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Culture

Biographer Unveils Man Behind the Red Baron Myth

World War One fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen -- a.k.a. the Red Baron -- died in combat 90 years ago, on April 21, 1918. DW-WORLD.DE spoke to von Richthofen biographer Joachim Castan about the man behind the myth.

A re-creation of the Red Baron's plane in flight

With his Fokker plane, Baron von Richthofen was molded into a war hero

The Prussian nobleman -- dubbed the Red Baron because of the color of his aircraft -- shot down some 80 Allied planes before his death at the age of 25. His life has become the stuff of legend. A new film about the Red Baron, which opened in Germany this month, also revives the heroic image.

Joachim Castan, 41, was the first historian to write a biography of this famous figure. The biographer and documentary filmmaker spent three years researching the project, gaining exclusive access to previously unpublished writings and letters. The book, called "Die ganze Geschichte" (The Whole Story) and published in 2007, reveals a far more complex character.

DW-WORLD.DE: Did your image of von Richthofen change in the course of your research?

Joachim Castan: I must admit that I had an image of von Richthofen before I started my research of him as the last true gentleman of the skies in a dehumanized, industrialized brutal war, heroically participating in airborne duels.

Joachim Castan

Castan's preconceptions were overturned while working on the book

As I became immersed in the material, I realized that there was a well-maintained von Richthofen myth. The myth propagates the idea that von Richthofen forced pilots to land. He shot down aircraft, but he ensured, if at all possible, that the pilot survived, so that the whole encounter took on the character of a sporting match to determine the better pilot and marksman.

This turned out to be an image created by the German propaganda machine in 1917. It needed a young, good-looking radiant hero, a victor who could be served up to a relatively demoralized society. This image of the lonely gentleman of the skies was then taken up in the 1920s and further elaborated upon by the Americans, who wanted to sell a romantic notion of air combat.

And who was the man you discovered?

He was completely different. Without doubt, he was extremely courageous and extremely ambitious, but he was also cold-blooded. His goal was to shoot down as many aircraft as possible. In his own writings, he writes quite openly: "I never get into an aircraft for fun. I aim first for the head of the pilot, or rather at the head of the observer, if there was one."

I don't think that von Richthofen would have described himself as a hero. He was doing his duty to defend his fatherland. At the same time, he was satisfying his passion for hunting. He was already a passionate hunter at the age of 11 and was taken hunting by his father. Aim, shoot, destroy target -- he took his passion for hunting to the skies, transposing it one-to-one.

Manfred von Richthofen in uniform

Von Richthofen around 1917

I also do not think he was a brutal killer. Von Richthofen also reflected partially upon what he did. He wrote that he always felt terrible when he came off duty. He used to come home and lock himself in his room for hours and refuse to talk to anyone. From mid-1917 he also realized that the war was probably going to be lost. For me he is a tragic figure, fighting fanatically, remorselessly, in a war that is lost.

What made him into the kind of person he was?

His mother was extraordinarily ambitious and didn't think much of her husband. He retired early and did not have a very successful career as an officer. All of the family's ambitions were invested first in the eldest son, Manfred, and then in the second son, Lothar, who was also a fighter pilot. The young Manfred was sent at the age of 11 to a Prussian cadet school, which were pretty infamous. The children were honed into soldiers and there was no scope for any ifs, ands or buts. The intellectual aspect of schooling was largely neglected. The children had to function as soldiers first and foremost.

It's interesting: if you look at von Richthofen's personal development, it showed that, first of all, he functioned in this way. Then a year before his death, he started to come to his senses and think about his actions. I think he gradually realized that he had arrived at a dead end.

You say that the Red Baron myth was created in 1917. It served then as propaganda intended to boost morale. But why is it now being revived? What is the reason for the current interest in this figure?

In Germany currently, we are thinking about war, heroes, and war heroes, we are rethinking our position. Deployment in a war in Afghanistan would have been unthinkable in Germany 10 years ago. At the same time, we are thinking about reintroducing medals to reward bravery. For Germany, that is a very unusual situation because of our history, the Third Reich and the Hitler dictatorship.

Actor Schweighoefer in flight gear

Matthias Schweighoefer plays the Red Baron in the new film

In other countries, in France, Britain and the United States, hero cults exist. In Germany, they ceased to exist after 1945. I believe that there is a certain tendency toward reintroducing heroes, to hold them up as examples, as military models and to make military conflict socially acceptable again.

What do you think about the portrayal of von Richthofen in Nikolai Muellerschoen's new film, "The Red Baron?"

The film revives the Richthofen myth in parts. It turns him into a radiant figure, someone who becomes a good person / pacifist through his love for a nurse. It is a way of seeing von Richthofen that is popular at the moment -- as a sort of broken hero who is relatively blameless in some respects. There are those responsible for conducting the war, who are evil, and the good hero. This is a distinction that people like to make at the moment.

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