Hitler, Nationalism, Sacrifice: Koenigsberg and Beyond … Towards the Tamil Tigers

Michael Roberts

Review Article: Richard A  Koenigsberg: Nations have the Right to Kill. Hitler, the Holocaust and War, New York: Library of Social Science¸ 2009, ISBN 978-0-915042-23-4. This essay was drafted in 2008. It did not pass muster when submitted to a Journal in UK in 2009. As I am no longer constrained by the academic circuit, I venture bold and present the unrevised article warts and all. Taking such a course has a benefit for readers: illuminating photographs embellish the section on the LTTE in ways that would rarely be accommodated in a standard journal. The Referees’ criticisms will be presented here for the benefit of readers within a week or so. Note too that I have not adjusted the text in the light of the LTTE”s defeat as a conventional force within Sri Lanka in 2009 because that development does not bear on the focus, viz., their dedication to cause or their practices of homage.

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Ever since he wrote Hitler’s Ideology: A Study in Psychoanalytic Sociology in 1975 (New York: Library of Social Science), Richard A. Koenigsberg has deployed his very own institutional base in New York to expose specific themes in the Nazi ideology with evangelical zeal. In this new monograph one theme focuses on the manner in which Hitler’s experiences in the trenches of the First World War entrenched his support for Germany’s goals in that war[1] and the principle that the individual must sacrifice self for national cause. Rather than decry the horrors of wartime bloodshed, Hitler was elevated by the community of the trenches and venerated those comrades who died in the fight. Modris Eksteins has told us that this bohemian loner of the pre-1914 years “came to regard his war experience as … his training in life,” so that his subsequent retellings bubble with exuberance (1989: 307-08). Koenigsberg argues that on this foundation Hitler directed his fury towards the weak Germans who were deemed to have shirked their duty, specifically the German Jews. Thus, the logic of war in Hitler’s reasoning eventually led to the logic of genocide (pp. 14, 1, 00). Parenthetically it can be added that Mark Mazower’s work reveals that the campaigns pursued by the Nazi German armies seeking to create an empire “cost the lives of as many other Europeans as Jews who perished in the Holocaust” and that roughly “8.2 million civilians … perished under Nazi occupation in Europe as a whole.” This outcome derived in part because they “wanted empty spaces in Eastern Europe” in order “to create their new Germanized Utopia” (Hastings 2008: 46, 47-48).

Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

Courtesy of  http://history1900s.about.com/library/holocaust/blhitler37.htm


In an important move the theme about Hitler’s obsessions is expanded by Koenigsberg to expose the horrendous maiming and killing that occurred in the battlefields of World War One. Statistical and descriptive details serve as a platform for a passionate condemnation of the nation state and its adjunct ideology, nationalism. Germany was not alone in the overwhelming emphasis on the call of the nation: a sacrificial ideology suffused the thinking of all the protagonists. Koenigsberg’s task is to expose the “fundamental structure of thought” and “psychological dynamic” underlining this war effort (pp. 65, 45); and, by implication, all modern wars. His book, therefore, is a searing criticism of the fact that “in war, human bodies are sacrificed in the name of perpetuating a magical entity, the body politic” (p. 42).[2]

In this little monograph Koenigsberg beats these two tom-toms (dual drums) as one strident refrain, indulging in considerable repetition of statistic, fact, quotation and argument. The percussive effect, I caution, should not lead readers to discard the work and its many vignettes of illustrative material.

Without expertise in European history in the twentieth century I am not qualified to evaluate his summary of Nazi ideology. Eckstein’s work (part of his bibliography) certainly supports Keonigsberg’s insistence that Hitler’s experience in the frontlines[3] informed his ideological outpourings (1989: 305-11, 193-95). But Koenigsberg does not compose his arguments in relation to the standard accounts of the two world wars or Nazi ideology provided by reputed historians in ways that permit ordinary readers to locate him within the intellectual firmament.[4]

Nor is the critical literature on the nation state held up for view in ways which enable readers to discern where Koenigsberg differs from those who are hostile to nationalism qua nationalism or those who pinpoint its excesses. Where other scholars (Eksteins, Glenn Gray and Jay Winter for example) are brought into the argument, they enter as embellishments of the book’s main themes. Again the considerable literature on sacrifice is not reviewed in ways that situate his work within that terrain.[5] In brief, this is not a comprehensive survey. Koenigsberg simply forges his own path: there is tunnel-vision here, hence my reference to “evangelical zeal.”

Such failures notwithstanding, significant facets of twentieth century Europe were thrown up before my outsider eyes. It is towards an elaboration of these strands of empirical argument and evidence and their implications for my own work that I now move in point form.

One: the quotations from leading Nazi figures display their deep commitment to Germany as heimat and collective. “Bourgeois privatism” was simply detested (p. 18). The individual was to be totally subordinated to the nation. “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” said Hitler on one occasion (p. 13). The “socialism” in the Nazi title was the fraternity of the frontline trenches. As one Nazi ideologue put it, the nation was “simply ‘a higher human being’ ” (quoted in Eksteins 1989: 195). This leads Eckstein to the conclusion that in Nazi thinking “the individual was the nation…. The nation had been telescoped into the dynamic individual” (1989: 195, emphasis his).

Two: Koenigsberg also highlights some striking analogies. The railway cattle trucks that brought masses of German troops to the battle front during WW One were not dissimilar to the cattle trucks taking jam-packed Jewish people to concentration camps some 20 years later (pp. 27-28). Indeed, the conditions suffered by German troops on the Russian front in the latter stages of the Second World War were not far removed from the situation in the concentration camps. I suggest that some caveats should be attached to the latter comparison: the German Army had overreached itself in Russia and not all the troops were destined to die. However, the more important issue for specialist social scientists is whether such sidelights sustain the thesis that the Nazi logic of genocide flowed out of the logic of war (p. 14).

Hitler salutes the crowd: Picture from the National Archives

Prisoners being embarked on trains, Photograph from the Trudi Gidan Collection, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

Crematorium Oven at Bergen-Belsen,Photograph from the National Archives, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

A wagon at Buchenwald loaded with corpses intended for burial, Photograph from the Stuart A. MacKenzie Collection, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.

A mass grave in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Photograph from the Arnold Bauer Barach Collection, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.


A large pile of shoes removed from inmates on gas-row, from the Hadassah Rosensaft Collection, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

Three: the more significant aspect of this book is the move from the specifics of German policies to that of the other countries involved in the First World War. Military strategy was directed by the belief that human wave attacks had enabled the Japanese to triumph over the Russians in 1904-05.[6] Thus informed, both sets of protagonists pursued a policy of “offensive at all costs” (p. 47). Directed by this goal the maintenance of morale and discipline was seen as a determining factor of success. In consequence a total of nine million soldiers were killed, 21 million wounded and nearly 8 million were taken prisoner or reported missing – adding up to 58 percent of the total manpower that was mobilized (p. 47). Such horrendous casualties developed out of military thrusts that, for the most part, gained little ground and got continually bogged down in stalemate.[7]

Four:  remarkably, the idiom of sacrifice drummed up by each nation’s leaders and media outlets was accepted and reiterated by some men as they resided in the stench and mud of the trenches. “I shall have died the most glorious of deaths. Do not bewail me too much…” wrote a French soldier, George Morillot, in a letter to a kinsperson (p. 42). Apparently such commitment was widespread and desertions were relatively few.[8] On a regular basis men marched in line into machine gun fire and were cut down like blades of grass before a scythe.

Courtesy of Orion  Anderson and http://www.ideologiesofwar.com/docs/trench.html

The heroic acceptance of death by so many males, one should note, was preceded by  the fanfare and glory surrounding marching bodies of troops as the public in all major cities on both sides of the war assembled in excitement to acclaim their patriotism (p. 65). The “euphoria” in Germany when war was declared in August 1914 is said to have been “millenarian” and Hitler was among those in Odeonplatz in Munich who was rendered ecstatic by the announcement (Ecksteins 1989: 197, 306: see picture of his face in this book).

Let me, here, inject two embellishments: it would appear that the cult of masculinity and encouragement of “muscular Christianity” during the latter half of the nineteenth century came home to roost in 1914-18.[9] In the result, by way of example, Australia and Australians joined the war effort with pride and trumpet. They would show the world that they were worthy of nationhood: they would prove their worth in a “baptism of fire.”[10] That they did, in their own estimation, in the magnificent defeat at Gallipoli. Thus the landing of troops at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915 has become enshrined as Australia’s de facto national day. The cultural producers of print, visual arts and rhetoric who fashioned the image of the heroic (Australian) Anzac[11] in subsequent years inscribed motifs of youthful virility, purity and innocence within this icon (Flaherty & Roberts 1989). The mateship and sacrificial heroism of the Anzac men was widely extolled, with a special emphasis on the dead.[12] Significantly, the first commemoration of this event was marked at Westminster Cathedral on 25 April 1916.[13] Subsequent intellectual work and material artefacts built on this heritage.

Five: thus, an emphasis on sacrifice on behalf of the nation was pervasive in most countries participating in the First World War. The vocabulary was drawn from the religious lexicon, even where some of these countries had moved towards establishing a secular modern state. French soldiers spoke of their sacrifice as a force towards redemption. Attending a field mass for 500 dead, an observer affirmed that “it is by … suffering that regeneration occurs” (quoted p. 67). Likewise, in his exhortatory and legitimising rhetoric, the French novelist and politician, Maurice Barres,[14] spoke of rebuilding souls (p. 68). It would seem that the language of state inspiration and mobilization on the one hand, and thus the language of justification as well as the subsequent language of reflection, could not but draw on the religious imagery that is so deeply etched into Western cultural form.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the elite levels of Western culture were also enamoured of the Greek civilization and its achievements. The slant was masculine: Richard Jenkyns has argued that “the Greek genius [was seen] as a kind of lithe, buoyant athleticism” and that “in the age of muscular Christianity the Greeks became muscular pagans, clean fresh air became a symbol of the Hellenic spirit” (1980: 170). C. E. W. Bean, the Australian war journalist turned historian, was among the secularized Australian intellectuals whose experience of the war[15] was bolstered by readings of the Greek world in ways that informed the fashioning of the Anzac as icon. He took to heart a Greek inspiration from the Dardanelles that he had gathered from the National Museum at Athens:

These by the Dardanelles laid down their shining youth in battle,

and won fair renown for their native land, so that their enemy

groaned, carrying war’s harvest from the field.[16]

Six: in further extension, and drawing inspiration from Bruce Kapferer’s work, it can be suggested that the idiom and symbolism of inspiration and commemoration deployed during and after World War One was not purely “Christian,” but rather “Judeo-Christian.”[17] In his analysis of the Anzac symbolism commemorating the war for Australia, Kapferer insists that the “Anzacs are vital symbolic embodiments of the Australian nationalist imagination because they established an identity for Australia in the context of the very ideological and ontological roots of Western Judeo-Christian civilization” (1988: 126-27).

Seven: significantly, Kapferer sees his comparative study of Australian and Sinhalese nationalism in contemporary times[18] as a work that reveals how “nationalism makes the political religious and places the nation above politics.”

The nation is created as an object of devotion and the political forces which become focused upon it are intensified in their energy and passion. The religion of nationalism, wherein the political is shrouded in the symbolism of “higher” purpose, is vital to the momentum of nationalism. This momentum [can be] among the most liberating, but also among the most oppressive … political energies of [our time]. The religion of nationalism … has engulfed … political ideas and doctrines—liberal democracy, communism, socialism, fascism, and anarchism — in its path. These have become subordinate to the nationalist purpose (1988: 1).

At one point he also notes that the “political nation [as] the object of devotion assumes messianic and proselytizing dimensions” (1988: 136). At such a point, therefore, one is reminded of the images of Hitler in his most insane mood.

So here then we have Kapferer crossing Koenigsberg’s trail. Though his position is not grounded in the theoretical foundations that sustain Kapferer’s arguments, Koenigsberg insists that Nazism “was a form of religion” (p. 18) within a more general argument that “nationalism is a living religion” (p. xiii).

Eight: rather to my surprise, one of the ecstatic celebrations of the heroic dead in the fields of Europe recounted within Koenigsberg’s book came from the turbulent heart of Padraig Pearse: “The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. … It is good for the world to be warmed with the red wine of the battle field. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this….”  (pp. 22 & p. 42). My surprise originates in my passing familiarity with Patrick Henry Pearse. His stirring orations in the cause of Irish resistance to British domination had been among the ingredients that I had drawn upon in my early work on the stimuli for anti-colonial movements. To hear him praise the heroism of his English enemies seemed incongruous – till reflections led me to see the logic energising his devotion to heroic sacrifice. For it is from dead Irish martyrs that Pearse drew some of his inspiration.[19] It was the path of death in the Irish nationalist cause that Pearse himself trod a few months after he made this statement: he was one of the leaders of the Easter Uprising of 1916, an effort that failed and eventually led to his execution on 3 May 1916.[20]

Nine: in this manner, then, through Pearse, we find that resistance struggle in search of self-determination is meshed into Koenigsberg’s argument that “war … is a sacrificial ritual that valorizes the nation-state” (p. 45). Through Pearse, therefore, we can expand our survey to other conflicts today where participants see themselves as liberation fighters. One such contemporary example is the effort of those Tamils in Sri Lanka who set forth to hive off an independent state in the island of Sri Lanka, a goal embodied in the name “Eelam” which identified this state-to-be.[21] Though initially many armed groups pursued this cause, between 1986 and 1990 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam led by Velupillai Pirapāharan carved out a dominant place for itself in this endeavour.[22] It is through selective themes from research on the Tigers’ repertoire of exhortation, legitimisation and commemoration that I conclude this survey.

Tamil Tigers and Sacrificial Imagery

The LTTE emerged formally as an underground militant organisation in May 1976.[23] Though sustaining strong informal links with the Tamil United Liberation Front, the parliamentary party committed to independence, the youth who led the LTTE believed that a revolutionary path was the only route available to their peoples. The LTTE leadership was selective in its initial recruitment of personnel and it is said that in July 1983 its secretly trained core of fighters amounted to 27 or 30 men, and certainly less than fifty.[24] The pogrom directed against Tamil people living in the south central parts of Sri Lanka in July 1983 resulted in a huge expansion of its personnel, while feeding other militant groups as well. The Indian government also intervened and set up training camps in various parts of India, usually the south, for the principal militant groups. It was around this stage that Pirapāharan decreed that all fighters should carry a cyanide capsule – a kuppi as they call it in Tamil – so that they could “bite it” when imminent danger of capture was looming. The emphasis in their ideology is on biting rather than swallowing the kuppi in order to ensure certain (painful) death.[25] The goal, of course, was to save themselves from potential torture and to protect their comrades and organisation from any information that could be extracted from prisoners. The emphasis in the initial adoption of suicidal action was defensive. It was only after internal debate that the LTTE adopted it as an offensive weapon[26] with the first such attack, a truck bomb driven by Miller, taking place on 5 July 1987.

The photo of Piriapaharan in Che Guevara imagery was taken by Shyam Tekwani and so too that of LTTE fighters guarding their coastline. The other three pictures are borrowed from a book by Rohan Gunaratna. [My thanks to Tekwani and Gunaratna]

As training was formalised, like all armies the LTTE had a passing out ceremony for their fighters. The induction of a batch of female fighters is graphically depicted in a BBC documentary filmed in the LTTE territories in 1991 where one sees/hears them chant in unison in response to their female commander’s initial prompt:

“Our revolutionary organisation’s purified aim

is for a free society to achieve Tamil Eelam

My life and soul and all this I sacrifice to

our organisation’s leader, our brother, Mr Prabhakaran

We fully accept that for him we will be very faithful and trustworthy

The aim of the Tigers – Tamils’ freedom.”

Here, the national goal and the leader (talaivar),[27] one should stress, are fused as one – not unlike the Nazi ideology of Führer and Germany, or, for that matter, many military dictatorships in the modern era. On this occasion in 1991 the Australian Tiger, Adele Balasingham, told the BBC in matter of fact manner that “the cyanide capsule has come to symbolise a sense of self-sacrifice by cadres of the movement, their determination, their commitment to the cause, and ultimately, of course, their courage.”[28] Tigers who die for their cause are identified as māvīrar, “great heroes”; but this term is often rendered as “martyrs” in the LTTE’s English translations. The term ­tiyaki, borrowed from the Indian nationalist literature and the Christian Tamil lexicon, also seems to have been deployed at the outset; but seems now to be largely reserved for the two exemplary Tigers (Thileepan and Annai Pupati) who fasted-unto death as a symbolic protest against the occupation of Tamil lands by the Indian army.

All black-framed images are from the BBC documentary on Suicide Killers” filmed in 1991 and courtesy of a copy provided by Chris Morris.

Balasinghams and Pirapaharan in LTTE country– Courtesy of Shyam Tekwani

Courtesy of http://www.Puthinam.com This photo was kindly provided by Shyam Tekwani who was embedded among the Tigers in the late 1980s. The LTTE personnel relaxing in camp are all carrying cyanide vials (kuppi) around their necks.

Whether in defence, or attack, or in protest, these suicidal politico-military practices can be read as weapons of the weak, instruments deployed by an organisation that has inferior strength in an armed conflict. But, significantly, none of the other armed Tamil Eelamist organisations adopted this code. The uniqueness of the LTTE in this regard gave them a distinct edge in the bidding competition for support from their own people; but it would be an error to see this pragmatic purpose as the only reason for adopting the kuppi initially as defensive modality. That is, I surmise that Pirapāharan and other seniors in the early LTTE command structure[29] had a deep conviction in total dedication to the cause of Eelam through the LTTE.[30]

In his early and sympathetic account of the LTTE’s “cult of tiyaki,” as he put it, Peter Schalk referred to the concept of arpanippu (dedication or gift to a deity) driving the Tamil Tigers to such total commitment (1997a: 66-67). When I asked a Christian Tamil octogenarian who had lived in the Jaffna Peninsula in the 1980s to clarify the meaning of this word, his eyes lit up and he said: “the devotion that the Tigers showed was unmatched.”[31] This singular piece of evidence in the context of subsequent history suggests that a substantial segment of the population in the northern and eastern reaches were attracted to the LTTE by this testimony of sacrificial commitment, though one should note that one other informant, a young Protestant Tamil, indicated that some people regarded the Tigers as fanatics for this reason.

This measure of commitment was allied with efficient organisation and ruthlessness. In April 1986 the LTTE attacked the main camp of its leading rival in militancy, TELO, killing all including its leader. The TELO remnants in the Jaffna Peninsula were then hunted down. In the late 1980s the militants within EROS were intimidated to the point where they withered away; while a commando raid in far away Chennai on 19 June 1990 successfully killed most of EPRLF’s Central Committee as they sat in deliberation.[32]

Taken in sum, these features of the LTTE enabled it to secure a dominant position in the armed struggle seeking self-determination for the Sri Lankan Tamils. They were largely a guerrilla outfit in the 1980s, with partial control over certain pockets of territory. This picture also holds true for the latter three years of that decade when the LTTE fell out with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in September 1987 after the Indian government intervened in May-August 1987, with much public acclaim among Tamils, to “protect” them from a Sri Lankan army offensive.

Its fighting capacities indicate that the sacrificial dedication of its personnel was of considerable value in maintaining an esprit de corps. Set beside the data from Koenigsberg regarding the rigorous demands imposed on soldiers by their generals during the First World War (pp. 25-26, 34-45), one can conjecture that one of the critical considerations in Pirapāharan’s insistence on the bond around and through the kuppi was the goal of cementing a mutual community of purpose.[33]

Between November 1982 and July 1987, the LTTE lost 632 personnel. After the Indian intervention turned sour and the LTTE took to the jungles and side-streets against the massive Indian presence, they lost 712 (Jeyaraj 2006). In late 1989 the Indian government decided to withdraw its forces and a ceasefire was declared. It was at this stage on 27 November1989 that “around six hundred LTTE cadres assembled at a secret venue in the Mullaitheevu district jungles of Nithikaikulam” to commemorate what they call Māvīrar Nāl or Great Heroes Day. This first celebration, it is said, was “a restricted affair [where] the highlight was a highly emotional address delivered extemporaneously by Prabakharan to his enraptured followers” (Jeyaraj 2006). The peak moment here is the lighting of the flame of sacrifice at 6.06 p. m., the juncture when the first Tiger fighter, Shankar, died.[34] As Schalk suggests, one can say that Shankar “is made a collective focal point for re-experiencing the mourning experience of Velupillai Pirapākaran” (2003: 400).

The Māvīrar Nāl culminating in the ceremony 27 November, therefore, can be set alongside Anzac Day in Australia, Remembrance Day in Britain and the End of the Asia-Pacific War day at the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan, among others. All fall within the compass of the type of politics discussed by Katherine Verdery in The Political Lives of Dead Bodies (New York: Colombia University Press, 1999). Thus directed, we are in the realm of what can be termed “dead body politics” (Roberts 2008). Any comparative study of such events cannot dwell on their contemporary expressions alone. One must tap the experiences of participants in the immediate post-war aftermath – so that, for Australia, this would be the period 1918-1939 in particular. But such researches would have to attend to a further difference in circumstance: among the Tamils, Māvīrar Nāl occurs in the course of an unfinished and ongoing struggle. The homage to their dedicated dead is intended to gird loins for more dying, to inspire the Tamil fighters’ dedication to the LTTE collective, its talaivar and its goals.[35]

By mid-1990, moreover, the LTTE had managed to seize control of a large chunk of territory wherein the SL Tamils were in a majority. In effect, they headed a de facto state, with Jaffna town as its symbolic centre. At this stage the LTTE hierarchy seem to have decided that the fallen were their personnel and that they should therefore have first lien on their bodies; and, secondly, that all should be planted as natukal valipādu or “hero stones worthy of worship” (Jeyaraj 2006) at their very own tuyilam illam or resting places.

This was a momentous step for those among them who had been brought up valuing the Hindu Saivite practice of cremation, which was the esteemed mode of mortuary practice in the Jaffna Peninsula in particular.[36] However, the LTTE seem to have carried through this revolution by importing the ideology attached to sannyāsin and other heroic figures in India who are anointed by the exceptional mortuary epitaph known as natukal or “planted stones.”[37]


from TamilNet.com

Tuyilam Illam at Vadamaradchy & Kopay, Nov.    2004, taken by Michael Roberts

From 1990 onwards the LTTE proceeded to establish numerous tuyilam illam [i.e. cemeteries in our terminology] at various locations in their territories. By 1995 they set up a special office charged with the task of maintaining these sites (Schalk 1997: 68) and by the turn of the century they had 21 major tuyilam illam, everyone immaculately maintained.[38] These tuyilam illam, like cemeteries elsewhere in the world, are sacred terrain and are explicitly deemed to be “holy places” and “temples” (Natali 2005, Trawick 2007: 245). As Sangarasivam contends, the “laying of bodies […] and the building of tombstones inscribe the presence of the honoured dead into the land [and] their physical substance coalesces with the soil of the land to create a culturally circumscribed sacred space” (Sangarasivam 2000: 300). So, as in Northern Ireland, a sacred topography of political import has been constructed.

This practice has been augmented by a ritual calendar. Besides Māvīrar Nāl in November, there are nine other occasions, generally days on which stellar figures in the LTTE circle sacrificed their life, marked out for commemorative rites of homage (Schalk 2003 & 1997). But the week of homage culminating in Māvīrar Nāl dwarfs them all: by 2004 this was a massive logistical exercise in the Tiger domains. It involved participatory support from all classes of the population and was a multi-media operation with loudspeakers conveying lyrical, martial and lament music through day and night; while buntings, decorations, pandals, photographic displays of the dead and plays mark the occasion as special. As argued by me elsewhere (2005), the range of activities during this week was a work of mobilization, inspiration, legitimization, remembrance, homage, renewal and transcendence.

The regenerative thrust of such commemorations is underlined by the fact that Māvīrar Nāl has been referred to as an elucci nāl, that is, a “Day of Edification” or “Day of Rising” (Schalk 2003: 404). Elucci has multiple meanings in Tamil and thus a potential for wide-ranging significance: “ascent, elevation, staring as in a procession, derivatively song sung at dawn to raise the god, king or VIP from sleep, origin, birth appearance, beginning, otitis, effort, activity, inflamation of the ear.”[39] This metaphoric suggestion of a resurrection undermines Schalk’s insistence elsewhere that “no rewards in the after-life [are offered] to those who die for the cause” (2003: 000).

Other evidence compounds this act of contradiction. The idea of reincarnation appears in metaphoric and other ways in some of the Tamil poetry that is part of LTTE propaganda (Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005). Again, D. B S. Jeyaraj is quite categorical: “the Great Heroes Day observances provide [the LTTE cadre] with the feeling that by sacrificing their lives they would grasp eternity and ensure immortality” (2006). Such an emphasis on immortality gains further weight when one links it to the widespread LTTE practice of describing the fallen heroes as vitae, that is, “seeds,” and as vittudal (pronounced viththudal), namely, “bodies that become seeds.”[40] Both these related concepts are deeply meaningful terms in Tamil culture and refer back to ideas conveyed in the Cankam period in the first millennium CE. As such, they convey the idea of a body buried in the earth that “brings forth actual as well as literal new life” (Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005: 124). Indeed, Schalk himself tells us that LTTE posters proclaim: “we are not dead; we have been sown” (Schalk 1997a: 79).

This regenerative capacity is further marked by the manner in which LTTE literature speaks of the fallen turning into ash and fertilising the soil (Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005: 124). Ash is a central ingredient and a critical concept in both Hindu religious texts and in meaningful practices within the diverse strands of this persuasion: “while produced out of destruction, it is also the ‘seed’ of creation that remains to rejuvenate the cosmos” (Mines 2005: 31). Elsewhere Steven Collins observes that “vegetation imagery” alluding to “seed” and “root” is built deeply into the soteriology of the Indian subcontinent and is embedded within the concept of many worldly lives involving rebirths shaped by “karma-seeds” (1982: 218-24, 226).

Hellmann-Rajanayagam’s study of a brochure entitled Curiyap Putalvar published by the LTTE in 2001 for foreign circulation, together with her translation of 12 poems, enable those without expertise in Tamil to gain a glimpse of the resonant emotions conveyed by the LTTE patriots, both ordinary folk and literati, whose outpourings figure therein. She concludes that the core message within this pamphlet carries three motifs: “the hero as seed out of which new life sprouts both literally and spiritually, the hero as history clothed in immortality, and the hero as victim who sacrifices himself (sic) to pay a debt or provide a gift (to the Mother soil?)” (2005: 151).

Hellmann-Rajanayagam also notes that the poetry is permeated by “the typical LTTE syncretistic combination of Christian and Saivite symbolism” (2005: 133). One outstanding religio-cultural symbol deployed by the LTTE in its motivational work of mobilization has been a replica or picture of a pot, especially where identified by the Tamil word, pongu. Pongu (also written as ponku, ponkal) refers to a ceremonial pot of rice gruel and literally means “rising up, boiling over, swelling, emergent.” Though pongu can metaphorically signal rising anger,[41] it generally connotes abundance and auspiciousness. It is in this rich sense that the pongu figures in village festivals (kotai). Raw substances are used in the cooking process and, thus, “ponkal cooking is an evocative metonym for reproduction and increase in general and for [festivals] in particular,” while “symbolizing the human capacity to convert death into life-sustaining growth with the help of gods and the ancestors” (Mines 2005: 151-52). It is not surprising, then, that women break into a chorus of ululation when the pots boil over. This orientation is entirely in keeping with a religion that has cosmogonic myths where “the creative seed is carried in a pot” – itself a symbol of a womb (Shulman 1980: 45-46, 64-65).

In the early 2000s the LTTE also initiated a series of cultural pageants which were called “Pongu Thamil,” translated as “Resurgent Tamil.” These were elaborately organised festivities, festooned with red and gold colours and marked by processions and/or cultural performances. The imagery conveys the notion of regeneration even to non-participant observers in virtual space.

The pot symbol’s association with “plenitude”[42] is wholly congruent with its identification within the Indian cultural universe as the abode of deities and a source of divine potency. Thus, take the village festival of communal regeneration at Udappu, a Tamil fishing village along the western coast of Sri Lanka. For the Bhadrakāli Festival at Udappu the goddesses’s advent is marked by a rite which transfers sea water into two earthen pots, here called kumpam. These pots are seen as “temporary abodes for Bhadrakāli,” receptacles where her divine energy will increase. The subsequent, highly structured ritual process, which takes place over ten days, is designed as an act of transformation in which Bhadrakāli’s “dangerous power” is “turned into protective power” (Tanaka 1991: 112).

The sacrificial commitment of the Tamil Tiger fighters, therefore, must be comprehended within the context of devotional gifts of self and propitiatory vows to deities that result in extreme acts of self-punishment (fire-walking, rolling on the ground in religious processions, et cetera) by Tamil Saivite believers and the diffusion of these measures of devotional piety to neighbouring Christian people (Bayly 1989). Set within this backdrop and located firmly within the LTTE activities, it is hardly surprising that one of the poems translated by Hellmann-Rajanayagam praises the hero “who sacrifices himself for the whole by destroying the ‘I’, to protect the ‘Us’ (the community)” (2005: 134).

Thus, here, within the LTTE, we have a principle that was also inscribed within Hitler’s thinking and Nazi ideology. But not only Hitler, as Koenigsberg reminds us. This principle was par for the course for most fighting nations during World War One and seems to be bow tie and bootstrap attached to every nationalist enterprise. Indeed, one could go further and contend that it is uniformly built into the disciplinary culture of every military outfit.[43]

Koenigsberg’s illustrative quotations and my desultory readings indicate that those who dwell on sacrifice in emotive homage deploy metaphors drawn from nature and plant life. This clue provides scope for a tangential excursion as concluding remark.

All human beings experience their own body and its stages of progression, as well as the life span of vegetation around them. Even city-dwellers have pot plants, journey into the countryside or reflect on such processes through exposure to poetry, literature and performative theatre. Likewise, all human beings experience the transition from day to night in ways that may encourage a tendency to depict profound transformation through metaphors of “light” and darkness” or “spring” set as contrast to “winter.” Such experiences are integral to the phenomenology of our being through the senses of sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing.

Thus nourished, it is arguable that vegetative and climatic imagery is embedded within the semantic structure of all languages in this our world. On this basis one can take another step and contend that this imagery erupts at critical moments of emotional crisis. One such occasion is where nationalist histrionics seize centre stage, seek to mobilise people and demand sacrificial commitment.

In effect, I have pinpointed a feature that may be a universalism amidst the enormous diversity of tongues and modes of heightened expression. This suggestion must immediately be circumscribed. All practices, even embodied practices of exhortation, occur in contexts of space and time. As such, they work in association with the pragmatic demands of contingent political processes.


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[1] Note: Kaiser Wilhelm II “shared Hitler’s belief in a worldwide anti-German plot and possessed the same aspiration to rule Europe” (Hastings 2008: 46) summarizing the work by Mazower (2008).

[2] For this reason, we can also note that it elliptically complements Mark Mazower’s recent reminder that “far too much modern scholarship about the Nazi era addresses the Holocaust in isolation” (Hasting 2008: 48).

[3] Note that Hitler was decorated with the Iron Cross on two different occasions.

[4] There is one exception: criticism is levelled at the bland military accounts of the World War One that function to naturalize its horrors (pp. 34-37).

[5] For instance, Rene Girard 1977, Valerio Valeri 1985 and Bruce Kapferer 1988 & 1997.

[6] Koenigsberg 2008: 50. The existence of this belief was confirmed by Brian Victoria; who then went on to explain that more recent researches have shown that it was the decline of the will to fight within the home front in Russia that was central to their capitulation, while on the battlefield on land it was the Japanese naval artillery deployed as land guns that turned the tide at a critical battle (conversation 6 Dec. 2008).

[7] Trevor Wilson (who has considerable expertise in military history) of the History Dept., University of Adelaide, confirmed this fact, with a caveat re the German General’s Ludendorf’s campaign in 1918.

[8] Again, confirmed by Trevor Wilson.

[9] Cf. Koenigsberg 2008: 54-55.

[10] See Toowoomba Chronicle, 30 April 1915 and Argus, 8 May 1915. For other references, see Flaherty & Roberts 1989: 53.

[11] “Anzac” is actually an acronym standing for the Australian and New Zealand Army command (?). In Australian vision the New Zealanders are often obliterated.

[12] Also see Kapferer 1988 and Ken Inglis 1965.

[13] Times, 25 & 26 April 1916.

[14] Barres (1862-1923) was a French novelist, journalist and nationalist politician. In Wikipedia he is described as a “strong supporter of the Union sacrée (Holy Union) during World War I, Barrès remained a major influence of generations of French writers, as well as of monarchists, although he was not a monarchist himself.”

[15] Oxford educated in the 1890s, Bean was embedded among the troops at Gallipoli as well as the Western front as a war correspondent.

[16] “Memorials in Stone,” Reveille, vol. 6, 1 May 1933, p. 28. Also see Flaherty & Roberts 1989: passim.

[17] This is Kapferer’s reading. His father, let me note, was French Jewish migrant to Australia in the 1930s so that his understanding is coloured by the Jewish heritage of himself (as well as his wife, Judy).

[18] His study underlines the difference between the two forms, while yet insisting that both are modern. For a subsequent elaboration see Kapferer 1991. Cf., too, the emphasis on the “sacralisation of politics” in Schalk 1997b and Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005: 116.

[19] I have not discovered where precisely I deployed Pearse, but recollect that his oration referred to the Irish dead. I think I got this quotation from Nicholas Mansergh’s The Commonwealth Experience.

[20] Re Pearse see Ruth Edwards 1977.

[21] These Tamil militants are described by the state and those totally attached to the existing polity as “terrorists.” This is part of the propaganda war that I am side-stepping.

[22] This position was secured by eliminating or squeezing out all rivals, especially other armed groups (see text below).

[23] T. Sabaratnam, Pirapaharan, http://www.sangam.org/index_orig.html, a serialised book on web, 2003 et seq, chaps. 6-9.

[24] Interview with S. Sivadāsan 1 Aug. 2005 and DBS Jeyaraj 2005 . K. Sivathamby informed me that the figure was “certainly less than 50” when I cited these numbers (August 2005).

[25] This point was carefully explained to the BBC documentary team in 1991 by Yogi, one of the LTTE”s senior spokesman.

[26] Information conveyed by RSM, an ex-LTTE fighter, in Nov. 2004 (I did not seek further details re the debate because it seemed a logical extension of suicidal pragmatics in a war situation).

[27] The word talaivar translates as “leader,” and thus carries the sense Fǖhrer in the standard German meaning before it was contaminated by Hitler. In some contexts it could also mean “hero” (Trawick 1990: 26, 30). For evidence that Pirapaharan is held in great reverence by the LTTE fighters, see Gajaani 2005 and O’Duffy 2007: 265.

[28] BBC Inside Story Series, “Suicide Killers,” 1991.

[29] That is, conjecturally, Shankar, Sellakili, Seelan, Mahattayā, Ponnamma, Tileepan and Kittu at the very least.

[30] The tales regarding Seelan (actual name i= Charles Anthony) and his death in early July 1983 circulated in pro-LTTE circles emphasise his own commitment to never being taken prisoner – so that he ordered a junior to shoot him when an injury prevented him from getting away (see Sabāratnam 1983 et seq. chap. 37, accessed 15 April 2004).

[31] Interview with S. Rajanāyagam (born 1908) in Adelaide, 7 January 2004. On arppaNippu, see Schalk 1987: 66, 69 and Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005: 123.

[32] For the latter, see http://anandasangary.com/?p=292.

[33] Also see the quotation in translation from one of Pirapāharan’s Heroes’ Day speeches in Schalk 2003: 42.

[34] This was the date on which Selva Sathiyanāthan, whose nom de guerre was Shankar, died from his wounds in Madurai after being ferried there by sea and land.

[35] This participatory message and commitment to death seems to be inscribed within the poetry to the heroic dead studied by Hellmann-Rajanayagam (2005).

[36] To the best of my knowledge I was the first to emphasise this transformative change (Roberts 2005a: 499-500) though the initial elucidation was inadequate and has led to subsequent elaborations.

[37] On this issue, see Roberts 2006: 84-85 and Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005: 120. For the Indian context, see Kailasapathy 1968: 76, Rajam 2000 and Settar & Sontheimer 1982. Also see Fig. 5 in Roberts 2006: 85.

[38] Information from the journalist Joe Ariyaratnam, 26 Nov. 2004 and personal observation of three sites.

[39] Information conveyed by S. V. Kasynathan in Melbourne (email notes, 20 Feb. 2007) using the Madras University Lexicon (1982 edn.) and adding his own elaborations. Note the semantic overlap with the concepts pongu and ponkal.[40] Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005: 123-24 & 141 and Schalk 1997: 66.

[41] I acknowledge the aid provided by S. V. Kasynathan, both by email and in tel. chat, on this topic.

[42] Sanjay Srivastava has informed me that the image of a woman with pot was widely deployed in India during the era of socialist state planning to “represent the ideology of plenitude through the planning process;” and that this image has always been common in Indian calendar art where it is “associated with ideas of a fecund nation state and the fertile woman” (email note, 30 March 2008).

[43] David Olney of the Politics Dept, University of Adelaide, confirmed the validity of this point.

15 Comments

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15 responses to “Hitler, Nationalism, Sacrifice: Koenigsberg and Beyond … Towards the Tamil Tigers

  1. This is an excellent article.

    I might mention that I have no “institutional base.” I am able to see what I can see because I am detached from these ideologies of violence, at least intellectually.

    Of course, I too have been attached to my country, and suffer from the violence that has been committed in the name of “America.” But every nation engages in acts of violence in order to prove that it is powerful. Every ideology seeks to confirm the reality of its existence by commiting acts of devotion.

    Killing and dying are two sides of the same coin: ways in which one demonstrates absolute devotion to some object conceived as greater than the self. Of course, it’s all religious: this desire to bind one’s sense of being to objects conceived as omnipotent.

    However, finally, it’s all full of sound-and-fury, signifying nothing. History is full of sound-and-fury, signifying nothing. Academics and scholars are attached to these entities in the name of which history occurs; in the name of which all the dying and killing occurs.

    Surely, we insist, all of this cannot be occurring in the name of nothing. Well, it is the denial of nothingness that brings everything into being. Everyone needs “something to kill and die for.” Out of nothingness, people attach to omnipotent objects. And seek to kill and die in the name of these objects. Without these objects (the source of history), life seems meaningless.

    So human beings desire this violence. It proves that we are more than animals. Killing and dying for no reason at all.

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