Death of the Father: An Anthropology of the End in Political Authority

Death of the Father: An Anthropology of the End in Political Authority

Death of the Father: An Anthropology of the End in Political Authority

Death of the Father: An Anthropology of the End in Political Authority


The death of authority figures like fathers or leaders can be experienced as either liberation or loss. In the twentieth century, the authority of the father and of the leader became closely intertwined; constraints and affective attachments intensified in ways that had major effects on the organization of regimes of authority. This comparative volume examines the resulting crisis in symbolic identification, the national traumas that had crystallized around four state political forms: Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and East European Communism. The defeat of Imperial and Fascist regimes in 1945 and the implosion of Communist regimes in 1989 were critical moments of rupture, of "death of the father." What was the experience of their ends, and what is the reconstruction of those ends in memory?

This volume represents is the beginning of a comparative social anthropology of caesurae: the end of traumatic political regimes, of their symbolic forms, political consequences, and probable futures.

John Borneman, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University, specializes in political and legal anthropology. He has written widely on national identification and symbolic form in Germany and on the relation of culture to international order. His most recent work is on accountability and the use of retributive justice in preventing cycles of violence.


Rupture, End, Death, Closure

Rupture, end, death, closure—different moments in the transformation of regimes. This volume seeks to theorize ruptures in political authority by examining the end of regimes and the mythologization of these ends. Its focus is restricted to a specific subset of regimes that collapsed around the end of World War II (“1945”) and the end of the Cold War (“1989”). For shorthand, we refer to the end of “totalizing” and “patricentric” authority, of an authority that represents itself as the single source and locus of meaning, as the “Death of the Father.”

Accompanied by a web site, this volume represents and analyzes the end of totalizing, patricentric regimes; the relation of the leaders’ mode of death to this end; and attempts at regime closure following this death. It considers these moments in regime transformation through an analytics of changes in their symbolic forms and affect, which are particularly vital to the processes of democratization of successor regimes. Six anthropologists take up ruptures following the end in four state political forms: Fascist Italy (1943), Nazi Germany (1945), Imperial Japan (1945), and the State Socialist regimes of East Germany (1989), Romania (1989), the Soviet Union (1991), and Yugoslavia (1991). Changes in regime are considered in light of the death of the leader/fathers: Mussolini (1943), Hitler (1945), Hirohito (1989), Honecker (1989), Ceauşescu (1989), Lenin and Stalin (1924 and 1953), and Tito (1991). In all but two cases we begin with a temporal discrepancy between a physical death and a social death. In the case of Italy and Japan, the regime’s death precedes that of its leader; in Germany and Romania, the deaths are coterminous; in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the death of the leader(s) precedes that of the regime.

How does one know when a regime ends? In a sense, no regime ever really ends, since its traces can be found, or rediscovered and reinvigorated, centuries after its death. An end is not only always disputed but also must be retroactively claimed—and thereafter repeatedly proclaimed, in literature, film, historiography, and commemorative events. The twentieth century was characterized by a proliferation of regime . . .

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