Nora Krug's 'Belonging' Could Serve as a Model for Understanding Collective Responsibility
In graphic novel Belonging, Nora Krug takes a single idea – her family's involvement in the Second World War and Nazi Germany – and pursues it with relentless, forensic determination.
Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home
Scribner / Simon & Schuster
Nora Krug's Belonging is a big book. Not in terms of size – although at nearly 300 pages, it is that, too – but in terms of ideas, ambition, and scale. Where some contemporary comics drop tantalizingly big ideas but fail to follow through with sufficient thoroughness to do their subjects merit, Krug's work lies at the opposite end of the spectrum. She takes a single idea – her family's involvement in the Second World War – and pursues it with relentless, forensic determination.
Krug, who left home young and moved to the United States, where she married a Jewish man, has grappled with questions of German identity as an expatriate whose own family history is murky, confusing, and full of awkward silences. The book chronicles her efforts to unravel this family history, and determine what role her family may have played in Nazi Germany. Krug seeks to understand her family's actions in the years preceding and during the war. Why did some family members join the German army? What did they think, say, and do as children growing up under Hitler's regime? How did they respond to the country's growing anti-Semitism? Did they try to help their Jewish neighbours, employers, and coworkers? Did they respond indifferently (is there even such a thing as indifference in times like these?), or did they support Nazi efforts? Why did her grandfather join the party?
She was given answers to some of these questions during her childhood, but she challenges the neat narratives with which she grew up: narratives designed to either justify and gloss over her family members' actions or to put them in a vaguely heroic light. When she debunks long-standing family legends, how does she reconcile the truth with the stories she was told? Innocent mistakes, arising from the confusing murk of history? Or deliberate lies?
Krug's forensic reconstruction of her family history, and the history of the city of Karlsruhe, in which they lived, is remarkable. Through repeat visits to Germany, archival research, interviews with surviving relatives and townsfolk, she helps to paint a picture of what life was like during the Nazi period and the difficult choices people had to make. For better or for worse, she inserts her own judgement into the picture: this is what renders the book both so personally compelling as well as so provocative.
At times, her pursuit of answers, and her obsession with the question of her family's involvement in the war, seems nearly obsessive, and incongruous for someone generations removed from the war. Why is she so consumed by the issue? Is it merely to sell a book? But her persistent determination narrows the gap of any reader's skepticism. Recounting the stories of Karlsruhe's Jews, trucked off to their fates while neighbours and friends did nothing, generates the necessary sense of outrage: yes, this matters. Even after so many years and decades and generations, the crimes that were committed and the culpable silences which made it possible for them to be committed, still matter and still demand an accounting.
Moreover, Krug's skepticism proves well-founded. Early in the book, she's skeptical when she hears accounts handed down through her family which appear to exonerate or cast her relatives in an inoffensive or innocent light. Her research debunks and complicates these accounts. Her grandfather was a member of the Nazi party, to the surprise of some of her relatives. She disproves other family stories that were handed down; researches subtle lies in the historical record, which even the Allied bureaucracy was unable to figure out after the war. The truth is more complicated than it originally sounded.
Which is not to say that her ancestors were guilty. (The question – guilty of what? Complicity? Silence? Fear? – assumes immense proportions as well in such a story). She recognizes, in a critical sort of way, the difficult terrain they had to navigate, and the challenges of making ethical decisions under such terrain; decisions which they might not even have been recognized as ethical ones at the time. Her grandfather joined the Nazi party – but credible anti-Nazi and Jewish friends of his asserted later that it was under duress, a bureaucratic requirement to open the driving school he wished to operate. But was it really duress? Could he not have pursued a different career? How much inkling did he have, at the time, of how villainous the Nazi party really was?
In a remarkable series of panels, she depicts the various alternate choices he could have made in response to the difficult challenge he faced. It's both audacious and refreshing to see people's difficult decisions challenged and questioned, to be reminded that even in the most unpalatable of circumstances we have alternatives, and can't rely on the normalization of bad actions -- 'everyone else was doing it'; 'it didn't seem like a big deal' -- to exonerate us under the more critical and scrutinizing gaze of historical judgement.
Krug's narrative forces an interesting reflection on guilt. She describes her quest not so much in terms of guilt, however, but in terms of "the responsibility that we all have as inheritors of our countries' pasts", yet the emotional valence her narrative assumes means that implicitly these are questions of guilt, as well. Belonging is a nearly perfect book, yet if anything, it is this relationship that could use with more fleshing out than is offered. There is indeed a responsibility of sorts that comes with inheriting a country's past, which shapes the privileges, opportunities and forms of oppression that one experiences, but it's experienced differently by different people, and shaped by the shifting power dynamics and identity politics of the present.
Krug's own identity as an expatriate lends a further unique dimension to her experience of this, and while a historical exploration of family history does not perhaps allow the space to consider all of these broader questions, the reader is sometimes left wondering what the proper way to reconcile nation, individual, history and responsibility/guilt truly is. But perhaps the question is meant to be open-ended, and left to each individual to grapple with.
Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich - The photographic reproduction was done by Cybershot800i. (Diff), Public Domain, WikiMedia Commons)
Krug's inquiry is relentless, and driven by a profound sense of mission. The crimes she outlines (and she outlines them in precise and unsparing detail) committed by Nazis (and their many predecessors over the centuries; anti-Semitism is a relentless dynamic, not just a maniacal Nazi policy, we are reminded) certainly demand accountability and justice. Yet seeing an expatriate German generations removed from the war assume such a sense of guilt is unsettling, and perhaps that is the book's most provocative point. In some ways, to appropriate the guilt of a previous generation is to decontextualize it: it's hard to present or lay out the lived reality of people without the sense of immediacy which drives the choices they make. It's one thing to consider options from the comfortable distance of six decades; another thing entirely to make choices while living under totalitarian rule and in fear of one's life. Yet that's not to dismiss the importance of rendering judgement: it's precisely because the decisions we make under duress have such serious consequences (and in the case of Nazi Germany, tragic and genocidal ones) that they must be judged by history and accountability rendered.
Further to her credit, Krug's technique of spanning multiple generations allows her a usefully broad vantage. She examines the circumstances under which her grandparents were raised; the tragedies and traumas that shaped their lives and perspectives even before the war. And she considers the experience of post-war generations, too. This helps the reader both to draw the requisite connections to see how the war continues to shape Germans' experiences so many decades later, while also avoiding the narrow moral snapshots which can emerge from only looking at a slice of history (what Ian Buruma, in his superb comparison of German and Japanese war guilt The Wages of Guilt (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994), referred to as "the romance of the ruins").
Yet appropriating guilt can be a tricky thing, especially when it spans generations. More and more of the world's populations are realizing this: not just Germans and other nationalities that are grappling with fascist histories, but also settler populations in the Americas and other colonized spaces (Canada, the United States, Australia, etc.) find themselves grappling with the genocide perpetrated by their predecessors against Indigenous peoples, which boils down to the same core issue: "the responsibility that we all have as inheritors of our countries' pasts." The problem of dealing with guilt-ridden legacies echoes through these otherwise disparate contexts (or perhaps not so disparate: Aime Cesaire argued compellingly that fascism was colonialism turned back on itself and applied to Europe).
One is right to maintain a certain skepticism when someone embraces guilt so whole-heartedly. It can be genuine, but for some it can also be self-serving; there's no shortage of academics and writers who reap considerable profit and prestige from locating themselves at the heart of fraught issues, and leverage their guilt in performative ways to achieve tenure, win grants, or sell books. But Krug's examination is so relentlessly personal that it doesn't seem self-serving. Indeed, it might even offer a model for understanding the complexity of collective guilt and responsibility, by demonstrating the value of individual reconciliation with the gaps and responsibilities generated by history. For Krug, her identity and past has led her to grapple with questions of personal shame and atonement (as she describes it), yet in the end she's forced to accept that some questions will remain unanswered; that her knowledge of the past – what people did and why they did it – will have insurmountable limits, and that she must reconcile herself to them, and learn to live in the awkward spaces they produce.
Krug's narrative alternates between comic and scrapbook format, and is book-ended by a number of narrative techniques that help to draw out the idea of home and belonging. Sections labelled "Things German, from the notebook of a homesick émigré" present different ideas or objects that she associates with growing up in Germany: Brot (bread), say, or Warmflasche (hot water bottle). These everyday objects are associated with a warm and comforting sense of childhood for Krug, but it's a nostalgia that intersects in troubled fashion with an awareness of the hidden guilt which now permeates her sense of home and belonging.
Other sections - "Flea Market Finds" - present more everyday objects she's come across in flea markets or online, emblematic of everyday life yet now also troubled by an awareness of the historical trauma which lies unspoken amid these everyday memories and objects. Photos of families and soldiers; old bits of soldiers' uniforms; WWII-era toys and trading cards; all of them cheap, accessible, and sought after by hobbyists yet also permeated with a troubled awareness of the historical context in which they were produced. Krug achieves a superb archive of the everyday: from the haircuts of the Third Reich to the school assignments of children growing up in its shadow. She charts the shifting geographies of Nazi-era telephone books, and walks the streets of Karlsruhe, measuring out her ancestors' proximity to Jewish homes and sites of atrocities so as to understand their daily experience of fascism.
Belonging impacts along two registers. On the one hand it produces a heart-wrenching sadness at the plight of the Europeans – Jewish and non-Jewish alike - whose lives were twisted and destroyed by fascism. Seeing young children inserting anti-Semitic comments in their school homework, and formerly enthusiastic soldiers on the front lines writing letters home in which they seem to realize, too late, the error of their ways, is heart-wrenching, as of course is witnessing the genocide perpetrated against the Jews. On the other hand, it generates a complex reckoning with the present, and with the question of historical responsibility and accountability. Krug achieves both these things through the intense subjectivity of her approach. Unlike works like last year's over-hyped Sabrina, which try to say clever things about the present through a sort of detached irony, Krug grabs the reader with both hands and bares her soul. The impact is far more visceral, intelligent and long-lasting, and leaves the reader with a far deeper and more troubled reflection on the intersection of past and present.
Photo of Nora Krug courtesy of Simon and Schuster