Saturday, September 05, 2020

53. Hitler by Shigeru Mizuki

I am fairly well versed in the Second World War and in particular the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the wars leading up to it.  I studied it in college and then much of my fictional reading and some non-fiction has been in this area.  Not to say I am some expert, but that the reality of Hitler and the Nazis versus the mythology does not come as something new to me.  That is a bit how this book is marketed and I hope that for some readers it would be elucidating in that fashion.

It really is a straight-up history, mostly a biography of Hitler himself.  It's very well done, going into a surprising amount of detail in such a rushed history.  Because it is a manga and there is very little exposition, a lot goes on in a few pages.  I suspect that for people totally new to the history, a lot of it might go past them and many of the character fade in and out. There are two nice little indices, one a roster of characters with illustration and the other a list of endnotes that go into more detail. Somehow, the combination of dark, sketchy, impressionistic but realistic backgrounds with the manga-ish cartoony expressions of the characters (toned down but nonetheless manga style) imparts a strong reality to the story.  The characters seem human.  This is what makes this book so effective.  It "humanizes" what happened, not in the sense that we realize these are complex people with feelings that we should feel sympathy for (there is little of that).  Rather that the rise of Nazi power and fascism in Germany was not some well thought out master plan but a series of complex interactions between the historical context and the individuals involved.  Grounding the narrative makes you realize that it really could happen anywhere, that there is no tradition or political structure so solid that it cannot be undermined or rot from within.

Of course in these times where an authoritarian takeover is happening in the United States right now leads to a comparison of the two situations.  There are so many differences that one feels it may be erroneously simplistic to compare them.  The situation in Germany (coming off of WWI, the crushed economy, the social and class structure not to mention technology) was wildly different than that of the US today.  It's probably more helpful to do broader comparisons of the rise of authoritarian regimes in general. The one big similarity, though, that stands out for me and is highlighted nicely in this book, is the complicity of the elites and business.  Hitler, as extreme and uncompromising as he portrayed himself, often backed down in the early days when faced with the threat of losing support from the big industrialists.  This kept them appeased (at best) and usually brought them onside when they saw how they could increase their monopolies.  Likewise, the upper classes, who detested Hitler's upbringing, consistently acquiesced to his power as they did not see him as a threat to them.  This is exactly what is happening with Trump now.  The editorial positions of the New York Times, normalizing his destruction of structures of American democracy with neutral headlines and constant "both sides" arguments will be seen in the future as one of the tools of propaganda that allowed him and his cronies to go as far as he did.

One thing that I did learn and am somewhat shamed of my ignorance is Shigeru Mizuki himself. He is, at least according to the biography, one of the most important figures in Japanese Manga.  He also did several history books on Japan's rise to the war and one about his own life as a soldier in WWII, where he lost an arm.  I would love to read those as well. 

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