Photo: Cult of memory … the state funeral of Baroness Thatcher in London. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Nowadays monuments are raised to heroes and martyrs with grim abandon. London has public monuments, created in the past few years, to everyone from John Betjeman to War Horse. The memorial for Bomber Command in Green Park is especially ostentatious, but to question such symbols is held to be impious.
Is all this remembrance healthy? A new book sheds historical light on the political uses of memory and may leave readers wanting to avoid the next cause for public mourning.
Daniel Siemens's troubling historical study The Making of a Nazi Hero: The Murder and Myth of Horst Wessel resurrects one of the 20th century's most powerful cases of memory being used to manipulate politics. If Thatcherites hope to make their hero a totemic figure for all time, they are amateurs compared with Joseph Goebbels, who in 1930 set out to turn a young Nazi killed by Communist street fighters in Berlin into a Christ-like martyr.
The death of Horst Wessel would have been just another violent crime in Berlin were it not for the fact that Wessel had composed a Nazi song, Die Fahne Hoch! (The Banner High). This sowed the seed for a carefully crafted cult of Wessel that was Goebbels's first propaganda masterpiece. Goebbels who did so much to shape the myth of the Third Reich. In 1930 the Nazi movement was not yet in power, but Goebbels orchestrated an imposing funeral for Wessel – a "ceremonial" funeral, even, even – and put his sacred memory at the heart of the rituals and rites of Nazism. The "Horst Wessel Song" itself, as the young man's composition came to be called, became the definitive Nazi anthem and is still banned in Germany today.
Was Nazism, as some have claimed, a "political religion"? It revelled in ritual and resembled a pagan passion play, or death cult. No one who watches Leni Riefenstahl's terrifyingly beautiful film Triumph of the Will can miss the fact that her documentary about the Nuremberg Rally drips with nostaligia and mourning, as massed ranks perform rites of remembrance for Nazi "martyrs".
Death bred death. The worship of heroes such as Wessel set the scene for genocide.
It is a sobering thought that remembrance and monuments were at the heart of the Third Reich's perversion of politics. Does that have any contemporary significance? Pity the land that enjoys funerals.
Also see: "Ronald Reagan honoured with London statue" -- "The private unveiling was a solemn occasion – yet it was Ronald Reagan's genius for affability that made him popular," The Guardian, July 4, 2011