On “Maus”: History Isn’t Romantic

Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, THEN you could see what it is, friends!

From these opening words, the beginning of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus”, retelling the story of his parents surviving the holocaust, we are up for an uncomfortable truth. One we’ve never grappled with yet will scoff at with derision, as though you were stating something we all learned as children.

The Holocaust was not romantic.

Hot take, right? I’ll take my internet points and minor celebrity in the form of NFTs, please. Yet consider where we are right now.

Though ironically Maus has climbed the charts to become a bestseller (in all three editions), a nice way to celebrate its 30th anniversary, it comes after it was banned by a public school in America for swearing.

Within the same month, scores of people have been speaking about another historical figure in glowing terms; Martin Luther King. Conservatives and Liberals alike annually claim they too “have a dream”, yet consistently forget the reverend was an out-and-out socialist who spoke of wealth distribution, reparations, and had this to say about those who didn’t share his “radical” views;

The Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his strike towards freedom is not the WCC or the KKK, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice… who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.

How many of those who tweeted about MLK have stood in deranged opposition to Critical Race Theory so much as breathing the same air as their sweet little cherubs (despite the fact it’s a college level theory in law)?

Again, another piece of history has been left out this month, as the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday happened here in Ireland, with the British Government still refusing to give justice to the families of those 26 shot dead by soldiers at a civil rights march.

Indeed, there’s something in the late January air, as I left a comment on a video discussing Maus, encouraging others to check it out, remarking “it’s the first book I’ve ever read that made the Holocaust seem real”.

Thankfully, while nearly everyone understood what I meant, one person scoffed and remarked, “did you just seriously say that”. I don’t think this one person represents more than just themselves, but there’s that mentality again; that abhorrence of nuance, of the finer details of the pasts, where there are those who are definitely victim and victimiser.

In fact, Maus, by the talent of Art and Vladek’s [his father] honest, almost does too good of a job showing, as in one way and another, everyone became victim and victimiser. It’s just some were clearly worse than others. Many other than the Germans are shown to be openly anti-Semitic to Vladek and his wife, Anja; the gentile Polish threaten them, even when some become prisoners themselves. Former friends, Jews and later prisoners themselves, turn on them. German officers go back and forth between gentle dopes willing to take a bribe or a favour to sadists who routinely beat and fire at Vladek for sport. Even Vladek himself is shown in all his warts. He’s shrewd, cutting, insulting, irritable, and though highly intelligent, is ironically racist towards, as he calls them, “a shvartser” (Google it, I’m not typing it out. Hell, I’m not even sure I’m allowed to type it in Yiddish).

To fully understand how Maus is really any different from anything before, you have to analyse what we’ve had. For so long, the topic of the Holocaust, indeed many atrocities, was untouched for years. Only in the last decade had we seen the return of the Disaster Film, which felt in poor taste after 9/11. War films, once the staple of the 30s and 40s (with money from Allied governments) vanished after the World War II, not returning to prominence until the 90s (I’d argue Vietnam soured the mood for another two decades). And with the 90s renewed interest in granddad’s war stories, came a call to action to cement the Holocaust.

By this point, many of the survivors were beginning to die out. Those who were between 5–10, old enough to recall the camps in detail, would now be in the 80s. Within this decade, we could very well have a generation of survivors who were just too young to really remember. This was understood even then, which is where the likes of adaptations of Anne Frank’s Diary, Schindler’s List, Europa Europa, Life is Beautiful, and The Pianist.

Blink and you’ll miss it. For all these films that deal with the holocaust, none of them DEAL with the Holocaust. Yes, they pay lip service and say it’s bad, but Anne Frank’s Diary, by its very nature, ends before the camp. Schindler’s List is about someone saving people from the camp. Europa Europa is about a boy pretending to be a soldier and making his way to Israel. Life is Beautiful, though it takes place in a camp, is still distant from the horrors and gore, instead acting as a comedy (it’s literally about pretending the camp isn’t bad). And The Pianist takes place in a battle-torn city, though the threat of the camps is always present.

For all this concern about remembering just how bad the Holocaust was, there’s not much material on that very subject. It just uses it as a backdrop, a motivator, a stake, or just an epilogue for the story. Maus brings you into the camps (yes, plural)!

This isn’t anything new. There’s often been an aversion within the Overton Window for experiential evidence, especially of abuse, trauma, and violence. How few people ever get to speak about their experiences and be taken without question?

This month, a woman in Ireland by the name of Ashling Murphy was assaulted and murdered in broad daylight while she was out for a run. The case is still ongoing, so I won’t go into details about it, but the tragic passing resulted in an outpouring of both condolences and women giving their own experiences of similar assaults but also of responses to them; their criticism of emergency service calls being ignored, how “what were you wearing” or “have you been drinking” are asked alongside “what did they look like”, and the classic “not all men”.

How long has the gay community been ignored when it came to their cries for help with violence and AIDs? How long have sex workers, the homeless, the poor been crying out for an end to their very existence being criminalised? How many people, on the verge of death, have been disregarded as too emotional, too personal, yet open your history books and you’ll find them filled with Great Man Theory?

Entire sections of book shops are dedicated to the idolisation of single people credited with movements. Forget the thousands of resistance fighters and soldiers who fought the Nazis, many Jews, Muslims, Roma themselves. Everyone knows Churchill came in and smack Hitler in the face with his massive cock. Forget the thousands of protestors of all creeds and races who have been arrested for integration and equality. Let’s glorify the leaders who co-opted these movements, declaring we live in a post-race world. Forget the women and men of different genders, races, abilities, who fought, debated, and refined what feminism can and should be. Let’s all be #girlboss and #leanin, because not says feminism like exploited the labour of other women (something, something, Beyoncé has the same 24 hours).

Isolating history from a broad experience into a pre-approved and sanitised collection of moments is not just about controlling the narrative of others, it’s also about controlling those experiences themselves. To say Vladek’s experience, Art’s relationship with his father, and indeed the relationship of others, Jew or Gentile, with the book is not approved is to say the recollection and portrayal of the experience is not approved. By extension, the person, the people, are not approved.

Approval has always been conditional on the benefit to those who approve.

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