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Hundert Jahre Streit um die Helden von 1812: Vom „Vaterländischen“ Krieg zum Ersten „Weltkrieg“

Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas
Band 63 / 2015 / Heft 4
S. 545–572


The article discusses the overall interpretation of the War of 1812 and the heroization and deheroization of its key figures. Changing political circumstances, including the Tsars’ orders concerning the representation of the Russian Empire’s past and nationbuilding projects propagated by Russian elites constituted key variables. Between 1812 and 1914, preachers, artists, journalists, rulers, military officers, authors of memoirs, civil and military historians, writers and journalists participated in a dispute over the ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ of the 1812 war. The present study draws on sources from the 19th and early 20th century such as the history of Aleksandr Michailovskii Danilevskii, the memoirs of Aleksei Er - molov, Nadezhda Durova and Denis Davydov, lyrics by Vasilii Zhukovskii, and Lev Tolstoi’s novel War and Peace. It compares and contrasts these author's statements and ideas with the visual, poetic, journalistic and commemorative imagery of their time. Such an approach helps explain how heroic characters were designed and demonstrates the ambivalence of their positions: the frequently cyclical dynamic of appearance and disappearance from mainstream narratives of Russian history. This approach also allows for the attribution of individual narratives to specific discursive genres. Genetic source criticism was applied when analyzing War and Peace. Tolstoi's drafts and notes are examined to reveal the ways in which his concept of the novel changed over time, including gradual revisions in the shaping of characters and the use of the memories of war veterans to create a grand narrative. All this allows for an identification of the techniques Tolstoi applied when working with historical evidence, his recoding of the cultural and psychological profiles of certain characters, his retouching of contradictory elements, and his omission of a vast number of facts. The authors conclude that the heroization techniques applied in these narratives strongly depended upon the philosophy of history of their time. Thus, in the 1820-30’s the trend towards romanticizing and nationalizing the Russian past manifested itself in a desacralization of Emperor Alexander I and a substitution of the idea of a “people’s war” for that of a “holy war”. By contrast, Lev Tolstoi’s national project meant that the writer depersonalized war and heroized the Russian family and the Russian people. Later on, this discourse was reinforced through the sociologization of the writing of history, which meant that historians presented the war of 1812 as a clash of abstract interests, processes, and groups, to which the names of heroes served as accessories.

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