Two new graphic novels detail the world of Nazi Germany
Two new works of graphic literature recreate the harrowing years of Hitler’s Germany, an era when a once-proud country and its people descended into an abyss of fascism, race hatred and mass murder. Victims, villains and heroes – they’re all represented in these works.
Jason Lutes’s graphic novel Berlin is a masterpiece of the form. Lutes worked 20 years on his story, publishing it in installments, and this omnibus edition is the sum of his efforts, the saga of a city’s transformation from a liberal cultural metropolis to a community in the complete grip of fascism.
The black-and-white illustrations are evocative and somber, appropriate to the stories of people whose options narrow to nothing in the Germany of the late 1920s and early 1930s. There are more than 40 characters, including historical figures such as imprisoned newspaper publisher Carl von Ossietzky, Nazi propaganda czar Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler himself. There’s a young woman artist making her way in the city, a disillusioned journalist, a Communist organizer, a Nazi stormtrooper recruit, a family of middle-class Jews, an American jazz band thrust into the chaos.
Lutes immerses the reader in the poverty, desperation and financial panic that drove people to choose sides in the battle for Germany’s soul. He tells stories of love, parental devotion, desperation and betrayal.
And poetry. In one panel Lutes sets the words of Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” to visual music: “The blooddimmed tide is loosed/and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ are full of passionate intensity.” Berlin will make you shiver with recognition at some dark and all-too-recognizable currents of history. If there was ever any doubt of a graphic novel’s ability to achieve a high level of storytelling, this book blows it away.
Another talented illustrator, John Hendrix, has revisited an inspiring and tragic story of the era in his graphic biography The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler.
The book is classified as middle-grade nonfiction, but both teenagers and interested adults will find that it is a compelling introduction to Bonhoeffer’s life. As someone already familiar with Bonhoeffer, I was impressed with Hendrix’s ability to convey, through words and pictures, the political and theological conflicts that tormented this devout German pastor. Bonhoeffer, child of a cultured, loving German family, gradually abandoned a content existence as a German Lutheran minister to become a member of the German resistance to Hitler. Eventually, he would pay for his convictions with his life.
As a young man, Bonhoeffer concluded, after much soul-searching, “that the true church of God would not always agree with the world it inhabited, and so it must be revolutionary!” His evolving beliefs were just that – revolutionary. As the Nazis consolidated power, one conquest was the German state church. Bonhoeffer vocally opposed his denomination’s embrace of the Nazi regime, including its endorsement of discrimination against Jews. He founded a breakaway sect and, after a stint of spying for the German resistance, he joined the Valkyrie plot to kill Hitler. He was captured and jailed, and executed by hanging one month before the end of World War II.
Hendrix’s stark and powerful illustrations, executed in black, red and turquoise, vividly evoke the uncertainty, terror and finally, spiritual fulfillment Bonhoeffer achieved on his difficult path. The Faithful Spy is an illuminating account of a brave man’s mortal struggles.
SCENES FROM ‘The Faithful Spy’ by John Hendrix.
AN EXCERPT from ‘Berlin’ by Jason Lutes.
BERLIN By Jason Lutes Drawn & Quarterly 580 pages; $49.95
THE FAITHFUL SPY By John Hendrix Abrams Books 176 pages; $24.99