On the Animal Masks in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel "MAUS" by Art Spiegelman

Trivialization of the Holocaust?

Term Paper, 2019

12 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Animal Masks in Art Spiegelman’s Maus
2.1. Function and Effect of Cat, Mice, Pigs and other Animal Masks
2.2. The Masks in Past and Present Time in Maus

3. Conclusion

4. Works Cited

1. Introduction

MAUS is an autobiographically written graphic novel by Art Spiegelman which consists of two parts, Maus I (1986) and Maus II (1992), and tells the story of the artist’s parents, Anja and Vladek, who survived the Holocaust and the reader also gets a view on the afterlife of Vladek and his relationship with his son ‚Artie‘.

Art Spiegelman received a lot of praise and was celebrated in the press for his work (cf. Doherty 70f.). Amongst other achievements, he was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for MAUS in 1992. However, his graphic novel was also criticized for the use of animal masks for the characters. To elaborate on this, Spiegelman chose to depict the affiliation to a religion or culture of characters by using animal make in the past and present time of the graphic novel. For example, cats for Germans, mice for Jews and pigs for Poles. Especially the representation of Jews as mice and Poles as pigs caused many negative critiques from Jewish and Polish people themselves. According to De Angelis, Polish people demonstrated against Spiegelman’s work just after its publication and Israeli people were disturbed by the representation of Jews as fragile creatures (cf. De Angelis 230). Furthermore, Spiegelman’s presentation method was criticized for naturalizing something unnatural, which means it was perceived as trivializing the Holocaust and by that insulting the victims (cf. Frahm Schatten 223).

Even though the use of animal masks was criticized for in a way trivializing the Holocaust, one could also argue that the animal heads function as a medium to demonstrate the racist ideology of the Nazis and the hierarchies during that time. In addition, one could also argue that the presence of the animal heads in the present time of the graphic novel indicate the effects and consequences for the persons related after the Holocaust. These different perspectives on this topic raised the question of whether the graphic novel really trivializes the Holocaust or not.

Therefore this term paper aims to examine the function of the animal masks in Art Spiegelman’s Maus with the question in mind whether it trivializes the Holocaust or not. The paper will begin with an introduction to the different types of animal heads and the possible reasons for the choice of the artist by giving some historical background. The main part will discuss the use of the animal masks and its functions by analyzing significant panels from MAUS. Finally, the paper will also contain a conclusion in which the results will be summarized.

2. The Animal Masks in Art Spiegelman’s Maus

As mentioned in the introduction, Art Spiegelman chose to illustrate the characters in his graphic novel through the use of animals. Thereby the different kinds of animals depict the nationality and religious or cultural affiliation of a person. To exemplify this, he illustrated Americans as dogs, English as Fish, French as frogs, Germans as cats, Gypsies as moths, Jews as mice and Poles as pigs. However, it is interesting to note that it’s only the characters’ heads and that they “perceive each other as human beings“ (Hescher 131). The reasons behind these choices might lay in the historical events and the roles of the different nations that they played before and during the Holocaust. For a better understanding, these events will be explained briefly in the following.

The years 1935-1945 mark a terrible crime against humanity in history. This crime is the result of the rise of the German party NSDAP whose antisemitic beliefs formed the core of their world view (cf. Bergmann 102). Many people nowadays believe that antisemitism started with the rise of the NSDAP but it is actually rooted much deeper in the past. Antisemitism was the result of the „distrust and dislike between Christian and Jewish communities" which worsened in the 19th century and although most people from the Jewish community seemed to have assimilated in the 20th century the antisemitic feeling remained (Ponting 776f.). This was due to the first world war in which 10.000 Jews fought on the side of the Germans but after the war was lost some Germans started blaming them for the defeat. That created the opportunity for the NSDAP „to demonstrate the terrible impact of the combination of state power and deep-seated EU-prejudices“ (Ponting 776). It is important to note that there were also other groups like, Sinti and Roma, people with disabilities, homosexuals and religious communities who were the targets of the Nazis as they were seen as subhuman or asocial which means not suited to the Nazi society.

Adolf Hitler, the leader of the NSDAP, was chosen chancellor on the 30th of January 1933. Soon after the rise of the NSDAP the first concentration camps were built, for instance, the concentration camps Dachau and Oranienburg in 1933 (cf. Pohl 10). In addition, first laws and regulations were passed for the exclusion of Jewish people as citizens. Examples for that would be the exclusion of Jews from the civil service and professions in 1933 (cf. Ponting 777) and the Nuremberg laws in 1935 which forbade marriages between Aryans and Jews (cf. Pohl 12) in Germany. The more interesting events in relation to the graphic novel happened soon after these events in Germany.

After the occupation of Czechoslovakia, Poland was as well occupied on the 1st of September 1939 (cf. Benz 37). Next, many Polish soldiers were captured as prisoners of war and many other Polish citizens were detained as so-called operative prisoners or „kapo“ who served as overseer in the concentration camps (cf. Pohl 139). In The following years, ghettos were set up in Poland and 600.000 Polish Jews were moved to Central Poland (cf. Ponting 778). Without question, the function of the concentration of Polish Jews in the center was for the deportation which followed to exterminate them in later stages (cf. Benz 38). On the 20th January 1942 the Wannsee conference took place in order to discuss an overall solution for the issues of the Jews in the European area of influence of Germany; the death of 11.000 Jews (cf. Bergmann 115f). Killing centers were operating before the Wannsee Conference already to deprive other groups like mentally and physically disabled and others of existence and with that their techniques of killing were developed (cf. Ponting 779). Soon after, their plan was realized in the extermination camps, Chelmno, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec, and Sobibor, in Poland (cf. Bergmann 115). The victims were transported there under inhumane conditions in cattle trucks and had to leave their belongings at their arrival where they were selected to either work or being murdered straight away (cf. Ponting 780). As the Red Army advanced to Poland the so-called death marches started in January 1945 during which the victims were either transported in cattle trucks or walked westwards to Germany (cf. Pohl 147-149). Many more victims died during those cause of exhaustion or diseases (cf. Pohl 149). Finally, in late April 1945, the surviving victims were liberated through the US Army and the Red Army (cf. Schreiber 113).

2.1. Function and Effect of Cat, Mice, Pigs and other Animal Masks

So, how can the previously discussed historical facts be related to the graphic novel? Starting with one of the most criticized subjects in Art Spiegelman’s work, which was the cat-mice illustration of the German and Jewish characters, an interesting observation which could lead to an answer is the way of how the faces were illustrated. The faces of the Jews are portrayed in an abstract way, they are virtually without expression (cf. Hescher 37). The only details on their faces are the mice ears, dotted eyes and a pointed chin which is hinting for there to be the mouth of the mice. The mouths of the Jewish characters are not visible on many panels. The only panels showing them is when the characters scream or cry (cf. Spiegelman Metamaus 145). These phenomena can be observed on a passage in the second part of the graphic novel. In which Vladek is being beaten up by a guard (Spiegelman Maus II 217/7). Thereby, the guard makes him count the blows and the reader observes this scene from worm’s-eye view which shows him screaming the numbers. Another significant panel allowing the reader to see the mouth of the mice is towards the end of the graphic novel. That panel shows the joy of the survivors about the war being over (Spiegelmann Maus II 265/4). The presence of the mouth of mice only when they feel joy or pain, two contrastive extremes, these can be interpreted as them not having the ability to express any other feelings than the ones which can’t be necessarily hidden. One also senses them being taken away or being limited of the ability to express themselves as they would like to.

In contrast to the mice, the cats are illustrated more humanlike than them, also more humanlike than any other character in the graphic novel (cf. Spiegelman Metamaus 128). The first chapter of the second part, Mausschwitz, contains two panels in which firstly the superiority of the cats is projected and secondly the humanlike face of the German character is illustrated. In these panels, the hat of a Jewish character in the concentration camp is being grabbed and thrown away by a German guard (Spiegelman Maus II 195/2). This is followed by the death of the Jewish character as he followed the instruction of the guard to get his hat and then shot for trying to escape (Spiegelmann Maus II 195/3). Due to the cat’s face being illustrated through many details, they appear to be different than the other characters in the graphic novel. One could say that the Germans are differentiating themselves from the others through this feature. The Germans are the only characters with more humanlike features than every other character, the reader can find themselves identify with this character. Richard De Angelis says that the reader is obligated by the artist to observe the happenings through the same perception as the Nazi one, Jews being inferior (cf. De Angelis 230).

The cat mice characterization of the German and Jewish individuals can be understood as the visualization of the hierarchy between the two during that time. The abstract vs. humanlike illustration of the characters makes this more clear. The reader witnesses the suppression of the mice by the cats. The suppression is most significant when considering the presence the mouth of the mice only when feeling joy or pain which shows a limitation of the Jewish peoples feelings. Likewise, Ole Frahm interprets the mice heads as the reflection of the race ideology of the Nazis (cf. Frahm Genealogie 27). Jews were depicted as mice or rats in Nazi propaganda (cf. Loman 593). So, they were dehumanized and shown as individuals which needed to be removed from the society (cf. De Angelis 231) Therefore, the visualization of the Germans as cats would be a logical consequence of the Nazi ideology which is reflected here as the Aryan race, which they identified themselves as, this was the superior race in their view.

But how are the roles of the other nationalities represented in Maus connected to their illustration with animal heads in the graphic novel? Art Spiegelman describes his choice of pigs for his Polish characters as follows: “ Die Polen haben zwar schrecklich unter den Nazis gelitten, aber auch oft Juden schikaniert (…)“ (Spiegelman Metamaus 121). From a historical perspective they seem to have a relative role being neither a harm but nor good for either sides of the Holocaust protagonists. In the first part of the graphic novel, Anja and Vladek are being offered to hide in the house of Motonowa, a polish woman who Vladek made friends with through the black market (Speigelman Maus I 143). Later in the next part, the reader is confronted with a so-called kapo, a Polish war prisoner, whose role is still the one of a prisoner, so they are inferior to Germans, however, they are superior to the Jewish. The kapo is giving orders to the Jewish people and even beating them (Spiegelman Maus II 190/3).


Excerpt out of 12 pages


On the Animal Masks in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel "MAUS" by Art Spiegelman
Trivialization of the Holocaust?
University of Wuppertal  (Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften)
The Holocaust in Eastern Europe in History and American Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
holocaust, Art Spiegelman, Maus, Holocaust literature, Animal masks, WWII, Jews, Concentration camp
Quote paper
Özlem Arslan (Author), 2019, On the Animal Masks in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel "MAUS" by Art Spiegelman, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/495728


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