What Does It Mean to Be a Hero? Lessons from Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

In her latest book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson begins by recounting the story of August Landmesser, a German shipyard worker who defiantly resisted the Nazi Party by not saluting at a rally in 1935.

Today, Landmesser is deservedly singled out for praise and recognition, but he still has much to teach us — although the lessons are not necessarily those one might expect.

To begin, with the benefit of hindsight, it is too easy to think that if we were in Landmesser’s situation we, too, would have displayed the inner fortitude and courage to stand alone against a frenzied throng of co-workers, friends, and fellow citizens and not also throw up our right arm in a rigid “heil” salute to the Third Reich.

No, the first lesson to learn from Landmesser is to acknowledge the possibility that we may have joined the majority. This is a difficult and ugly truth to confront, but by admitting we might fall prey to peer pressure, groupthink, and propaganda, we are one step closer to successfully combating the scourge of these forces.

In my own case, I will sadly admit that I was not at the forefront of many of recent history’s more egregious wrongs. It was not until I was in my early 20’s that I stood up to discrimination against homosexuals; and I stayed quiet on gender inequality until my 30’s; environmental degradation until my 40’s; and, only recently, in my mid 50’s, have I opened my heart in a meaningful way to racial injustice. This reality keeps me asking “Where else am I falling short?” It should keep all of us asking the same question.

The second lesson we can learn from Landmesser is that he probably did not consider himself a hero. He made his decision not because he was physically brave, but rather because he was able to overcome his inner doubts. (We know he joined the Nazi Party in the early 1930’s in large part to gain employment, but we now know that being on the right side of history cost Landmesser not only his job, but also his Jewish wife, and, ultimately, his own life.)

One of my favorite sculptures is Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais.” When the statue was unveiled in 1889, it was met with widespread disapproval because it did not conform to society’s prevailing ideals of how heroes should be portrayed. Instead of placing the burghers — who sacrificed themselves to save the citizens of Calais — on a pedestal with calm, confident, and steady looks, Rodin placed them on ground level with anguish etched upon their faces.

Many of us still like to imagine our heroes as solitary figures easily standing firm against the tides of injustice, but the reality is much closer to Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais.” Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the ability to act in spite of fear.

As a present day example, imagine a picture of stock traders wildly cheering the New York Stock Exchange’s latest record or, perhaps, a photo of the legions of consumers in a crowded shopping mall on Black Friday. Today, many of us pay unquestioned fealty to the goddess of free-market capitalism in spite of the damage it is doing to our natural environment. There are, of course, some people standing up against the excesses of the system, but how many more of us quietly go along with today’s rampant and mindless consumerism even though we are aware of its excesses?

The third and final way to view Landmesser’s photo is to imagine how those generations yet unborn will view today’s society’s short-term focus on individual desires regardless of the destruction it’s reaping upon our planet. Is it not possible that our future descendants will view our actions with the same moral contempt that we now view the average German citizen saluting the Third Reich in the mid-20th century or the slave owners of the 18th and 19th centuries?

How is it future generations may ask; did we think it was morally justified to leave the earth with polluted air and water and deprive them of the beauty and benefits of plants and animals that we knowingly drove into extinction? Are we not disenfranchising these future generations of their right to live on a healthy, functioning planet?

Past history, present day realities, and future possibilities are staring us in the face. The choices before us are stark and unyielding. Will we stand up and be counted in spite of the fear, angst, doubt, and uncertainty we feel, or will we stay silent in the face of insidious and suffocating dogmas that seem to cloud our vision and cloak our hearts?

August Landmesser provides us a heroic model to which we can aspire. Though let us not delude ourselves into thinking that living up to his example will be easy.

Jack Uldrich is an author. His latest book is Business as Unusual: A Futurist’s Unorthodox, Unconventional, and Uncomfortable Guide to Doing Business (River Grove, 2020).