Hitler's Rival: Ernst Thealmann in Myth and Memory

Hitler's Rival: Ernst Thealmann in Myth and Memory

Hitler's Rival: Ernst Thealmann in Myth and Memory

Hitler's Rival: Ernst Thealmann in Myth and Memory

Excerpt

Myths have always played in important role in legitimizing politics, and among these myths is that of the fallen hero. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey promote cults of romanticized heroes—such as Achilles and Hector—who died so that others might live. Plato in his Republic calls for the building of altars to commemorate those who perished in order to preserve Greek culture. Jesus of Nazareth’s sacrificial death plays a central role in Christian theology. The Christian cult of the saints— with the emphasis it placed on the humble origins of Christian martyrs—had the effect of democratizing heroism. In the eyes of early Christians, ordinary people could accomplish extraordinary things by freely giving their lives for their savior. This understanding of heroic death—emphasizing the modest origins of the fallen—took deep root in the United States, where an elaborate mythology surrounds those who died for the republic. The Lincoln Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial are among the most obvious examples of this phenomenon. The implication in each of these examples is clear: a cause worth dying for is one worth fighting for.

Even in recent—supposedly more sophisticated—times, the cult of the fallen hero who dies in order to further a political cause has continued to play a vital role, especially in legitimizing “totalitarian” governments on both the right and the left. As Nina Tumarkin has pointed out in her two very successful books, Lenin Lives! and The Living and the Dead, the Soviet Union based its legitimacy on the cult of the fallen hero, first of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, then of those who perished during the Great Patriotic War against fascism. Although Lenin might not literally have died in battle against the class enemy, his unceasing effort to promote the benefit of the toiling masses undoubtedly contributed to his demise at a relatively young age—at least in the eyes of Soviet propagandists. As the Russian cult of the Second World War’s dead shows, these heroic martyrs need not be identifiable as individuals and can be an entire category of people, sometimes incorporating millions. Indeed, one of the characteristics of twentieth-century political culture . . .

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