Monster, mass murderer, dictator … from the scale of the slaughter and destruction of World War II, one label you would never hasten to put on Adolf Hitler is “human being”.
Yet in historian and manga creator Shigeru Mizuki’s plainly-titled biography in comic form, that’s exactly what he comes across as.
Can someone be so compelled to view Hitler in the light of humanity? This is the effect that Mizuki’s work, first serialised as Gekiga Hitler in Manga Sunday magazine in 1971 and published in this graphic novel format last November, has on the reader.
(The gekiga or “dramatic pictures” movement, which began in the late 1950s, referred to supposedly “serious” work to distance itself from the more whimsical manga.)
Perhaps best known for his multiple-volume Showa: A History Of Japan and the comedy-horror series GeGeGe No Kitaro, Mizuki – who died last year at age 93 – brings his trademark style of putting almost sketchily-drawn cartoon characters in realistic, highly-detailed settings to this work as well.
The initial effect of Mizuki’s renderings is uncomfortable. For all the lofty aspirations of the gekiga movement, the geniality inherent in cartoon figures is really jarring considering the monstrous decrees that would mark Hitler’s legacy. But you soon get used to it.
WWII cost Mizuki dearly. Drafted into the Japanese army, he watched friends die in battle, contracted malaria, and lost his dominant left arm during an air raid. In the book’s enlightening introduction by scholar/interpreter Frederik L. Schodt, Mizuki explains why he was compelled to explore Hitler’s life – if you’re in the habit of skipping forewords and diving straight into the story, make an exception for this one.
There’s no doubt that Mizuki found Hitler’s life story fascinating; it shows through in the enthusiasm of his storytelling, even if he may have found his subject repulsive.
The resulting work is an absorbing case study of how single-minded determination can elevate a flawed, ordinary individual to such a position of power and influence.
The most horrifying of Hitler’s legacies, the Holocaust, is just used as a bookend and does not figure too much in between – possibly because Mizuki did not want the magnitude of it to eclipse the rest of his story.
Appealing to Hitler’s ego seemed like a good idea at the time, but little did they know of the ruin it would visit upon their country and most of the world. (Remember, it’s manga – read it right to left.)
As you will discover from these pages, Hitler would have been content to be an artist, but it was just not meant to be. Failure, dismissal, humiliation, exploitation … the young Hitler bore them all, yet somehow emerged unbroken by a string of terrible ordeals.
Little-known facts are brought to light here. Hitler tried his very best to avoid serving in World War I, going to the extent of dodging the draft and ending up a fugitive from the military.
Yet he eventually served in uniform and, during the Great War, tricked an entire French platoon into surrendering to him by making them think they were surrounded! (I couldn’t help grinning at the depiction of one French captive-to-be, who looks suspiciously like “Rat Man” Nezumi-Otoko from the Kitaro comics.)
That feat won Hitler the Iron Cross First Class, an honour almost never bestowed on soldiers of low rank – being reserved for the aristocratic “officer class”, probably – and which he wore even when he became Der Fuehrer.
The book is full of anecdotes like this, and viewed in the detail-deficient and context-ignorant light of the 21st century, some of the man’s boldness can seem downright admirable.
And then there are the disturbing moments that make your skin crawl, like his unhealthy obsession with his half-sister’s daughter Geli. Unsettling as that section may be, I figure the ones that some people might have the hardest time accepting are those that paint Hitler as … human.
For example, one of his old friends from his student days rekindles his friendship with Hitler after the latter’s rise to power. The man is captured after the war and his American interrogator asks him bluntly why, when Der Fuehrer received him as a guest and without any guards, he didn’t just kill Hitler. “Because … he was my friend,” the man replies simply. And the reader will understand, remembering their shared struggles from earlier in the book.
Where Hitler tends to lose the reader is in its recounting of the political turmoil that accompanied Hitler’s rise to power in a Germany that was primed to buy into what he was peddling.
There are so many individuals, developments and circumstances involved, and Mizuki has separated them into two sections: a two-page cast of characters in the front of the book, and 15 pages of footnotes at the back. So when a “new” character comes into the proceedings, you need to flip back to the beginning. When a particularly significant event or thing is mentioned and marked with an asterisk, you need to check the back.
It tends to interrupt your reading pace, though it also adds to the re-readability of this volume: once to read right through without pausing too much, just to appreciate Mizuki’s achievement in encapsulating such a life in this tome.
Then, a second to go through all the details, pausing to flip back and forth from story to footnotes, and wonder about all those moments when world history could have been so very different if not for one individual’s change of heart, one moment of sheer blind luck, or one uncanny coincidence.
And after that, a third go once you’ve familiarised yourself with the characters and background from your first two reads.
The end result is a chronicle that we might find eerie in its contemporary parallels; one that may sadden us to realise that not enough people in positions of power and influence have started learning from history, so as to stop repeating it.