THE brightly colored comic book looks inviting. But ``Batman'' it isn't. Flipping to a page reveals a jubilant crowd shouting slogans: ``Hail the Fuhrer,'' ``We will follow your orders,'' and ``Germany for the Germans.''
``Hitler,'' a 200-page book, uses actual quotes in comic-style ``balloons'' with drawings based upon original 1930s and '40s photos. It is a bold attempt by eminent German historian Friedmann Bedurftig (``The Prussian Reader'' and ``Encyclopedia of the Third Reich'') and artist Dieter Kalenbach to enlighten their country's teenagers about Nazi Germany.
The author and illustrator haven't held back. In conveying the ``final solution,'' for example, the bodies of death-camp inmates are dragged into furnaces by hapless fellow prisoners. A passage from the commentary reads: ``Soldiers going home from the front, on vacation, whose trains would pass close by the huge chimneys of the crematoria in Auschwitz, were puzzled by the gigantic `chemical factory.' What really happened there? Some guessed it; a few knew. But nobody said anything.''
The title of the book could be misleading. While Adolf Hitler serves as the starting point, the contents actually detail facets of German society at that time, which provided the environment for Nazi ideology to flourish.
THE comic book is much more interesting and useful than any of the ordinary history books,'' remarked a Berlin teenager, who was part of the nationwide government-funded pilot study on the use of ``Hitler'' in schools. ``I got a lot more out of it, because of the pictures and the way it was written.... What I remember most was the way it showed how ordinary people were willing to follow Hitler without question. This is something I hadn't realized before.''
The chief aim of the comic book is to combat the growth of right-wing tendencies among German youths and the resurfacing of anti-Semitism (see accompanying story, right).
``The anti-Semitic atmosphere is increasing and that is alarming,'' says Dr. Bedurftig. I know youngsters who conduct anti-Semitic agitation, without having ever met a Jew.... That is especially why this comic book is so important, because it can help young people to understand that it's actually anti-Semitism itself that is the `great criminal.' ''
It is precisely for these reasons that Viktor Niemann, managing director of Carlsen Verlag, the publishers of ``Hitler,'' says he took on the comic book project. ``Things are happening in Germany today that I feel can only be fought with education.''
The need for more effective teaching methods has been amply demonstrated by studies and polls. A survey in the southwest city of Worms, to cite but one, revealed that among the 15- and 16-year-olds questioned, more than one-quarter believed subsequent generations would judge Hitler in a ``more positive, fairer'' light; that same proportion also thought such a leader had been necessary at the time, not least for raising Germany's stature in the eyes of the world.
``The problem is that many German youngsters know no more about Hitler and the Nazis than they do about the Middle Ages,'' says Bodo Franzmann of the Reader Foundation (the national confederation of publishers), which coordinated the ``Hitler'' pilot study.
German high school history teachers are obliged to spend 16 hours of instruction on the Nazi era, usually begining in the 10th grade. But, in practice, according to the educators and young people interviewed, the trend has been to teach the topic in a dry, dull, statistical manner, while skirting some of the more graphic or fundamental issues.
Some teachers are reluctant to tackle the subject at all.
But for committed teachers, the paucity of compelling books has been a problem - until now. ``The `Hitler' comic book is the most innovative and promising teaching material that has yet been developed,'' says a spokesman for the Federal Center for Political Education who requested anonymity.
Assessments from those educators taking part in the study support this claim. The 35 teachers who have tested ``Hitler'' in their classrooms praised it. Yet, despite the positive reports, including endorsements from a number of top history professors, getting the book into schools is proving to be difficult. Initially, the government supported the book and funded the purchase of thousands of copies. These were to have been distributed by the Reader Foundation to German high schools, upon request, free of charge. But the government changed its mind.
``The comic book is a very sensitive subject,'' says a government spokesman, who also requested anonymity. He indicated that he was not free to give the reason why the book has not been distributed, adding cautiously: ``But I do hope that teachers will have a chance to use [it].''
The government about-face is related to election-year concerns that such a study aid on the Third Reich could invite all sorts of sensational allegations - that, for example, the government is making light of the topic, that it is turning Hitler into a comic-book hero, and so on.
``We Germans always think a serious subject should be handled in the same way,'' publisher Franzmann explains. ``And a comic book is something that is seen as not earnest enough.''
``This is all very German,'' Bedurftig says. ``The whole thing is a comedy.... The dispute about delivery of the comic book to schools has nothing to do with the reality of what the comic book is about. But in this election year, the politicians are only interested in political advantage.''
Bedurftig says that these attitudes demonstrate the need for the comic book to be studied: ``Chancellor Kohl's reaction is a typical example,'' he says. ``He stands in front of the TV cameras and states admantly: `Germany is a friendly land for foreigners.' And he states it with such conviction that no one says otherwise. So the problem is `removed,' because he denies there is one. Similarly, there is no problem with anti-Semitism in this country, because there must not be one, period.... This is really what is at the bottom of the idiotic dance around the `Hitler' comic book.''
People committed to the distribution say that, after the elections this fall, a more open-minded and constructive atmosphere regarding ``Hitler'' may prevail. Even among the ranks of government officials, there are some who say that behind-the-scenes efforts are under way to place the comic book in schools.
``It really hurts that such a good project is getting bashed around.... ,'' an official says. ``But if the book eventually reaches the hands of the practitioners, everything will be OK. It will prove its worth.''