Christian Caryl

Heroes of Retreat, Revisited

We love to celebrate heroic crusaders for human rights. But what about the dictator who decides to surrender his powers?


What makes a hero? I’ve found myself thinking about that a lot lately. Humans seem to have a great hunger for heroes; demand always exceeds the supply. Which is logical enough, when you consider that heroes, by their very definition, are supposed to be exceptional. What’s that great line from The Incredibles again? "When everyone’s super, no one will be."

Every age complains about its lack of heroes, but once you start looking, it turns out that they are indeed around. Right now, netizens are enthusing over a chance photo that shows a New York City cop making a present of new boots to a homeless man. That the photo went viral almost instantly attests to our need to latch on to people who seem to embody the highest values. (Or just take a look at CNN’s popular Heroes program, a celebration of ordinary people who do good deeds.)

Heroes come in different forms. Just take a look at Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of that country’s pro-democracy movement, would clearly qualify as a hero in just about anyone’s book. She sacrificed a happy life with her own family to the cause of attaining freedom for her people. She has stared down armed soldiers and endured lonely decades of detention. Now, after so many years of struggle, she seems to have been vindicated. The same military government that she opposed for so many years has suddenly changed heart, opening up the once-isolated country to the outside world and awakening hope among its own citizens.

Yet consider the other Burmese politician that FP named to its 2012 list of 100 Global Thinkers, a group whose achievements we’re celebrating this week. Burmese President Thein Sein is not really the kind of person you’d choose as a natural hero. For almost his entire adult life he embodied the very system that Aung San Suu Kyi fought. He spent four decades in the Burmese military, which has run the country since 1962, mostly with unstinting brutality. Thein Sein played a big role in the regime. From 2007 to 2011, he served as prime minister; it was only in 2010, soon before he become president, that he hung up his uniform. It was soon after that he launched the reforms that have led to the release of hundreds of political prisoners and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to get herself elected to a seat in parliament.

Thein Sein is not a colorful or charismatic personality. He may be the same age as Aung San Suu Kyi, but he comes off — perhaps by virtue of his long years of service in a tyrannical regime — as far older and grayer than she. He reads his speeches in a monotone. Given his past, it’s doubtful that he will ever have any sort of real rapport with his people. And it would be hard to blame them for it, given the horrors that the Burmese military has visited upon the country’s citizenry over the years. (He hasn’t been directly implicated in any abuses himself, but he was such a part of the regime that he was also targeted by United States sanctions intended to discipline the Burmese regime. His name was taken off the sanctions list only on September 20 of this year.)

In other words, no one should expect Hollywood to come up with a stirring biopic based on the life of the Burmese president. We like our heroes to have triumphantly linear biographies, tales of ascent against the odds — and that means that the scriptwriters are out of luck when it comes to someone like Thein Sein. This is a man who achieved all the power that an authoritarian system has to offer — and then embarked on a course designed to undermine that very power. His friends will accordingly despise him as a traitor, while his foes dismiss him as an opportunist.

I can’t claim all the credit for that last thought. It’s actually a paraphrase of an insight expressed in a magnificent and largely forgotten essay by the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger. As far as I can tell, though it has been occasionally referenced in English, the essay — entitled "The Heroes of Retreat" ("Die Helden des Rueckzugs" in the original) — has never been properly translated into English, which is a terrible shame. Enzensberger published the article in one of Germany’s leading newspapers, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in December 1989. (You’ll have a hard time finding it on the paper’s website; if you want a copy, you’re better off ordering a collection of Enzensberger’s essays, like this one.)

Enzensbeger wrote his piece at a moment when the Soviet communist edifice in East Central Europe was falling apart. The man who did more than anyone else to facilitate that development was, of course, Mikhail Gorbachev, the then-Soviet leader, who made it publicly clear that Red Army troops were no longer in the business of keeping communist governments in the region in power, thus essentially inviting Poles, Czechs, East Germans, and all the rest to rise up in (mostly peaceful) revolt. This, Enzensberger argues, required a kind of political self-effacement and tactical modesty that is far more praiseworthy than the bloody military triumphs that once inspired traditional labels of "heroism." The compromises that enable nonviolent solutions to tyranny may not always qualify as the stuff of bedtime stories, but, the author insists, they are no less worthy of our accolades.

Enzensberger’s other "heroes of retreat" include General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish communist who outlawed the Solidarity trade union and declared martial law in 1981, but opened the way toward an end of the communist party’s monopoly on power later in the decade, as well as János Kádár, the reformist party leader in Hungary after the 1956 revolution against Soviet rule. Another is Adolfo Suárez, the first democratically elected prime minister of Spain after the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. In 1977, Suárez, who had once headed the fascist Falange Movement (one of the pillars of the authoritarian system created by Franco), presided over the first free elections in 41 years, the grandest act in the gradual dismantlement of Spain’s transition to democracy.

"It was Clausewitz, that classic strategic thinker, who showed that retreat is the most difficult of all military operations," writes Enzensberger. "This is also true of politics." Suárez, Enzensberger writes, "was a participant and a beneficiary of the Franco regime; had he not belonged to its innermost circle of power, he would have not been in the position to do away with the dictatorship." It’s for such reasons that the masters of political retreat rarely get their due: the role they play is one of pronounced ambivalence: "He who abandons his own positions is not only surrendering ground, but also a part of himself." But it’s precisely this capacity to surrender power, rather than amassing it, that belongs to the peculiar mission of these crucial political figures.

Needless to say, when a dictatorship resolves to do away with itself, the process that results can be long, tedious, and not entirely satisfying. There are bound to be messy compromises involved, both practical and moral — just ask the Brazilians, the Chileans, or the South Africans. And success certainly isn’t a given: Vladimir Putin hasn’t found it too hard to roll back Gorbachev’s experiment in liberalization.

Present-day Burma’s forward progress is hardly guaranteed, either. There are still many questions about the extent to which those who held power under the old regime are willing to surrender the political and economic privileges they continue to enjoy. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give Thein Sein his due. He’s a bad guy who’s now trying to do something right. We should give credit to people who are capable of change. That’s something that takes courage and daring. We are right to celebrate the good that he’s done.

 Twitter: @ccaryl