Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Maus and Bitburg

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Maus and Bitburg

Article excerpt

NO TWO FIGURES better represent the divergent range of remembering the Holocaust in the mid-1980s than the cartoonist Art Spiegelman and President Ronald Reagan. Spiegelman began drawing Maus in serial form in 1978. Reagan became President of the United States in 1981. Using family history and anecdotal political rhetoric respectively, Spiegelman and Reagan employed dramatic facades in order to articulate their versions of truth, memory, and history to the world. Spiegelman narrates the story of his father's survival of the Holocaust in comic strip form, using anthropomorphized animals as his facade to work through his complicated relationships with his past, parents, and status as the child of survivors. Reagan's facade involved the use of the anecdote. He skillfully reduced complex political and historical questions to exemplary stories that delivered the conservative "truth." Bypassing questions which would complicate political clarity, Reagan often seized upon a reductive theme to value, for example, "Democracy" over "Communism," or "free enterprise" over "big government."

These methods of arriving at truth metaphorically collided at Bitburg. Spiegelman's publishing of Maus in 1986 shortly followed Reagan's infamous decision in 1985 to honor German soldiers slain in World War II who were buried at a military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany. Soon after Reagan accepted the invitation to visit the cemetery, the President, the American press, and the American public learned that Waffen SS members were also buried there. Volunteers who served in the SS executed orders that saw to the destruction of millions of Jews and other "undesirables." The Waffen SS was notorious for its death squads and ruthless tactics. The extremity of Reagan's blunder, and his patent refusal to acknowledge his actions as misguided, unethical, or disrespectful, signified a crucial pivot point in the history/development of Holocaust remembrance. This essay explores how the rhetoric of remembrance can be delivered in different dramatic forms, spurned on by a general cultural desire simultaneously to understand (as perceived by Spiegelman) and get beyond (as perceived by Reagan) the Holocaust.

Reagan used the language of conservative politics in an attempt to mend a perceived rupture that had affected West German-U.S. relations since the end of the war. Concentrating on language of healing and forgiveness, Reagan wished to form a stronger NATO to threaten the U.S.S.R. This rhetoric of comradery superceded his rhetoric of outrage to such a point that he still visited Bitburg cemetery and, by implication, honored those who willfully perpetrated the Holocaust. Spiegelman, on the other hand, rejected the anecdote in his rigorous search for truth. Repudiating the willed simplification of Reaganesque politics, Maus celebrated the complexity of detail, hence creating a language that delivered a multi-faceted commentary on what it means to survive the Holocaust, grow up with an objectively mean-spirited Holocaust survivor father, and narrate a specific Holocaust story with conflicting implications. For Reagan, the Holocaust became an event where universal understanding could be agreed upon with former enemies and perpetrators. For Spiegelman, the Holocaust was the place where he could simultaneously examine the meaning of death-camp survival and growing up with a difficult parent. Reagan's anecdotal rhetoric--the attempt to simplify history in order to strengthen diplomatic relationships--manipulated the larger cultural understanding of the Holocaust in favor of a political understanding. Spiegelman's comic and detailed rhetoric--the attempt to deliver as many perspectives of the "truth" in order to seek a truth--emerged as a rhetoric that subverted the political. Surprisingly, perhaps, both Reagan and Spiegelman achieved more far-reaching goals than either conceived at the time.

Reagan's intentions to visit a German military cemetery during the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II drew varied heated reactions. …

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