without admitting a few slight biases. My own appreciation and field of study being issues of gay and lesbian history and experience, I am not only overly hopefully sometimes, but I also have much higher expectations. I am also guilty of having a slight fear of literature dealing with the Holocaust as sometimes such texts are used not simply to convey information, but to emotionally manipulate readers through imagery and horrific descriptions of events, instead of relying on quality writing and interesting presentation. This book, being both a contribution to holocaust history, and gay and lesbian history, had a lot to live up to before I even opened it. But I can honestly say that I found a lot to love about this informative and important text.
Branded by the Pink Triangle covers a great range of materials, from many years before World War II, through the years leading up to it, under Nazi power, and through the concentration camps at their peak. By filling Branded by the Pink Triangle with statistics, photographs, and historical accounts from individuals, Setterington manages to reveal the incredibly horrific experiences of a population often overlooked within Holocaust literature. An intriguing and still relevant aspect of the narrative is the inclusion of the criteria under which Nazi forces identified and persecuted homosexual men. Many of these criteria are still used today in some countries for the purposes of prosecution, and in other countries they are used to point out difference and make life difficult for those who are not “normal” within a particular society, especially within school and youth cultures: “they would likely have feminine appearances and mincing movements,” and “they were supposed to like makeup and perfume.” But many of these criteria were based on certain prejudices which were far from universal and caused many problems later on for the Nazi party.
The Nazis actually started an office, under Heinrich Himmler, to Combat Homosexuality and Abortion, which served to focus attention on any men not interested in making babies. As Hitler began to tighten the belt of his prejudices around Germany, the number of homosexual individuals incarcerated in concentration camps increased at an alarming rate (from 853 in 1933, to 3,963 in 1942.) Perhaps the only reason that more were not brought in to the camps is the fact that “The homosexual population proved to be more difficult to find and arrest than people of a religious group like the Jews or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. There was usually no documented proof of homosexuality.”
While simple enough for mature younger readers, Branded by the Pink Triangle does not shy away from complex and intricate details that will hold the interest of older readers as well. Setterington’s writing style manages to bring out the emotionally poignant and disturbing experiences of homosexuals during the Holocaust without being manipulative. The scope of the book is also incredibly helpful as Setterington covers the gay freedoms of the early 20th century in Berlin, the experiences of gays under Nazi rule and throughout the Second World War, and ultimately ends on a somewhat happier note, evoking the “It Gets Better” sentiments pervading the early 21st century.
While I am somewhat skeptical of the “It Gets Better” project in general, I feel that Setterington manages to cite the project without relying entirely on its momentum to make it seem as if being gay comes without any problems in Europe and North America. I also appreciate Setterington’s willingness to note that, while it is more acceptable to be gay within Europe and North America, there are still many places around the world where being gay is a crime, something that is often unthinkable among some younger populations who have grown up in Canada where there is protection and where same-sex marriage has been a privilege for almost a decade now.
The book contains a full timeline, an index, and secondary sources for those interested in further research. Overall, the book is incredibly detailed in a way that will not discourage younger readers interested in the topic, but will also allow older readers to find out more about an often overlooked aspect of Holocaust history, at least by a non-gay population. Many do not know the history of the pink triangle, but this volume not only gives a full history of an incredibly important contemporary symbol of gay culture, it also manages to successfully navigate sensitive and difficult topics with great dexterity and sensitivity. Setterington has managed to bring visibility to a much needed area of history.
Rob Bittner recently graduated from the MA in Children’s Literature program at the University of British Columbia and is now a PhD student in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.