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Project D7

From Military to Political Heroization: Comparing Paul von Hindenburg and Phillipe Pétain


Prof. Dr. Jörn Leonhard
Stefan Schubert

Department of History

The empty battlefields, the anonymous deaths from artillery fire or mine explosions, the total war, the millions of war victims – the First World War questioned traditional interpretations of heroic, man-on-man combat. New heroic models based on the democratization of the heroic victim emerged, the iconic portrayal of which is that of the Unknown Soldier. At the same time, new models of leaders who seemed to personify the demands of this new age of war while also following their own political ambitions came into play: Paul von Hindenburg, Philippe Pétain, Józef Piłsudski, Benito Mussolini, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Chiang Kai-shek, to name a few. The monarch as a traditional symbol of identification lost its iconic power. These new "national saviors" were able to profit from a continually expanding propaganda machine that fundamentally changed the conditions of mass communication in warring societies. The manipulation of public opinion was thus tested to its limits toward the end of the war. However, this still played a part in the construction of specific heroic narratives that influenced the interwar era and without them, the implementation of totalitarian models could not be properly understood.

Against this backdrop, this project explores the how military heroism and political legitimation were related in this era of ideological extremes, as well as the manner in which the subsequent relationship between heroes of war and the peacetime of the post-war years was constructed. The relationship between heroization during the war and the translation of this exceptional reputational capital into a political office in times of political and societal crisis is shown in the cases of Paul von Hindenburg in Germany and Phillip Pétain in France. Based on this perspective on these two generals of the First World War, the connection between internal and external processes of heroization is analyzed, along with the role of modern mass media (radio, film, election posters, propaganda campaigns) as well as the historical-political engineering of these heroic figures in these processes. One such analysis of heroization processes will focus on the conditions of stability and instability in post-war societies that bestow the highest political office on their national saviors.

The dissertation being written as part of this project concerns these two figures, which have rarely been directly compared, despite their evident similarities – a traditional military career, experience in the First World War and the transition from military national savior to occupant of the highest political office. This analysis is expected to provide transnational perspectives on the heroization processes that took place under very specific conditions as well as the connection between war-time charisma and political power in the ideologically-charged inter-war period.