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Between Silence and License: The Representation of the National Socialist Persecution of Homosexuality in Anglo-American Fiction and Film

From: History & Memory
Volume 15, Number 2, Fall/Winter 2003
pp. 94-129 | 10.1353/ham.2003.0012

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History & Memory 15.2 (2003) 94-129

Public knowledge and awareness of the persecution of homosexuality in National Socialist Germany remained limited until 1979, when the play Bent by Martin Sherman dramatized for the first time the lives of homosexuals during the Nazi era for Anglo-American theater audiences. This event marked the beginning of increased attention -- not only in the English-speaking world -- to the fact that homosexual men, too, had been persecuted by the Nazis. In the wake of the play, the pink triangle, which had been the designation for concentration camp inmates incarcerated under Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code, became one of the most widespread symbols of the new gay liberation movement. Thus, it was a work of English literature that figured prominently at the beginning of a relatively new historical discourse, one that would grow steadily over the next two decades. The palpable expansion of "historical culture," consisting of academic writing, commemorative ceremonies, the publication of memoirs and literary writings and the gradual inclusion of information on the fate of homosexuals in museums, libraries and documentary TV-productions, even gave rise to a type of Jewish revisionism that tries to affirm primary victim status to the Jewish victims of the Third Reich.

The concern of this article is to discuss how contemporary Anglo-American fiction has tried to understand the persecution of homosexuality in Nazi Germany in terms of the better-known history of the events that have been named the Holocaust or the Shoah. At a basic level of my analysis, it will become evident that the fictions dealing with this historical subject have presented historically inaccurate versions of the past. However, even though I will point out some of these historical misconceptions throughout this article, it is important to emphasize that my main aim is to investigate the nature of the specific epistemological framework that the writers have adopted for their understanding of the historical events and the purposes it has served in contemporary contexts. This framework comprises elements of widely accepted historical assessments of the persecution and the murder of the European Jews, on the one hand, and contemporary notions of sexuality as "essential" or "constructed" identities, on the other hand. To some extent, the popular works evoke a parallelism between contemporary conceptions of homosexual identity and the ideas of "Jewish identity" which formed the basis of the anti-Jewish policies in National Socialist Germany. National Socialist conceptions of "Jewish identity" constituted an important precondition for the systematic murder of almost all the Jews of Europe. Thus, the analysis of literary and cinematic interpretations of past and contemporary identities may well be a helpful tool in investigating the workings of history and collective memory. As I shall emphasize in my analysis, one can distinguish between two approaches to the literary representation of the past in a contemporary context. Some of the analyzed works present the events of the past in closed narratives in which the narrated time is strictly confined to the historical phase of the events (approximately 1933-45). This approach tends to involve a projection of contemporary ideas about sexual identity onto the past. The second group of writings includes frame narratives in which events of the past are "uncovered" in a contemporary context. This approach implies a clear emphasis on the distance between past and present and a reflection on the ways in which historical knowledge is transmitted or constructed according to contemporary needs.

My analysis of the literature concerned here is based on the following works: two novels, the first by Lannon D. Reed, Behold a Pale Horse (1985), and the second by Robert C. Reinhart, Walk the Night (1994); the short story "A Letter to Harvey Milk" by Leslea Newman (1988); and the 1996 film version of Bent, directed by Sean Mathias. Reference is also made to the documentary film Paragraph 175 (1999), directed by Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Information on the content of these works will be provided in detail in the second part of the article.

In my first reading, the recurrence of two themes struck me as significant.-On the one hand, the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany was repeatedly likened...

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