Maus, published in 1986, was the first comic book ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. the author, Spiegelman, wrote the book to describe and record his father’s experiences in the Holocaust. My brother purchased a copy at one point, and Barnes and Noble push it as “Books Everyone Should Read.” And yet, in this instance, I ignore their recommendation. I don’t refuse to read Maus, but I have serious misgivings about it.
The most well known aspect of Maus is that the comic uses animals to stand for various ethnic groups; the Jews are mice, the Germans are cats, the Poles are pigs, and the Americans are dogs. This approach is actually well grounded in comic tradition, where animals are often anthropomorphized. The conceit has been controversial, needless to say.
Many people have pointed out the difficulty with portraying the Jews as mice. This draws on the stereotypes of Jews as “rats” or possessing “rat like features.” Moreover, mice are vermin. They eat grain and crops. We set traps for mice when we find them in our houses and barns, or keep cats in barns in the hope that they will keep the mice population under control. (More on cats later.) By portraying Jewish people as mice, critics argue, Maus is unwittingly conceding the Nazi’s argument.
The depiction of Poles as pigs is no less controversial. Pigs are unclean, or rather not kosher, animals. Many people in Poland find this depiction offensive. Many Polish publishers refused to publish the story and it’s eventual Polish edition in 2001 was greeted with protests.
However, I have found no one complain that the Germans are portrayed as cats. This is not surprising. The cat is a beautiful, noble, graceful animal. Indeed, the cat is the greatest animal of all. (I love cats.) I, on the other hand, find this depiction very troublesome, and the implications very problematic.
The depiction of the Germans as cats is, on the surface, comforting. To examine the Holocaust is grapple with atrocities, with who commits them and why. Our natural reaction is to separate ourselves from the perpetrators. I remember a conversation I had with a woman about the Rwandan genocide. The woman asked, “Do they wear clothes?” The woman wanted to think of the Rwandans as barbarians, nasty, and uncivilized.
Cats reinforce this desire. A cat is a predator. Evolution has made a cat a predator. Cats have the teeth and claws of predators, the soft paws and the sharp eyesight and hearing to help them hunt. They exhibit predatory behavior instinctively, stalking and pouncing. For a cat, hunting and killing is its nature.
That is why the image of Germans as cats in Maus is so comforting. It implies that the Holocaust happened because Germans are predisposed to killing Jews and other atrocities. It is their nature. We all feel better. Unfortunately, this is simply untrue.
This hypothesis ignores the fact that Germany, before the rise of the Nazis, was a far cry from barbaric. German culture was very high, and admired all over the world. Germany was the home of many great philosophers and musicians. (I am constantly amused by how many composers hailed from Germany over the centuries, besides the obvious 3 B’s.) Germany was also the home of modern religious studies. When I saw God In America a few years ago, I was struck by the fact that two revolutionary figures in American religion, one Christian and the other Jewish, spent time in Berlin, which was apparently THE place to be. It also ignores the fact that Germany was not always particularly hostile to Jews. In The Story of the Jews, Simon Schama showed a large synagogue that was built in 19th century Germany. Bizmark himself attended the opening of the synagogue. I do not mean to suggest that pre-Nazi Germany was a haven for Jews or devoid of anti-Semitism. However, to suggest that this was inevitable, or worse, natural (!) is woefully ignorant and simplistic.
Far more dangerously, the cat depiction allows us to ignore the presence of Antisemitism and racial hatred in other countries. I could write at length on this subject, but instead, I am going to show some videos. (Because this is a blog post, I can do that.)
If the Holocaust happened because Germans are simply predisposed to commit these kinds of acts, then how do we explain this?
Or Jobbik in Hungary as shown here?
Or more pertinently, I remember being at a friend’s birthday party 10 years ago. She, and many of her friends were Jewish. I was surprised to hear a number of stories about experiences with Antisemitism. They laughed and brushed them off but I found it deeply unsettling. After all, this is America!
I don’t blame Spiegelman. He is trying to understand that which surpasses logic. Even so, I think it is crucial to point out the shortcomings in Spiegelman’s vision.