The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
Maus and Bitburg
Clifford J. Marks, The Midwest Quarterly, 43/4, Summer 2002
Button reading "Big Lies Can't Save Bitburg Reagan"
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. The American Legion objected to his visit as did many Jewish organizations. Despite this outcry from groups and individuals, Reagan persisted in his plans to go to Bitburg; the only change in his itinerary was to add an appearance at a concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. His advisors originally did not include a visit to a concentration camp-a conscious effort to distance the United States and West Germany from a difficult past-but these plans changed following the public uproar. Fully aware of the passionate feelings of many of his constituents regarding the Holocaust and World War II, Reagan and his advisors nonetheless pursued an opening to relieve West Germany of some of its collective guilt. This healing rhetoric, one that Reagan deployed repeatedly, would serve as an additional hedge against Soviet incursions into Western Europe and fortify West Germany against her East German adversary. East Germany's tortured experience with the remnants of the Holocaust and the reality of Soviet totalitarian rule gave the West Germans and Reagan a convenient adversary.
More than any other politician in the modern era, Reagan understood history and current events as they unfolded through a thematically-sealed view of the world. His gift as a politician was to share his perspective with the masses in such a way that they embraced its authenticity. Therefore Reagan's infamous 1984 remark into a live microphone-"My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes"-was dismissed by an admiring citizenry who would excuse the remark in favor of the hawkish image it promoted. The majority of the American public acknowledged Reagan's consummate ability to put a smiling face on the most dire of circumstances. Reagan believed in his big picture, and he saw all other pictures in relationship to the larger one. For example, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff in January 1986, Reagan's theatrical talents allowed him to embody a nation's mourning while simultaneously reinforcing the need for space exploration. He used this national trauma to increase NASA's funding, thus enhancing his image as the "Great Communicator" as he achieved policy objectives.
Despite Reagan's dexterity at promoting his agenda, Bitburg was a public relations nightmare, notwithstanding his conservative support. Before Bitburg, at Bitburg, and in the aftermath, Reagan attempted to utilize his general skill to talk his way out of the bad publicity the visit engendered. By irritating so many organizations from the left and the right, and energizing an already antagonistic press corps, Reagan now fielded serious and consistent questions about his world view. For Reagan, Bitburg was simple: German conscripts suffered at the hands of Nazism as other victims had suffered. And when it was revealed that the cemetery's dead included members of the Waffen SS, Reagan's generous observation about Nazism was undercut. Reagan's reliance on broad themes damaged his ability to salvage the situation. At a press conference preceding his departure for Bitburg, he argued, "I think there's nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis" (240). Even a conservative organization like the American Legion acknowledged Reagan's logical fallacy here. Not all conscripts rejected Nazism and its ideology. When Reagan focused on a non-representative group (conscripts who unwillingly fought and died for Hitler) to illustrate his universal truth, he lost the force of his argument. Add to that the embarrassment of initially failing to schedule a visit to a concentration camp to honor the real victims of Nazi ideology and the discovery of Waffen SS members buried at Bitburg (a unit that had participated in the execution of 75 American POWs), then a a situation developed where Reagan seemed rhetorically trapped.
Nonetheless, in the face of all of the criticism before, during, and after, including a critical book, Bitburg In Moral And Political Perspective (1986), edited by Geoffrey Hartman, Reagan still emerged with his political rhetoric damaged but intact. Like Clarence Thomas, who stuck to his story of the absolute falsehood of Anita Hill's claims, Reagan held fast to his rhetorical mission, added a perfunctory visit to BergenBelsen, and remained faithful to his script. Though he broadened the script to include the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, he did not alter his major themes in the face of opposition. And his main themes-hope, reconciliation, and forgiveness-forged stronger ties between West Germany and the United States. Speaking at Bergen-Belsen, Reagan stated:
We learn from the Talmud that, "It was only through suffering that the children of Israel obtained three priceless and coveted gifts: The Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come." Yes, out of this sickness-as crushing and cruel as it was-there was hope for the world as well as for the World to Come. Out of the ashes-hope. And from all the pain-promise. (254)
At one of the darkest symbols of Western civilization, Reagan stayed true to his theme of hope, daring to appropriate a sacred Jewish text for his purposes. "Hope" rings out in most of his anecdotes and speeches. Thematically, Reagan compared Nazi and Soviet Totalitarian practice with evolved Western Democracy, and saw clearly where liberty must be guaranteed against systematic oppression. For Reagan, events like the Holocaust were not causes for despair because, even in humanity's darkest moments, there is always hope for a better future and a world to come. Although the Talmud recognizes how struggle and suffering play important roles in the history of the Jewish people, it does not champion pain to obtain joy. Furthermore, Reagan misleadingly accentuated the "world to come" by selecting this particular Talmudic passage. Christianity, not Judaism, makes the "world to come" the central aspect of its theology. Bypassing the present gifts of Israel and the Torah, Reagan inappropriately diminished the Jewish significance of the past and present events.
But for Reagan, whose past was always bright and future hopeful, the utter dislocation of the Holocaust, its resulting shock to Western systems and metaphysics, its fragments that still haunt and confuse, could not obfuscate the clearer truth of West German-U.S. cooperation, an expanding NATO, and the destruction of Communist ideology. According to Reagan, these goals would be met in the future; the present, for the President, represented an opportunity to seize on the past's horrors in order to promote the present's joys and the future's possibilities for world peace and order.
Reagan reiterated these themes in his remarks at Bitburg Air Base, almost immediately following his laying a wreath at the Bitburg Military Cemetery. Referring to the 6,000 marriages between Germans and Americans since World War II, Reagan said, "This is the real symbol of our future together, a future to be filled with hope, friendship, and freedom" (259). He embellished this "real symbol" by telling an anecdote-"one special story"-wherein American soldiers arrive, injured and frostbitten, at a German woman's home during the Battle of the Bulge. She takes them in and gives them "her last food." Soon four German soldiers approach, but she tells them to lay down their weapons and that "there will be no shooting here." They say grace, invoking Jesus's name, and the soldiers and the woman shed tears. The next morning the soldiers peacefully return to their respective units, with the Germans giving the Americans directions. Toward the end of his speech, Reagan claimed, inaccurately (Lewis, 217), that a young Jewish girl, recently bat mitzvahed, sent him a note urging him to lay a wreath at Bitburg in honor of Germany's future (259-61).
The future. Hope. Joy. Freedom. This is Reagan's Holocaust rhetoric. In spite of figures like Elie Wiesel pleading, in a public ceremony on the White House lawn, "That place, Mr. President, is not your place" (243), Reagan forged ahead with his rhetorical strategy. One anomalous story of German/ American cooperation trumped the legacy of genocide. Reagan imparted his truth through invoking little Jewish girls (he also extensively quoted Ann Frank at Bergen-Belsen) and sacred texts, the mercy of Jesus, and ephemeral wartime cooperation. He used these rhetorical weapons to challenge what he perceived to be the real enemy, the Soviet Union, by highlighting the parallels between Nazi and Russian totalitarian practice.
Despite Reagan's attempt to redefine genocide for political purposes, it was not completely coincidental that Maus was published as a book in 1986-a year after Reagan's visit to Bitburg. The specificity of Bitburg's politics helped inaugurate a new era in Holocaust testimony and survivor memoir. Bitburg pressured the world into taking a position on the Holocaust. In the years following Reagan's actions at Bitburg, Maus I and II were published (1986 and 1991), the construction of the United States Holocaust Memorial accelerated toward completion (1993), and Steven Spielberg began and completed production on Schindler's List (1993). The Library of Congress lists 538 books published about the Holocaust from 1975-1985, and in the ten years after Bitburg, 1986-- 1996, lists 1,219. Following Bitburg, the amount and diversity of Holocaust material virtually erupted. While the aging survivors and the transition of the Holocaust from memory to history prompted much of this societal need to memorialize, Reagan's powerful political will, in spite of its very different intentions, "forced a forgetful world through a most necessary grief" (214), as William Safire wrote the day after Reagan's fateful visit. Bitburg's rehearsed politics indirectly led to an unrehearsed recapitulation of many Holocaust narratives. Reagan's performance, although it achieved its political goals, led to the society needing works like Spiegelman's Maus I and II to grapple with the Holocaust.
I do not claim a causal connection between the publishing of Maus in 1986 and Reagan's visit to Bitburg a year earlier. Spiegelman had been drawing Maus, publishing it in installments in Raw, since early 1978. What mainly motivated Spiegelman to collect his story into one volume was fear that Spielberg would soon produce a movie, An American Tail (1985), featuring mice as characters enacting Jewish themes (Weschler, 67-68). Yes Maus's emergence and the attending critical acclaim cannot be read completely outside of the milieu of Bitburg. To Spiegelman-as well as to the critical world-a new language was necessary through which to portray and explain the Holocaust. Bitburg, and its attempt to get beyond the Holocaust with the rhetoric of forgiven pasts and hopeful futures, provided the kind of background against which Maus, and other artistic representations of the Holocaust, flourished; as Reagan attempted to mollify the horrors of Auschwitz, the events at Bitburg reminded the world of the necessity to remember them. Artists, historians, philanthropists, and writers responded by accelerating Holocaust art, memorials, and memories at a brisk pace. Once Bitburg made the Holocaust the focus of a national debate, new histories and narratives were spawned.
It is precisely the novelty of comic rhetoric that strikes a reader when approaching Maus for the first time. By now, it is cliche to refer to Maus's genre as bold or innovative; yet in 1986, for those who had survived, documented, studied, and analyzed the Holocaust, "bold and innovative" were words often used to define Maus. Spiegelman developed a complex history in a graphic novel whose non-fictional panels tell stories of survival, courage, and mixed emotions. The spare portrayal of the characters and the richness of the story combine to move readers from their comfortable position of Reagan-- like forgetfulness or complacency. Opposing Bitburg's reductive historical moralizing, Maus tells one survivor's family story in elaborate detail. In fact, the story includes the author's struggle to obtain information from his father Vladek, a survivor, whom Spiegelman portrays, in his post-Holocaust life, as mean, penurious, and close-minded. Thus narrative and the narrative process merge in a way to produce an intimate version of the truth.
However, this truth has no facile definition. Each character-even the author's late mother (who committed suicide)-contains many contradictory aspects. As much as readers embrace Vladek for his heroic struggle to survive, they criticize the old man for throwing out his son's coat. As much as readers relate to Artie's attempts to understand his father's experience, they tremble at his ease in calling his father a murderer at the end of Book I. These counter-intuitive moves, designed to unveil the story's complex variety, disrupt any attempt at closure regarding the Holocaust. Even more, the opposite of closure occurs: readers question the author, the survivor, and the event in a way they had not yet done. These difficult questions, evoked by the multifarious narrative, reverse the Bitburg ploy of reducing the Holocaust to easy answers and political solutions. Because it is a cartoon, the audience reads Maus easily, yet struggles emotionally with the context. Likewise, the same historical event that would have Reagan urging us to move beyond horror and blame has the Maus reader making interpretive judgments about characters' somewhat elusive motives. Although Vladek occasionally appears heroic, his and his son's conflicted aspirations emerge more stridently because the narrative rejects simplistic heroic stereotypes. Likewise, as the artist depicts himself wrestling with issues of representation, history, and family dynamics, the reader cannot settle on a firm ethical description of him.
The cartoonist's lack of moral clarity contrasts with the President's reductive historicizing. As the creator of Maus confronts the demons that prevent the story of the Holocaust from being told, the leader of the Free World adapts the Holocaust's traumas to his version of freedom and truth. For Reagan, the Holocaust is too easy to "tell." The occasional ambiguity of Spiegelman's Holocaust can best be understood through the opening panels of Maus, where Vladek compares Artie's friends' offensive actions to how people behaved in a locked, abandoned railway car with no food, water, or place to eliminate. This child's perspective informs all of Maus. The child does not have the ability to draw together a narrative and then glean a moral from it. Art Spiegelman does not offer reductive morals in Maus; consequently, a reader does not emerge with a reductive understanding of the Holocaust. A compelling page from Maus II exhibits these characteristics.
Beginning with the specific date of his father's death (which pre-dates the publishing of Maus by three years) and ending with the off-page voice saying "Alright Mr. Spiegelman, we're ready to shoot," this scene captures the contradictions inherent in presenting a "factual" story of the Holocaust. These contradictions, however, do more to reveal the authenticity of the narrative then a straightforward reductive moral. On a single page, Spiegelman lists eleven facts, including (but not limited to): his successful publication of Maus I; his imminent parenthood; his father's death; his mother's suicide; and the gassing of 100,000 Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz. To draw connections among these events seems outrageous. The artist has chutzpah when he associates drawing a page in a comic book ("I started working on this page at the very end of February 1987" [41]), with his father's activities during the Holocaust ("Vladek started working as a tinman in Auschwitz in the Spring of 1944. . ." [41]). The general background of the page, loosely figured as a Swastika, the heap of rotting mice corpses in the bottom frame, and the guard tower looming over the corpses and the artist, reinforce the relationship between the Holocaust and drawing a comic book. The reader accepts the relationship because Spiegelman does not define his story through a moral or political perspective. By not reducing complex narrative moments to a single moralizing truth, Spiegelman fertilizes the ground for meaning to grow. Even with the weight of the Holocaust on his shoulders, he manages to emerge from the pressure to draw successfully. The drawing-board scene argues that individuals cannot control the horror or disappointment in their lives. Moreover, even success-surviving the Holocaust (Vladek) and publishing an immensely popular book about it (Artie)-cannot guarantee future happiness. Given the opportunity, Reagan would underscore the positive facts that Spiegelman recounts; alternatively, Spiegelman emphasizes his own inner turmoil. Although he depicts himself slumped over the drawing board, overwhelmed by pressure, he soon renders Artie visiting his psychiatrist who manages to alleviate the artist's depression.
I like to call this Spiegelman's trajectory of truth-not a moral truth, or a political truth, but the daily truth every human being lives with; this demotic truth exposes one's success at the risk of unveiling his darkest insecurities. In Spiegelman's truth, one day one suffers in the Holocaust, the next day reads about 100,000 people being exterminated, and the next day draws history. By definition, the truth operates relative to its own historical and psychological position. Implicitly, the artist, the son of a survivor has the right to represent the rotting corpses of mass destruction. Explicitly, the claim throws the artist into a moral quandary because rationally he (and his audience) know that the historical fact of 100,000 exterminated Hungarian Jews is more significant than his ability to draw his father's story, or a picture of an Auschwitz tin shop depicted on the basis of his father's or psychiatrist's memory.
Reagan reduced conflicting discourses to a single theme of human redemption and unending fortitude. Spiegelman portrays the story's multiple perspectives, hence multiplying the themes. While Reagan appropriated a story of GermanAmerican cooperation during World War II to redefine the terms of Holocaust discussion, Spiegelman funnels all of the conflicts through himself. As the artist represents his own struggles as part of the finished artwork, the reader confronts the complexity of the artist's choices. Had Spiegelman left out his own involvement in the story, readers would have had a reproduction of a fascinating survivor's tale, but no way to understand the choices the child of the survivor must make so that he can tell his father's story. Audiences received no glimpse into how Reagan constructed his narrative. In fact, if the President's moral could be told without the story (for example, "It's morning in America," Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign theme), then he would gladly do so. That is a major reason he and his advisors did not initially want him to visit a concentration camp: it would have disrupted the narrative of forgiveness and hope. Nonetheless, Reagan still integrated his Bergen-Belsen speech with his German Military Cemetery visit to emphasize his vision of a future where the past is forgotten and the present means belief in a Soviet-free future. Maus, because it attempts an authentic portrayal of events using fictional devices, necessarily invokes, rather than settles, questions of synthesis. But part one ends with Art calling his father a murderer and part two ends with Vladek saying that he and Anja "lived happy, happy ever after" (136). It is to these two endings that I now turn.
In 1986, Maus ends with Vladek's revelation about burning Anja Spiegelman's diaries. Spiegelman deftly portrays Artie being upset (hand to forehead) in the upper right frame, infuriated in row two, right-hand frame, forgiving in row three, right-hand frame, and friendly in the bottom middle frame. The final panel has him walking away, head turned, uttering "murderer" (159). The implications of this scene are multifaceted. Spiegelman portrays Artie having a full range of emotional responses to his father's revelation. Screaming murderer in one frame and dejectedly recalling the same word in another, Spiegelman illustrates his conflicted relationship with his work and his father. His father, meanwhile, characterizes his own difficult relationship with his past and his son. After many years of covering up his destruction of Anj a's diaries, Vladek finally tells Artie what really happened. Vladek uses the same reason that Spiegelman has for drawing the story, more or less: "But I'm telling you, after the tragedy with mother, I was so depressed then, I didn't know if I'm coming or going" (159). Burning the diaries serves as a form of treatment for Vladek, literally destroying the recorded memories of the woman he loved. We can infer this as an action of anger, but it is also borne out of self-pity and frustration. How could Anja commit suicide after surviving the Holocaust?
Simultaneously, Vladek's past action damages Artie's pursuit of the truth. The diaries represent the only alternative to Vladek's version of events. Maus is dedicated to revealing as much of the convoluted past that can be revealed in a relatively short narrative frame. Anja's voice would have acted as a corrective to Vladek's. Destroying her history is like destroying his mother all over again, hence the ending appellation murderer. An older comic inserted in Maus I, "Prisoner on the Hell Planet," which recounts his mother's suicide, ends with Art saying "you murdered me, Mommy" (103). So in the stories most associated with his mother's independence-her suicide and her diaries-Art summarily calls both of his parents murderers. He had the artistic choice to recall these events and to represent them. Sadly, he associates murder with his mother and, by extension, his father. She kills herself, and this act leads Vladek to killing her diaries. Anger, forgiveness, frustration, and sadness intermix to complicate the story. Lacking a vital piece of information, Artie transforms this lack to an artistic space filled with serious accusations. As he tentatively forgives his father for his misdeeds, his father forgives him for his. Neither of the characters can be absolutely defined as a murderer or as a truth-saving artist. Specifying so many emotions in a compact narrative leaves the reader with a confusion similar to Artie's. Although Artie calls his father a murderer, the reader cannot agree or disagree with this assessment.
Maus II ends with Vladek and Anja's reunion in frames three and four, Vladek saying goodnight to Artie in frames five and six, who he confuses with his Holocaust-victim son Richieu, and the tombstone bearing Vladek's and Anja's names, under which Art Spiegelman's signature dates the composition 1978-1991. Contrasting the tombstone, where Vladek and Anja's birth and death dates are recorded, with the beginning and end of Spiegelman's artistic composition, is a conscious effort on Spiegelman's part to portray physically how intermingled his art work is with his parents' lives and death. This is not a gratuitous appropriation of their lives; it is a statement about artistic reality. Anja's suicide and Vladek's riven existence drive Spiegelman to a thirteen-year project that critically tells a complex story. The text keeps memories of his parents alive, and serves as a source of personal salvation and revelation. While the story cannot be put to rest, Spiegelman's attempt to tell it can. And the final frames reveal that the truth is something comprised of many factors: Vladek and Anja do not live happily ever after, and Artie is Artie, not Richieu. These details matter because readers piece together their lives clinging to the best interpretations of difficult moments. Richieu, after all, was a victim of the Holocaust. While Artie cannot replace him, he can at least address the void that Richieu's death creates. And while Vladek and Anja do not live happily ever after, they live happily enough to produce Artie and generate their compelling narratives. There is no moral that can be drawn here; rather, the reader recognizes the power of the artist to tell a story. These figures point the reader to multiple meanings and the complexity of life.
Spiegelman does not make overt political statements with his art. Rather, he attempts a complicated rhetoric or revelation that would expose the contradictory nature of his father's survival and Spiegelman's relationship with his father. Reagan, on the other hand, eschewed personal details in conveying his sense of history while participating in conservative international politics. In his world, anecdotes served as guiding lights to political truth. Reagan often peppered his speeches with stories that demonstrated the value of his brand of conservatism and what embracing the conservatism might mean for an entire country. Thus Reagan, the consummate Presidential politician, and Spiegelman, the underground comic artist, used dissimilar dramatic means to achieve vastly different cultural ends: Reagan sought Cold War geopolitical superiority for the United States at the expense of a complicated history; Spiegelman sought an audience to tell a personal story with complex historical significance.
Reagan reduced the Holocaust to a single meaning to give it closure. He appropriated trauma by taking advantage of people's desire to move beyond the traumatic event and, in the process, turned his newly created meaning to the conservative political purposes of the state. In a sense he tried to "fix" the Holocaust by giving people relief from memory and history. Spiegelman's work does the exact opposite. Maus recognizes the plurality of meanings associated with the history and memory of the Holocaust. Rather than taking his readers down a narrow path that would reveal a truth that is ideologically beneficial, Spiegelman exposes a truth whose meanings are multiple, contradictory, and rarely conform to an audience's narrative expectations. For Spiegelman, there is no escape from the contradictions inherent in memory and history. In the cultural milieu of 1985, Reagan attempted to narrow historical meaning at Bitburg and curb memory to reveal a Holocaust that, from the perspective of international politics, should be harnessed and controlled. Maus, as much as other attempts to recall the event, narrates a Holocaust that is full of contradictions, complex characters, and uneven understanding. In essence, Maus declares that audiences can try to understand the Holocaust by looking at anthropomorphized animals, but their understanding will always be tempered by the contradictions, misstatements, and wrongful actions that define the range of human behavior. In 1985, at a time when memorializing the Holocaust had become an official government function, President Reagan offered the public an easy political forgiveness to move beyond actions of racial hatred and prejudice. Maus reminds its readers that some actions are impossible to forgive and sometimes closure and understanding limit the ability to ask questions of a horrific event whose meaning we, as members of Western society, must still ascertain.

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