Was the 20th century one long assault on the very idea of heroism? The courage once exemplified by military service was first undermined by the changing nature of warfare, and later by the atrocities committed in the name of causes that came to be abhorred. New sciences of psychology revealed common, often infantile motives behind actions once deemed noble – creating an illusion of intimacy possessed by the valet for whom, says the adage, no man is a hero. All that, and the suspicion that heroes are vaguely undemocratic, combined to make the word “Held” virtually unspeakable in German. Other languages are less allergic to speech that provokes images of blood and soil. Yet since the U.S. war on Vietnam, at the latest, international consensus has increasingly suggested that heroes are part of the past – and that we should be grateful for it.
Certainly traditional efforts to become a hero, and a better one than your neighbor, are out of date. People and nations once competed to determine who was the greatest hero: whose adventures and courage and prowess deserved the most honor and attention. Contrast these competitions with contemporary discussions, where the common coin is victimhood: individuals and groups compete for recognition not on the basis of what they have done, but what they have suffered. Though the limiting case of such competition is probably the case of Benjamin Wilkomirski, eventually unmasked for inventing a childhood in a concentration camp, the Holocaust did not begin the trend to compete over comparative suffering. For two decades after WWII ended, Holocaust survivors were treated as shameful; if any victims commanded attention, it was the victims of colonialism. Franz Fanon preceded Elie Wiesel.
Giving voice to the victims began as an act of justice. Earlier histories were written by winners, leaving losers to die a double death: once in the flesh, once again in memory. Contemporary political culture is right to insist that we give a hearing to those whom earlier ages left forgotten. Yet something is wrong when legitimacy is conferred by what the world did to you – without regard for what you did in the world. The rejection of victimhood and the confused longing for heroism is one important factor fueling the rise of suicide terrorism as well as more banal fundamentalist media.
Three years ago, the Einstein Forum explored such questions in our conference “Victims and Losers”. This year we will explore models of modern heroism – while also asking hard questions about the possibility of such models at all. Our interest is not in the truth of particular claims to heroism but in their form. Men and women’s willingness to take risks in service of something other than their own interests is often abused and perverted. We will explore the dangers of heroic longing and the difficulty of deciding whether claims to heroism are genuine or manipulated. We will examine the “heroes of work” celebrated in the former socialist countries and the psyches of soldiers in others, explore heroism in the arts and in scholarship, in underground resistance and in ordinary actions.
Concept: Susan Neiman, Potsdam
Participants: Annalise Acorn, Edmonton; Scott Atran, Ann Arbor; Norton Batkin, Annandale on Hudson; Simon Blackburn, Cambridge; Karl Heinz Bohrer, London; David Bromwich, New Haven; Christa Ebert, Frankfurt/Oder; Ute Frevert, Berlin; Konstanty Gebert, Warsaw; Anthony Grafton, Princeton; Ramin Jahanbegloo, Toronto; Irshad Manji, New York; William Ian Miller, Ann Arbor; Glenn Most, Pisa/Chicago; Jan Philipp Reemtsma, Hamburg; Julian Nida-Rümelin, Munich; Jonathan Shay, Newton; Nathalie Weidenfeld, Munich; Philip Zimbardo, Stanford