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Maus | Context

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Most of the events of Maus take place before and during World War II in Poland. The main character, Vladek Spiegelman, is a Polish Jew who survived both battle on the front lines as a soldier and eventually the Holocaust in Poland and Germany.

The Division of Poland and Start of World War II

By 1939 Adolf Hitler, the Führer of Germany and the leader of the National Socialist German Workers' (Nazi) Party, wanted two things as part of his plan for world domination: more German territory and fewer Jewish people in that territory. Famously anti-Semitic since his youth, Hitler believed Jews were a subhuman race intent on taking over the world as enemies of Germany. His message spread like wildfire when he became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, and it became the official party line when he obtained dictatorial control that spring. Jews were harassed, discriminated against, and chased out of Germany throughout the rest of the 1930s, fleeing to nearby countries for safety.

This safe zone rapidly shrank as the German army mobilized and began taking over central and eastern Europe, starting with Austria in 1938, followed by present-day Czechoslovakia. Hitler had his eye on Poland next. He didn't want its neighbor, Russia, to stand in his way, so he made a deal with the communist country to divide Poland in two. Germany got the western third and Russia would get the rest. But Poland, which had only recently become an independent nation after 100 years of foreign rule, obtained an agreement of promised protection from Great Britain and France should Germany invade. Hitler was infuriated by this countermove and hastened plans for an attack. German forces entered Poland on September 1, 1939; Great Britain and France declared war two days later. World War II had begun, and the Nazi armies soon conquered the outnumbered Poles.

Nazi Germany Attempts Eradication of Jewish Race

The Nazi Party championed an "Aryan," or so-called pure-blood German race, and in their minds the only way to ensure its growth and purity was to destroy competing ethnicities, first and foremost the Jews. While they tried to figure out how to solve the "problem" of the Jews, Nazi officials across German territory began forcing Jewish families out of their homes and herding them into ghettos, all of them much too small for the number of people living there. In Warsaw, Poland, for example, with the largest Jewish population in Europe, 30 percent of the city's population were housed in just 2.4 percent of the city's area after the rapid German military victory over Poland. Food was scarce, work was either nonexistent or nonpaying, and disease spread rapidly. Thousands of people died from the poor living conditions alone.

The Jewish ghettos were a stopover point on the way to the Nazi's final solution: mass murder. For years the Nazis had executed criminals and opponents of the party, but in 1941 they began orchestrating mass shootings of hundreds of Jews at a time. The process became more efficient in 1942, when Nazi leadership agreed to establish not just concentration facilities but extermination camps. These "death factories" were constructed for the express purpose of killing thousands of Jews in one place. Entire ghettos were emptied onto freight train cars which took them to one of the six extermination camps in Poland. Prisoners were herded into large gas chambers, which were then filled with carbon monoxide or Zyklon-B, a pesticide. Their bodies were then destroyed in massive crematoriums.

The largest extermination camp was Auschwitz, near the city of Oswiecim in southern Poland. Auschwitz was actually three separate camps. The first, built in 1940, was a concentration, or prison, camp. The second, Birkenau, was built in 1941 as an extermination camp. The third, Buna-Monowitz, was a slave labor camp opened in 1942 and heavily funded by German industrial companies. Of the estimated 1.5 million people who died at Auschwitz between 1941 and 1945, approximately 90 percent were Jewish brought there from everywhere in Europe the Germans had conquered.

There are no firm counts of how many people died during the Holocaust, but historians estimate six million Jewish men, women, and children lost their lives to the Nazi ideology of racial purity. An estimated 34 to 46 million more people of all nationalities and races died on the battlefields or at home between 1939 and 1945, making World War II the largest and deadliest war in history.

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