The setting: a tiny monarchy, poor but beautiful, on the Balkan Peninsula. The population is a mere 642,000 people, mostly peasants. The country’s main exports are wheat, mineral water, firewood, horses and violinists.
The scene: A ruffian has stolen the king’s scepter, but is caught just steps from the border. Documents are found in his pocket revealing a planned invasion by the neighboring fascist state. He belongs to a fifth column called the Iron Guard. Its leader’s name is Müstler.
The year: 1939.
The country is Syldavia, a fictional creation of Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi in “King Ottokar’s Sceptre,” the eighth adventure of Tintin, famed boy reporter. In previous exploits Tintin battled gangsters in America, explored the pyramids in Egypt and became the confidant of Latin American revolutionaries. In coming years he would find the Yeti in Tibet, escape from a live volcano and go to the moon almost 20 years before the actual 1969 moon landing. Not least, he would go on a hunt for pirate treasure with his friend Captain Haddock, an adventure that, thanks to Steven Spielberg and 3D motion capture technology, is now on screens everywhere.
But “King Ottokar’s Sceptre” had a special significance. Though Syldavia was modeled on Albania, other historical parallels are evident. Remi — or Hergé, to use his nom de plume — identified the story as a “failed Anschluss,” recalling the 1938 annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. Like all Tintin adventures the story is humorous and high-spirited, ending with our tuft-haired hero’s triumph and, in this case, his investiture with Syldavia’s Order of the Golden Pelican. But despite the good cheer, the condemnation of German expansionism shines through.
Hergé’s own stance was not so simple. Following the fall of Belgium in the summer of 1940, and after serving briefly in a Flemish infantry unit, Hergé accepted a job at the collaborationist Brussels newspaper Le Soir. (After the war he was arrested — four times — for collaboration.) Not only did his drawings appear alongside Nazi propaganda, but his next Tintin book, “The Shooting Star,” featured a hook-nosed, cigar-chomping financier named Blumenstein, who tries to subvert a scientific discovery for personal gain. The name was later changed to Bohlwinkel and the character’s country moved from America to the fictional São Rico, but the anti-Semitic implications of the caricature remained.
Of course, anti-Nazism and anti-Semitism were never mutually exclusive. But the problem posed by Tintin goes deeper than Hergé’s questionable World War II alliances. His first Tintin comic, “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets,” was a crude piece of anti-Soviet propaganda created for Le XXe Siècle, the right-wing Catholic newspaper whose children’s supplement, Le Petit Vingtième, Hergé edited for 12 years. His second book, the colonialist “Tintin in the Congo,” is even worse. Its depiction of Africans as childlike primitives has made some readers try to ban it from libraries and bookstores. In one panel an African woman bows before Tintin, exclaiming, “White man very great. White mister is big juju man!”
These episodes are confounding because, unlike his creator, Tintin is never a racist. In fact, his appeal rests on his inhumanly decent character. Tintin is good. Tintin is incorruptible. Tintin cannot be threatened or bribed. Tintin does not drink or smoke. And who could resist his checked plus fours and charming coif?