Red Baron: Air ace, Nazi killer, emotional patriot – changing faces of a German war hero

The Red Baron with other members of his unit.

The idea of a war hero is still strong in the UK and in the other Allied countries. War memorials are a central feature of the regular commemoration services, Churchill is regularly rolled out in biographical and fictional form, and there are soon to be a total of 888,246 ceramic poppies for 888,246 war heroes adorning the Tower of London.

But in Germany the concept of the hero is far more problematic. After two catastrophic military defeats and the horrors of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, the idea of a military hero has for 60 years been unthinkable. Even the ordinary soldiers of World War II have been tarnished by the cause for which they were fighting and the methods the German army used.

But in recent years there have been attempts to re-imagine the German war hero for the 21st century.

The Red Baron

The best way to track the rise and fall of the German hero is to trace the fortunes of one such man over the past 100 years. Manfred von Richthofen, better known as The Red Baron, was a German fighter pilot in World War I. His status as war hero has been used for different purposes at different points in German history.

In the awful reality of trench warfare, where soldiers spent much of their time underground and in which most casualties were caused by heavy artillery at long range, the fighter pilots provided welcome examples of old-style heroism. For them, there was the possibility of individuality. The press and public on both sides idolised these young heroes: air aces like Richthofen, Billy Bishop, Albert Ball and Adolphe Pégoud were household names. Of these, by far the most celebrated was Richthofen. He shot down 80 opponents before being killed himself in April 1918.

Manfred von Richthofen.

The German war office saw Richthofen’s heroism as vital for national morale. Because of this, it worked to ensure that he was presented to the public in the most media-friendly way. In 1917 his memoirs, The Red Fighter Pilot, became a bestseller. The “real” Richthofen as presented in the book was manipulated for public consumption: the memoirs were in fact written by a journalist from interview notes. The text is written in simple language using both schoolboy slang and humour. It presents the war as a sport conducted by individuals – his descriptions of hunting English pilots is interspersed with accounts of kills on the hunting estates. It’s an anachronistic account that makes no reference to the changed nature of warfare. It neither reflects on nor questions the reason for fighting, but simply records a bombastic pleasure in his rising score.

Nazi cult figure

In 1925, Richthofen’s body was brought back to Berlin from France for reburial. This occasion was used as an opportunity for a military show of strength and unity that deliberately bypassed and excluded republican organisations. In the same year another war hero, General Paul Hindenburg, was elected president by popular vote.

Still selling strong, the text of the Red Baron’s memoirs was revised in 1920 and again in 1933. In each manifestation it was adapted to suit the needs of the context. In the 1933 edition, when Hitler was already in power, Richthofen’s familial association with the military was seriously exaggerated to fit the Nazi theories of race and heredity. The cult of Richthofen under National Socialism stressed his ruthless and single-minded dedication to killing the enemy, a quality that the National Socialists wanted to be emulated.

Post-war rehabilitation

The Nazis appropriation of this World War I hero meant that after 1945, the Red Baron’s public profile plummeted and his chances of ever being celebrated as a popular hero again seemed bleak. But a German feature film, The Red Baron, recently attempted rehabilitate him, presenting him as a sympathetic hero with 21st-century sensibilities.

The Red Baron of this film has little in common with the dedicated and emotionless killer propagated by the National Socialists. Instead, this is a highly emotional man, humanised by a love affair that opens his eyes to the role he’s playing in the slaughter of the war. The lantern-jaw and close-cropped head of the historic figure are replaced by the androgynous good looks and unruly blond curls of the film’s star, Matthias Schweighöfer.

At first, this is an unreflecting patriot for whom the war is a game played according to rules accepted by both sides: “We are sportsmen not butchers, we shoot down planes not pilots.” Later, we see him as a traumatised figure, tormented by the loss of his comrades and an overwhelming sense of guilt.

This is a victim of war, a man whose bravery and patriotism are manipulated by sinister military forces. His closest friend is a Jewish pilot, ahistorically inserted into Richthofen’s squadron in order to commemorate the Jewish soldiers who fought for Germany.

This re-invention of von Richthofen turns him into the kind of war hero who could offer a positive point of historical identification for a German audience: anti-war, religiously tolerant and with a 21st-century sensitivity to gender relations.


Ingrid Sharp and colleagues will be discussing the way World War I challenged ideas of heroism in Britain, France and Germany as part of a new free online course that starts on October 27.