Classic graphic novels explore the rise of German fascism and the Holocaust

January 5, 2023
Maus and Berlin covers
'Maus' tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. 'Berlin' is set during the German Weimar Republic prior to World War II.

The Complete Maus
By Art Spiegelman
Penguin Books, 2003

By Jason Lutes
Drawn & Quarterly, 2020

Maus is a graphic novel that tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. Serialised from 1980 until 1991, it won the Pulitzer Prize, breaking common perceptions of comics to reach new audiences receptive to its serious and political themes.

Creator Art Spiegelman, Vladek’s son, frames the story through his difficult relationship with this aging father and his recounting of painful memories. Jews are drawn as mice while Germans appear as cats, subverting a Disney comics tradition. The first three-page version of Maus appeared in a 1972 underground comic book anthology alongside works by counter-culture cartoonist Robert Crumb.

The story starts in mid-1930’s Sosnowiec, Poland, where Vladek is drafted into the army just before the Nazi invasion. He is captured and becomes a prisoner of war, but manages to escape and reunite with his young family. They go into hiding while Sosnowiec is turned into a ghetto. Eventually they are found and deported to the unimaginable horror of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

There, Vladek and his wife survive the war only through enormous tenacity and luck.

Spiegelman’s black and white drawings are expressionistic and high contrast, without excessive detail. Each page has plenty of text, but the pacing keeps the story flowing.

Maus, like Elie Wiesel’s Night, serves as a useful introduction to new generations so that we may retain the cultural memory of the Holocaust.

The next logical question then is what can we learn from the Holocaust? How did society slide into fascism? How can it be recognised and avoided?

Since the release of Maus, graphic novels have grown in ambition, scope and readership. This is where a work like Berlin, set during the German Weimar Republic prior to World War II, can step in.

Berlin is vastly different from Maus in many respects. The art style is cleaner, more detailed and precise. It is primarily a work of historical fiction rather than biography, and coming in at 580 pages, it is twice as long.

The main story centres around Marthe Muller, a wide-eyed art student arriving in Berlin, who starts a romance with Kurt Severing, writer for Die Weltbühne, a leftist politics and art magazine. The magazine’s real life editor-in-chief, Carl von Ossietzky, was a strong critic of the Nazi Party and was arrested without charge when they came to power. He won the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize but died from the Gestapo's abuse and deprivation.

Woven around this story are desperate children, Jews, communists, Nazis, Black jazz musicians and more. Marthe leaves Kurt and starts a love affair with fellow student Anna, through whom we are introduced to Berlin’s bohemian and queer community. Other historical characters include entertainer Josephine Baker, German Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann, Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler.

Gradually everyone’s lives are engulfed in fascism as the Nazis take control of parliament, Kurt falls into depression and Marthe decides to return to her home town in Cologne.

In the final pages, Lutes presents us with wordless spreads of Berlin on fire, the Berlin Wall and the contemporary re-unified city. There’s no easy reduction of history to simple lessons. Instead we are left with the feeling that to truly understand the period we must try to put ourselves into the minds and milieu of the time, something that this work achieves superbly.

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