Or: The demi-god prowess in the Luftwaffe.
One of the most recent additions to my library is up there amongst the strangest. It is also one of the most coveted and while I have not had to look very hard for it, I have had to wait a long time for one to appear in an affordable and clean form.
I can blame my very well developed visual memory for fixing my attention on this book yeas ago. I think I found it through an interlibrary loan search. No, I remember…
It was back in 2001, when I was old enough to know that I should have a real job and that this required school, and contract jobs, and uncertainty. I got a 2 month contract for the Provincial Library (a province-wide administrative body that supervised a public library network but also provided a circulating collection for partner libraries). My job was to weed through about 160,000 books and pull out the ones the library wanted to keep. The rest were boxed up and sent to a depository in Ontario where, until the place was shut down in 2005, other libraries could pick from the holdings and take them over for free. This was one of the books I boxed and sent away I have never seen the like since.
It is, I grant you, an odd thing to have but consider what I study. I work with violence, and violent people, and all the complex and contradictory mythologies those violent people (and their victims) construct to explain, justify, rationalize, normalize, dramatize, promote, discourage, record, imitate, and conceal violence. Martial culture, and the culture of display, is part of it and there are very few modern analogues that come close to the medieval elites and their idea of prowess.
Here, painted on the rudders of Luftwaffe fighters, is the modern manifestation of prowess. They are more than scoreboards, they are symbols of a pilot’s skill, social and military worth, and in come eyes, a reflection (or proof really) of their moral worth.
Of course this does not measure moral worth, only a certain type of skill and ability, but that’s also very much part of the martial culture. This are ambiguous things and they are hard to ‘read’ without noticing that prominent and emotionally over-burdened symbol painted next to the victory bars. That also stands for a great mass of meanings.
And here is where my fascination with history lives. More often in the photos or the objects, than with the words on the page.
Karl Ries and Ernst Obermaier, Luftwaffe Rudder Markings 1939-1945 (West Chester, PA., Schiffer Military History, 1991). First published in 1970 in German only. This ed. has a dual language introduction but the rest is only in German.