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ELCS6038: Glorious and Infamous Dead: The Political Lives of Dead Bodies
Question no 2: Discuss why corpses are such efficient tools for transmitting
political messages.
Number of words: 1722

The political use of dead bodies has a long history, and it is still present
nowadays. One of the recent events where we can see a proof for that is
Muammar Gaddafis death. The brutality which he was killed with and the
treatment of his corpse after he died carry a strong political message. This
message may be different to different groups of people, but it certainly sparked
great interest worldwide. The question is why these events involving dead bodies
have a particularly strong effect on people. In my essay, I will list the main
attributes which make dead bodies efficient tools for conveying a political
message and also attempt to explain why these attributes are important through
relevant examples from history.
The concreteness and materiality of dead bodies play an important role in their
effectiveness.1 Unlike abstract concepts such as nationalism or fascism, bodies
exist in the real world and not only in peoples heads. Their realness enables
them to become the symbol of a particular concept (or several concepts),
nevertheless the significance of this attribute can vary greatly in each case.
In the case of Benito Mussolini, the bodys materiality was important, because it
allowed the partisans to take his body to Piazzale Loreto which became a place of
memory for the anti-fascists nine months before Mussolinis death. 2 Piazzale
Loreto was seen as a symbol for the enemy who had to be defeated, because of
the executions of partisans that took place there, but more importantly due to the
brutal treatment of these bodies.3 It was necessary for the Italian people to signal
that Mussolinis fascist regime is over and that the injustice they suffered has
been retaliated. Degrading their bodies by hanging them upside down expressed
the nations feelings about Il Duces leadership. Mussolini essentially became the
symbol of all the suffering the Italians experienced under the regime.
The political effect of the exhibition of Mussolinis body was further enhanced by
the photographs that were made about it. After Piazzale Loreto, there was a huge
demand for these photos.4 For the everyday people, the buying of these images
was not mainly about the politics, but for the Communists, this meant a powerful
message to all those who contemplated reviving the dictatorship. 5

1 Katherine Verdery, The political lives of dead bodies: reburial and postsocialist
change (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), p. 27.
2 Sergio Luzzatto, The body of Il Duce: Mussolinis corpse and the fortunes of
Italy trans. by Frederika Randall (New York: Metropolitan books, 1998), p. 59.
3 Ibid. p. 59.
4 Ibid. p. 74.
5 Ibid. p. 75.
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Contrary to Mussolinis fate, Hitlers is unknown to this day, and this raises a
problem with the lack of material evidence of his death. This lead to many
conspiracy theories about him surviving the war and starting a new life
elsewhere.6 The absence of the body results in that this case is still lacking proper
resolution.
A somewhat similar problem about materiality arose in Spain as a result of
Francos regime and the White Terror. Hundreds of thousands of people died in
the civil war and Francos dictatorship that followed after that, but the republican
and the nationalist dead had to be framed differently for the political purposes of
the regime. While for the nationalist a gigantic memorial, Valle de los Caidos was
built and were treated as the heroes of the nation, the republicans were buried in
mass graves. To convey this clear message about the superiority of the
nationalists over the republicans, the materiality of the bodies was particularly
important. The remains of these corpses affect todays politics in Spain as well.
The exhumation and reburial of the republican bodies play a significant role in
political resolution and emotional closure, as well as shape the representation of
the past through transforming the imagined bodies underground to material,
exposed corpses in the grave.7
Beyond their materiality, the ambiguity regarding their significance is also an
important quality in conveying political messages. A big advantage of using
corpses in politics is that they do not talk, words can be put in their mouth, thus
using them for a particular cause.8 The perfect example for this ambiguity is Imre
Nagys reburial which was associated with many different meanings from national
unity to being a symbol of the younger generation. 9 Similarly, the significance of
the event at Piazzale Loreto was also interpreted in different ways. While the
majority of newspapers (especially the ones in Italy) celebrated the death of
Mussolini, and agreed that it was rightful, the British papers (while agreeing on
the execution) condemned the brutality of the events after that, and went as far
as comparing Mussolini to the Jews in the German concentration camps. 10
A great sense of ambiguity is also present about how the dead of World War I is
viewed. On one hand, the capitalist countries framed the losses as a necessary
6 Tom Chivers, Adolf Hitler alive: weird conspiracy theories,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/6242144/AdolfHitler-alive-weird-conspiracy-theories.html [accessed 6 March 2015]
7 Layla Renshaw, Exhuming loss: memory, materiality, and mass graves of the
Spanish Civil War (Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, 2011), p. 28.
8 Katherine Verdery, Op. cit., p. 28-29.
9 Ibid. p. 31.
10 Sergio Luzzatto, Op. cit., p. 77-80.
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sacrifice for the nations wellbeing. The obvious purpose behind this is to provide
an explanation for the people why these losses are necessary. On the other hand,
communist countries stigmatized the war as capitalist insanity, and claimed that
people are dying for capitalism. The reason for many of these ambiguities
concerning the meaning of an event can be traced back to the political agenda of
a particular view.
The ideas of kinship and togetherness are another attribute for the effectiveness
of dead-body politics.11 Probably this aspect triggers the strongest political effect,
because it targets directly the emotions, however the scope of application is very
limited. The feeling of togetherness is perhaps the most apparent regarding the
mourning of the victims of World War I. Using of these corpses for political
purposes is inherently tied to nationalism and nationalist feelings. The goal of
these political messages was to ease the pain of those who lost their relatives in
the war, and to make it acceptable to send many people to their death through
the idea of sacrifice for the nation. These messages are conveyed through sites
of cultural memory created primarily by the work of social agents according to
Jay Winter, people or groups of people who do the remembering. 12
In Britain, the initiation of the usage of the two-minute silence was a powerful
political tool. It created a way for private mourning in the form of collective
remembrance, and it greatly enhanced the feeling of togetherness. The
emotional involvement of the audience made these commemorative gatherings
very efficient politically. During the two-minute silence individuals did not think of
the nation or the armies, but of the individual people who were not there. 13 This
allowed them to feel their personal involvement in the situation, and face their
own inevitable death.
England, being a winner of the war, used these events to commemorate the the
war dead and to celebrate the victory. In Germany, however, being a country
which lost the war, the fallen were called upon to inspire a new, strong Germany,
building upon the German nationalist feelings. A myth was created showing youth
as the symbol of manhood and energy while death as rather sacrifice and
resurrection. Fallen youth was the seen as the ideal of what all youth should be
because of their sacrifice and heroism. They also made use of Christian symbols,
there was a strong connection depicted between the fallen soldiers and Christ
himself.14 By building a cult around the youth, especially the fallen youth, they
11 Katherine Verdery, Op. cit., p. 33.
12 Jay Winter, Remembering war: The Great War Between Memory and History in
The Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006) p. 136.
13 Ibid. p. 143.
14 George L. Mosse, Fallen soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 72-74.
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reinforced the nationalist feelings in young people to a level where it was an


honour to sacrifice oneself in the service of the fatherland.
Since the Church had a great involvement with burial of the dead and ensuring a
favourable afterlife, encountering mass death facilitates returning to the Christian
though and also brings back the idea of proper burial that is our dead must be
buried in our soil.15 In Germany, the Christian symbolism was used very
extensively. Germany became the divine instrument for salvation of the world.
The nation was associated with the passion of Christ, also implicating redemption
will follow the suffering. The political use of Christianity therefore can greatly
strengthen the nations faith in a brighter future.
Another example where religion plays an important role in political messages can
be seen in the monuments of Francos regime. In the building of the Valley of the
Fallen, among the fallen (those who fell for Spain and for God) the republicans
were not included. Even though they were as Spanish and religious as the
nationalist, they were fighting on the other side, and they had to be framed as
the enemy. The civil war was considered rather a war of liberation from antiSpaniard enemy. This view automatically deprived the republicans from their
status as Spaniards and as Catholics.16 In a country with a strong religious
history, proclaiming the republicans as the enemies of god conveyed a strong
political message.
My aim in this essay was to summarize the number of different characteristics of
dead body politics, which make the use of dead bodies particularly efficient in
conveying political message, and to support these arguments with specific,
historical examples. The attributes I examined were materiality, ambiguity,
kinship and the idea of the sacred. As we can see from the examples, not all of
these properties apply to all of the historical events, some are only applicable in
specific cases where the circumstances were favourable. In conclusion, these
political symbols are highly effective when used in a proper manner. So effective
that as Verdery argues they can be a site of great political profit. 17

15 Katherine Verdery, Op. cit. p. 47.


16 Paloma Aguilar, Memory and Amnesia: The role of the Spanish Civil War in the
Transition to Democracy (New York: Berghahn Books, 2002), p. 77.
17 Katherine Verdery, Op. cit. p. 33.
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Works consulted:

Paloma Aguilar, Memory and Amnesia: The role of the Spanish Civil War in
the Transition to Democracy (New York: Berghahn Books, 2002)
Tom Chivers, Adolf Hitler alive: weird conspiracy theories,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/6242144/Ado
lf-Hitler-alive-weird-conspiracy-theories.html [accessed 6 March 2015]
Sergio Luzzatto, The body of Il Duce: Mussolinis corpse and the fortunes of
Italy trans. by Frederika Randall (New York: Metropolitan books, 1998)
George L. Mosse, Fallen soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
Layla Renshaw, Exhuming loss: memory, materiality, and mass graves of
the Spanish Civil War (Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, 2011)
Katherine Verdery, The political lives of dead bodies: reburial and
postsocialist change (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999)