The German Proto-Heroes
by Robert Leichsenring
Welcome back to another installment of me talking about what I love most. Superhero time!
A friend of mine brought up an interesting topic to me, slightly touched (but it was consentual) by me in the superhero origin article: The Proto-Heroes of the German people.
Every people on the earth, every ethnicity or community of a certain scale has this prototypes, the role models, the first among equals. I spoke to you about the origin of the superhero, the myth that lies beyond our normal perception of the spandex wearing vigilantes and adventurers. But now I want to introduce you to the origin of the German Superman, were do our heroes come from, how do they look like, who are they?
We have to go back a long time, again, to understand a bit more about the origins. The Germanic tribes were known as fierce warriors and were thought of as not to be pacified. Caesar once crossed the Rhine for 10 or so days and when he came back he burned the bridge behind him, vowing that Rome will not come back to these lands. He was shocked and impressed by the prowess and unbending will of the Germanics and feared the confrontation with an enemy that was living decentralized in one huge forest (the whole region from the Rhine to the east and up to the alps was one forest at Caesar's time) and had no figurehead or institution to corrupt or enslave. You could not bribe them, only fight them.
So, he gave up.
This theme is a constant in the German folklore and it is still present in our everyday minds (at least in mine, can't say I know it for anyone else as I'm not a telepath). The great stories of the German cultural area are of overcoming great obstacles, not bowing to any man and prevailing in the face of annihilation.
Germany and Germans have a bit of a difficult situation today. You know, the two wars and all that stuff. But throughout history, Germans were found in the antagonistic role more often than one might think. The Romans saw the Germanic tribes as untamable savages who would destroy the Roman Empire like locust if they ever get the chance. The Gaelic where the only ones that ever fought with the Germanic territories, and the Romans thought they were crazy. The Germanic people were compared to a force of nature. And the immoveable object called the Roman Empire feared to face the unstoppable force that was the tribes of pre-Christ Central Europe.
Those tribes were not unified under one ruler or government, every tribe fought for itself and they all fought each other, which was also considered crazy by the Romans, This was the normal status quo for this area until the 18th of January 1871. That date marks the first time that the German people have come together under one ruler, as one country (except for the Austrians, who no one liked, and if you look at WW I and WW II you see why), with one language. Germany was one of the last countries in Europe to find it's national identity. We lived separated in different kingdoms under countless kings and dukes and barons. Always fighting each other and everyone who dared to step to close.
What else is there to talk about?
Let me start with Germany, the wealthiest country of the European Union and one of the richest and most powerful countries on this small little fishbowl of a planet.
We all know the clichés, Germans are always punctual, work hard and with precision. We are cold and emotionless, have no humor and invade anything that does not speak German (yes Ben, you're next). Why does the world see Germans like that?
Easy, because, on the scale of a people, it is true. We are, as a people, unfunny and a bit like an android. We look like you, we kind of behave like you, but we tick differently. As do the French, the British, US Americans, Indians and so on. Every nation, ethnicity, city, has this identity which is formed through the course of history.
Who are the real and fictional prototypes of German heroism? Who is it we, as a people, are looking up to?
The answer is: no one.
We have tales and stories, heroes and villains, but not one of them is really a cultural figure in nowadays mainstream life in Germany. The German comic market is not one for superheroes or great tales of epicness, unlike the past. The United States have a fair share of Proto-heroes that are still around and influence the comics of today through the past and their gravity. From Presidents to folk tales, the pilgrims that explored the Wild West to the Puritans.
There is a huge diversity of protomaterial still present in today's media in the US. For Germany, this does not apply. The Ring of the Nibelung has seen a few (very bad) movie adaptations and is only viewable as an opera. The relevance of this story is lost to most Germans. The battle of the Teutoburger Forrest, where the Germanic tribes kicked some serious Roman ass, is nothing more than a footnote today.
People don't care about German history.
After World War II and the defeat of the Third Reich, a new trend took place in Germany (both east and west), that started a movement, away from the German heritage. Because of what was done under the rule of the NSDAP and the propaganda use of old German and Nordic mythology people turned away. In school you get bombarded with World War II classes. Each and every year, a German pupil has to talk in length about what happened and why. We were programmed to be ashamed of being German. Not only by ourselves but also by the victorious powers of the war. Guilt was shoved down our throats for decades and resulted in a nation that has no interest at all in its country and its roots.
I would love to talk to you about the flourishing diversity on the German comic book market and all the stories being told. But truth is that there is no such thing.
In the years after the war, art itself moved away from the classical national pride and using the past to create the future. It moved to a fatalistic and depressive point, where the artist becomes the accuser and the victim. Art in Germany, may it be written or painted or built, was concentrating on distancing itself from the Germanic roots.
The abuse of German folklore by the Nazis is a major point on that. The 3rd Reich used everything, from the blond and blue-eyed Siegfried to Ernst Jüngers texts on soldiers, for their own good. Perverted the idea and made it propaganda. This changed the perception of the German folklore to something we think of as racist and fascist.
When you look at the German comic market today, you will find nearly all of the US comics published in German. But we do not write these kinds of stories. Our comics are either dark or funny. Mostly funny. The German comic moved from comic to cartoon and satire. Instead of reimagining the great stories of our ancestors, we create new protagonists or concentrate on the lesser known. Walter Moers, one of Germany's most known and infamous cartoonists, is responsible for a Hitler cartoon, making fun of the whole thing and causing quite some uproar in the news, as a song, plus video, was published with the book release and entered the German charts. It depicted Hitler as a small little guy in his bunker.
Also on his account goes the notoriously lying blue bear called Captain Bluebear (yeah, I know, not very original), who was a favorite of many kids, me included.
I have to admit my knowledge on the German comic scene is vague at best. But that has a reason. It was never my scene, never my stuff, never what I really wanted.
I would have loved to read a comic about Beowulf, which is the first real Anglo-Saxon epic and Saxons are German. Or an ongoing Nibelung series, maybe even with Hagen von Tronje as the hero, and not as the villain. Why can't there be an adaptation of the Erlkönig? Why is Bismarck still uncharted territory? What about our kings? August the Strong, who once broke a horseshoe in half with his bare hands and imprisoned his mistress in a tower. There was a monastery in my hometown that slid into the lake a couple of hundred of years ago and is supposed to be undestroyed under the mud of the lake but no one could ever find it. And every now and then a diver just vanishes and is never seen again.
But we are not proud of our history as other nations are. We are trained to feel ashamed. And so our heritage lies in a barren wasteland, only to be used every other decade as we do not dare to touch it. Thank you, Adolf. Really nice of you.
BBBBUUUUTTTT, times are changing and since 2006 a new spirit is slowly rising in the German people. We can feel as one nation again, people shrug off the guilt and say "I'm proud to be German". And that is not a bad thing.
Hopefully it will help us get away from the hardworking, humorless car producers and send us on a track of some asskicking in the comic department. (A man can hope, right?)
I might have wandered off track here, but it is a difficult topic in general and especially for me. Maybe you enjoyed this little insight in my people, even if comics were only a small part.
Stay safe folks.
We got this:
|I know you have been waiting for this.|
Robert "Nemo" Leichsenring