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7 Worthy Opponent qualities: why the Red Baron fascinates

red baron

The Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, was an enemy (assuming you're associated with the Allied side if you're reading this in English...) who died in a war that happened a hundred years ago, a war which many people automatically refer to as "meaningless". So why is the Red Baron almost the universal symbol for World War 1? What fascinates us about him? Why do we remember him?

A friend recently wrote me that WWI was his favorite war "if one is allowed to have such a thing." (Sure you are. All wars aren't equally awful.) What he liked was that "WWI has a sort of steampunk aesthetic. The 19th century meets the 20th century and all that."

It's true. And in the 19th century you were allowed to have things like a Worthy Opponent. It was the 20th century that said chivalry, like Richthofen, is dead. But still chivalry made its way into 20th-century movies, where it was approved of, enough that in a list of movie tropes there is a good description of the real-life Red Baron, under the heading of Worthy Opponent: "The equal and opposite enemy to the hero, who, save for the tragic circumstances of his life, upbringing, political ideology, or financial situation, might have been the hero's best friend."

It's not just in movies, either; you can see with Snoopy, in his "dogfights" against the Red Baron, his rather respectful annoyance that his enemy shot up his doghouse yet again. 

Compare some of the qualities mentioned on the Worthy Opponent webpage with quotes from the autobiography The Red Baron: The Story of the Fabled Ace in His Own Words:

1. Evenly matched, with a sense of honor that allows the hero to trust him about a select few things

When Richthofen shot down British ace Lanoe Hawker, "The Englishman attempted to get behind me while I attempted to get behind him. So it went, both of us flying like madmen in a circle, with engines running full out at three-thousand-meter altitude. First left, then right, each intent on getting above and behind the other. I was soon acutely aware that I was not dealing with a beginner, for he did not dream of breaking off the fight. He had a very maneuverable machine, but mine climbed better, and I finally succeeded in coming in above and behind him. ... My opponent waved to me quite cheerfully as we were at a thousand meters altitude as if to say:  ‘Well, well, how do you do?’"

2. Honest respect for the hero

After shooting down his first Englishman, "The engine was shot to pieces and both crewmen were severely wounded. The observer had died instantly, and the pilot died while being transported to the nearest field hospital. Later I erected a gravestone to the memory of my honorably fallen enemies."

3. Allow the wounded hero to escape to fight another day

"I felt a deep compassion for my opponent and decided not to send him plunging down. I wanted to force him to land, for I had the feeling that he was already wounded. he did not fire a shot. ... These were the first Englishmen I had brought down alive. ... Then came what was, in my view, a typically English dirty trick. He asked me why I had acted so carelessly in landing. I told him the reason was that I could not do anything else. Then the scoundrel said that in the last three hundred meters he had attempted to shoot at me, but his guns had jammed. I had given him a gift of his life. He took it and subsequently repaid me with an insidious personal attack.

"Since then I have been unable to again speak with an opponent, for obvious reasons."

4. Fights to the same standards as the hero

At least, Richthofen suggested it would be only fair to reward him as English pilots were to be rewarded. On hearing that the English had put out a reward for killing or capturing him, "The pilot who succeeds in shooting down or capturing Von Richthofen will receive the Victoria Cross, a promotion, his own airplane as a gift, 5000 pounds sterling and a special prize from the aircraft factory whose airplane the pilot uses." Richthofen answered, "But how is it when the situation is reversed? How is it if I shoot down the English squadron? Do I receive the Victoria Cross, a promotion, my own airplane as a present, 5000 pounds sterling, and a special prize from the aircraft factory whose airplane I use?"

5. Engages in a test of skill by hunting the "Most Dangerous Game."

"My father makes a distinction between a hunter, a sportsman, and a shooter whose only fun is shooting. Early in the war I found that when I downed an Englishman, my hunting passion was quenched for the time being. I seldom tried to shoot down two Englishmen, one right after another. If one fell, I had the feeling of absolute satisfaction. Only much, much later did I overcome that and also became a shooter."

6. A father to his men

Even at the age of 20 or so, as a cavalry officer, "I stopped my patrol and gave the men a few words of encouragement. I felt that I could depend absolutely on every one of them, and I knew that in the next few minutes each would have to depend on the other."

7. He is killed, prompting the hero to mourn the loss of such an honorable but misguided soul.

At the Red Baron's funeral, held for him by the Allies in the middle of the war, a great wreath was sent from RAF headquarters, inscribed with "Captain von Richthofen, the brave and worthy foe."

There were many qualities of a blockbuster movie about the air war in WWI. Of course since it was war, not a movie, and Richthofen's job was to shoot down the enemy, not be a romantic star, there are some counterexamples to the above traits. But there are also many more stories like the above, on both sides of the war. Richthofen describes some of his enemies, such as Hawker, in these terms, as well as the original German pilots, whom he looked up to even after he had surpassed their scores.

Nor was this worthiness of the opponent just a German idea. Eddie Rickenbacker, American ace of aces, never met Richthofen in war or peace, but he sounded a bit wistful when instructing WWII pilots of the next generation. He could only approve of their businesslike attitude to getting that war taken care of, but he somehow missed the different attitude in his own war. Back then opponents were not devils, but daredevils.

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