Magneto is one of Marvel’s most iconic characters. Over his five decades of appearances, he’s shown up more than any other villain, facing off against the X-Men, the US Government, the Avengers, and countless enemies. Magneto is a sympathetic character whose methods often go just a bit farther than we can root for. His actions are reprehensible but often understandable, stemming from years of hatred, oppression, and violence against himself and other mutants.
Unlike many other villains, however, Magneto’s goals don’t stem from personal gain or simply a hateful reaction to his abilities. Before he was Magneto, he was simply Max Eisenhardt: a young Jewish boy who grew up in Germany at the worst possible time.
Every one of Magneto’s plans can be traced back to the Holocaust. Asteroid M, Genosha, San Marco, and others were done with the express purpose of creating a safe haven for mutants away from the fearful and hateful actions of man. He’s consistently performed acts of terrorism against governments who threaten him or mutants, commonly that of the United States. He’s also checked his own actions several times when he’s gone too far.
Max Eisenhardt became Magneto thanks to one of the most horrific events in human history. And yet, every day, we move farther from it. Fewer and fewer survivors remain, as age begins to catch them. Less than a century later, it becomes more and more difficult to find those who can truly express the horrors of the Nazi regime.Even now, the Holocaust is losing its significance to many people. More and more deniers take to the Internet to make claims against the existence or scale of the murders. In parts of Asia, Hitler and the Nazis have become pop culture icons, and even figures to be admired. In South Korea, China, and Japan, Nazi uniforms have shown up as part of everything from cosplay to wedding attire. In Thailand, a school even hosted a Nazi and SS themed parade. The west, which should be more aware and sensitive to the issue, isn’t necessarily better-Prince Harry’s Nazi costume in 2005 and the production of Nazi-themed playsets come to mind.With this in mind, Magneto’s status as a Holocaust survivor is at a very important crossroads. Not only is he Marvel’s greatest villain, he’s Marvel’s greatest victim, and an important reminder that hatred breeds hatred. Max Eisenhardt is one of the few fictional characters that still reminds us of the horrors man can exact on man.The world is approaching a time when the Holocaust will not be remembered by any survivors, when it will seem tempting for many to mark more recent events as more significant, more important, more relevant. One writer for Salon has already called for Magneto and Xavier to be “updated” to African-American participants in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. With this kind of pressure likely to pick up steam as the years go on, Marvel will have to make a choice. They can plant their feet and continue the story of Max Eisenhardt, the Holocaust survivor, or they can move with the tides of public opinion, and update the characters to more recent struggles.
Marvel does have options-they can continue to ignore the dates set in history, or establish that Magneto’s mutation increases his longevity. If they choose to keep Max’s status as a Holocaust survivor, they’ll have to emphasize it more. Nazis continue to be present in comics-Hydra, Zemo, Red Skull, and others-but they could lose their significance without the perspective provided by one one of their victims. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” -George Santayana