Using X-Men: Magneto Testament to Teach the Holocaust
Warning: This article contains some graphic information regarding the horrors of the Holocaust which might be disturbing to some.
How many Nazi concentration camps can you name off the top of your head? This is not a skill meant to impress your friends at cocktail parties. However, having a more complex and fuller knowledge of Holocaust history helps people of all different ages and backgrounds better understand the ways in which various systems and institutions failed in Europe, after the rise of Hitler, allowing ignorance, fear, and hatred to reign supreme, resulting in the deaths of millions of human beings.
With all the educational resources available to American students and teachers, how is it that many Americans, when asked about the Holocaust, either don’t know much at all or can only recall general threads which conjure images of the ghettos, trains, and gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz? According to the chart above, Americans generally know much less about the Holocaust than our European counterparts. At face value, this gap is not surprising given the Holocaust happened in Europe; however, many might agree that the Holocaust is not just a Jewish or European tragedy, but a Human tragedy.
There are several challenges for teachers when tackling this heavy and large topic. First, there is that much of the circumstances discussed are more disturbing than most history topics while events and locations span across a decade and continent. Other challenges include the fact that the Jewish people, the largest group affected by the Holocaust, is a minority group in the United States and across the world. How are teachers at the middle school and high school levels supposed to condense something so horrible and monumental into a bearable and complete narrative? Also how can non-Jewish students relate to or feel emotionally invested in victims who are culturally different from themselves, especially when the number of victims is such a large statistic
Sometimes, fiction is the most effective way to spark a student’s interest in history. However, when it comes to the events of the Holocaust, historic fiction is still limited in that even a fictional character could not possibly have been present at and survive all key events such as the rise of Hitler, the ghettos, the firing squads of the Einsatzgruppen, the death camps, and the Auschwitz revolt. Unless, of course, that fictional character had superpowers. Therefore, Marvel’s compelling origin story of the villain/anti-hero Magneto, in the beautifully illustrated X-Men: Magneto Testament, solves many of the challenges that teachers face in presenting the Holocaust to students through its ability to include more events, a character which American audiences are familiar with, and Jewishness as a metaphor for any kind of Otherness. This study will challenge you to test your own knowledge of this history before presenting you with a brief, but more complete Holocuast narrative of events. Finally, in examining history next to Magneto’s origin story and publication history in the X-Men universe, one will be able to judge the educational value of this Marvel comic.
Test Your Knowledge:
Below are fourteen terms which are part of a more complete Holocaust narrative from the rise of Hitler to the end of the war. Before this article speaks to the benefits of including Magneto Testament as a supplement to history curriculum, I challenge the reader to tally up his or her score (feel free to leave it in the comments section) to gauge your own place in the context of this article. Otherwise, feel free to skip this section and move on to the rest of the article.
For each term, assign a number based on the following criteria:
“I have never heard this term” – Assign the number 1.
“I have heard this term but I am hazy on the details.” – Assign the number 2.
“I do know what this is as it pertains to the Holocaust, and can teach others about it.” – Assign the number 3.
Test your knowledge of these terms. No Google allowed.
1. Nuremberg Laws
2. The Madagascar Plan
4. Adolf Eichmann
5. The Wannsee Conference
7. Operation Reinhardt
9. “Angel of Death”
12. Crematorium IV
13. The Warsaw Ghetto
14. Nuremberg Trials
When you have finished, add your numbers with 14 being the lowest score and 42 being the highest.
If you scored above 28, congratulations, you are a well versed citizen. If you scored below 28, you might benefit from reading Magneto Testament.
The Holocaust: A Complete Narrative
When modern Americans examine the Holocaust, many might be perplexed by its scope and the level of horrors involved. This leads one to wonder, “How did this happen?” or “How did this go so far?” One thing is certain: the Holocaust, as we know it, did not happen overnight. Some parts were carefully planned. Other components were improvised. Understanding a complete history of the events leading up to the mass extermination of the Jews and other groups in Europe helps to understand these questions and, more importantly, ensure that these events of history do not repeat themselves.
What would a complete narrative of the Holocaust look like? Many books and documentaries have tried to fit everything in as so many details are important. 1 I find that the strongest historiographies (studies of history and how the story gets constructed from the facts) begin with the Nuremberg Laws. The Nuremberg Laws were a series of restrictions placed on the Jewish people in Nazi Germany (and all Nazi owned territories) based on the ideal that the German Aryan race (the Volk) was superior and that other races were meant to sacrifice for the benefit of the Volk. 2 These laws are significant because in this situation, the persecution of the Jews was not only legal, it was supported and encouraged by the government: an extreme example of institutionalized racism. The goals of these laws were to ensure that the Volk profited from the economic exploitation of the Jews and to put pressure on the Jewish people to leave the German sphere of life.
For the Nazi party, the goal of the “Thousand Year Reich” did not just include purity of German blood, but purity of German culture. In this way, the very presence of the Jews in Germany was a problem, and many Germans wanted the Jews expelled. These tensions heightened after Hitler invaded Poland. With Germany involved in a world war, and propaganda perpetuating anti-Jewish stereotypes of vast, worldwide conspiracies against the German war effort, the expulsion of the Jews became a national security issue in the eyes of many German civilians. “What to do with the Jews?” became known as the “Jewish Question” and a man named Reinhard Heydrich and his secretary Adolf Eichmann were tasked with solving this “problem.”
Many “solutions” were suggested. Eichmann traveled to Palestine (at that time it was a British colony where many Jews from around the world had already peacefully settled) to report of the viability of sending Europe’s Jewish population there. This idea was discarded. 3 Another plan, the Madagascar Plan, was crafted by Eichmann and involved the Jewish population of Europe being sent to French owned Madagascar. After the Nazi conquest of France, this plan seemed possible; however, due to a lack of ships, it was also not a likely solution.
Around this time, Heydrich called high-ranking Nazi officers and officials to a conference, later known as the Wannsee Conference, to discuss plans for a “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” 4 Eichmann’s policies of Emigration were replaced with plans for deportation of the Jews to the East that they may be used as slave labor in the newly conquered Soviet territories.
Deportations of Jews to Poland and other Eastern territories had already begun but with multiple German defeats in Russia, there was nowhere for the Jews to be sent. Ghettos, where the Jews were being held were now bursting at the seams. Special killing squads called the Einsatzgruppen were employed to lessen the burden of the increasing populations by overseeing mass killings. These killings were brutal, involving men, women, and children stripping naked and being shot into mass graves. 5 These scenes were so disturbing that even the Nazi soldiers carrying out their orders suffered great emotional and mental trauma from watching thousands of innocents die in front of them. The situation was becoming more desperate.
“Operation Reinhard” was put into effect. Three “death camps” were built at Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec so that the overflowing populations of the ghettos could be managed by killing more Jews. 6 These camps employed a different method of killing so that the Nazi soldiers would not be traumatized as they had been by the mass shootings: the gas chamber. This process, which used carbon monoxide from a tank’s exhaust pipe, was still brutal and sometimes took up to 30 minutes for the victims to die. It was not until a soldier in an obscure prison camp in Poland accidentally knocked himself out with the insecticide, Zyklon B, that a faster method of gassing was discovered. This obscure camp was called Auschwitz, and with this new discovery, a new huge camp named Auschwitz II or Auschwitz-Birkenau was built and became the largest killing center in the world.
Once prisoners arrived at Birkenau, they went through the process of “selection” on the train platform where Dr. Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death” would decide with one motion of his hand who lives and who gets sent to the gas chambers. Jewish men called the Sonderkommando were forced to escort men, women, and children to their deaths and burn the dead bodies in the many crematoria to spare the German soldiers from being traumatized as before. Towards the end of the war, there was a rebellion in which the Sonderkommando used smuggled dynamite to blow up the gas chamber at Crematorium IV. 7 There were similar rebellions in other camps such as Sobibor and an uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. Nevertheless, the Holocaust claimed the lives of 17 million people. After the war, those Nazis who survived the war and who did not escape capture were put on trial for crimes against humanity in the Nuremberg Trials while others escaped justice.
Even after the war, many American knew little of the details of these atrocities. It was not until Adolf Eichmann was captured and put on trial in 1962 that Americans began to hear about what the Nazis had done as the testimony of many survivors was televised into American homes. The character Magneto appeared in X-Men comics a year later, although he was not confirmed as a Holocaust survivor until over a decade later. Under Chris Claremont’s direction, Magneto became a more complex super-villain as Claremont recalls, “I was trying to figure out what made Magneto tick… And I thought, what was the transfiguring event of our century that would tie in the super-concept of the X-Men as persecuted outcasts? It has to be the Holocaust.” 8
Magneto, known also by his alias “Magnus” or “Erik Lehnsherr,” was born Max Eisenhardt. 9 The details of his life as a Holocaust survivor has changed over the years as interest in the subject has increased since the mid-1970’s and more survivors have told their stories to the world. The first mention of Magneto’s Holocaust origin seen in the photo to the left from Uncanny X-Men #150 (1981) was generalized and basic; much like America’s knowledge of the Holocaust at that time. As simple as this origin is, it still reflects the way Civil Rights leaders would use the Holocaust as a warning against what can happen when certain groups of people are marginalized.
“We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal'” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From Birmingham Jail, 1963
Uncanny X-Men #150 was also published in a time when media portrayals of “Americans” were becoming less white-washed and more willing to face the darker aspects of human history. The unprecedented success of the TV miniseries Roots in the late 1970’s showed that Americans were ready to accept a transplanted African lead character as an “American” hero. Oftentimes, Magneto’s reinvention as a Holocaust survivor is attributed to the popularity of the TV miniseries Holocaust which is said to have been made because the success of Roots paved the way for American reception of stories about ethnic oppression. Throughout the 1980’s Magneto’s mentions of the Holocaust fell under the same form: mentions of how the mutants and the Jews were similarly persecuted. The details are still simple: he was imprisoned in Auschwitz, his family murdered, he meets the Gypsy woman Magda, and they escape together towards the end of the war.
Towards the late 1980’s and early 90’s, more and more survivors openly told their stories due to a growing interest in the subject and new films such as Sohpie’s Choice (1982) and War and Remembrance (1988). With more details surfacing about the horrors of Auschwitz, a 1991 issue of X-Men nuanced Magneto’s past and it is revealed that during his time in Auschwitz, he was a member of the Sonderkommando. He says, “I should have died myself, with those I loved. Instead I carted the bodies by the hundreds by the thousands … from the death house to the crematorium … and the ashes to the burial ground. Asking now what I could not then– why was I spared?!” 10 This portrayal of Magneto is a far cry from the one-dimensional super-villain of the 1960’s. Not only is his need for revenge not present, neither is his self-defensive action. This Magneto is defined more by survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. Not only is his history of Holocaust survival becoming more detailed, so is his psychological profile.
Movies like Schindler’s List then set the standard for how stories about the Holocaust should be told. Now it is not enough to simply tell a story, it must be accurate, informative, as complete as possible, and compelling. The fact that the 2000 movie X-men opens with a young Magneto’s arrival at Auschwitz is significant because the makers of the film chose to establish the central conflict of the franchise through Magneto’s Holocaust experience as a warning of what could potentially happen to mutants in their persecution escalates. All of a sudden, Magneto’s story defines the struggle of all mutants, and the mutant’s struggle defines the struggle of anyone who is outcast because of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. In 2008, therefore, it was time for Marvel to create a narrative for Magneto which was historically accurate, informative, complete, and compelling. The result, X-Men: Magneto Testament, was not just one of the best developed Magneto stories, but one of the best developed Holocaust-related historical fictions.
The Story of Max Eisenhardt
Part of what makes a real-life story like The Diary of Anne Frank compelling is the fact that it is a coming of age story which follows the timeline of events in WWII. In making X-Men: Magneto Testament, the creators, led by Greg Pak, had the difficult task of creating, not just a coming of age story, but a super-villain origin story which stood up to history and Marvel cannon. In order to create a more complete timeline, the authors decided to make Magneto of German-Jewish origin (instead of Polish-Jewish origin as he had been previously written) so they could cover more information on the rise of Hitler.
Max’s story begins close to where Anne Frank’s story begins: with the passing of the Nuremberg Laws. Where Anne details in retrospect how her civil rights were slowly taken away, Max witnesses his uncle Erik (a possible inspiration for his future alias) being dragged through the streets for having relations with an Aryan woman. Slowly but surely, Max and his family lose their rights but do not leave the country on the assumption that things can’t get worse.
Because the story focuses on Jewish characters, there is not mention of things like the Wannsee Conference or the Madagascar Plan as these were things that the public were not aware of at the time. However, the effects of these things are present in the fact that Max’s family emigrates to Poland where they become trapped after the Nazi invasion. They are placed in the Warsaw Ghetto which is accurately presented as overpopulated. The effects of Operation Reinhardt are seen as people in the Ghetto are tricked into boarding trains to Treblinka where it is revealed they will be killed.
After a daring escape from the Ghetto, Max’s family is betrayed and captured by the Einsatzgruppen who shoots and kills Max’s family. The writers decided that Max should not be aware of his powers throughout the course of this story. Therefore, the fact that Max unknowingly bends the Nazi bullets in another direction can also be interpreted as Max’s father pushing him out of the way. However, to those who are familiar with Magneto, the hint is strong enough that Max survives this episode because he has superpowers.
After escaping the mass grave that his family is buried in, Max is arrested once more and sent to Auschwitz. Upon his arrival he is told to lie about his age to survive the Selection process. Dr. Mengele spares his life and through a series of unfortunate events, Max finds himself a member of the Sonderkommando. As a member of this group he witnesses horrors beyond belief and is part of the Sonderkommando revolt, allowing for his escape with Magda. Great pains were taken to ensure that the story was as accurate to history as Magneto’s lore.
In this way, Magneto’s story and a more complete Holocaust narrative have been consolidated in one book which is accompanied by a teacher’s guide for any teacher who wishes to use the comic to supplement other academic exercises.
The Nail That Sticks Up
Finally, the most compelling aspect of Magneto Testament is the fact that Max’s difference, embodied by his Jewishness, is used as a metaphor for anyone who feels different or out of place. This allows American readers of all different backgrounds to identify with Max and echoes the way in which Civil Rights leaders used the Holocaust in their messages. This message of solidarity is presented in the words of Max’s teacher: “The nail that sticks up, gets hammered down.” Through this lesson, any reader who is “different” understands how difficult it can be to stand out from the crowd. Nevertheless, part of what makes the X-Men franchise so popular is that while it is honest about the hardships of Otherness, it encourages non-conformity and dreams of a world where those who are different can live freely.
Max remains an “American” kind of hero despite his hardships. Before his family is killed, he is optimistically rebellious against his oppressors. He is smart and savvy in Auschwitz and after he is broken as a member of the Sonderkommando, it is his love for Magda which drives him to survive and join the Crematorium IV Rebellion. For American readers, these values which he embodies make his story compelling. While reading this comic, written in a style of English which is inherently American casual, the Holocaust does not seem so much like a black and white picture in a history textbook of something that happened “a long time ago” in a place “far away” to a people “not like us.”
Hopefully after reading this article, you can score higher on the Test Your Knowledge list in the first section. Hopefully you have been inspired to further your own knowledge and use the events of the past as a tool for progress in the future. While Magneto, as a villain, uses the words “Never again” to justify violence against those who would harm his people, the best lesson to take away from his tragic story is that the only way to prevent persecution of those who are different is through education.
- The information in this section comes from Roseman, Mark. The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution. New York: Picador. 2002. unless otherwise specified by a footnote. I have also included names of films which include some of these events. ↩
- Koonz, Claudia. The Nazi Conscience. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2003. ↩
- Mallman, Klaus-Michael. Nazi Palestine: The Plans for the Extermination of the Jews in Palestine. New York: Enigma Books. 2005. pg., 54. ↩
- This conference is portrayed in the HBO film Conspiracy for those who are interested. ↩
- One of the most accurate portrayals of these events in film is the 1988 miniseries War and Remembrance. It is also briefly alluded to in the film Defiance. ↩
- This period is included in the film The Pianist and the made-for-TV movie Escape From Sobibor ↩
- One of the few films which focus solely on the Sonderkommando is the movie Gray Zone (2001) ↩
- Malcom, Cheryl Alexander. “Witness, Trauma, and Remembrance: Holocaust Representations in X-Men Comics.” The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 2008. pg., 144. ↩
- X-Men Vol 2 #72 reveals that “Erik Lensherr” is an alias ↩
- Vol. 1, No. 274, March 1991: 11 ↩
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