Heroes of Retreat

I have been reading the splendid ‘Anatomy of a Moment’ by Javier Cercas, the Spanish novelist, about the 1981 attempted coup in Spain and came across a reference to the phrase of Hans Magnus Enzensberger: ‘the heroes of retreat‘:

ACCORDING TO ENZENSBERGER, the events of the past few decades
have created a type of political hero hitherto unknown in the West. These
heroes are neither triumphant victors nor bold conquerors, but specialists
in dismantling and winding down, in scrapping and negating what has
gone before. Often ridiculous and pathetic, they must nevertheless be
learnt from, Enzensberger writes, “for they are the ones our part of the
world has to rely on if it is to survive.” They include “pioneers” like
Krushchev and Kadar, followers like Suarez, Jaruzelski, and Krenz (perhaps as tragic as they are indispensable), and last but not least the true
hero of the group, a man who has elevated the difficult act of dismantling
to a new level: Gorbachev.

I rather like this idea and thought I would start a list of such ‘heroes of retreat’:

  1. Frederik De Klerk (1926-) for having managed the relatively peaceful dismantling of Apartheid in South Africa
  2. Adolfo Suarez (1932-) who the book above is about for dismantling Fascism in Spain without violence and replacing it with a constitutional monarchy He was one of only three politicians who refused to duck when the military stormed the Cortes on February 23 1981. The others were also heroes of retreat: Santiago Carrillo (1915-) the head of the Spanish Communist Party, and General Manuel Gutierrez Mellado (1912-95), the only military officer in the Cortes. Non pasaran!
  3. Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) for dismantling Maoism so effectively and setting China on the road to modernity
  4. Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-) for the transition out of the Soviet Union
  5. Wojciech Jaruzelski (1923-) for avoiding Soviet Invasion of Poland in 1981 that might have set the clock back on the whole unwinding of Communism in Eastern Europe in the 1980s.

Of course, it raises the issue of the places that lack a ‘hero of retreat‘ and the following countries spring to mind: Cuba, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea….

Though, one could go on to wonder if actually the system we have created in the West based on financialization of the economy, growing inequality and a failure to confront issues of environmental sustainability, could not itself do with a ‘hero of retreat’ to dismantle it and create something more enduring?

Adolfo Suarez’s finest hour confronting the military coup in the Cortes: the clowns formed the first and only act:

History repeats itself. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’ Marx



About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict History, Conflict Humor, Conflict Processes and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Heroes of Retreat

  1. Ted Pudlik says:

    I am reading “The Anatomy of a Moment” right now, and came across this post while searching for an English translation of Enzenberger’s essay mentioned in the passage you quote. I’m happy to see someone else found the notion of “heroes of retreat” striking, too!

    But I have a small correction: the attempted coup to which “The Anatomy of a Moment” is devoted took place in 1981, not 1982.

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