"Master Race" and the Holocaust

by Martin Jukovsky

The following was written to accompany the reprint of Bernard Krigstein's eight-page graphic story "Master Race" in Impact (Russ Cochran, Publisher, West Plains, Missouri, 1988). "Master Race" first appeared in the April 1955 issue of Impact, part of a line of innovative and controversial comic books published by EC (Entertaining Comics) in the Fifties. Above panels, drawn by Krigstein, are ©1996 William M. Gaines, Agent, Inc.

When EC published "Master Race" in 1955, there was little in the mass media about the murder by the Nazis of millions of Jews, Gypsies, political oppositionists and homosexuals. The images of crowded gas chambers, mountains of corpses piled like cordwood, and smoke from the burning bodies continuously spewing out of tall chimneys had not yet established themselves in the public consciousness.

The material was there, however. You just had to look for it. Margaret Bourke-White's Life magazine photograph of almost-dead staring faces behind barbed wire -- shot at the evacuation of a concentration camp) at the end of World War II -- was sometimes reprinted. This now-familiar photo is echoed in page four, panel five of "Master Race," as well as in Art Spiegelman's 1972 version of "Maus" (in his book Breakdowns). Five Chimneys: The Story of Auschwitz, a harrowing account by Olga Lenyel, a death camp survivor, was published in 1947. Eugen Kogon's Theory and Practice of Hell, detailing the horrible workings of the German death camps, was published in 1950. The facts began to surface about the incredible numbers murdered and the cold-blooded, single-minded efficiency with which it was done. Many Americans began to discuss the unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust, but most just found it all too hard to believe. Krigstein's "Master Race" was therefore an exceptional undertaking. As their contribution to the anti-German propaganda effort, wartime movies and comic books had shown concentration camps and Nazi brutality. But never had they shown the death camps (as distinct from concentration camps) and the unique atrocities such as "medical" experimentation on living people.

American Jews were most conscious of what the Nazis had done, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the artist, editor, and publisher involved in "Master Race" were all Jews. Even today, more than 40 years after the events, reading about the death camps still has an enormous impact. Imagine the effect on Krigstein, Feldstein, and Gaines in the early 1950s as more and more facts were uncovered about the assembly-line murder of millions of Jews.

Krigstein's piece didn't spare the sensibility and complacency of the postwar reader. On page four, panel seven, ordinary citizens cover their noses with handkerchiefs against "the stinking odor of human flesh burning in the ovens...men's...women's...children's..." Book burnings, mass live burials, a quiet clinical scene of an operation on a human guinea pig -- "Master Race" starkly depicts the madness of the Nazi period in Germany as well as the burning vengeance inspired by these unspeakable crimes.

Madness? Perhaps. But that oversimplifies 12 years of German history. One of the most cultivated, scientific nations in the world had sunk into unprecedented barbarism. SS officers, after a day of murder and torture, would return to their quarters to read Goethe and listen to Beethoven. Many were very ordinary, mild-mannered people, such as Adolf Eichmann, who were bureaucrats and paper-pushers -- except that a piece of paper usually meant the dispatching of thousands of human beings to their deaths. Philosopher Hannah Arendt, in her important 1963 study, Eichmann in Jerusalem, writes of the "banality of evil," the utter ordinariness of the brutes who planned and executed the Holocaust. The photographs of the Nuremberg Trials defendants in a book such as Leo Kahn's Nuremberg Trials (1972) reveal a gallery of sad-looking, sagging, mediocre faces -- a contrast to the melodramatic supervillains depicted in The Boys from Brazil and other items of pop culture. These are petty clerks with the power over life and death. As shown in Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews (1967), the definitive work on the different stages of the Holocaust, Nazi discussions and documents concerning the extermination were quantitative and businesslike; shipments of human beings to the death camps were detailed in bills of lading.

"Master Race" plays upon the assumptions Americans had (and still have) about Nazi evil. Working on the common mystique about Nazi archvillains, Krigstein shows a gaunt character all in black, who we assume is the commandant. He is pursuing a drab, ordinary-looking fellow, Carl Reissman, who we assume is a Jewish survivor of the death camp he commanded. But "Master Race," through its surprise-ending revelation, assails our assumptions and arrives at the truth. Nazis did not necessarily resemble Count Dracula or Dr. Sivana. They looked more like Reissman, the German man-in-the-street. In that sense (and only in that sense) were executioner and victim interchangeable.

Commandant Carl Reissman parallels Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Hoess, whose autobiography (first published in English in 1959 and used extensively in William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice) is a pathetic exercise in self-justification and breast-beating. Commandant of Auschwitz is full of agonizing similar to Reissman's in "Master Race." The Nuremberg Trials were in the news in 1946 and 1947. Hoess's testimony at Nuremberg, as reported in the papers and later quoted in William L. Shirer's comprehensive The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), contains the following: "We were required to carry out these exterminations in secrecy, but of course the foul and nauseating from the continuous burning of bodies permeated the entire area and all of the people living in the surrounding communities knew that exterminations were going on at Auschwitz." We are on page four, panel seven again. Obviously, the creators of "Master Race" were reading the newspapers very closely (and personally) in the aftermath of the Holocaust in the late Forties.

©Martin Jukovsky

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