Philip Hensher: Debunking this myth of harmless celebrity

Related Topics

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.

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: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing