Philip Hensher: Debunking this myth of harmless celebrity

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The Independent Online

Supported by the worldwide craze for celebrity, Madame Tussaud's waxworks attractions are a very profitable business. There are now eight of them across the world. The idea stems from a time when the physical appearance of celebrated individuals was not necessarily known to the general public. Nowadays, what the attractions offer is the opportunity to "interact", as they say, with celebrities who in real life are protected by security, distance, or time.

For what seems to me a steep entrance fee of £25 at the door in London, you can look at, or have your photograph taken next to, simulacra of Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Elle Macpherson or Kylie Minogue. Distance and distinction are abolished for a magical hour or two and for a while a star, a paying punter, a great political leader, a pope and a murderer are rendered on the same unreal plane of celebrity. It must be a perfectly meaningless experience; the quintessence of unfeeling postmodernity.

A few days ago, Tussaud's opened a branch in Berlin. As in most of their attractions, some attention is paid to local enthusiasms. Here, you can stand next to the Bochum singer Herbert Gronemayer and have your photograph taken. One particular local speciality, however, was controversial before the museum opened. They were proposing to put on display a waxwork of Hitler.

It was tactfully done, showing Hitler in defeat in his bunker. Visitors were to be asked not to pose with the waxwork and to comport themselves with decency. Tussaud's must have reflected, too, that they had a much more showy Hitler waxwork in London, standing face to face with a "Churchill" and punching the air.

In recent years, Germany has come to treat aspects of its history with some of the characteristic levity of the rest of the West. There is, for example, a quite amusingly flippant museum of DDR life right on the River Spree in Berlin. Not everybody is prepared to go along with the prevailing mood, however. Minutes after Tussaud's opened its doors for the first time, the man who had been second in the queue leapt the rope and decapitated the waxwork in protest. There is no word as yet when, or if, the Hitler waxwork will be put back together again and back on show.

Without a doubt, there are immense sensitivities involved here. Unlike in much of Europe, Mein Kampf is banned to differing degrees in Germany and Austria. If Prince Harry had worn his Nazi fancy dress outfit to a party in Germany, he would quickly have found himself under arrest.

In both West and, even more, in East Germany in the decades after the war, public dealings with the legacy were closely controlled. The authorities repressed, for instance, any public knowledge of where exactly Hitler's last bunker was situated. Only in 2006 was a plaque erected.

"The past is not dead," William Faulkner said. "In fact, it's not even past." In a country where many people believe passionately, and surely correctly, that the demonic cult of personality which underlay the Third Reich should never be allowed to return, the display of a Hitler figure would always touch a raw nerve. Outside Germany, increasingly, these figures can be assimilated into a general cult of famousness. Hitler, Crippen, Gandhi, Justin Timberlake – all are faces on the page, and photo-ops in Madam Tussaud's.

It's not true. The man who beheaded Hitler's waxwork knew it wasn't true, and no amount of sophisticated commentary can say that he was wrong. The figure of Hitler is never going to be a matter of light entertainment. Please God that there will always be people prepared to act to demonstrate the fact.

Nice things in small packages?

Systematic analysis has revealed that the most violence-crazed dogs are not, after all, Rottweilers, but animals a tenth of their size.

The most aggressive breeds of dog are Dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell Terriers, left, in that order. I'm not a bit surprised. Maybe I have been unlucky, but I have never met a Jack Russell that was anything other than a complete psychopath – nothing more than a set of jaws on a spring.

I've often thought, coming across a tiny canine unrealistically set on assaulting a Great Dane, that dogs, in fact, cannot have any notion whatsoever of their size. Like so many people similarly limited, they do have the air of overcoming their miniature frustrations through rage and racket.

* London's Gay Pride festival, which took place at the weekend, is a surprisingly popular spectacle with the shopping classes as it wends its way down Oxford Street and Regent Street.

It is true that, nowadays, what philosophers call "category errors" can occur when, as for instance on Saturday, a lesbian friend of mine was misled into enthusiasm by a group of cheering girls in rainbow hats and vests – heterosexuals, as they made quickly clear.

Still, it is much better than the form family outings to Pride events take in much of Eastern Europe. In Latvia in 2007, 400 people were herded into a park where they had smoke bombs thrown at them. In Moscow, Pride demonstrations have been banned and physical assaults on protesters and international observers went unchecked by police. Protests by human rights organisations have had limited effect. Pride in London has had a long journey to reach this point. Most of eastern Europe is only just beginning to travel towards tolerance and decency.