Life & Culture

Was Tintin’s creator drawing on hate?


If ever there was a classic comic book hero it has to be Tintin, the boy reporter, defender of the weak. The books, translated into more than 100 languages, have sold 230 million copies worldwide; the original artwork sells for hundreds of thousands of pounds; and there are more than 400 books about Herg, Tintins Belgian creator.    

Adding to the myth is Paris’s hugely successful Grand Palais show Hergé on until January 15.

Yet the dark cloud of supposed antisemitism still hangs over Hergé’s conduct during the Second World War. A Jewish film-maker who made a documentary about Hergé in the 1970s believes the artist helped the film to get made to absolve himself of guilt. Henri Roanne-Rosenblatt, born in Vienna in 1932, came to Belgium on a kindertransport and spent the war in hiding. “We met in 1971 and I told him that I had been struck by how much his comic strips reflected contemporary history; hasn’t anyone ever made a film about that? And he said, why not you?”

Roanne-Rosenblatt didn’t take Hergé’s suggestion seriously, until reminded by Hergé’s secretary. “He said, ‘you know Hergé never does anything by chance’.” So he decided to make the film, with friend and colleague Gérard Valet. “Hergé said, it’s your film, it’s entirely up to you, and gave me unfettered access to his archives. The only subject he asked me to avoid was his private life.” Hergé was leaving his wife at the time.

Hergé, real name Georges Remi (1907-1983), was born into a lower-middle-class Catholic family in Brussels. His childhood was “uniformly grey” until he joined the Boy Scouts. He found work at the newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle where his boss was the fascist priest Nobert Wallez, a friend of Mussolini. Throughout the Second World War, Hergé worked for the newspaper Le Soir which closed down after the German invasion but was reopened by collaborationist journalists.

When his Tintin story The Shooting Star was serialised by Le Soir in 1941 it included two drawings of big-nosed Jewish shopkeepers in front of a shop, rubbing their hands at the thought of an impending end of the world. These drawings were removed in 1942 when the book was published. The villain of the story is an American banker called Blumenstein, portrayed in true antisemitic style.

Some argue that Hergé simply needed to make a living. No one denies, though, that some of his close friends were notorious antisemites, nor that, in 1941, he illustrated a book of fables by a fascist writer called Robert de Vroylande, drawing a caricature Jew in a fable involving two Jews making a bet.

“His antisemitism was typical of his milieu,” says Tintin expert Benoît Peeters. “It took Hergé a while to take his distance from these people. He was always influenced by the person he was closest to. He was not ideologically astute.”

“In Hergé’s deeply uncultured world,” says Roanne-Rosenblatt, “antisemitism was part of daily life. Jews were seen as foreigners, different from other people, always dealing with money.” The Shooting Star came out in 1942 when the first big round-up of Jews took place in Brussels. In that year, Belgian Jews were made to wear the yellow star. In later versions of The Shooting Star, in the 1970s, Blumenstein was renamed Bohlwinkel, which means sweet shop in Brussels dialect.

After a year’s work, Roanne-Rosenblatt went back to Hergé with a script for his documentary, and again Hergé insisted that Roanne-Rosenblatt had carte blanche. This was rare as he always insisted on reading and correcting interviews before publication. “But he knew my past as a hidden child,” says Roanne-Rosenblatt. “I used to read his strips in Le Soir at night when I was in hiding. His bad conscience forbade him from interfering with my film, from censoring me in any way.”

The making of his documentary, Moi, Tintin, left Roanne-Rosenblatt with complex feelings. “I’m grateful. Hergé was very warm with me, and when you know that a copyright contract can run to several hundred pages, it was incredible that he was satisfied with 10 lines on paper. This is a man who gave me his complete trust, even though he knew I was left-wing and Jewish.”

His conclusion is that Hergé’s comic books echo the prejudices of his day. “Hergé was clever but not intelligent, he was not an original thinker, even if he was full of brilliant cinematic ideas.”

Hergé’s meeting with a Chinese student, Chang, when he was writing a comic book about the Far East supposedly opened his mind. He had been introduced to Chang by a university chaplain who hoped Hergé would avoid stereotypes in his new book The Blue Lotus.

Roanne-Rosenblatt sees Hergé in the Second World War as passive, someone who would not have hurt anyone Jewish, but would not have helped them either. “He said to me, ‘Henri, had I known what happened to the Jews, there are some drawings I would never have done. And then he added this terrible sentence: ‘Or maybe it simply suited me not to know.’ In other words, he made up his own scenario in the interests of a quiet life.”

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