A C Grayling: A moment of catharthis? Or simply bathos and absurdity?

The small ambiguity of Hitler's demise led to myths

Share

Most revolutions are accompanied by cries of "Death to the tyrant!"; historically it has seemed a rite of passage in violent changes of political order that vanquished leaders should be humiliated and killed as an act of finality.

When this happens during the revolutionary events themselves, the populace's narrative sense is gratified. Matters are more equivocal when there is a delay, especially if there is a trial. Delay diminishes the one-time tyrant to a pathetic figure, and his execution becomes a moment of bathos, even of absurdity.

Will this be how Saddam Hussein's hanging seems, when people remember the bewildered and defenceless bearded head ringed by the noose? Was this the man whose orders resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands in war, atrocities, torture and murder? What the pathetic and disturbing image leaves is not the sense of a fitting end, but a heightened puzzle about the nature of power.

The classic cases of swift justice for dictators in recent times are those of Mussolini and Ceausescu. Mussolini was captured on the shores of Lake Como on 27 April 1945, two years after being deposed. The next day he and his mistress were shot; their bodies were taken to nearby Milan and hung upside down from meat-hooks in the main square. Justice as brutal and swift greeted Ceausescu and his wife, who were captured on Christmas Day 1989, tried by a kangaroo court on the spot and shot straight afterwards.

For those who had suffered at the hands of Ceausescu and Mussolini, the summary nature of their ends was doubtless satisfying. Less so was the death of Hitler, whose charred remains outside the bunker in Berlin had to be identified from dental records. The small ambiguity thus left for uncertainty to lodge its roots led to myths and neo-Nazi revivals. The world would have preferred to see him dangle from a rope.

Slobodan Milosovic and Pol Pot died in their beds, of heart attacks (the usual poisoning myths attend; Pol Pot probably committed suicide), thereby escaping final justice, in the view of their victims who needed something more definite. There is likewise a sense of dissatisfaction that Stalin died as an old man: if tyrants were to have their due, so the sentiment goes, they would be humbled and then put down like vermin, something for their victims to relish.

Oddly, Caligula and Nero were mourned by the populace of Rome when they died. They were unpopular with the army and the ruling classes only; since the latter produced the chroniclers, they went down to history as tyrants, and, like other emperors, doubtless were.

Fifteen years after the death of "Papa Doc" Duvalier, the tyrant of Haiti, a mob went to dig up his corpse and beat it so that it would not rise on the Day of Resurrection. His body was not there after all, so they exhumed one of his supporters' bodies and beat it instead. In this lies the essence of the desire for tyrants not merely to fall but to be killed, expunged, wiped away like dirt, to assuage the anger and humiliation, the fear and oppression they engendered. It is catharsis that is sought; the assuaging of a certain kind of formal blood-lust seems to be the required instrument for effecting it.

In the case of Saddam Hussein, the moment of catharsis came when his statue, a noose round its neck, was hauled down in Baghdad three years ago. What happened yesterday may prove to be a shadow of that symbol.

A C Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own