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

The small ambiguity of Hitler's demise led to myths


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

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