What does a Rwandan boy who transforms into a dog have in common with Jewish mice and Nazi cats? Both Jean-Phillipe Stassen’s DEOGRATIAS and Art Spiegelman’s MAUS use animals as a tool to frame past genocides. As a result, both graphic novels highlight the role that dehumanization plays in the genocide of marginalized groups.

Originally published from 1980-1991, MAUS: A SURVIVOR’S TALE was based on Spiegelman’s father’s account of the Holocaust. Later, in 2006, First Second published the English version of DEOGRATIAS: A TALE OF RWANDA. Unlike MAUS, DEOGRATIAS could be classified as historical fiction. Although Stassen set his graphic novel during the Rwandan Genocide, he did not base his characters on real people. Regardless, both graphic novels carefully use allegory to capture the nature of genocide.

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A Brief History of the Rwandan Genocide

Most readers have some awareness of the violence endured by Jewish people and other groups during the Holocaust. After all, many middle school and high school history classes do touch on these events to some extent. However, the Rwandan Genocide is something most Westerners learn of in passing and have little knowledge of.

Image from DEOGRATIAS: A TALE OF RWANDA, courtesy of First Second.

The Rwandan Genocide took place over 100 days in 1994, during which Hutu extremists slaughtered around 800,000 Rwandans. They also raped hundreds of thousands of women. This took place after a bitter civil war that pitted the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority.

Belgians sewed the divisions among these ethnic groups during colonialism. Before this, the two groups, who shared both a language and culture, lived in peace for centuries. However, once the Europeans arrived, they began to treat the Tutsi minority as superior, planting seeds of resentment among the Hutu. They required that Rwandans have their ethnic group listed on their ID cards. This cemented the idea that there were true differences between the Hutu and Tutsi. In the minds of the Hutu, the Tutsi became their oppressors.

During peace talks between the two groups, the Hutu president was killed. After this event, Hutu extremists began an organized campaign of violence against the Tutsi. They also killed any Hutu whom they felt was against their cause. A Tutsi rebel group fought back against the Hutu. They were able to make military advancements as well as political gains, ending the violence.

You can find out more about the Rwandan Genocide here.

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Where Does DEOGRATIAS Fit In? What about MAUS?

Stazzen tells the story of DEOGRATIAS by switching between points in time. We see both the events leading up to the Rwandan Genocide and the aftermath. After the genocide, teenage boy Deogratias is ragged, living on the streets, and desperately seeking “urwagwa,” banana beer. Without this drink, Deogratias insists he will turn into a dog.

In flashbacks, we see that Deogratias, a Hutu, is close friends with two Tutsi sisters. His relationship with them strains as the plot leads up to the climax. Although the graphic novel does not show it directly, Hutu extremists rape and murder the sisters. Although Deogratias is present for these acts, it remains unclear how involved he actually was. In the “present,” those around Deogratias insist that he has nothing to feel guilty about. However, his mental state reveals that he feels quite differently.

Meanwhile, MAUS follows the relationship between Spiegelman and his father, a Holocaust survivor. Like in DEOGRATIAS, the story shifts between two different time periods. We see Spiegelman’s process of talking to his father about his life, as well as the stories told by his father play out on the pages on the graphic novel.

Genocide — A Game of Cat and Mouse

This article is part of ComicsVerse’s War theme. However, it is vital to point out that war and genocide are not the same thing.

Throughout history, scholars have tried their hand at defining war. From a political-rationalist perspective, war takes place between states, not individuals. Although war almost always involves taking human life, this definition of war offers a legitimacy that genocide lacks. Genocide describes a social action and social relationship, while war is primarily political. That being said, the two can go hand in hand. Such was the case with the Holocaust, which happened during World War II. This was also the case with the Rwandan Genocide.

Image from MAUS: A SURVIVOR’S TALE, courtesy of Pantheon.

The anthropomorphic themes of Spiegelman’s MAUS highlight the crucial distinctions between war and genocide. In MAUS, Spiegelman depicts Nazis as cats and Jewish people as mice. Therefore, the relationship between these two groups is depicted as a game of “cat and mouse.” We define this as “the act of toying with or tormenting something before destroying it.” War implies a battle, a back and forth between two military forces. However, the violence of genocide is not reciprocated by both parties.

During a genocide, the group with political power organizes itself to wipe out a marginalized group. Instead of fighting against another organized military, they instead direct their violence against civilians, including women and children. The ultimate goal of genocide is the total extermination of a group, rather than military victory. It is an act of senseless destruction.

The Role of Dehumanization

Dr. Gregory Stanton, the president of Genocide Watch, has identified 10 stages of genocide, one of which is dehumanization. “Dehumanization” is the insistence of the group perpetrating the genocide that their victims are less than human. The majority needs to eliminate these animals, vermin, or insects for the good of society. According to Stanton, those committing genocide use dehumanization to overcome the natural repellence to murder. After all, killing something that isn’t human cannot be homicide.

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Propaganda: The Art of Otherization

Propaganda plays an important role during the dehumanization stage. In the case of the Rwandan genocide, propaganda was distributed primarily via the radio, which compelled citizens to turn against their neighbors. Radio announcers described the Tutsis as “cockroaches” to eliminate. Furthermore, the radio programs played on anti-colonial sentiments by characterizing the genocide as Hutus rising up against their oppressors. In DEOGRATIAS, we see characters in the graphic novel casually listening to radio programs that demonize the Tutsi people. They even do this in front of their Tutsi friends.

Image from METAMAUS, courtesy of Pantheon.

The Nazi party established the Reich Ministry of Propaganda to spread their beliefs through countless mediums. In an interview given with The New York Review of Books, Art Spiegelman explained his choice to depict the Jewish characters in MAUS as, well, mice. In it, he talks about the way African-Americans have reclaimed the n-word in order to remove its sting. Nazi propaganda referred to Jews as “vermin” that Germans should exterminate.

Furthermore, anti-Semitic cartoons depict Jews literally as rats, even to this day. Spiegelman chose the mouse as a means of reclaiming anti-Semitic language and imagery. In MAUS, Spiegelman pushes back against the depiction of Jews as vermin. Instead, he depicts them as creatures who just wish to live in peace amongst the bloodthirsty cats.

Dehumanization Bites Back in DEOGRATIAS

In DEOGRATIAS, the title character is an unreliable narrator. As readers, we do see Deogratias literally turn into a dog. However, we are lead to believe based on people’s reactions to him that he is suffering from delusions. After the violence he took part in, it would not be surprising if Deogratias had PTSD. His belief that he is a dog is his way of distancing from the horrors he has lived through. This would explain why drinking alcohol keeps him from changing into a dog. The substance probably calms his mind enough to keep him from going into this frenzied state.

Image from DEOGRATIAS: A TALE OF RWANDA, courtesy of First Second.

However, in DEOGRATIAS, the main character’s transformation into a dog also serves as an allegory. By taking part in the dehumanization of others, Deogratias has only dehumanized himself. He literally becomes the dog preying on his friends.

It is unclear what exact role Deogratias played in the violence. Regardless, he at least chose not to stop these events. Like the dogs eating his friends’ corpses, Deogratias lives another day thanks to his failure to stop their murder. To those around him, Deogratias becomes a thing to pity, a dog to throw a bone to. He serves as a reminder of the crowd’s bestial nature that they can placate but never rid themselves of.


Graphic Novels and Genocide

After the Rwandan Genocide, the United Nations insisted that they would never again be complacent in the face of genocide. Still, we continue to see horrific acts taking place throughout the world. The treatment of the Ronhingya in Myanmar serves as just the latest example. It is easy to feel helpless in the face of violence both past and present. Works like MAUS and DEOGRATIAS play an important role in reflecting on the nature of humanity amid senseless cruelty.

In MAUS, Spiegelman uses anthropomorphic characters to reclaim anti-Semitic images and language. He also heavily alludes to a “cat and mouse” dynamic. This allegory describes the nature of genocide as an unfair “game” of senseless murder. In DEOGRATIAS, the title character’s change into a dog shows that dehumanizing others only dehumanizes ourselves. By failing to recognize the humanity in others, we deny an essential part of what makes us human — empathy. We can then justify the very acts that turn us into monsters.

Through their use of animals, both graphic novels reveal the important role that dehumanization plays in genocide. To combat this as individuals, we must insist on recognizing the humanity in others, even in the face of hate. As a society, we must continue to call out language that demonizes entire groups of people. We cannot allow the past to repeat itself again.

The second edition of the English version of DEOGRATIAS: A TALE OF RWANDA will release in November, 2018. 

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