is the name of a German band (link) and means “we are heroes”. In a somewhat ironic sense, because they said that they wanted to reclaim the word for antiheroes. And somehow also inspired by David Bowie’s well-known “Heroes” song. Helden or heroes became a bit unpopular in Germany after 1945, because Wagnerian pomposity had ended in a Götterdämmerung (death of gods) for many who thought they were being saviors of Europe and ended up destroying half the continent. People rebuilt quietly from ruins in Adenauer’s era of “Keine Experimente”, or no experiments.
Heroes with doubts
The muscular statues of 1930s heroes of fascism and socialism were outdated. The American heroes of the same generation were Superman and Batman, but the German public I think preferred Donald Duck, or maybe even more Looney Tunes, with more Schadenfreude than tame Disney. America still had no doubts at that time, no conflicted heroes like today’s Jason Bourne, who knows many things are wrong in his country but still is a patriot, according to CIA agent Heather Lee. That was before Vietnam and before the War against Terror, wars which made America doubt itself.
The 2004 movie “Troy” has Odysseus telling Achilles (link): War is young men dying and old men talking. You know this. Ignore the politics. That is probably even more true nowadays than in the olden days, when kings often rode into battle themselves. But were Greek heroes really heroes? Basically Troy was a civilized city raided by pirate upstarts who were still to become a civilization. The Romans who were the next to become civilized did not pretend to be heroic, in fact they had a very clear language: vae victis. Woe to the conquered. And the Germanic tribes who were next?
Jetski to Windmills
They had more of a warrior religion in which those who died well went to Valhalla (link). This mixed with Christian beliefs in righteousness may have led to the idea of the knight in shining armor. The Spaniards had their own pompous variant of heroism, brilliantly ridiculed in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Like the German words Heldentod (hero’s death) and Heldentat (heroic deed) may also have ironic meanings today. The first can mean overexerting oneself for something that isn’t worth it (not literally dying) and the second can mean creating a fiasco or catastrophe (link).
President Duterte might have had quixotism in mind when he said he would jetski to the Spratleys (link): “Matagal ko nang ambisyon na maging hero ako. Kung pinatay nila ako dun, bahala na kayo umiyak dito sa Pilipinas” (I have long had the ambition to be a hero. If they kill me there, it is up to you to cry in the Philippines). The sarcasm was so clear then, I wonder how anyone believed it. Obviously there is a jadedness with the idea of heroes among some Filipinos. Senate President Sotto wanted to remove references to dying for the country from the national anthem (link).
Fine, Sunny Days
The last words of anti-Nazi activist Sophie Scholl were (link): How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action? The question is: what if hardly anyone cares at all? There have been thousands of deaths in the Philippines in the past two years and I really wonder. What I wonder is whether belief in righteousness, in interests outside one’s own group, exists there.
Or maybe the overloaded quixotic Spanish connotations of “heroe” made hero something that Filipinos couldn’t quite relate to. Add the strutting self-aggrandizement of most Filipino elites who will never make a sacrifice themselves, doesn’t have to be death, but at least take some risks also. Magsaysay’s guerrilla past could have been one factor in his popularity, since he walked his talk. But so did Rizal and Ninoy Aquino, who took the risks and faced the consequences of their actions. Some current discussions insinuate they looked for death to become famous with posterity. What?
The Malay world
Bayani (link) is contrasted as the native, “better” concept of hero who is truly part of the bayan. The closest thing to that in Europe would be Volkshelden (popular heroes) such as Tyrolean rebel Andreas Hofer, or the legendary Swiss Wilhelm Tell, whose story Rizal translated into Tagalog. The story of Kabesang Tales / Matanglawin in El Filibusterismo has elements of a typical Volksheld or Schützen (marksman) story, including the tragic shooting of Tandang Selo by his grandson Tano. Wilhelm Tell of course does not accidentally kill a relative. Being Swiss, he did not miss the apple.
Indonesia also has its folk heroes: http://filipinogerman.blogsport.eu/jago-and-preman/. In Indonesian popular culture, the jago is often romanticized as a champion of the people whose acts of violence are motivated by a deep sense of justice, honour and order.” Fernando Poe, anyone? But Indonesia also has its political thugs (same article): The Pancasila Youth that played a major role in the 1960s killings in Indonesia were considered preman or political thugs. There are stories of different kinds of Filipino guerrilas in World War 2, good and bad. It isn’t always that clear.
The Balkan world
The Balkans have the Hajduk (same article): who “is a romanticised hero figure who steals from, and leads his fighters into battle against, the Ottoman or Habsburg authorities…. In reality, the hajduci of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries commonly were as much guerrilla fighters against the Ottoman rule as they were bandits and highwaymen who preyed not only on Ottomans and their local representatives, but also on local merchants and travelers.” Whether a hajduk was considered good or bad may well have been a matter of how one was advantaged or affected.
In Serbia, a collectivistic, ethnic hero cult (more similar to bayani than to individualistic heroe) based on a national mythology plus paternalism led to this (p. 85): Decision-making was left to omnipotent rulers, those personifying heroic martyrs of the Battle of Kosovo, who promised to rule in the best interests of collective Serb society. Paternalism impeded the spread of democracy, the implementation of the rule of law, and the development of constitutionalism. The fierceness of hajduks plus ideology. No place or time is the same, outcomes differ. But some patterns do exist.
Wir sind Helden
Alltagshelden is a German tabloid term: “everyday heroes”. Non-everyday heros are for the 911. “Pity the country that needs heroes” said Bertolt Brecht. I think it makes a country a lot better if most people are just plain decent. Not “disente“, another lost in translation Filipino word which often means “dressed up to the nines” or “clean-cut”. I once was carrying disente pants on a hanger, coming from a dry cleaner. They fell off, somebody noticed it, picked them up and gave them to me – in the middle of Munich city. Very decent people! Small acts of goodness add up in society.
Irineo B. R. Salazar
München, 17 November 2018