You’ll Be The First To Go – Unless You Think
By Steve Morris
We’ll have to change the format slightly for this arc: it’s less about references and literary allusions than it is about following one particular era. While the Nazi party attempted to invade the rest of Europe and the World, it also attempted to dominate the culture of its own nation. That was the primary job of Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda.
During the 30s, as the party came into power, Goebbels asserted control of German media: the film industry; the radio stations. His main lines of propaganda were anti-semetic; anti-union; and pro-The Nazi Party. His goal was to create a German society with 100% support for the Nazis, and he mass-produced and distributed radio receivers in order to get that message out to as many people as possible. With Goebbels message being spread widely, the Nazi party also engaged in cultural genocide, most famously in the form of book burnings. Anything which was considered to be anti-Nazi was to be destroyed: Jewish, Communist, liberal, left-wing literature were the key targets of the campaign.
With everything else displaced or destroyed, that meant that the German people only got to hear the official Nazi line of policy. Not only were Nazi flags produced widely and displayed on all the streets, but Goebbels started producing movies for the masses to go watch. The Unwritten #10 is named after one of the most famous of these: Jud Süß, which means “Süss the Jew”. Released in 1940, it’s a work of completely undisguised antisemitic propaganda which an estimated 20 million German citizens went to see in theatres.
Now, this was based on a real person. Joseph Süß Oppenheimer lived in the early 1700s, a German-Jewish banker who rose to power but also made enemies during his lifetime. When the people who put him in power died, he had nobody left to protect him and he was arrested for a number of crimes, none of which were ever proven in court. Regardless, he was sentenced to death – and, make of this what you will – he was asked to convert to Christianity just before he was taken to the gallows and executed.
His life was the basis of two books: the first by Wilhelm Hauff, told his story as though it were A Christmas Carol. It depicts him as someone who rises to power on the back of corrupt and unethical business decisions, and is executed as part of his downfall. The second was by Lion Feuchtwanger, who was German-Jewish himself and wrote the life story of Süß as someone who was complicated and corrupt, but essentially undergoes a redemption arc as he tries to bring down the Duke following the attempted rape and murder of his daughter. The Duke covers it up and sends Süß to his death, where he proudly refuses to convert to Christianity and stands strong by his faith.
There was also a British film produced around the life story, and it was the Feuchtwanger version of the story which Goebbels decided to overwrite and destroy. Goebbels’ film portrayed Süß as a monster: he is single-minded in his pursuit of power and money, and kills or imprisons everybody who gets in his way. In this version of the story, the corruption is played up and Süß is a rapist, murderer and villain in every way Goebbels – who had personally intervened in the production process, which was unusual for him – could think up. Süß dies begging for his life, for the audience to cheer as he is humbled and defeated by the end of the movie. The message was clear, and in line with Goebbels’ policy: the Jewish people were an enemy of the state, were corrupt, and were evil.
As you might expect during a fascist rule, the film was a critical and commercial success, making back three times what it cost to make. It was ordered to be played for SS troopers before they would be sent out against Jewish-populated areas; for anyone involved in running Concentration Camps; and citizens in areas where the Jewish population had recently been rounded up and forced out of their homes. Nowadays it’s considered to be one of the most famously anti semitic movies ever produced, and is banned in Germany and most of the western world. The director was charged with crimes against humanity, and most of the cast and crew claimed to have been forced into working on the movie: for some that was true, but certainly not for all.
So that’s the background of Jud Süß, condensed but hopefully covering the key points you should know ahead of reading The Unwritten #10, or the following essay about it.
The other historical note I should make before we jump to the issue is that it names the map we’ve been seeing across the past nine issues as being the Waldseemüller map. This was an early attempt at mapping the world, created by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507. One of it most notable aspects is that it was the first map to name the landmass as “America”, following previous beliefs that only Asia; Africa and Europe existed (with Jerusalem thus the centre of the known world), this map portrayed the existence of landmasses which would eventually be explored and marked as being North and South America. I’m sure we’ll come back to that later on in this essay series.
Popular fiction has put the Nazis into a particular cultural box; a box which can be opened whenever Indiana Jones needs someone to race against or Captain America needs an evil to fight. We almost don’t take the Nazis of the 1930s and 40s at full face value anymore, as we’ve had so much cultural history since then which shows us the potted highlights of their existence without feeling too much need to delve further into it. The Second World War was a story of the evil Nazis being eventually defeated by the heroic allies, and we’re never going to let current-day Germans forget about it.
As a result of this widening generalisation of that horrifying period of history, a lot of the important nuances get forgotten about: the fact that the Nazi party’s book-burnings targeted any written history of the transgender community, for example, or that one of the first things they did was root out workers unions. We also tend not to tell stories set within Germany during the 30s and 40s – an era which modern-day audiences could probably bear remembering a little more strongly, especially as we see elements of day-to-day life in Nazi-controlled Germany resurface in 2023.
Issue #10 of The Unwritten is focused on a specific beat of the Nazi party’s attempt to gain “100% support” amongst the citizens in Germany and beyond: that they took control of every form of media possible, including newspapers, radio broadcasts, and filmmaking. Having accidentally travelled into a vision of Stuttgart in 1940, our trio of protagonists learn about the power of overwriting an existing story with a new fiction, and how powerfully that can alter human consciousness moving backwards and forwards.
Nazi symbology is all over the issue, as you might expect: not only is there an overwhelming number of swastikas on each page, but we have a dominating overlay of Nazi propaganda positioned by letterer Todd Klein throughout the first half of the story. This narration in Germans goes on about the noble goals of the Nazi parties, the importance of seizing gold mines to fund the war effort; the hope and strength that citizens need to have in their Nazi leaders; etc etc. Scared and unsure what to do, Lizzy runs off from the others early on and heads straight to a bookshop… the logical place you go to if you want knowledge or information. But this is only an astral projection of Germany, so there’s nothing she can grasp onto. It’s emblematic of the situation German citizens themselves faced in that same space: the Nazi party burned books they felt were anti-Nazi, so they had no other sources of understanding than the official line of communication.
Lizzy has the disembodied voice of Wilson Taylor to assist her though, which Klein shows as directly cutting through that constant throughline of yellow-fonted Nazi propaganda which pervades the first half of the issue. Once she gets that first message from Wilson, Lizzy can reorientate herself and focus back on her mission. It’s a telling piece of storytelling from Klein, which also takes the yellow from the propaganda and tinges Wilson’s first speech bubble with it.
The main part of the issue focuses on Tom and Savoy, however, who stumble into a focus-group testing of Jud Süß which is run by Goebbels himself. Goebbels is quick to point out that this is “our” version of Jud Süß, to his audience. The film concludes to applause from the test audience, with the only note of concern being that anyone who read the recent book might remember that its original message was the reverse of Goebbels’ new piece of propaganda. Goebbels explains that film is a more powerful medium than books: a greater number of people will see the film than will sit down to read a book, and therefore this is the message which the German people will take away into the future. His goal is clear: to establish villains for the Nazi party to oppose, so they can be seen as heroic while they dispose of opposing ideologies and send the Jewish population into camps.
With the audience dismissed, the first shock of the issues comes as we realise that this astral vision of Goebbels, blurry and faded, turns out to be able to see Tom and Savoy. Indeed, he speaks directly to them once the room is cleared and Carey and Gross introduce the concept of focus to them. “Gaze is a solid thing,” he tells them. “When it focuses on me, it becomes more real”. Because they are paying attention to him, he becomes more than a story; a moment in history. He becomes real again. There’s no monster from history better placed to explain The Unwritten’s newest lore concept.
You can also obviously see how the concept of “focus” also ties thematically into the wider story we’re seeing about Jud Süß as a filmed piece of propaganda. The more people saw that Jewish people were a problem, the more “real” this state-invented anti-Semitism became. It’s actually the core basis of The Department of Truth, if you think about it: if enough people believe that something is the truth, then the world evolves to make that mass belief more evidently the actual truth. It was a power Goebbels pushed in 1940 when he released Jud Süß to the public, and it’s just as true today, with all the right-wing claims of George Soros secretly controlling global power. Showing Tom and Savoy the rape scene from the movie, he says one of the most important things in the series so far when asked if he actually believes the message he’s pushing:
“I believe that others should believe it. Beliefs are collars to which leashes can be attached”.
If people can be convinced of something they should be opposed to; then by definition you can then offer them something they should be supportive of. In trying to create a single-minded hatred of Judaism; people of colour; gay and transgender people; liberals; unionists; and so many other groups of people, the actual goal isn’t in establishing the hatred… it’s in establishing single-mindedness. Once people are in a place where they’ll blindly believe every new statement put in front of them because it makes them feel like “their” side are either winning or are fighting the good fight, then the people who are actually in power can get away with anything they want to.
And this lesson plays out directly at the end of this issue. Remember what I said at the start about how we’ve had decades of the Nazis being toned-down across international media, so we can get family-friendly “real world” villains for our heroes to fight against. Tom and Savoy don’t fear Goebbels at any point in the issue: they oppose him for sure, but they even go so far as to “team up” with him by showing him their map; the key to everything that’s been happening in the series so far. They’re so attuned to the existence of Nazis in culture that they can’t see them as a real threat, and our heroes literally present their greatest secrets directly to one of the most evil men in modern history.
If you’ve actually been paying attention, you’ll see how Goebbels has been drawn with a greater tangibility on each page of the comic since Tom started to focus on him. Peter Gross makes Goebbels more and more powerful with every turn of the page, which leads to the conclusion of the issue where the Nazi pulls out his gun and shoots Tom point blank in the head.
It’s another message that perhaps modern-day audiences should be taking more into consideration. Tom doesn’t see fascism as a current-day threat until it picks up a gun and kills him. His casual sharing of power with the embodiment of Nazi propaganda shows how little consideration he has.
For him, Nazis were a vision of the past; a threat which doesn’t exist anymore and has no power over the people in our modern and contemporary society. As we the audience have seen increasingly across our propaganda platforms of the new Millennium – websites, social media, internet forums – the Nazis are very definitely still out there, and if we idly watch them grow in power without doing anything about it, they’re eventually going to kill us.
The Unwritten #10 “Jud Süß Part One”
Story by Mike Carey and Peter Gross
Finishes by Jimmy Broxton
Colourists: Chris Chuckry and Jeanne McGee
Letterer: Todd Klein
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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