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Armenian Genocide and Spiegelman’s “Maus” Novel Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 12th, 2021


The subject matter of genocide is complex and upsetting as it is directly linked to lives lost as a result of it. Genocide refers to intentional actions targeted at destroying a group of people either in part or whole, which means that it is a violent act against individuals that belong to a specific population. The term came to be used in the general public after World War II once it became known how the Nazi regime targeted European Jews with the intent to eliminate as many of them as possible. Genocide became the subject of both fiction and non-fiction literature as society was concerned by its outcomes and the overall impact on the world population. As the subject matter of Maus, a comic book by Art Spiegelman, deals with the Holocaust, the issue of genocide is the central running theme. The Holocaust also referred to as Shoah, referred to the genocide committed against European Jews by the regime of Nazi Germany. The government of the country under the leadership of Hitler persecuted and murdered Jews who lived on the European territory based on anti-Semitic ideology. The book depicts its author interviewing his father about his experience as a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. Maus is one of the highest critically-acclaimed comic books ever since the publishing date in 1986 for combining visionary literature and one of the most complex subjects in global history.

The Armenian Genocide or Armenian Holocaust took place before the WWII Holocaust and referred to the extermination of more than 1.5 million Armenians within the Ottoman Empire. Armenians represent an ethnic group of individuals residing on the territories of the Armenian Highlands of Western Asia. Today, Armenians make up the largest section of the population of Armenia; with the most significant diasporas living in Russia, the United States, and France. The starting date to the Armenian Genocide is considered April 24, 1915, when the authorities of the Ottoman Empire arrested and deported up to two hundred and seventy Armenian community leaders and intellectuals from Constantinople (modern Istanbul) to Ankara. Eventually, most of the deported Armenians were murdered. The genocide was implemented during World War I and was carried out in two steps: the intentional killing of large numbers of the able-bodied Armenian male population through forced labor and massacre as well as the deportation of women and children.

Connecting the topic of the Armenian Genocide with the themes discussed in Maus may lead to an interesting exploration as the issue of genocide is extremely multi-faceted (Krikorian 486). The persecution and intentional murder of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire regime during World War I was repeated during World War when Nazi Germany targeted European Jews. Therefore, the subject of genocide is universal as the populations subjected to murder and violence were both intentional and were associated with similar goals and ideologies. Thus, the experiences of Armenians during WWI are not dissimilar from what European Jews went through at the time of WWII, which supports the effectiveness of connecting the Armenian Genocide with Maus within the topical discussion of genocide as a historical occurrence.

Maus as a Fundamental Contributor to the Discussion of Armenian Genocide

Among the wide variety of literature, film, exhibitions, monuments, and documentaries on the subject of the Holocaust, how Art Spiegelman approached the issue in Maus is one of the most striking and creative. Through visual storytelling, the author explored and addressed the burden and the legacy of the traumatic memories associated with experiencing the Holocaust as a second-generation survivor (Elmwood 691). What is interesting about the novel, in general, is that the combination of a wide range of themes, genres, and characterizations resulted in a unique balance.

Divided into two parts: Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, the graphic novel tells the story of Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, the survivors of Auschwitz. Their son, Art, records the memories of the Holocaust through a series of interviews. An important point of the interviews relates to the changing status of the position of Jews in Poland through the introduction of anti-Semitic policies by the Third Reich. The children of Holocaust survivors grew up with the memory of both the presence and the absence of the event in their lives, which what makes Maus’s narrative so complex and multi-dimensional. As mentioned by Anne Karpf, “it seemed then as if I hadn’t lived the central experience of my life – at its heart, at mine, was an absence” (qtd. in McGlothlin 254).

Armenian genocide preceded the Holocaust but should not be regarded as an event that is less significant in its impact on society. The Turks that ruled the Ottoman Empire took a series of intentional acts to slaughter and deport millions of Armenians from their homes. During the first years of the First World War, Turkey’s leading party in the government set a plan into motion to eliminate Armenians from the Ottoman Empire. At the beginning of the 1920s, when the mass killings and deportations finally ended, the estimated death toll was between 600,000 and 1.5 million people, with even more being forcefully eradicated from the country. Modern historians refer to this event as genocide as the government of Turkey took pre-determined and planned steps to decrease the population of Armenians. It is important to note that while Germany acknowledged a large number of crimes against European Jews committed by Hitler’s Nazi regime, the Turkish government is still having issues with accepting the wide impact of the genocide events.

Throughout history, Armenia had its independence of which it can boast today. However, in the fifteenth century, it was absorbed by the Ottoman Empire that was ruled by Muslims. While the government allowed other groups to practice their religion and be autonomous, Armenians were considered infidels and were mostly treated unfairly (Lowery & Freedman 32). Since the population was predominantly Christian, they had to pay higher taxes compared to the rest of the population and had limited legal and political freedoms. Despite these challenges, the community of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire managed to prosper, was better educated compared to their Turkish counterparts who began to resent their success. This resentment can also be traced to the anti-Semitic ideologies of the Middle Ages when Christians perceived the Jewish faith to be inferior and such that should be eliminated. While the origins of Hitler’s antisemitism remain unclear, it is evident that the German nation of the Third Reich had the same feelings toward Jews as Turks felt toward Armenians.

The suspicion that Armenians would show greater compliance with Christian governments intensified once the Ottoman Empire started to crumble. By the end of the 19th century, the government of Turkey increasingly grew obsessed with loyalty, which was also true for the Third Reich, and was infuriated by the campaign of Armenians to attain basic human rights. From the point onward, Turks became dedicated to solving the ‘Armenian issue.’ When Turkey entered WWO in 1914 on Germany’s and Austro-Hungarian Empire’s side, military leaders started perceiving Armenians as traitors since they were dedicated to the Christian faith.

This led to the push to remove Armenians from the war territories on the Eastern Front. The start of the Armenian Genocide is marked by August 24, 1915, when the government of Turkey arrested and murdered several hundreds of Armenian intellectuals. Turks proceeded with creating “Special organizations and other sanctioned groups” that imposed “starvation and extreme violence from all quarters” (Hovannisian 39). Eyewitness testimonies of the genocide support the extreme violence taken against Armenians, with the deportations to the desert being one of the key methods of reducing the population in Turkish lands. The acts of the Ottoman Empire are eerily similar to what Hitler’s government implemented during the Holocaust, which is why drawing parallels between the two historical events can contribute to the discussion of both topics. In the further section, such parallels will be drawn with the help of citing direct quotes from Spiegelman’s Maus.

Drawing Parallels: Holocaust in Maus and Armenian Genocide

Tracing the similarities between the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide is important to the discussion of Maus as a literary piece. The involvement of the Ottoman secret police (Corner 114) is not too dissimilar to the Gestapo operations in Nazi Germany. While there is no specific evidence to suggest that the acts of the two were the same, the devastating influence on both the Jewish and Armenian populations cannot be argued. The Jews were killed using gas chambers, shot one by one into large graves, and were tortured for no good or specific reason (Spiegelman 241). The comparison of the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide results in three major findings. First, the leaders of genocidal movements were Adolf Hitler and Enver Pasha, both of whom did not care about the well-being of minority populations and had the intention of exterminating various groups of people (Kifner). The dehumanization of both Jews and Armenians included but was not limited to taking their names, belongings, homes, and livelihoods. Second, the intentions of both German and Turkish governments were similar: ensuring that an ethnic group is eliminated from a specific territory and subjected to significant suffering. While the motives for the violence were different, the characteristics of genocide applied to both cases.

If to look at the perspective of genocide reflected in Maus, it is imperative to mention some quotes that would illustrate the horrors occurring at the time of Jewish genocide. In the first part of the book in Chapter 6, the author writes, “we knew the stories – that they will gas us and throw us in the ovens. This was 1944… we knew everything. And here we were” (Spiegelman 159). What is interesting is that at the time of the Armenian genocide, the first examples of gas chambers were used against the population. The engineers from the Ottoman Empire developed the first gas chambers by transporting Armenians into rock caves and managing to asphyxiate them by setting bonfires at their entrances (Hovannisian 48). These parallels are extremely significant and point to a similar level of aggression and violence directed toward the representatives of the minority population from the standpoint of a ruling population.

Another notable quote from Maus can be found in the second section of Maus in Chapter one, where it is stated “they registered us in… They took from us our names. And here they put me my number” (Spiegelman 6). This points to the high degree of dehumanization of the Jewish population by the dominant party, which was also evident at the time of the Armenian genocide. While the assignment of numbers to each person was not reported in the research literature, Armenians were dehumanized in other ways. For example, they were not allowed to carry weapons, could not practice the Orthodox religion, testify against Turks in court or even have houses near Muslims. Overall, the combination of these factors established institutionalized mistreatment of Armenians and put them on the lowest level of the social hierarchy. In comparison to this, Jews were seen not only as inferior to other populations but also as not worthy of being alive.

Art Spiegelman also has an extremely powerful quote that can be applied not only to the discussion of the Holocaust but also the Armenian genocide as well as other acts of deliberate violence targeted at exterminating a nation. It can be found in Chapter 2 of the first part of the book: “it was many, many such stories – synagogues burned, Jews beaten with no reason, whole towns pushing out all Jews – each story worse than the other” (Spiegelman 35). Indeed, both the Third Reich and the Ottoman Empire approached the genocide of populations from the same angle. Religion played an important role: by taking away the rights of people to practice their beliefs in their gods, the oppressors diminished them to merely existing and unworthy of serving the role of citizens of their countries. As the government of the Ottoman Empire declared war on those practicing the Christian religion, the government needed to show that they detested Armenians and did not accept their presence within the territory.

The experience of Jews at concentration camps is also similar to what the population of Armenians had done during the genocide. To quote Spiegelman in chapter 2 of the second part of the book, “Auschwitz, it was a camp where they gave you work, so they didn’t finish you so fact. Birkenau was even worse. It was 8000 people in a building made for 50 horses. There it was just a death place with Jews waiting for gas” (31). Similar to Auschwitz, Armenians were also put in concentration camps in the center of the Syrian desert. Thousands of refugees of the Armenian heritage were forced into the death machines and forced to work for free. Anyone from children to the elderly had to survive the atrocious conditions. They ate grass and dead birds just to live through the horrific experience. The similarities between the experiences of both Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and Jews in Europe are evident, which makes it possible to relate the topic of the Armenian genocide to the themes depicted in Maus.

The last notable quote to mention about the associations between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust can be found in the sixth chapter of the first part of Maus. The quote relates to the feelings of fear that Germans were imposed by their government. The author writes, “the mothers always told so: ‘Be careful! A Kew will catch you to a bag and eat you!’ So they taught to their children” (Spiegelman 151). This shows that from a very young age, Germans were taught that Jews were the ones to be feared and thus were considered enemies of the nation. As one of the stages of the Armenian genocide, there was the symbolization of the latter as infidels and unworthy of living in the Ottoman Empire. Both Germans and Turks taught their children and Jews and Armenians could not be trusted and represented a threat to their communities.

To summarize the exploration of quotes from Maus and their application to the historical events of the Armenian genocide, it is imperative to mention transparent similarities. The Third Reich dehumanized European Jews and discriminated against them, using the most profoundly violent and abhorrent methods of oppression. The Jewish population was murdered at gas chambers, forced to work in concentration camps, was taken away from their religion and cultural heritage, was exiled and overlooked, and quotes from Maus are evidence of that. Armenians had a similar fate during the genocide of their nation and were also oppressed to a great extent. The perception that the mistreatment of Armenians was acceptable was reflected in the ideology of the German Nazi regime that European Jews were not seen as worthy of being treated in the same way in which the Arian nation was treated.

Concluding Remarks

Discussions about the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust have always been complex because of the pain and suffering that people had undergone. The exploration of Maus and the relation of its themes to the Armenian genocide showed the topic of intentional mass eradication of the population has similar undertones regardless of the populations and governments involved in them. Maus is a heartbreaking story that captured the attention of hundreds of thousands of people and taught the lesson of life. While Spiegelman in the second part of the book wrote that “people haven’t changed… maybe they need a newer, bigger Holocaust,” it is essential to understand that no such acts should occur in the future.

History does not have to repeat itself, and global governments can come together to prevent mass genocides, such as the ones explored in this paper, from occurring again. For global communities, it is essential to exercise the political will to speak up against any injustices and intentional acts of violence. It is also important to stop the enablers, which may suggest acts of genocide toward other populations. To achieve this, establishing worldwide policies of genocide prevention, similar to the series of actions of preventing mass atrocities announced by the former United States President Barack Obama. However, fostering a sense of community and mutual respect among nations is fundamental. By using the latest technologies of information sharing, it is essential to exchange perspectives and express opinions as to how the global community can improve in supporting each other. However devastating the history of both Armenian and Jewish genocide maybe, people should learn from their mistakes and be open to accepting each other as communities and equally worthy of living on this planet.

Works Cited

Corner, Isbelle Sarafian. Turks Should Admit Armenian Genocide. Turkey’s Vociferous Denial of the Armenian Genocide Continues Today. The Grand Rapids Press, 2001.

Elmwood, Victoria. “Happy, happy ever after”: The Transformation of Trauma Between the Generations in Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale.” Honolulu, vol. 27, no. 4, 2004, pp. 691-701.

Hovannisian, Richard. The Armenian Genocide; Cultural and Ethical Legacies. Transaction Publishers, 2007.

Kifner, John. The New York Times, Web.

Krikorian, Robert. “The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide/The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide.” The Middle East Journal, vol. 59, no. 3, 2005, pp. 486-489.

Lowery, Zoe, and Jeri Freedman. Genocide in Armenia (Bearing Witness: Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Modern World). The Rosen Publishing Group, 2017.

McGlothlin, Erin. Second-Generation Holocaust Literature: Legacies of Survival and Perpetration. Camden House, 2006.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus. A Survivor’s Tale. Penguin Books, 1991.

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