Hergé and the second world war (1939 - 1945)

Dossier ~ Monday 7th September 2009
King Ottokar's Sceptre (1939) - Page 47]

On 1 September 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland. This action was to start a second war that would swallow up the entire world. Long before it began, Hergé had already decided which side he was on.

A war without mercy

70 years on, and it can still be difficult to understand how and why the parties involved reacted in the way that they did. Why did the invasion of Poland provoke war ? Hitler had already committed such serious crimes that a declaration of war could have been on the cards much earlier, and yet this didn't happen. For example, the annexation of Austria (the Anschluss) in 1938 resulted in only moderate and muted protests. On 1 December 1938 it was Czechoslovakia's turn to be taken over (at the time, the Czech Republic was united with Slovakia). Faced with Hitler's relentless expansionism, France and Great Britain confirmed that any action taken against Poland would result in a declaration of war. France and Great Britain united to guarantee the integrity of Polish territory : an attack against Poland would be considered an attack against France and Great Britain. Hitler paid no attention to this threat. On 3 September, the two Allies declared war on Germany.

The partisan cartoonist

At a time when Europe was gearing up for battle, Belgium was one of the countries (along with Holland and Luxembourg, notably) that declared itself neutral: neither for one side nor the other. From September 1939, the Belgian government gave tacit instructions to the press, cautioning them to maintain a balance between praise and criticism regarding Germany and the Allies. In December 1939 Hergé published a comic strip featuring Monsieur Bellum, who is anything but neutral. The punch line of the joke is unambiguous : " Hitler is a madman ! "

Against the flow

The Monsieur Bellum cartoon was one of four published in the Belgian satirical magazine L'Ouest. Hergé used it to clearly express his anti-Nazi sentiments, and to align himself on the side of the Allies. Funnily enough, this position incurred the resentment of the Belgian political establishment, as Hergé was going against the line imposed on the press. This ill will would follow Hergé until the liberation of Belgium, and played a part in the troubles he faced at that time. Hergé was never a man to howl with the wolves or to follow the sheep! Nearly all Tintin's adventures take some kind of stand against dominant ideologies, all too often bereft of human warmth. The plight of human beings is the subject that most inspired the author. One only has to think back to the favourable portrayals and support he gave to Native Americans (Tintin in America), gipsies (The Castafiore Emerald) and Tibetans (Tintin in Tibet).

Quick and Flupke versus Hitler and Mussolini

Hergé didn't wait until 1939 and Monsieur Bellum to denounce Nazism and Fascism. From as early as 3 August 1933, readers of Le Petit Vingtième discovered a cartoon of Quick and Flupke with the pretty title Music above Everything. Hergé's anti-Nazi sentiments are profound and consistent: not simply a flash in the pan.

Syldavia = Belgium ?

With hindsight, King Ottokar's Sceptre reveals itself as much more than a gripping adventure. Syldavia is a small, pacifist, and apparently neutral country, ruled by a pacifist king. Within the king's entourage, plotters are planning a coup that will see control of the country handed over to an aggressive foreign power. It's hard not to make the link with Belgium before the war. On 10 May 1940 Nazi troops invaded the country. Hergé also made a very open statement in this regard: Tintin takes up the cause of the Syldavian king and foils the barbaric plans of a traitor called Müsstler, a name made out of two syllables thinly disguising the names Mussolini and Hitler.

To finish on a more light - hearted note...

Despite the ever-decreasing number of living witnesses, the Second World War is still an important topic. Debates concerning the responsibility of Germany and Russia for the invasion of Poland were rekindled by the September 2009 commemoration of this act of aggression. But to finish on a more upbeat note. While the world remembers the beginning of the Second World War on 1 September 1939, at the same time a CD has entered the UK top 20 album chart. The singer has just celebrated her 92nd birthday ! Dame Vera Lynn was the English singer during the war years. We'll Meet Again and The White Cliffs of Dover were big hits during the war. The compilation of the best-loved songs of Dame Vera Lynn  -  who received an OBE and a DBE from the Queen  -  was one of the hits of the summer of 2009. Music above everything !

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