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Sacrifice, martyrdom—and truth: Nazis and Tamil Tigers

"The dream of sacrifice is the fantasy that one’s own body will be perpetuated as part of a body politic (resurrection of the dead). By virtue of sacrificial death, the smaller (human) body is consumed by the larger body (politic)."
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by Richard Koenigsberg

(July 19, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian)
Professor Michael Roberts is a University of Adelaide anthropologist , currently focusing on terrorism (his article “Suicide Missions as Witnessing” recently appeared in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism). His review essay, “Hitler, Nationalism, Sacrifice: Koenigsberg and Beyond …Towards the Tamil Tigers” explores the relationship between nationalism and sacrificial death in various cultural contexts.

The LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) or Tamil Tigers was a separatist organization based in northern Sri Lanka. Founded in May 1976 and headed by Velupillai Prabhakaran, it waged a violent secessionist campaign that sought to create an independent Tamil State in the north and east of Sri Lanka. LTTE was defeated by the Sri Lankan military in May 2009 (Prabhakaran was killed by government forces on May 19, 2009).

Roberts compares the sacrificial ideology of World War I nationalism and Nazism with that of the LTTE. Each ideology proposes that the individual’s life is less significant than the community’s—indeed, that the highest achievement for an individual is heroic death. The LTTE, like many nationalistic groups, valorized the hero who “sacrifices himself for the whole by destroying the ‘I’ to protect the ‘Us’ (the community).”

Roberts describes a ceremony performed by the LTTE in the jungle on November 27, 1989, to commemorate the death of hundreds of cadres who had perished in the revolutionary struggle. He sets the LTTE’s Mavirar Nal, or Great Heroes Day, alongside ANZAC Day in Australia, Remembrance Day in Britain and the End of the Asia-Pacific War day at the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan as instances of memorialization, suggesting a “universalism amidst the enormous diversity of tongues and modes of heightened expression.” All fall within what Roberts calls “dead body politics” (see Katherine Verdery, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies, 1999). How are we to understand the fact that political entities seek to produce dead bodies?

Death as a Demonstrative Process

Cultures invent or create ideological concepts that they elevate into “absolutes” worshipped as the essence of their society. But how do people persuade themselves that the ideas their society has constructed are real? Perhaps beliefs become real to the extent that people have died and continue to die for them. Sacrificial death “gives witness” to the depth of devotion, becoming the source of power—and truth.

People may die for “France”, “the German people”, the Communist Revolution, freedom and democracy, or a Tamil homeland. What is profoundly meaningful to people in a society at one time and place may have no meaning whatsoever to people in another society at another time and place. Yet—knowing that other societies possess and embrace different ideals—how do people in one society persuade themselves that their own ideals constitute reality?

Franco Fornari hypothesizes that war is the “spectacular establishment of a general human situation whereby death assumes absolute value: the ideas for which we die have a right to truth because death becomes a demonstrative process.” Men die in battle to prove the reality of France or Great Britain or America. They perform acts of violence to prove the truth of Allah.

Jonah Winters notes that the words for “witness” and “martyr” are nearly identical in Greek and Arabic. In Arabic the root SH-H-D provides the meanings of both shahid, witness and martyr as well as shahada, testimony. Thus, shahid usually is taken to mean that the martyr is one who “witnesses to the sincerity of his faith or political conviction through the ultimate proof—his own life.”

One may die for one’s country (in warfare) or for Allah (through an act of terrorism). The entities differ, but in our hearts the dream remains the same: that the entity we worship comes alive to the extent that we die in its name. The socially constructed idea, imagined community or god becomes real by virtue of acts of sacrifice/martyrdom performed in its name.

Fornari states that those who make war are driven not by a hate need, but by a love need. People feel they must “accept the need for self-sacrifice so that their love objects might live.” Insofar as the enemy is experienced as a “force that destroys our love object,” killing is undertaken to preserve that which one loves. The enemy or infidel is sacrificed to preserve belief in (love for) the entity one’s society worships.

Koenigsberg’s Law of Sacrifice

Michael Roberts submitted his review essay of my book Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War to Nations and Nationalism. One of the referees stated that Robert’s main point, showing how nationalism is a “religiously inspired political programme tied to rituals of sacrifice and generated out of the experience of war,” was “well established.” This referee (who voted for publication) did not, however, accept Professor Robert’s claim that “analysis of Hitler and the holocaust provides the best context for understanding the sacrificial rites of the Tamil Tiger movement.” He asks: “Why is the story of post-First World War Europe relevant to understanding contemporary Sri Lanka? Is the author assuming a historical passage from one site to another?”

Roberts is not suggesting cultural diffusion (although there is no reason to believe that warriors in Sri Lanka could not have been influenced by knowledge of Nazism or the First World War). What is hypothesized, rather, is a common psychological dynamic lying at the root of cultural practices occurring in two different times at two different places. This dynamic revolves around the use of sacrificial death to verify or validate cultural ideas or entities. Nazis died for Germany, whereas LTTE members gave their lives for the sake of a Tamil homeland.

By now the post-modern dictum requiring that we focus on the uniqueness of each culture has been internalized. We know that it is important to analyze phenomena within their cultural and historical contexts. I pose the question: Is it possible to identify psychological motives or dynamics that give rise to similar cultural forms in disparate cultural and historical contexts? I propose a law of sacrifice.

Sacrificial death or martyrdom functions to testify to the truth of a societal belief system. The nature of beliefs vary, but not the methodology for proving or demonstrating their truth. One proves the truth of a sacred ideal by dying and killing for it. People commonly speak of aggression and violence in relationship to political episodes of war, genocide and terrorism. I suggest, however, that the fundamental meaning of political violence is sacrificial death.
“Aggression” = Compelling the Other to Die for Your Ideal

“Killing” is not primarily an act of “aggression” (much less of biological aggression), although this is what one sees: the behavior or manifest content. Violent acts are undertaken in the struggle to get others to submit to the ideal that is considered absolute within one’s society. When terrorists killed Americans at the World Trade Center, it wasn’t because they “hated” Americans. Rather, they wished to compel Americans to submit to their god, that is, the god to which they themselves submit. The purpose of violence—manifest through war as well as acts of terror—is to compel others to sacrifice their lives (to die) for one’s own god or sacred ideal. The suicide bomber sacrifices his life for his god and compels others to die at the same time.

Terrorists martyred themselves at the World Trade Center and compelled Americans to become martyrs as well…to sacrifice their lives for Allah. “As we have died for Allah, so shall you. Our god is omnipotent and cannot be evaded. No one is exempt from the obligation to bow down to him. If you will not submit voluntarily to Allah, we will force you to submit.” Suicide bombing means getting the other to die or sacrifice his or her life for the god to which you have sacrificed your own life.

Individuals sacrifice their lives in order to glorify or valorize their own god or nation, giving rise to belief in entities such as Allah, France or Germany. Carolyn Marvin suggests (LINK) that “blood sacrifice creates the nation”—that societies come into being to the extent that individuals are willing die for them. But what is in this for the individual? Why do people so commonly suffer and die for cultural entities? Perhaps because—by virtue of identification with these cultural entities—one seeks to become omnipotent or immortal oneself.

Nationalism and the Fantasy of Immortality

In order to attain personal “immortality,” first the entity with which one identifies must be conceived as eternal or immortal. How does one create immortal cultural entities? By sacrificing one’s own life for their sake. Himmler declared that sacrifice for Germany was not to be feared: “Death holds no sting for us, because individuals die, while the Volk lives on.” Rudolf Hess proposed endless sacrificial death: “The stream of blood for Germany is eternal—the sacrifice of German men for their Volk is eternal. Therefore Germany will also be eternal.”

Germany is kept alive, according to Hess, by virtue of being endlessly fed with the blood of individuals. The national organism stays alive because it is perpetually nourished by the body and blood of human beings. Someone who dies in battle constitutes a sacrificial victim who feeds the nation and thus perpetuates its life.

The Individual sustains his or her fantasy of immortality by identifying with an entity imagined to be immortal (“Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler”). One’s culture is that which “lives on.” To the extent that one identifies with one’s culture (that which lives on), it is as if one will forever be embedded within this entity that never dies. One imagines that one will live on (after one’s life is over) embedded within the national organism—as part or particle or cell of this organism.

The dream of sacrifice is the fantasy that one’s own body will be perpetuated as part of a body politic (resurrection of the dead). By virtue of sacrificial death, the smaller (human) body is consumed by the larger body (politic). The sacrificial victim imagines he will be “digested” (by his nation) and live on as part of the cellular structure of an omnipotent organism.

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