The Case for an African Magneto: African Experiences of Torture and Oppression during World War II

The internet broke in August when Zack Stentz, the writer of X-Men: First Class, tweeted that he wanted Giancarlo Esposito to play a reimagined Magneto. Stentz proposed that Esposito’s Magneto could be a Tutsi man who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide and became a different version of the classic character featured in the X-Men comics, cartoons, and films over the past six decades.

For the most part, negative responses to Stentz’s tweet focused on a common theme: Magneto’s origin story centers on his identity as a Jewish person who suffered through the Holocaust. Some critics of Stentz’s proposition of a Rwandan Magneto also said that the introduction of Magneto as an X-Men character offered Jewish representation during a time of intense anti-Semitism in the US. I appreciate this argument because representation matters, especially because of the recent spike in hate crimes in this country. Still, creating a reimagined version of a character does not necessarily erase the “original.” The immense creativity of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse shows us that reimagining characters is both possible and profitable. Beyond making me cry every single time I watch the movie with my kids, Spider-Verse brought in $375 million in box offices worldwide and won an Oscar in 2019. The success of Spider-Verse provides us with an opportunity to rethink the obsession with canon as we approach characters in the Marvel Universe.

Sculpted replica of the Magneto helmet from X-Men: First Class. (frogDNA/Flickr)

Let’s return to the primary frustration with Stentz’s proposal: Magneto is a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Well, that wasn’t always true. I reached out to Stentz through Twitter and found out that he is also a history nerd and was more than willing to chat with me about genocide and cinematic representations of comics. According to Stentz, “Magneto’s origin as a Holocaust survivor wasn’t baked into the character from the start – it was a ret-con added by Chris Claremont in the early 1980s.” That being said, Magneto stans will still likely argue that even though his Jewish roots are a recent addition, canon is canon. According to this canon, Magneto has an origin story with roots in Germany, though most would argue that the Holocaust was a crucial and defining moment in the progression of his life as a mutant. Rather than making Magneto a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide as Stentz suggested, one could easily make a Second World War–era African Magneto who was subjected to similar kinds of violence as Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Creating an African Magneto who survived violence and genocide during the Second World War would not erase other iterations of Magneto or the recognition of the immense crimes against Jewish populations during the Holocaust. Instead, it would provide an opportunity to address the historical erasure of violence against African soldiers and civilians during this global conflict.

Most people know very little about African involvement in WWII, so I’ll provide a little context. By the Second World War, European colonizers created systems of colonialism that emphasized maximizing exports of cash crops and manpower throughout most of the continent. Colonial powers crafted abusive labor regimes that became even more toxic during the conflict. At a basic level, the Second World War influenced daily life for Africans throughout the continent. Africans served in colonial militaries for the French, British, Italians, and Belgians … and not always by choice. North and East Africa were the sites of significant military campaigns. French Equatorial Africa and Cameroon became the hub of Free France in Africa after France fell to the Germans in 1940. Ultimately, European colonizers depended on their colonies in Africa to fund, fight, and work to fuel the war effort.

Still of Haile Selassie’s address to the League of Nations in 1936. (My.Footage.com)

With that context, we can delve into the experiences of Africans during the Second World War and connections to Magneto’s origin story. There are countless Africans who experienced torture, medical experimentation, and life in concentration camps in Africa and Europe during the Second World War. Italy subjected Ethiopian civilians to mustard gas during the 1935–1936 Italo-Ethiopian War, which was arguably the beginning of the Second World War, considering the fact that Italy invaded a sovereign nation and subjected it to fascist rule.1 Emperor Haile Selassie stood before the League of Nations in June 1936 and spoke about Italian atrocities in Ethiopia: “It is not only upon warriors that the Italian Government has made war. It has above all attacked populations far removed from hostilities, in order to terrorize and exterminate them.” Still, the world looked away. The Graziani massacre, in which “Blackshirts armed with rifles, pistols, bombs, and flame-throwers were turned loose on the natives and an appalling massacre was carried out for three days,” mirrors Magneto’s painful memories of Kristallnacht and its influence on him as a child and a mutant.2 We also can’t forget the presence of brutal concentration camps in East Africa before and during the war. The journey from Addis Ababa to the camps was dangerous, deadly, and lasted for approximately four weeks. Those who endured the journey rode by night in cramped trucks without seating, though many prisoners died from illness and the harsh conditions of the voyage along the way.3 After they arrived at the Danane and Nokra camps, Ethiopian men, women, and children experienced immense brutality and horrific conditions.4

Tunisian Lieutenant and tirailleur from the 4th RTA during the First World War (1917). (Merly.R/Wikimedia Commons)

The experiences of tirailleurs, or riflemen, from West Africa, who fought for the French metropole in the Battle for France, mirror Magneto’s experiences with encroaching fascism and violence. France recruited West Africans to serve as tirailleurs and even used a comic series called Mamadou s’en va t’en guerre to attract young upstanding Muslim men to join the war effort.5 Mamadou, the protagonist, inspired his friends to join the ranks and eventually travelled to France, where he received exceptional treatment from French civilians.6 Incidentally, La Gazette du Tirailleur published the last issue of Mamadou s’en va t’en guerre shortly before the Fall of France. The chronology is particularly fitting because the treatment of tirailleurs after France’s defeat contrasted with propaganda representations of fair, equitable experiences of enlisted West African and Black French men. Historian Raffael Scheck explores how German myths of African savagery fueled extreme levels of violence and massacres that specifically targeted African men.7 Africans fighting for France faced German flamethrowers, artillery, death marches, execution squads, and POW camps for those who survived.8 Approximately 15,000–20,000 tirailleurs arrived in German camps during the war. There they received minimal food, abysmal medical care, and often experienced physical violence and random killings.9 Pulmonary disease and illnesses became huge issues that led to death for many tirailleurs interned in camps.10 While some tirailleurs were housed with French families to recover, more died in wartime prison camps. Léopold Senghor, one of the fathers of the Négritude literary movement and the future president of Senegal, received a medical release from a camp in 1942. He eventually published Hosties Noires, a book of poems that he wrote during his time in a camp, which offers insight into the toll the war took on tirailleurs.11

Experimentation is a major theme in Magneto’s backstory, but you can also find actions that violate understandings of medical ethics in World War II-era Africa. For example, West Africans endured repercussions of wartime environmental degradation and medical experimentation. In addition to desecrating the Korle Lagoon, a sacred space in the Gold Coast, British and American military forces sprayed bodies of water with paris green, used pyrethrum aerosol bombs and spray to kill mosquitoes, and sprayed DDT throughout the city of Accra (including into wells that provided water to the metropolitan area).12 The British Army used African labor to create small shack-like trap structures where vulnerable and marginalized migrant laborers served as bait and hosts for a study tracking mosquito attraction.13 Soldiers monitored test subjects to make sure they did not leave the stiflingly hot and severely uncomfortable traps.14 On the European front, Nazi Germany sterilized countless African-Germans without consent in the 1930s and 1940s.

These are just a few examples of the brutal conditions endured by Africans during WWII. Just like with Magneto and Jewish victims of the Holocaust, the perpetrators justified massacres, internment, and experimentation on African bodies with arguments of racial inferiority. The post-war era led to unprecedented levels of political action throughout the continent. For example, Senegalese tirailleurs protested for back-pay and were executed by the French during the Camp de Thiaroye massacre in 1947.15 Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and women in Abeokuta, Nigeria, protested against the British colonial government in the post-war years due to exploitation and the hypocrisy of colonial rule.16 While Magneto struggled with the mutant/human divide, Africans throughout the continent pondered the future of relationships between the colonies and the colonizers.

Magneto’s origin story is not all that different from the experiences of millions of Africans throughout the course of the Second World War. Yet, a striking difference has to do with the way that they are respectively remembered. The erasure of black bodies during the Second World War is a significant issue that we must address. Making an African Magneto is not the sole solution, but it could spawn a larger conversation on race and the way we remember World War II.

Notes

  1. Lina Grip and John Hart, “The Use of Chemical Weapons in the 1935–36 Italo-Ethiopian War,” SIPRI Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programmme, October 2009. Return to text.
  2. Biography of Graziani, quoted in Richard Pankhurst, “Italian Fascist War Crimes in Ethiopia: A History of Their Discussion, from the League of Nations to the United Nations (1936–1949),” Northeast African Studies 6, no. 1/2 (1999): 119. Return to text.
  3. Ian Campbell, The Addis Ababa Massacre: Italy’s National Shame (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 232. Return to text.
  4. Michael R. Ebner and Geoff Simons, Ordinary Violence in Mussolini’s Italy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 261. Return to text.
  5. Myron Echenberg, “‘Morts Pour la France’; The African Soldier in France During the Second World War,” Journal of African History 26, no. 4 (1985): 363–380. Return to text.
  6. Echenberg, “‘Morts Pour la France,’” 366. Return to text.
  7. Raffael Scheck, “‘They Are Just Savages’: German Massacres of Black Soldiers from the French Army in 1940,” Journal of Modern History 77, no. 2 (June 2005): 325–344. Return to text.
  8. Scheck, “‘They Are Just Savages,’” 330–331. Return to text.
  9. Scheck, 333. Return to text.
  10. Scheck, 334. Return to text.
  11. Léopold Senghor, Hosties Noires (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1949). Return to text.
  12. Jonathan Roberts, “Korle and the Mosquito: Histories and Memories of the Anti-Malaria Campaign in Accra, 1942–1945,” Journal of African History 51, no. 3 (2010): 354. Return to text.
  13. Roberts, “Korle and the Mosquito,” 357. Return to text.
  14. Roberts, 358. Return to text.
  15. Ousmane Sembene’s 1988 film Camp de Thiaroye is a haunting and important film that recounts the massacre and its origins. Return to text.
  16. Judith Byfield, “In Her Own Words: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and the Auto/biography of an Archive,” Palimpsest 5, no. 2 (2016): 107–127. Return to text.

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