Creator: Barbara Yelin
If we are to learn one thing from history it should be that every recorded occurrence has been governed by self-interest. The combination of the survival instinct and circumstances of power dictate the rise and fall of economy, culture, nations and species.
The mass genocide committed by the Nazi Party between 1941 and 1945 was one of the most atrocious periods of violence in history, with 11 million lives wasted because one absurd ideology became an epidemic.
Holocaust survivors and perpetrators alike are mostly memory themselves now; many of their untold stories lost forever. While the film and publishing industries have been attempting to recreate individual horrors of the period since it happened, there has been little attempt to comprehend the Nazi point of view, for reasons that are obvious but perhaps misguided.
Yelin was prompted to consider the mindset of ‘ordinary Germans’ during the Nazi occupation.
Artist and comic book creator Barbara Yelin is part of a generation of Germans that needs to understand this part of their country’s history in its entirety. Finding a box of war-time letters after her grandmother’s death, Yelin was prompted to consider the mindset of “ordinary Germans” during the Nazi occupation through the half-revelations of her grandmother’s transition from independent idealism to the wife of an active party member.
Irmina is Yelin’s fictional recreation of her grandmother’s story, in which she attempts to understand how a nation became complicit in such a wide-scale annihilation of human rights. The graphic novel takes place in three distinct parts; the titular Irmina’s time spent studying in England before the war, her return to Berlin where she meets her husband, and her visit to Barbados as an elderly woman.
In her youth, Irmina is astonishingly naive. She avoids her friends’ conversations about the possibility of war, saying that the politics of her country have nothing to do with her and her own ambitions. She considers herself independent from the world around her, frequently exclaiming that she does what she wants and avoiding the connotations of her cultural identity at that time.
Irmina clearly carries the weight of complicity across the book’s 300 or so pages.
It’s interesting then that a young woman who is open minded enough to undertake a romantic relationship with a black man in a time when racial discrimination was rife throughout Europe could be so affected by Nazi propaganda that by 1942 she is telling her young son that, “Jews are our misfortune.”
While Yelin doesn’t allow the narration to judge its protagonist, Irmina clearly carries the weight of complicity across the book’s 300 or so pages. Her thought process is largely cut off from the reader so that we are able to judge her by her actions rather than her own justifications. However, the denial and then guilt in her manner and expression are clear from Yelin’s detailed artwork and the protagonist is never entirely lost to our sympathy.
At first glance, the dialogue seems a bit shaky. Irmina’s tone is often harsh, sounding defensive and sullen throughout her life. Translation is perhaps partly to blame for odd turns of phrase, but, in the case of Irmina’s character, dialogue is considerably less important than her visual story; the changes in her clear from the changes in her clothing, hair and posture.
Yelin is an incredible artist, and the detail of her combined pencil and watercolour landscapes give a tragically accurate depiction of war-time London and Berlin.
Howard, Irmina’s early love interest who has travelled from Barbados to study at Oxford, by contrast is much more articulate. His dialogue shows his intelligence and social awareness in such a way that Irmina appears silly by contrast. Her initial rejection of political influence to follow her self-serving desires is clearly appealing to him as someone so restrained by the outside world, but his conversations with her seem to suggest early on that their relationship is dependent on her facing reality at some point.
So much of Irmina’s texture comes from the graphic medium that shapes it that it is hard to imagine the story being told in any other way. Yelin is an incredible artist, and the detail of her combined pencil and watercolour landscapes give a tragically accurate depiction of war-time London and Berlin.
Colour is used very sparingly throughout the first two sections to define the pervading atmosphere of hardship and terror. Irmina’s visit to Barbados at the end of the book is a shocking contrast of bright beauty that highlights her nostalgia for a life she never lived.
Irmina’s continued routine of denial and escape epitomises our impression of a collective cognitive dissonance that contributed to the Nazi party’s power.
Irmina is overflowing with a sadness that encompasses a generation. Its themes reveal the smaller tragedies of war that are lost among the destruction of lives and cities. Irmina’s entire personality was corrupted and altered by her situation, snatching away a beautiful and unlikely life that could have been hers. Although her husband was clearly a great love in Irmina’s life, their relationship, set in darkness, isn’t romanticised and so we feel the loss of Howard and the colour of Barbados even more deeply.
History may be “written by the victors”, but if we are to learn from it then it’s important to consider all points of view. Irmina’s continued routine of denial and escape epitomises our impression of a collective cognitive dissonance that contributed to the Nazi party’s power. It’s impossible to kill an idea, especially when evidence of that idea is being built in front of you and so survival instincts dictate that we sacrifice and adapt.
In the decades following the war there were several trials and interviews with members of the party who attempted to explain their position. Still more of those involved kept their experiences to themselves despite desperately wanting to talk about them, as author Holly Müller discovered during her research for her beautifully written debut My Own Dear Brother.
Many of these stories have faded from the world but, of those that remain, Irmina is a significant examination of history as well as an all-encompassing story about the consequences of social manipulation.