Heroes and Heroism

Miep Gies, who helped protect Anne Frank from the Third Reich, recently passed away at the age of 100. Her actions tell us something important about the role of heroism in our own lives.

On January 11, Miep Gies died, aged 100. Though born in Austria, she spent most of her life in the Netherlands. After Austria joined the Third Reich, her family fled to Holland, where Miep married Dutchman Jan Gies.

She was the last survivor of five men and women who hid two Jewish families for two years and one month during the Nazi occupation of Holland. The eight hidden Jews were eventually betrayed by an informer whose identity is still unknown. They were arrested and taken to various concentration camps, where all but one perished.

This would have been a minor footnote to the Holocaust, but for the fact the lone survivor, Otto Frank, had a daughter Anne who kept a diary. Gies retrieved and hid the diary, intending to give it back to Anne after the war.

Instead she gave it to Otto Frank. Anne died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen Konzentrationslager, aged fifteen, two weeks before the camp was liberated by the British.

Frank published his daughter's diary, as The Diary of Anne Frank, in 1947. Since then it has been translated into dozens of languages, and adapted into a play and a movie. It is consistently rated among the one hundred most important books of the 20th century. Gies later published her own book, Anne Frank Remembered.

Gies was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Yad Vashem medal given by Israel to the “Righteous among Gentiles,” and was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. But Gies always rejected the label of hero.

“I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did or more, much more , during those dark and terrible times years ago, but always like yesterday in the hearts of those of us who bear witness,” she said.

But of course, she, her husband, and friends were heroes, in the literal sense of the word. "Hero" comes from the ancient Greek word for "protector" or "defender." They were defending eight men, women, and children, the honor of their nation, and their own humanity. They failed only in the first.

The ancients regarded heroes as demigods, the sons of gods and mortal women. Our culture wrestles with an ambiguity about heroes and heroism; two attitudes that might be called deifiers and debunkers. On the one hand are those who want and need to see heroes as larger than life, without significant flaws. On the other are those who deny there is any such thing as real heroism, who see nothing but the "feet of clay," the all-too-human faults, mixed motives, and weaknesses of people widely regarded as heroes.

In my opinion both are wrong. And wrong in the same way.

I don't have a problem admiring men and women who act heroically, despite all their flaws, orneriness, and glorious feet of clay. The Gieses and their friends were, before the Nazi occupation, remarkable only in their ordinariness.

To me it's inspiring, and sobering, to realize seemingly unremarkable men and women rose to such heights when the occasion demanded. They could have hunkered down for the duration of the war and, with luck, survived without doing anything seriously wrong. But sometimes it's not enough to do nothing wrong if you are going to live with yourself. You have to do what's right, whatever the risk, whatever the cost.

And that's where I think both the deifiers and debunkers go wrong. Because the consequence of both is to put heroism beyond our reach. Because bad times always return. And because the example of real heroes, feet of clay and all, means when they do return, you will have no excuse not to be a hero.

A different version of this column, on the occasion of Miep Gies's death, appeared as an op-ed in the Valley City Times-Record.

Stephen Browne is a writer, editor, and teacher of martial arts and English as a second language. Currently he is working as city reporter at a small newspaper in North Dakota. He is also the founder of the Liberty English Camps, held annually in Eastern Europe, which brings together students from all over Eastern Europe for intensive English study using texts important to the history of political liberty and free markets. In 1997 he was elected an Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights for his work supporting dissidents during the Milosevic regime. His regularly-updated blog is at rantsand.blogspot.com.

13 comments from readers  

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A fascinating read.

I enjoyed it immensely.

Thank you.
This is Stephen W. Browne at his best. Thanks for reminding us that heroism is neither a myth nor an unattainable ideal, but something we should all be prepared to embrace when the moment is right.
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Very positive article! Thank you!

I totally agree that there are two extremes of view on the issue of "heros" and they are both wrong.

The past decade was too full of spectators and hero worshippers who put demi-gods on pedestals and shunned anyone less as a fraud, rather than try to be better people themselves in whatever less-than-billion-dollar ways they could.

Meanwhile, the "we humans are all too human" school (the anti-Neitscheans) - who never disappeared - are always telling us it is too presumptuous and conceited for us to strive to accomplish more than eating and defecating and sleeping. That would be hubris and pride, greed and ambition, punishable by shame and public humiliation! (OK Lillian Rearden...)

Somewhere between being a pig in a sty and a billionaire is where most of us find ourselves. And it is important that we still see motivation to behave as "heros" and "not give up the hero in our soul" - even if it means something less than world domination for the vast majority of us and even if we don't quite win.

Would anyone bother to train for a sport if they thought about the odds of winning gold in the Olympics? No. But it is still herioc to work towards positive goals.

Many military people who themselves have performed heroically and survived do not consider themselves to be heroes although I do. On several occasions, I have heard these heroes remark that all the military heroes are dead. That's a very high standard, but in the context, it makes sense. It is very hard to take credit for heroism when your buddy, who was fighting the same battle in the same way, died in the process.

How do we classify this kind of live hero - is he a deifier, a debunker, or something else?
Mr. Browne: Interesting article, not sure what your bottom line was, but no matter, always nice to think that people can do heroic things. Dogs often do heroic things, remarkable things, and I doubt they fit any of your definitions. That is what heroism is all about. You do it because you believe either consciously or subconsciously that you have to do it, there is no question. A dog saves his master from drowning because drowning is anti-life, and somehow the dog understands that. Once the dog dries off, and relaxes, he forgets all about it, he never pats himself on the back. Perhaps therein lies the heroism. Ann Frank became the six million Jews personified. The Washington D.C. Yad Vashem has a huge picture of her hanging in full view. Her diary was Heroic.
I think this is a wonderful column. It's very important to remember that heroes don't have to be perfect to be heroes.

We should also consider the uses to which we put heroes. If we're looking for somebody to fall at the feet of, that's wrong, because we should always stand up straight. If we're looking for someone who can help us bring our own good qualities, whether in heroic or modest proportion, that's good.

What I have noticed in a lot of hero-worship is that the worshipper needs the hero to be without stain, because the hero functions as a kind of compensation for all the tawdry and mean aspects of life. If anyone points out anything problematic about their hero, they go ballistic because in some sense one is attacking their justification for living.

This is a very unhealthy approach to heroes. It is bad for the worshipper and bad for the hero. People should always relate to each other fundamentally as equals, equal in dignity, equal in the faculty of reason and equal in fallibility, regardless of differences in abilities and achievements.
Thank you for this reminder of the need to be ready to act in protection of our highest standards in the face of danger. Facing down the threat of a government about to become totalitarian, as we do, ours may be the very time when that reminder is needed.
After reading your list of credentials and experience, I am absolutely stunned! Makes me feel as if I spent most of my life sleeping!

But I digress... I am a firm believer that people will rise to heroic deeds when they see the opportunity immediately in front of them.
As far as grasping the need for heroic deeds that are not so obvious, but generally apparent, I think that what stalls any actual participation in worthwhile heroic action is the perceived risk to loved ones. If there will be a risk to one's family, that is an honest and rational barrier. For human beings to see the long range risk to their loved ones of NOT taking action, that is an intellectual endeavor not so easily achieved.

Great article, thanks for writing it.
Mr. King,

We might call them "English" ;-)

â??Greater the deed, greater the need
Lightly to laugh it away,
Shall be the mark of the English breed
Until the Judgement Day!�

The English Way by Rudyard Kipling
Well said, on a topic many find hard to grasp.
This is a wonderful perspective on heroes. The idea that heroes must be perfect may indeed give us an excuse not to be heroic. Thank you.
David R
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Thanks for your thoughtful words; it would be my honor to meet in a dojo.

Here is a definition... "Heroism" happens when someone choses to do the right action in spite of their fears.

And a quote for your students.

"They tell us, Sir, that we are weak, unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be next week? Will it be next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed and a guard stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction?

Sir, we are not weak if we make proper use of those means which the God of natue has placed in our power." Patrick Henry
A remarkable thing about this article is the gratifying calibre of response by the letters of its readers and their wisdom it has elicited. It is so good to know such people exist.

In counterpoint to enhance the whole tone of the subject I am reminded of Ayn Rands comments on two forms of dishonesty by those who seek unearned wealth and those who seek unearned greatness. The one by thievery and amongst others, for posing as heroes by bestowing unearned wealth on a constituency by political (Read: Robin Hood) means to make themselves look like champions of the underdogs. Witness our nearly whole congressional delegations, federal state and local.

in gratitude
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