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When the Man of Steel’s Jewish creators got into a real-life feud with the Nazis.
Superman is probably the most famous fictional character in the world. From Australia to Algeria to Alaska, from toddlers to seniors, most people know who Superman is. What most people don’t know, however, is that he’s a Jewish character.
Created in the 1930s by two Jewish high schoolers in Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, The Man of Steel – or Champion of the Oppressed, as he was first known – was a reaction-formation to the rise of Nazism in Europe and antisemitism at home.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, 1942.
As original as the first superhero was, Siegel and Shuster drew inspiration from a variety of sources in their cultural orbit, including Jewish faith and folklore. They gave him the origin story of Moses, a baby saved in a small vessel sent adrift to the unknown, raised by people not his own, becoming in adulthood a mighty, miracle-working savior. They gave him the strength and drive for truth and justice of Samson, the mighty judge. They made him an indestructible defender of the innocent like the golem of Prague. And they sent him to fight Nazis, in comics and in real life.
In his comic books Superman served as a grassroots propaganda figure for Jewish interests, promoting British rearmament, intervention in the war, refugee asylum and the New Deal. But mostly, he cathartically punched Nazis in the face.
While the character’s boosterism has been noted often, little has been made of just how effective he was in raising the Nazis’ ire, and how personal the feud became.
In the February 27, 1940 issue of the popular magazine Look, Superman openly declared war on Hitler and Stalin (who were still allies then) – almost two years before Pearl Harbor and America’s involvement in the war.
In the specially-commissioned two-page story “How Superman Would End the War,” he breaks through the Siegfried Line, twisting Nazi cannons into knots, tearing open concrete barricades and swatting the Luftwaffe, and in short order reaches Hitler’s retreat. Lifting the Führer by the throat, he declares, “I’d like to land a strictly non-Arian sock on your jaw, but there’s no time for that!” He then flies to Russia to grab Stalin and drags the dictators by the scruff of their necks to Geneva to stand trial for war crimes.
Superman’s choice of words is noteworthy. He proclaims he’s “strictly non-Arian” even though he’s the ideal of Arian physiognomy; broad frame, square jaw, cleft chin, sharp small nose and deep blue eyes. And yet it was important to Siegel and Shuster to make clear that their avatar was something else. Not one of them but one of us.
The story was printed in shades of red, white and gray, making Superman appear barelegged. It only added to Hitler’s ignominy, being slapped around by a man in briefs.
It was great wish-fulfillment, but ultimately Superman was just a kid’s comic book character. He didn’t matter. Except that he did – to the Nazis.
On April 25, Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps), the official newspaper of the SS, published a full-page tirade accusing Superman of being a conspiracy to brainwash American children with false Jewish values like compassion for the weak and defense of the innocent;
Jerry Siegel, an intellectually and physically circumcised chap who has his headquarters in New York….advertised widely Superman’s sense of justice, well-suited for imitation by the American youth….who must live in such a poisoned atmosphere and don’t even notice the poison they swallow daily.
Several accounts attribute the article directly to Josef Goebbels, and a popular story in the press at the time also claimed Goebbels had a conniption about Superman in the middle of a Reichstag meeting. Either way, the article was widely reported on in the States.
The German American Bund also sent Joe Shuster hate mail and picketed DC Comics’ offices. Siegel and Shuster didn’t publically respond to either. Instead, they did what they did best; strike in fiction.
In Superman #25, super-spoof Geezer, a popular comic book superhero with the same powers as the “real” Superman, dressed in an orange barelegged costume – a reference to his discoloration in Look – manages to infuriate the Nazis.
The comic’s artist, Henry Jones, is an exaggerated Shuster lookalike; short, scrawny, sharp-nosed, bespectacled and nebbishy, also fitting the Jewish stereotype in general.
Infuriated that Geezer comics have made Hitler “the laughing stock of the world,” the Nazis try to kill Jones with different ploys, which Superman keeps thwarting. But when Jones is kidnapped by Nazi agents, it’s not Superman who comes to the rescue. Instead, he swoops in to save the day dressed like Geezer, getting justice, vindication and a final insult at the same time.
It’s a delightful layering of mimesis; Superman embodied his creators’ wishful selves, taking the place here of his own in-comic pastiche, to protect Shuster’s stand-in, in a story that’s a response to the SS article, which was a reaction to the Look story. Art imitating life, imitating art, and back again.
The two Jewish youths’ personal war with the vaunted master race didn’t end there. Superman continued to fight and humiliate Nazis in his comics, while in the real world his popularity became so great that the U.S. government used him to promote enlistment, blood donations, paper and metal drives, and war stamps and bonds sales, to great success.
And once the U.S. joined the war, with 8 million servicemen reading comics regularly, Superman essentially became regulation equipment. Tanks, jeeps, boats and planes were named after him and decorated with his image. An entire air force bomb squadron made him its official insignia.
With American forces carrying his comics in their pocket and his image on their vehicles, Superman, and through him Siegel and Shuster, were right there on the frontlines, fighting Nazis.