Three 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 singular books.
Jason Lutes' graphic novel “Berlin” (Drawn & Quarterly, 580 pp., $49.95 ) 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 storm trooper 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’ poem “The Second Coming” to visual music: “The blood-dimmed 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” (Amulet, 175 pp., $24.99).
The book is classified as middle-grade nonfiction, but both teenagers and interested adults will find that it’s 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.
Another graphic biography features a woman whose story began in the same tumultuous era — philosopher Hannah Arendt. In “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth” (Bloomsbury, 233 pp., $28 ), New Yorker cartoonist Ken Krimstein chronicles the odyssey of Arendt, whose book “The Origins of Totalitarianism” identified the psychological roots of the political movements that convulsed the 20th century.
Arendt’s first escape was from Nazi Germany; her second, from occupied France. The third was from her attachment to German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose endorsement of Nazism eventually impelled her to reject her one-time lover and lifelong mentor.
Krimstein’s breezy style captures the young Arendt, a chain-smoking genius who mixed with the best and brightest of Weimar-era Germany. His affectionate telling is burdened by too much detail, however — he stuffs the narrative with galleries of historical figures inessential to the story. And sometimes he puts jarringly modern words into his historical characters’ mouths.
This is a work of homage to a landmark thinker, but it doesn’t achieve the gravitas necessary to the story of a brilliant, complex and contradictory woman.