Even though the study travel trip I and a colleague planned this semester for Poland will not happen, I’m continuing to read and learn more about World War II and the Holocaust specifically. Part of this process has been teaching works such as Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm and Art Spiegelman’s Maus in my Multicultural American Literature course. Along with this, I have been reading works by Hannah Arendt; Konnilyn Feig’s Hitler’s Death Camps: The Sanity of Madness; Ole Frahm, Hans-Joachim Hahn, and Markus Streb’s Beyond Maus: The Legacy of Holocaust Comics; and Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism. I finished reading Paxton’s book about the same time I started to reread Maus, and, of course, I started thinking about a lot of the things that Paxton’s discusses about the rise and reign of fascism in Nazi Germany. Specifically, I thought about the ways that Spiegelman focuses on everyday German soldiers, Polish and Jewish individuals.
When we think about the perpetrators of the Holocaust, certain names come to mind: Hitler, Himmler, Mengele, Heydrich, Eichmann, and more. We don’t even use first names. We merely know them because of the violence, cruelty, and actions they committed. They are synonymous with evil and the Holocaust itself. While we must acknowledge the role of these individuals in the mass murder of millions, because they orchestrated it at the top levels, we must also recognize the ways that the soldiers, individuals in the occupied territories, and others played a role in the Holocaust. We must think about individuals who lived outside of death camps and saw the smokestacks yet did nothing as the smells of death saturated the air.
Paxton touches on this near the end of his book as he reaches the apex of fascist thought that rose in Germany during the period. He notes that the Holocaust did not just appear, it came in incremental steps. As Paxton writes, “It grew neither entirely out of disorderly local violence of a popular pogrom, nor entirely from the imposition from above of a murderous state policy.” Instead, Nazi leadership, through its rhetoric, encouraged “vigilantism of party militants” and did nothing to try and quell it. The leadership condoned violence against Jews, and when the violence occurred, they began to codify laws and policy to “justify” it.
During the early part of the war, notably Germany’s annexation of Austria and conquest of Poland, led to an increased number of Jews in the Reich while also opening space to dump them, away from Germany. Each of these areas were divided and governed by Nazi officials, and they had “surprising amounts of individual leeway and local variation” in their treatment on Jews. Paxton details this, along with other moments such as Himmler’s plan “to resettle some fiver hundred thousand ethnic Germans from eastern Europe and northern Italy to lands vacated by expelled Jews and Poles,” and he argues that the through this lens the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, where the Nazi leadership outlined the “final solution,” becomes “more like further state coordination of local extermination initiatives than the initiation of a new policy from above.” Essentially, the individuals enacted the atrocities, those on the ground gunning down others, stealing their property, and more, causes the leadership to implement the “final solution.”
Paxton points out that we should shift our focus from Hitler and think about how the administrators in the field moved the leadership towards January 1942. In this manner, we see how many of them crossed the line from street violence (destroying shops, attacking individuals, etc.) to the mass and indiscriminate extermination of men, women, and children, especially with the Eisnsatzgruppen on the Eastern front, even before the Wannsee Conference. The seeds existed long before 1942, long before 1939, long before Kristallnacht in 1938, Nuremburg in 1935, the boycott of 1933. The seeds existed and grew, watered and nurtured by rhetoric and language that fed the soil, allowing the plant to penetrate the ground and consume the land.
When the mass murder of millions of Jews and others occurred in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, and elsewhere, it happened out of sight, not under the windows of German citizens or other individuals but in enclosed spaces, sometimes away from cities sometimes walled off inside of cities. “As long as disorderly destruction such as the shop-front smashings, beatings, and murders of Kristallnacht did not take place under thei windows,” as Paxton writes, “most [individuals] let distance, indifference, fear of denunciation, and their own sufferings under Allied bombing stifle any objections.” For German citizens, out of sight, out of mind became the thought process. For Nazi administrators in the field, the vigilantism and street violence turned into the industrial killing of millions.
As I read through Maus this time, Paxton’s discussion kept coming to mind. We don’t see Hitler; we don’t hear Hitler; we don’t read Hitler’s words, except for the epigraph. We don’t see or hear Himmler, Mengele, Heydrich, Eichmann, or others. We see individuals removed from the high ranking Nazi leadership. We see the incremental escalation of violence and oppression, ending with Vladek and Anja arriving at Auschwitz and the end of volume one. We see Poles and Jews trying to survive, some helping each other and others turning their backs on individuals, preserving themselves. We don’t see, much, of Nazi soldiers in volume one, but when we do see them, we see them expressing their anti-Semitic, anti-Polish views and the violence they enact upon others.
We see all of this in multiple moments. After getting caught during a battle in 1939, the Nazis take Vladek to a POW camp near Nuremburg. There, the Nazis separated Jewish POWs from Polish POWS, and we see an officer approach Vladek and the other man. The officer tells the men, “Put down all your valuables!” While the other man may have about 5 zlotys, Vladek has 300 zlotys, and the officer asks him, “Why so much money, Jew?” He continues by examining Vladek’s hands, commenting that they look like he hasn’t worked a day in his life. The sequence moves back to the present with Art on the floor as Vladek sits in a chair talking. Vladek tells his son, “Like you, Artie, my hands were always very delicate.” The officer finds work for Vladek and the others in a horse stable.
This sequence takes place a little over two years before the Wannsee Conference, and we see the anti-Semitic stereotypes that the officer deploys when he addresses Vladek. We see the anger and the violence when the Nazi soldiers berate the Jewish POWs for not working fast enough in the stables. This hatred and anti-Semitism grew, incrementally, over the years. We don’t see the growth here, but we know it occurred. This moment, while the Nazis do not murder Vladek and the others, serves as another step towards the “final solution.”
After his supposed release from the camp, the Nazis take Vladek and others to Lublin. There, we see the next step. He meets with some of the Jewish authorities, and they tell Vladek and the others who have just arrived about an event that happened two days before their arrival. After Vladek asks why they’re still being kept, one of the men tells them, “It’s a very bad situation. Just before you arrived, there was another group of released war prisoners. Two days ago the Nazis marched them to a forest, and they shot all of them. They killed 600 people!” The next panel shows some of the individuals, knelling on the ground, with a shovel beside them. Nazi soldiers stand behind the kneeling and place their pistols against the men’s heads. In the foreground, two Nazi soldiers stand smoking and drinking, one of them smiles.
We don’t see the execution, but we know the end. What we do see is the complicity of the soldiers, the downward spiral into oblivion and hatred. They know that they won’t get punished. They know that they may receive praise. They know that there will be no retribution from anyone for their murderous actions. They have climbed another rung towards the acceptance of gas chambers and crematoriums. They are not Hitler. They are not Himmler. They are not . . . We do not know their names. We do not know their stories. We do know they became lulled to sleep, allowing themselves to receive water to help the seeds of hatred grow within them. We know all of this, and Spiegelman shows us this by focusing on them, not on Hitler or others.
In the next post, I’ll continue this discussion, looking at some other examples from Maus. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.