Depicting Dehumanization in Beloved and Maus

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Written by Alexander Kimel - Holocaust Survivor 
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In civilized societies a condemned man is provided with some comfort and the process of execution is geared to inflict the minimum amount of emotional and physical pain; the State provides the services of clergyman to ease the anxieties and sufferings. The Germans did just the opposite, the system was geared to provide the maximum pain, all religious observances were punished with death, praying was not allowed. In order to make the killing and oppression psychologically easy for the oppressors, dehumanization of the victims had to take place. The process was quite simple; the victims forced to behave like beasts proven that the are subhuman, victims forced to live without sanitary facilities prove that they enjoy filth, etc. In the concentration camps, the inmates were so "broken-in" that they were almost oblivious to their lot.... 
 The Germans established a bureaucracy that dealt with people like we are dealing with commodities not even cattle. For example coal is mined, stored, transported and burned in a casual manner, when it comes to transport cattle man is more careful; cattle requires the supply of fodder, water and proper facilities. The SS dealt with their victims like with commodities. People were collected, stored, transported to Gas Chambers for processing without any provision of food, water or sanitary facilities. On the opposite the lack of food especially water was used cruelly for facilitating the destruction; hungry, thirsty, emaciated people do not resist. For example a transport of Jews from Salonik was travelling for three weeks to Auschwitz, without water, food , upon arrival to Auschwitz they were herded to the Gas Chambers, and promised a glass of tea upon disinfection. People dying from thirst were fighting to get into the gas chambers. Why all this cruelty? Psychologically it is explained that powerless, inferior victims are causing a high level of anxiety and frustration in their oppressors, who act out the rage on the same victims. So it is necessary to dehumanize the victims and make their destruction easier for the oppressors. 

Three ways to depict de-humanization
There are at three different ways man de-humanizes another man, says Richard Rorty in one of his essays: to treat a man like an animal; to treat a man like a woman; and to treat a man like a child. There are also three ways in which human beings de-humanize other human beings in Beloved and Maus. They differ slightly from Rorty's account:

Of course, saying that human beings were treated as animals, children or items is an attempt to link the concept of animals, children or things to the unspeakable reality. We can get quite attached to animals, children or even things. Animals, children and things are anchor-terms with which we will deal on other pages.

Aside from the inhumane conditions in which the characters had to live - the camp life where relatives would help each other only in exchange for material goods, f. ex. -, we will only look into the depiction of de-humanization in Beloved and Maus. In other words: not the inhumane world that is the setting of the novels shall be discussed, but in which terms human beings are being depicted.

Human Beings as Animals
Both Maus and Beloved present human beings as if they were animals.
In Maus, it is most obvious in the characters: the Jews are mice, the Nazis cats, the Frensh are frogs and the Polish are pigs. The whole book is called Maus, which is German for mouse. A quotation by Hitler at the beginning of Maus I (p.4) makes clear the aim of the book to show the de-humanization: "The Jews are undoubtely a race, but they are not human." The same issue is taken up in the beginning of Maus II, (front pages) where a newspaper article from the mid-thirties in Germany is quoted: "Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed... Healthy emotions tell every independant young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal... Away with the Jewish brutalization of the people! Down with Mickey Mouse! Wear the Swastika Cross!" Nazi propaganda is known to have depicted Jews as rats, too.
So Spiegelman's depiction of people as animals merely reflects the de-humanizing spirit of the times. In these conditions of war, all people became animals. It is interesting to note that into the second book, after Spiegelman has already dealt in depth with his father's history (p. 41-47), he depicts himself in the act of drawing, and overcoming his own anxieties about his project as a human being, wearing a mouse-mask. This suggests that when dealing with his dad and the memories of the time, Spiegelman and all other people assume the mindset of that depressing time again. Likewise, the TV-reporters who invade his privacy, and hunt him down with their questions, are presented with cat-masks. The memory pervades reality, reaches into Spiegelman's present life, forms a veil that lies upon mind. 

There are other times when human-beings are being drawn as human beings. One example is on pages 100 following, when Spiegelman presents an old comic about the death of his mother. He reads it as a mouse, reads it as a recollection of another time when his mother was his still his human being mother and not Anja the mouse. A second example is when three pages before the end of the second book, Vladek's real life photo springs out of a corner.  It is shown upon the occasion that Anja finds out her husband has survived the camps - survuived the de-humanization! 

to the right: pictures from Schindler's list, Maus




But the case for human beings being depricted as animals in Maus goes way beyond the mere drawing of figures. Repeatedly is made reference to human beings being treated, or behaving like animals: when they live together with rats (148, I), or in the garbage dump (153, I), when they have to chew on woods (123, I), when put in "such a train for horses, for cows" where they "lay on top of each other, like matches, like herrings" (85, II), or when they are shot like dogs (82, II). Spiegelman also repeatedly plays with the image of bars, suggesting the mice are trapped, so on page 74 (I).
In Beloved, too, human beings are depicted as animals. First, Sethe overhears Schoolteacher tell his pupils: "I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right." (p. 193). Schoolteacher thinks of her as animal at other places (f. ex., when thinking of her "breeding years", p. 149), but even worse, he and his pupils treat her like a cow  when the white pupils "take her milk" in the barn (p.70). Ultimately, they also rape her there. Had the black men at Sweet home already been so desperate that they turned to calfs for sex, then the white man's taking Sethe's milk and raping her at the same time is an ulitmate act of de-humanization. Sethe is stripped of all human dignity in these moments. 

to the left: the branding of a slave


Human beings as children
Blacks were often treated as children. "Boy" was how many old Blacks were called up until the 1960'ies. Their treatment as children is not so obvious in Beloved. It appears in subliminal form when the "men of Sweet Home" take pride in being taken serious as men: 

"He (Paul D., C.G.) grew up thinking that, of all the Blacks in Kentucky, only the five of them were men. Allowed, encouraged to correct Garner, even defy him. (...) Was that it? Is that where the manhood lay? In the naming done by a whiteman who was supposed to know? Who gave them the privilege not of working but of deciding how to? No. In their relationship with Garner was true metal: they were believed and trusted, but most of all they were listened to. He thought what they said had merit, and what they felt was serious. Deferring to his slaves' opinions did not deprive him of authority of power. It was schoolteacher who taught him otherwise." (p.125) 

Morrison goes on to describe the men of Sweet-home as 'watchdogs without teeth, steer bull without horns' once the men are off the ground of Sweet home. So she is making her point with animals here. However, reading the above paragraph will do enough to invoke the image of the "black boy" in the informed reader. - Once schoolteacher comes, their manhood is taken from these men. They are no longer being taken serious - they are stripped of their humanity. 

Photograph of Slave Cabin and Occupants Near Eufala, Barbour County, Alabama 


Slave-hut, above; working slave, below 

The case for the depiction of human beings as children is not so strong in Maus, either.  Occasionally, the behaviour of characters resembles that of children, so on page 122 (Maus I) when Anja cries hysterically for her family: "Grandma and grandpa! Poppa! Momma!..." How children themselves is given no chance for survival, and how they are being crushed to death like little kitten smashed to the wall is depicted on p. 108 (I). 

Most poignant is the interrelation between de-humanization and the treatment of human beings as children on pages 42 through 47 in Maus II. It has been suggested above that Spiegelman feels himself hunted down by the media. They shamelessly offer to exploit his personal his-story, and Spiegelman, the author, shrinks from a grown man to a child. As such he seeks then help from a psychiatrist. Again, it seems that Spiegelman assumes the mindset of a child when it becomes too hard for him to deal with these memories, and the past.  

to the right: scenes from Schindler's list 


Human beings as items


How human beings became material, is one the saddest and well-known stories of the Holocaust: Human beings became lamp-shades, soap. They were put in the ovens the way a baker shoves bread into his oven. Upon arrival, they were tattoed with a number. Much of this is reflected in Maus. On page 26, II, Vladek shows his tattoed number 175113. On the next page, the escape from Auschwitz seems only possible through the smoke-stacks ("Abraham I didn't see again... I think he came out the chimney"). About the crematoriums, Vladek later says: "This was a factory to make - one, two, three - ashes and smoke from all what came here." (70, II).  In the 'selektions', Jews are scrutinized for their working-ability, and sorted out as if they were bad screws (58, II). 

to the left: Human beings - work material

Blacks were work-material no better than the Jews. Sethe, Baby Suggs, Paul D: they were sold. They were property. Sethe survives the killing of Beloved because she counts as property, and not a human being. Halle buys his mother free. Paul D. "learns his worth. He has always known, or believed he did, his value - as a hand, a laborer who could make profit on a farm - but now he discovers his worth, which is to say he learns his price. The dollar value of his weight, his strength, his heart, his brain, his penis, and his future." (p. 227). Sixo, the man who has the strongest sense of his own individuality, is burned on the stake. Slaves are property that can be moved or sold or even abandoned as the master likes it... human dignity is non-existent for slaves. 

to the right: slave-market


Human beings as animals, children, items: de-humanization knows different forms. Literature often takes great care in making the point of such a depiction. It makes the account clearer, and speaks between the lines of de-humanization. As has been noted before, de-humanization can also be seen in the mere conditions of the setting; an account of the Holocaust always bears implicitly the idea of destroying individuality, destroying the humane order of man, regardless in which form the narrator choses to relate the conditions. But to describe the overall conditions of slavery or the Holocaust was not our aim here. The question was how the conditions could be conveyed, how de-humanization was witnessed.

All of the forms in which de-humanization is depicted here are also forms of anchor-terms. To children, to animals, even to things we usually get easy attached to. It is important to remember that when trying to make sense of the suffering and pain of de-humanization, they retreat to anchor-terms that help them make sense.

A gallery of de-humanization

* Five novels as tools of humanization * - * Depicting de-humanization * - * Overcoming de-humanization *
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