By Alana Vincent
It’s worth interrogating exactly when, and how, and why, Magneto became Jewish. When the character was first introduced in 1963, he was a fairly standard comic-book villain, wreaking havoc which the protagonists must oppose for the sake of plot advancement. It wasn’t until 1975 that Chris Claremont took over writing the X-Men and decided to delve into Magneto’s background in a bid to make him a more sympathetic, complex character, that Magneto began to be portrayed as a Holocaust survivor.
In May 1960, Adolf Eichmann was captured in Argentina and transported to Jerusalem, where he stood trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity in December 1961. The prosecutor, Attorney General Gideon Hausner, presented a wide range of evidence pertaining not only to Eichmann’s individual conduct but to the organisation and implementation of the Holocaust more generally. The public nature of the trial, both in Israel and abroad (particularly in America, where Hannah Arendt’s reporting on the trial ran initially as a series of articles in The New Yorker), did considerably more to imprint a public memory of the Holocaust—and to link that memory with the foundation of the State of Israel—than the Yad Vashem museum which had opened its doors to the public some four years previously.
The six-day war, in 1967, marked an even greater turning point for American perception of Israel, from a charity case, a nation of beleaguered refugees towards whom the correct policy stance was one of “sympathy,” to an important ally, a wielder of military power in its own right—still requiring substantial support, of course, but support which could be considered in the light of an investment. This perception was buttressed by the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This is the immediate context in which Claremont, searching for a backstory for a villain whose main canonical motivation up to that point had been a desire to establish mutant supremacy, hit upon the Holocaust as the key to unlocking the depths of Magneto’s character.
If he was writing Uncanny X-Men today, Claremont might have had cause to think twice about this choice. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definiton of Antisemitism (adopted 26 May 2016) specifically highlights comparisons between contemporary Israeli policy and the policies of Nazi Germany as an example of antisemitism, and while Magneto is never portrayed as acting on behalf of the State of Israel, his pre-Claremont depictions are rife with Nazi-esque imagery. Claremont’s refiguring of Magneto as a Holocaust survivor was a choice to re-frame this imagery as an example of the popular psycho-legal phenomenon of a victim turned into a perpetrator, compulsively repeating (wiederholungszwang) the circumstances of his initial victimisation.
In 1975, the transformation of a nation of refugees into a formidable military power sounded more like a redemption arc than it does today. Magneto’s backstory encompassed more than traumatisation in a death camp; it also came to include a past (and present) as a Nazi hunter, Mossad agent, and CIA asset—mirroring public perception of the superhero-like performance of the Israeli Defence Force in the 1970’s and 80’s (see also Adam Sandler’s 2008 You Don’t Mess with the Zohan). But Claremont’s choice to make Magneto a Holocaust survivor was not straightforwardly a choice to make him Jewish; in the early 1990’s Magneto was portrayed as a Gypsy survivor of Auschwitz named Erik Lehnsherr. What looked like simple good storytelling back in the 1970’s had by the 1990’s become a politically fraught choice which the writers struggled to find a good way of addressing. To make Magneto’s Holocaust experience the explanation for his villainy was to risk the suggestion that all victims of atrocities are potential perpetrators of similar atrocities, a suggestion which became increasingly uncomfortable as, in the aftermath of the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre, the potential for Jewish violence ceased to become a source of redemptive pride. At the same time, the attempt to separate portray Magneto as a Gypsy was also criticised as a form of Jewish erasure. This portrayal was, finally, canonically disavowed in 1998 (X-Men #72), when “Erik Lehnsherr the Sinti” was revealed to be a forged identity.
In 2008, the 5-part series X-Men: Magneto Testament attempted to harmonise the various references to Magneto’s background by portraying his experience as a child, named Max Eisenhardt, growing up first in Nuremberg under Nazi rule, and then eventually in Auschwitz, where he became a member of the Sonderkommando, participating in the 1944 uprising. Unlike the earlier X-Men series, in which the Holocaust was glancingly referred to as part of Magneto’s backstory, to explain and prompt sympathy for his mutant-supremacist activities, Magneto Testament has no hint of superpowers in it; unlike X-Men: First Class (2011) there is no suggestion that Magneto’s powers manifested in Auschwitz or enabled his survival in any way. It’s a straightforward Holocaust graphic novel, drawn in muted colours, connected to superheroes only by the name on the front cover.
Of course, by 2008 Marvel must have felt itself open to criticism for its continued use of the Holocaust as set-dressing in the tragic backstory of one of its longest-established supervillains. Magneto Testament was an opportunity to insulate against critiques of the historical sloppiness of the references in the earlier books. And so a robust, historically sensitive portrayal of Holocaust experience, in which a superhero name is used as the set-dressing that hooks the reader in, may have been a strategic move to insulate against such critiques. But the need for such a move is itself an indication of exactly how substantially the popular memory of the Holocaust, and even more so perceptions of the actions of the IDF as redemptive violence, has altered in the decades since Claremont first conceived of Magneto as a Holocaust survivor.
Alana M. Vincent is Associate Professor of Jewish Philosophy, Religion and Imagination at the University of Chester. She holds a PhD from Glasgow University (Centre for Literature, Theology and the Arts). She is the author of Culture, Communion and Recovery: Tolkienian Fairy-Story and Inter-Religious Exchange and Making Memory: Jewish and Christian Explorations in Monument, Narrative and Liturgy. She is currently writing a book for the Theology and Pop Culture series entitled Holocaust Memory, Political Theology, and Pop Culture, due out in 2021. Visit her personal website here.