Western martyrdom and the politics of memory and death

What is the connection between the mediaeval hunt for relics and the idolization of Benno Ohnesorg? Or between Nietzsche and Oliver Cromwell? Outlining aspects of the history of western martyrdom and its ideologies, Michael Azar shows how to this day the dead are instrumentalized for the purposes of the living.

The dead kill.
Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers



Rome, 28th October, 1932. Benito Mussolini inaugurates the exhibition Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista as a part of the ten-year jubilee of the Fascist Party march on Rome. The absolute core of the exhibition, its most sacred room, is the so-called Sacrario dei Martiri (Sanctuary of the Martyrs). On a blood-red podium in the vaulted centre of the room stands a lone crucifix with the inscription Per la Patria Immortale (For the Immortal Fatherland), and along the walls the word Presente (Presence) is repeated thousands of times, like a mantra. The martyr is the one who cannot die, who always rises again. In the six-month period of the exhibition, four million people pass through this exhibition space, with its presentation of an intensified fascist revolutionary image of national history.

“They fell and gave their lives to all, and each one of them earned himself undimmed glory and the most illustrious of graves.” This is not Mussolini talking, but Pericles. In the year 431 BC the famous statesman held a speech honouring the Athenians who had sacrificed their lives for their country in the Peloponnesian War. In both cases what we see is a retroactive martyrisation: it really makes no difference what the dead might have felt about their actions, or even what those actions were. The memory of the dead is annexed for a particular purpose: the requirement of mimetic loyalty. It is the purpose of the living, says Pericles, to “emulate” those who fell. The martyrs, as clarified by the Mostra della Rivoluzione, are the role models of the continuing struggle. The fight against the enemy is not over, new sacrifices should be expected, the dead must not have died in vain, their final wishes must be turned into reality. A skilful politician emphasises the debt of the living to the dead: the martyrs sacrificed their lives for us, now it is our turn to pay them back.1


In an interview about his film The Passion of the Christ (2004),2 the director Mel Gibson explains: “He [Jesus] died for humanity, suffered for us all. It is time to go back to this basic message.” The film illustrates in detail Jesus’ assumed suffering on the cross and the guilt of the survivors is hammered into the viewer: because Jesus died for the sake of our sins, we are all implicated in this murder.

The history of Christianity is marked by this ferocious ambivalence towards its founder: on the one hand Christendom has to throw up its hands at Jesus’ suffering, hating and somehow avenging those who caused it, on the other, admiring and yearning for the same sacrificial death. After all, it is precisely through this that God once again is reconciled with humanity, and eternal life made manifest to the believer. From the very bottom of their hearts, Christians must both love and hate the executioners who torture the Redeemer, at the same time desiring their Lord’s death while also wanting to tear him out of the grip of his tormentors.3

Already among Paul and the Evangelists, the anointed one is transformed into a redemptive sacrifice in accordance with a long tradition in which the wrath of the gods was assuaged through the spilling of blood (from Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the so-called “scapegoat”). “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world”, it is stated in the first epistle of John (1:2). In other words, God punishes himself rather than mankind as a whole. He subdivides himself into father and son; the latter, like a scapegoat, will carry the sins of humanity into the desert “in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Hebrews, 13:12). “Herein is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (John 4:10)

Some of the attraction of Christianity probably rests on this ambiguous interpellation, in which the first stage (it was for your sake that Jesus died on the cross, to purify you from sin) opens up to the second (now it is up to you to transform your life so that it can live up to this gift and thus repay the debt). Or, to put it in another way: humanity is liberated from its old sins, but the liberation is entered into the accounts as a debt. The question is just how this new debt should be paid? How can we ever clean the hands that are stained with Jesus’ blood, even the blood of God himself?

At a basic level there is only one way, and this is precisely to ensure that Jesus never does properly die, that in fact he remains alive – presente – for ever and ever. Two principal versions of this can be discerned in a highly complex and infected theological discussion. In one line of reasoning, Jesus should be kept alive as a result of people intensifying him by their faith (the unconditional God of the New Testament demands nothing of us except our souls), while the other suggests that we should emulate Jesus through our deeds (God demands of us that in our actual lives, as far as possible, we try to recreate Jesus’ bodily existence on earth). Obviously these two standpoints do not need to be in opposition (although as we know, this is a point of battle which divides Christendom), in fact in early Christianity they often merge into one and the same practice: Christians show their faith and keep the Redeemer’s memory alive by emulating him and entering into martyrdom themselves. Imitatio Christi unto death. According to the evangelist Matthew, Jesus supposedly exhorted his own disciples to a similar emulation: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 16:24). In the Book of Luke, Jesus is even clearer on this point:

They will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. […] You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (Luke 21:12-19).

Death becomes the path to immortality.


“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”, the patriarch Tertullian explains in Apologeticus about 200 years after Jesus’ death. Accounts of the torments of the disciples and early Christians in the reigns of for instance Nero, Decius, Valerian and Diocletian are unbearable. Distant observers such as Tacitus describe how they are torn to pieces by dogs, nailed to crucifixes, or thrown into fires “to light up the night”. The Christians also keep these stories alive, they gather round the graves to find the courage to face the next rounds of persecution. These stories are systemised properly for the first time in the Eusebius’ legendary ecclesiastical history in ten volumes – completed in the first half of the fourth century.4 In 397, at the Synod in Carthage, once the persecution had ceased after the edict on religious tolerance proclaimed in Milan in 313, martyrdom is given a direct institutional status: it is decided by law that on martyrs’ days there should be readings from the Martyrology, in other words the calendric compositions of the lives of the martyrs (including information such as where, how and when they died) which had emerged orally in the era of persecution.

The martyrs become the first saints of Christianity, it is to their remains that Christians turn for remedy and it is by recourse to their bones – and names – that many of Europe’s churches are erected. The historian Peter Brown goes so far as to suggest that the cult of martyrs’ graves and holy relics was crucial for the cohesion and expansion of early Christendom. One of the common conceptions, according to Brown, is that intimations of eternal life are experienced by touching, or merely being in close proximity, to the martyr’s corpse (or a piece of it, or even just something that had once had physical contact with it). Thus it becomes important for every bishop and church to own as many body parts of the dead as possible. A veritable hunt for relics sweeps across medieval Europe, and before long no one really knows which corpse or limb belongs to whom. For instance, more than one thousand churches in Europe claim to keep body parts of the first martyr, Stephanos or St. Stephen. His bloodstained robes are exhibited in a large number of locations across the continent. In Rome alone, different churches claim to own his head and three arms – this while a church in Venice asserts that it has his entire body.5

Even the great changes in the world of art from the time of Giotto are very significantly based on the culture of martyrdom. How, in addition to preaching, was the Christian message to be conveyed to the masses? As Pope Gregory put it at the end of the sixth century: “Paintings mean as much to those who cannot read letters as to those who can”.6 Hence the motif of martyrdom is sanctioned from the highest echelons of power, and the emergence of realism in the 1300s and 1400s is connected to the stipulation that the sufferings of the martyrs have to be made presente. People who come to the churches should be catapulted backwards into the martyrdom of Jesus, should be able to witness with their own eyes, and in lurid detail, the bleeding head of John the Baptist, the stones crushing Stephen’s body, the long arrows penetrating the body of holy Sebastian, the crucifixion of grey-haired St. Peter with his head hanging down, Laurentius on the glowing embers, etc.

Already in early-Christian history, then, the martyrs play a decisive role. They are seen, furthermore, as those that bear true witness. By not giving way, not denying Jesus even when faced with the threat of torture and death, the martyr has transformed his own blood into an incorruptible testimony to the eternal life. A true Christian should long for a martyr’s death because only in this way will he or she be able to bear witness about Jesus while at the same time crossing over into the kingdom beyond this world. In Classical Greek, prime witness was used to describe those called to court to testify (the word is used in Plato’s rendering of the defence speech of Socrates), but the usage becomes entwined with the word martus in the New Testament and in the era of persecutions alludes both to a witness who has seen Jesus’ resurrection as well as to the idea of being prepared to die for this truth – to bear witness with one’s own blood. Thus the sacrificial death of the martyr becomes a part of Christian theology, the central argument for the truth of the Church. Or as Bishop Cyprian explains in the third century: when faced with doughty martyrs, even the executioners will be forced to believe. Much later, Blaise Pascal goes back to the same idea of the epistemological power of martyrdom: “I don’t believe in any stories except those where the witnesses were willing to let themselves be slain”.7

The greater the number of martyred people, the greater the debt inherited by the living. It is left on the shoulders of the survivors to show that the dead did not sacrifice themselves in vain. Harsh judgments are brought down by stern patriarchs on those who gave way, fled the persecution or agreed to make offerings to false idols in order to save their own lives. Every martyr tends to give birth to new martyrs in a steadily growing weave of imitation. The act of giving up one’s life is transformed into a gift that, in turn, requires a corresponding reciprocation: you die for me, I die for you. The process seems to have no end. In the story of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas in the gladiatorial arena in Carthage in 203, a contemporary writer emphasises how their death bears witness to the eternal presence of the Father and the Son, and thereby constitutes an exemplary model for the future:

Ah, most valiant and blessed martyrs (O fortissimi ac beatissimi martyres)! Truly are you called and chosen for the glory of Christ Jesus our Lord! And any man who exalts, honours, and worships his glory should read for the consolation of the Church these new deeds of heroism which no less significant than the tales of old. For these new manifestations of virtue will bear witness to one and the same Spirit who still operates, and to God the Father almighty, to his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom is splendour and immeasurable power for all the ages. Amen. 8

The church rests both symbolically and literally on its martyrs.


The Church’s cult of martyrdom gradually found its way into modern conceptions of statehood, where it was annexed for other purposes and in other contexts. As the feudal ties were loosened for the benefit of new, centralised states, the antique tradition of pro patria mori was resuscitated: the beauty of dying for the fatherland. Whereas the medieval crusaders, through martyrdom, were offered a path to heaven via the Christian conception of Communis patria – an idea also recognized, for instance, in “The Song of Roland” (XVII) and in Dante’s Divine Comedy (“Paradiso”, song XV) – in the new ideologies of the fatherland we come into contact with a discourse that also venerates the kingdom that is of this world. The celestial homeland which Augustine described in De civitate dei enters into a sort of symbiotic union with the celebration of the worldly state in the tradition of Pericles, Cato, Cicero and Horatius – “Sweet and proper it is, for the fatherland to die (pro patria mori)”, as the latter put it (“Carmina” 3. 2. 13). In this amalgam of the spiritual (Christian) and worldly (national) order for the benefit of the increasingly absolute state, a new kind of martyr emerges: one who dies for a specific fatherland at the same time both worldly-territorial and heavenly-universal. “Thus it happened that in the thirteenth century the crown of martyrdom began to descend on the war victims of the secular state. […] The original quasi-religious aspect of death pro patria as a ‘martyrdom’ clearly derived from the teaching of the Church, from the adaptation of ecclesiastic forms to the secular body politic”, writes the historian Ernst Kantorowicz in his masterly study of mediaeval political theology.9

A few important historical cruxes for the confessional state system that gradually emerges on the basis of these ideological foundations – in the form of created states with their own national churches – include the accord on religious coexistence reached at Augsburg in 1555 and the Westphalian Peace in 1648, whose principle of cuius regio, eius religio constantly come up as a point of reference in European power politics. The discourse on national martyrdom is intensified and expanded in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. From this time on the European wars turn into extensive conflicts between large, conscripted armies, in which the former mercenaries had to give way to the new citizens of nations, killing and being killed in the name of the fatherland (in accordance with the levée en masse taking place during the French Revolution). In the future, explains the contemporary military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in his Vom Kriege, success in warfare will depend on the degree of “nationalist fervour and self-sacrifice” drummed up from the depths of the populace. This becomes particularly evident during the World War I. In its purest incarnation, the new nation states offer their blood witnesses a sort of double reward on Christian foundations: by dying for the kingdom of this world, the soldier enters Heaven (in fact, as we remember from the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista, the inscription Per la Patria immortale was found on a crucifix). The national exhibitions, memorial ceremonies, commemorative days and funeral oratory repeat the central theme of the discourse of Christian martyrdom: the exhortation to emulate the fallen. The imitation principle returns, even if in a new form, in the formulation of a national history where the national martyrs are described as moral paragons for those still living. In dying honourably, the national martyrs have managed to defeat mutability and are rewarded with an eternity of the people’s remembrance and thankfulness.

In this sense the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, may be seen as a sort of permanent equivalent of the ten-year jubilee of Italian fascism. Here, also, the paragons are engraved into national history, here, also, the heroes of the land die and are resurrected in an unbroken dialectical process where life always springs anew – from Lord Nelson via the Duke of Wellington and Sir Winston Churchill to all the British service personnel fallen in the nation’s manifold wards, whether the World Wars, the Falklands War or the Gulf War. On annual remembrance days the Cathedral is turned into one of the crucial mnemonic cornerstones of national memory. “St Paul’s Cathedral is the spiritual focus of the Nation”, we often hear whenever the chapel is mentioned.10


London, 30 January 1661. In the churchyard of Westminster Abbey, a group of people are exhuming the corpse of Oliver Cromwell. The mighty Lord Protector, buried three years earlier, is in fact being executed posthumously for “high treason”, a crime which, according to English tradition, is punished by hanging, drawing and quartering. The dead body is strung up, emptied of its intestines, castrated, decapitated and cut into four pieces. Finally Cromwell’s head is impaled on a pole and exhibited to the public Westminster Hall, remaining there, according to popular wisdom, for more than twenty years.11

Whereas the English Republic and Cromwell’s way to power is manifested in the execution of the Stuart monarch Charles I in 1649 – “the Martyr King” as he is styled in the Church of England – the Restoration and the dead king’s son Charles II is ushered in with the desecration of the already dead Cromwell. In both cases the new political orders swear their oaths with blood being spilled in one way or another, real or symbolic, as a marker for a new era, a new interpretation of history and a new mutuality. There are many variations on this theme: one must die in order to be born again; through the extermination of old humanity a new one will arise; with a final revolutionary war man will once and for all put war behind it. Only through blood, sacrifice and pain as a new experience, Nietzsche writes, will humanity be able to establish for ever a new consciousness in its otherwise fleeting mind. He calls this a mnemotechnique: ‘If something is to stay in the memory it must be burned in: only that which does not cease to hurt remains in memory.”12

Restitution for the Stuart dynasty with recourse to blood vengeance recalls Emperor Augustus and his balancing of the scales with Caesar’s murderers, or even Hitler’s answer to the conspirators of the intended “dagger stab”: the living kill in the name of the dead, as if laying claim to the restoration of a broken genealogical line. The father’s name and the fatherland are restored through ritualized vengeance and spectacular, sacrificial deeds.13 The requirement of vengeance in the name of the dead is no less a central theme in Christian history – for instance in the violent persecution of Jesus’ presumed murderers, or the heretics assumed to have rejected the Redeemer’s sacrificial gift. In the scriptures we may perhaps see this most clearly in the Book of Revelations, where the Christian martyrs – “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” – are given voice to speak out and demand vengeance on their executioners (Revelations 6: 9-11).


Berlin, 2 June 1967. The German socialist federation of students are demonstrating against a state visit of the Shah of Iran. The police surround the demonstrators and attack them with batons, water cannons and tear gas. The 26-year-old unarmed protestor Benno Ohnesorg is shot at close range in the back of the head and killed. The policeman who fired the bullet, a certain Karl-Heinz Kurras, has to leave his post for a short period but is not detained on suspicion of murder. Soon after he is promoted to a Commissioner’s post in the police force. The photograph of the dying Ohnesorg in the street becomes a symbol of the brutality of the ruling regime, with further polarization in the land as a result. Ohnesorg becomes the martyr of the radical left, his death an important background factor in the ramping up of the increasingly violent West German guerrillas, including the Red Army Faction and the Movement 2 June, who even took their name from the date of Ohnesorg’s death.

It takes 40 years after Ohnesorg’s death to make the discovery: Karl-Heinz Kurras, the very symbol of the corruption and oppression of the West, had actually been an agent working for Stasi. The hated policeman is, in other words, a communist and a registered member of East Germany’s Communist Party! The revelation gives rise to much debate in Germany: was Ohnesorg’s retroactive martyrdom in fact an enormous deception? Were the guerrillas fighting in his name utterly duped? Was the lethal shooting a conscious strategy from the DDR to provoke a radicalization of leftist groups in West Berlin? The questions have not yet been settled. We do not know with any certainty on whose orders Kurras shot Ohnesorg, or even if anyone issued any such order – according to Kurras it was purely a question of self-defence and had nothing to do with politics.14

Political groups need their martyrs (which is not the same as saying that they necessarily wish to have them) and sometimes they go so far as to enact a martyrdom just to win sympathy. The role of the innocent victim simultaneously strengthens cohesion and tends to provide political legitimacy. One tragicomic example of this is probably that of a Sweden Democrat who maintains that he was attacked and had a swastika carved into his forehead by masked men. The medical examiner, on the other hand, suspects that he actually cut himself. The European right has learnt its lesson from the Nazis and will take any opportunity to find its own commensurate version of Horst Wessel.15


The question of historical memory could feasibly be studied as a sub-division of a political field that might be referred to as the politics of death – necropolitics. How is death and remembrance of the dead instrumentalized and exploited for political purposes? The politics of death is not only about real or threatened murders and massacres of living human beings, but also the manner in which the living utilise those who are already dead. The writing of history, remembrance ceremonies, death cults, funeral rituals – there are many ways of re-awakening the spirits of past years and enacting resurrections. One can exploit the dead: their names, words, fighting roles and costume to implement one’s own demands in disguise, and take revenge on one’s enemies. But the dead can also be temporarily recalled to the realm of the living in order to be able to declare them dead once and for all.16 Monuments can be demolished, graves desecrated, body-parts of opponents hung up and book burnings arranged to wipe out any remaining signs of the dead. In Imperial Rome the living are threatened with the feared punishment of damnatio memoriae, the purpose of which is the damning and condemnation of the very memory of the dead, to the extent that the person’s name is not only wiped from all archives but also prohibited among the heirs. The corresponding law within the Roman Church would perhaps be the Fourth Lateran Council edict 21 where it is established that whoever does not confess his sins will not receive a Christian burial and will have to lie in “unconsecrated ground”. The mauling of Cromwell’s corpse is a telling example of one of Walter Benjamin’s historical and philosophical theses: “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious”.17

Sigmund Freud in several of his works illuminated this precise terror of the curious unwillingness of the dead to really disappear. Constant declarations of death from the already dead are a clear symptom of their ability to demoniacally manage to keep finding their way back and seek out the living. “The dead slay (Die Toten töten)”, Freud writes with a wink at Aeschylus: “The living did not feel safe from the attacks of the dead till there was a sheet of water between them. That is why men liked to bury the dead on islands or on the farther side of rivers; and that, in turn, is the origin of such phrases as ‘Here (Diesseits) and in the Beyond’ (Jenseits)”.18

The politics of death is not, however, only about killing, retroactive martyrdom and the struggle to monopolize the remembrance of the dead and what they have died for. It also includes various ways of relating to the threat of death, as a weapon, in a political test of strength. Martyrdom in this context can be an effective way of neutralizing the ultimate sanction of the dominant power, namely the ability to extinguish life by focusing mortality back onto the power in question. How does such a power founded on violence or the threat of violence, react to resistance from a group of individuals who have transformed their own deaths into an advantage in the struggle?

As we know, Jesus’ message in the Gospels is that life does not end with death, even that it only begins in earnest at the very point of death. “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die”, says Jesus (John 11:26). In early-Christian congregations, the date of a person’s death was sometimes engraved on the tombstone as if it were a birthday. The day one dies is the day of one’s birth in Heaven and one’s meeting with Christ. The Roman Emperors thus had great difficulty in using their traditional instruments of power to suppress the steadfast Christians, who affirmed martyrdom.

In a letter addressed to the Romans, the aspiring martyr Ignatius of Antioch explained:

I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body.19

Man’s deepest happiness, said Ernst Jünger in 1932, is the ability to sacrifice her life for something greater than mere life.20 If there is any truth in this, one should not underestimate how this factor consciously or subconsciously affects political discourse. Maybe one of the main purposes of the politics of death is to offer something in life worth killing and dying for, and to demonstrate goals worthy of such sacrifices on the part of the fellowship. The strength of a political vision is dependent on the amount of blood that can be sacrificed in its name. The other side of the coin is naturally that the very same discourse tends to point out who must die in order to preserve our lives. In all politics of death, life is pitched against life, because although in theory all life has equal value, in practice some lives – including those on one’s own presumed side – tend to be valued more highly than others. And this evaluation follows the living into death, in the sense of what victims are worth mourning, what murders are worth investigating, etc. The politics of death and the body politic are interwoven.21


In the Papal Bull of the millennial jubilee in 2000, Incarnationis mysterium (The Mystery of the Incarnation), Pope John Paul II explains:

A sign of the truth of Christian love, ageless but especially powerful today, is the memory of the martyrs. Their witness must not be forgotten. They are the ones who have proclaimed the Gospel by giving their lives for love. […] The believer who has seriously pondered his Christian vocation, including what Revelation has to say about the possibility of martyrdom, cannot exclude it from his own life’s horizon. The 2,000 years since the birth of Christ are marked by the ever-present witness of the martyrs. This century now drawing to a close has known very many martyrs, especially because of Nazism, Communism, and racial or tribal conflicts. People from every sector of society have suffered for their faith, paying with their blood for their fidelity to Christ and the Church, or courageously facing interminable years of imprisonment and privations of every kind because they refused to yield to an ideology which had become a pitiless dictatorial regime. […] For this reason the Church in every corner of the earth must remain anchored in the testimony of the martyrs and jealously guard their memory. May the People of God, confirmed in faith by the example of these true champions of every age, language and nation, cross with full confidence the threshold of the Third Millennium. In the hearts of the faithful, may admiration for their martyrdom be matched by the desire to follow their example, with God’s grace, should circumstances require it.22

The time of the martyrs is far from over, declares the Papacy. Christians are still being persecuted all over the world, and every day Christians embrace death for the sake of Jesus. In an interview on Vatican Radio a few years ago, Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, a prefect of the Papal Congregation for Beatification, even suggested that the twentieth century was the great century of the Christian martyrs. Never before had so many Christians died martyrs’ deaths. In this historical narrative, blood is the adhesive of the continuity of the Christian fellowship as time passes: those who die martyrs’ deaths, whether in Imperial Roman times or in a contemporary time frame, form a thin red line in the historical drama of Christendom.23

But the dilemma of Christendom is that it does not at all form itself into a unity – nor, even in the face of its Roman persecution, that it can lay claim to a self-evident sacrificial position in the face of worldly power. After initially being persecuted, the western Church – after its elevation into the state religion in Rome – gradually itself turns into a persecutor. Even the early-Church instigates persecution of free-thinking Christians. The split is both institutional (various churches and bishops are in conflict with each other) and doctrinal (various interpretations of the Christian message are at odds). The historical integrity of Christendom starts to split from within. Every Christian denomination starts to draw up its own list of martyrs, its own cult of saints, in which the murderers are other Christians, false Christians and heretics. If the Antichrist in the Catholic Church is earlier associated with the heathen emperor, the persecuted groups – Arians, Nestorians, Valdesians, Cathars, Hussites, Lollards, Lutherans, Huguenots, etc. – instead come to identify the Antichrist as the Bishop in Rome, in other words as the Pope. When the Holy See grows aware of the danger it tries to monopolize the right to canonization. All beatification, Pope Alexander III explains at the end of the twelfth century, must be authorized by the church in Rome. At the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 all forms of spontaneous worship of saints is outlawed.

However, by this time the local cults and veneration of saints associated with particular groupings have reached uncontrollable dimensions. Splits within the church cannot be repaired and in the violent eruptions of the 1500s, rival new acts of martyrdom and martyrologies are established – from the Huguenot Jean Crespin’s Histoire des martyrs in 1554 to the English Protestant John Foxe’s monumental Acts and Monuments in 1563. These works depict a host of martyrs other than those listed in the official Roman Catholic Martyrology under Gregory XIII in 1583.24

John Foxe’s work, more commonly known as The Book of Martyrs, subdivides the history of the Church into five epochs, in which the fourth period is designated as “the time of antichrist” and as “the desolation of the Church”. Foxe is obviously referring here to the derailed Papal See and the corrupt “Roman Bishops”. Next he recounts the victims of the Inquisition, the heroes of the Reformation and all those in his homeland who have died during Bloody Mary’s regime.25 Foxe’s book thereby becomes a powerful political weapon in the hands of Queen Elisabeth, who commands that copies of the book should be kept in the offices of the archbishops, bishops, deacons, deans and rectors. Catholic attacks on Foxe are not merciful. Victims of Protestant persecution are listed by way of an answer, and Thomas Harding (the Catholic priest, not the Lollard) impugns the work as nothing less than an accumulation of lies – “a huge dunghill of your stinking martyrs”.26


Back to Rome. On 28 October 2007, in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict beatifies 498 Catholics who lost their lives at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, killed by soldiers allied to the Leftist government. Never before had a beatification, the first step towards canonization, included so many at one and the same time. The event revealed in an uncommon way one of the great themes of the politics of death: who has the right to administer and interpret the significance of the dead and their manner of dying? Who has the right to evaluate their contribution to humanity? Who should determine the victims of history, and the executioners?

The beatification can most likely be viewed as a reaction to the new legislation on memory, which the Socialist government led by Zapatero had tried to implement for several years – “Historical Memory Law” (Ley de Memoria Histórica) – in an attempt to give redress to the victims of Franco’s dictatorship. Among other things, the law seeks to invalidate sentences passed by military tribunals from the Franco era, rid the country of any remaining symbols of the dictatorship and, further, depoliticize the mighty monument of remembrance, “The Vale of the Fallen” (Valle de los Caídos), built during Franco’s regime to honour the victims of the war and, since his death, also regarded as the mausoleum of the dictator himself. The question of guilt and the struggle between the survivors for the memory of the dead, have turned the whole question of historical narrative into a highly infected subject in Spain, particularly as the Catholic Church allied itself with the Nationalist revolt during the Civil War. Many Spanish bishops regarded the struggle as a “crusade” and even at the very beginning of the war the Pope referred to the fallen priests as “martyrs”. The Church in Spain distributed photomontages to Nationalist soldiers, depicting Jesus at Franco’s side, and the Archbishop of Valencia went so far as to suggest that “The meek heart of Jesus [had] given power to the weapons of Franco’s soldiers”.27

At the same time, the debate on historical memory in Spain brings another, broader problem into focus. In fact, it opens up the whole problematic question in the western world of the relationship between the spiritual and the worldly, between God’s state and the human state, not least in the sense of where the limits lie between the religious and the national martyr. Were the beatified Catholics in Spain martyrs of the religious or the national cause, or maybe even both – if, indeed, they should be seen as either?


Yet another tradition of martyrdom should be mentioned here: the idea of the martyr who dies for the sake of freedom and humanity. This discourse springs from the tradition of Republican revolution – during the Spanish Civil War it was particularly prevalent among certain parts of the radical Left and the International Brigades – emphasizing the fact that the true martyr does not die for either God or for the homeland, but for the sake of all humanity. The martyr dies for everyone’s freedom – a theme which, in European history, has its roots in the “martyrs of freedom” already celebrated during the French Revolution (Le Peletier, Marat, etc.), which later returned in a French context, for instance, during the Paris Commune and the French Resistance during World War II. There are marked socialist and communist aspects in the martyrdom discourse. At the time of his study of the Paris Commune, Marx is already paying tribute to the thousands of workers who have fallen victim to the bloody regime, and in whose death he sees the possibility of a new dawn:

Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class (Seine Märtyrer sind eingeschreint in dem großen Herzen der Arbeiterklasse). Its exterminators history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.”28

Even if there are echoes of both the Christian and the national martyrdom discourse in the revolutionary tradition – the French revolutionaries singing Mourir pour la patrie (Chant des Girondins) later sang Mort pour la France, one of the slogans of the French resistance – the revolutionary discourse on martyrdom also insists on the universal promise of freedom and justice for all humanity.29 It is not unusual for a deep ambivalence to emerge as a result of this synthesis between the discourses of nationalist martyrdom (‘pro patria mori’) and the internationalism of revolutionary martyrdom. A clear example of this is the Cuban revolution. On the one hand there is constant emphasis on the strictly national character of the revolution – in speeches and writings there is constant reference to the necessity of sacrificing one’s life for the nation (Patria o Muerte!) and in the Cuban national anthem there are echoes not only of Horatius but possibly also the immortality principle from the Christian tradition: “To die for the motherland is to live” (Morir por la Patria es vivir). Yet the revolution is declared to be at the vanguard of all humanity’s longing for freedom. Cuban revolutionaries fight and die, whether in Havana, La Higuera or Luanda, not only for the sake of their own nation but for the birth of an entirely new, liberated human being – “el Hombre Nuevo” as Che Guevara declared.

In the cult of martyrdom of the Cuban revolution, as expressed in official declarations and the ceremonies of remembrance of the communist party, the mysterious ability of retroactive martyrdom to collectivise the dead surfaces once again. The martyrs are present as an endless genealogical line of dead paragons, a cohesive and historical “us” who have always had the same goal, and who have always sacrificed their lives for the same purpose. In Castro’s defence speech after the failed coup d’état against the military barracks of Moncada on 26 July 1953, he interweaves the battle with Battista, in which revolutionaries were killed, with the martyr’s death of the national hero José Martí in the struggle against Spain at the end of the 1800s. It is not coincidental that the revolutionaries fell in Moncada on the centenary of the birth of the “Apostle” Martí’s birth. Their sacrificial death is transformed into a sign of Martí’s untameable life force – and it is precisely in this dialectic between life and death, between funeral rites and resurrection, that the eternal fellowship of the fatherland is welded together:

[One day the murdered revolutionaries] will be carried on the shoulders of the people to a place beside the tomb of Martí, and their liberated land will surely erect a monument to honour the memory of the Martyrs of the Centennial (la Patria libre habrá de levantarles a los Mártires del Centenario) […] It seemed that the Apostle would die during his Centennial. It seemed that his memory would be extinguished forever. So great was the affront! But he is alive; he has not died. His people are rebellious. His people are worthy. His people are faithful to his memory. There are Cubans who have fallen defending his doctrines. There are young men who in magnificent selflessness came to die beside his tomb, giving their blood and their lives so that he could keep on living in the heart of his nation (para que él sigua viviendo en el alma de la Patria). Cuba, what would have become of you had you let your Apostle die?30

There is obviously a big step from the Cuban people to people in general: when subjected to a careful genealogical examination, all universalism seems in one way or another to spring from the specific and the particular. Nonetheless, the appeal to humanity seems an inescapable element in all political ideologies confessing their fidelity to the inheritance of the French Revolution. Here, for instance, is a common denominator with the liberal universalism that occasionally breaks through the Christian spirit in St. Paul’s Cathedral: the fallen British soldiers, we are told, did not only die for their own country in India, Sudan and Iraq. They were also sacrificing themselves for freedom and democracy. Yes, and broader still: the universal proclamations of the French Revolution connect to the inheritance of precisely that figure who gave his name to the said Cathedral and, in line with the departure of this Pharisee from the Judaic tradition, the whole discourse of Christian martyrdom, resting on the tenet that Jesus and his followers not only sacrificed themselves for their own people but, in the final analysis, for the entire human race.


There are reasons for lingering a little on Marx’s optimism about the martyrs of the Paris Commune. In actual fact he was articulating the affirmative historical interpretation provided by the master, Hegel: an inheritance that at its most basic level constitutes a form of historical-philosophical theodicy. History, Hegel admits in his lectures on reason in history, seems on the surface to be little more than “a slaughtering-bench at which the happiness of nations, the wisdom of States and the virtue of individuals have been sacrificed”, a diverse confusion of meaningless suffering that threatens to fill one with “the most profound and restless grief”. The question of the martyr and the victim is broadened here into a more general, existential problem: is it at all possible to find anything redeeming in human history, a meaning in all that seems meaningless? Do all these “enormous sacrifices” (ungeheuersten Opfer) in spite of everything, constitute a form of message about a new society, a new dawn, in which humanity has learnt lessons from its own history?31

In order to be able to answer that question in the affirmative, he explains, we must first of all learn to look beyond “irrelevance” and ignore everything “coincidental”, in order to be able to discover that somewhere in the depths of historical profusion, a “divine will governs the world” – and that this will, at its core, is eminently reasonable. As a consequence, one must not be caught by the perception of individuals, or even groups of people, they have violated. In fact, their suffering is “material” required by progressive forces of development to bring forward a higher principle and realize a good final aim (Endzwecke). It is the purpose of philosophy to emphasize this redeeming insight into the deeper meaning of world history, and to clarify how the actual historical process gradually evolves our actual criteria for understanding human suffering, so that the suffering in a certain “now”, which, from a given perspective, once seemed meaninglessly retroactive, will rather, from a fully-realized holistic perspective, seem meaningful. Philosophy, Hegel goes on, wants to “grasp the content and the reality of the divine idea” and in this way “disperse the impressions that give rise to the conception of history as the result of senseless coincidences”. The struggle against appearances in the name of suffering are thus also turned into a fight against the empirically temporary: because only those things that accord with the idea of reason can be admitted as “reality”, other things described as “the negative” will be reduced to something that has been overtaken and superseded. “Reason governs the world,” he explains, and thereby draws the conclusion that it also governs history.

As a consequence, Hegel can persist in claiming that human suffering throughout history has not been in vain, because the final historical totality, in which goodness, freedom and truth are triumphant, would not have been possible without sacrifices of this order. And thus all these astonishing victims are transformed retroactively into a collective blood testimony for the eternal truth. With this, the deaths of the dead no longer have finality: they remain as decisive moments in the evolution of Spirit, the realisation of the immortal idea. The world’s present self-awareness, says Hegel, “is the result of six thousand years of sacrifices.”

Hegel sums up this acquiescence to, and defeat of, death in terms we already know: die Idee ist präsent, der Geist unsterblich.32


Jesus died on the cross, but he rose from the dead. The phoenix dies only to rise again from its own ashes. Martyrs are butchered yet they achieve immortality. The multitude of soldiers that have died on the battlefield did so for a higher purpose – in the name of the nation and of life. Maybe the scandal of death, its traumatic intervention in our lives, has such awesome power that we cannot do anything but push it away, deny it, reject and defer it until it is turned into something that generates life. However we see the history of the human race, we have to relate to the fact that we are forced to build our future on countless millions of innocent corpses. In the politics of death, two forces merge: one compels the living to die, the other snatches the dead from their graves. “History has the cruel reality of a nightmare, and the grandeur of man consists in his making beautiful and long lasting works out of the real substance of that nightmare”. Octavio Paz’s formulations may be less optimistic than those of Hegel, but nonetheless he insists on the possibility of transforming the meaningless into something meaningful.33Yet the crucial question is what happens when we are not capable of turning the dead into meaningful sacrifices? In that moment, shall we stand before the slaughtering-block of history, unable to see the dead as martyrs of anything? What happens when humanity no longer manages to create beauty from the misery of the world – and only a nightmarish reality remains?

In Quel che resta di Auschwitz, Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher, involves himself in the debate about the Holocaust. Is it possible to see the victims of the Nazi extermination project as martyrs? Is it possible to say that they died for some reason – whether truth, freedom, the fatherland or justice? Can one retroactively discern a hope in their death, as Marx did with the victims of the Paris Commune or Hegel with world history: a portent of a new society, a new tomorrow? Agamben argues that we have to desist from an interpretation of this kind and even advises against the use of the term “Holocaust” which, in the early annals of the Church, was used to describe grandiose sacrifices or a martyrdom that pleased God. Agamben points to the already mentioned patriarch Tertullian, who explained that there cannot be a more loathsome concept than a God “who requires bloody victims” and “scorched pieces of corpses”.34


Santiago de Chile, 25 September 1973. General Augusto Pinochet’s regime is only two-weeks-old and already the dictator has prohibited all public ceremonies of remembrance and demonstrations in connection with the funeral of Pablo Neruda. A new epoch has started, and all the old things have to be lowered into the grave. The new power occupies itself with the usual rewriting of history and announces the death of anything in the past that might revisit the living and thus threaten its order. The old saying that the victors write history may be true, but because history never ends it will never truly be determined who, in the end, emerges as the final victor. Pinochet’s attempt to extinguish history and take control over the dead fails to stop thousands of mourning Chileans from defying the curfew and taking to the streets, with echoing, silenced voices. The people in the streets call out both Neruda’s and the recently murdered Salvador Allende’s names – responding so that no one can possibly mistake their purpose: presente.

Cf. Alessandro Capanna, Mostra della Rivoluzione fascista, Testo & Immagine, 2004. Our knowledge of the funeral oratory of Pericles is based on the summary provided by Thucydides in his extensive history of the Peloponnesian Wars. Cf. Nicole Loraux, L'Invention d'Athènes. Histoire de l'oraison funèbre dans la "cité classique", (Mouton, 1981), particularly chapter 2.

To this ambivalence we must also add the question of how the early disciples could endure the idea of the One who claimed to be the Son of Man, the Redeemer of Humanity, Christ himself, only suddenly to allow himself to be tortured and nailed to a cross and then silently disappear off the face of the earth. All the sacrifices and hopes of the disciples -- followed by nothing more than this abrupt, humiliating and inexplicable death? One possible hypothesis is that they could not endure it and therefore invented the myth that for about 2,000 years has persisted among a substantial part of the human race: the myth that Jesus did not die at all, not really, that he overcame death, was resurrected and would remain fully present for all eternity. There was such eagerness to come up with credible stories about the resurrection that the writers forgot to cross-reference, which may explain the many contradictory versions in the New Testament in which the Apostles make contradictory claims on significant points (in one of the Gospels, Matthew, Jesus does not rise again from the dead, but merely dies, full stop. At least this is so in the original version, whereas in later versions an ending has been added to avoid comment). Maybe, in fact, they were the ones who removed the stone from his grave, buried his corpse elsewhere and then spread the rumour that they had seen him still alive.

Cf. Eusebios, The Ecclesiastic History, transl. Kirsopp Lake, Harvard University Press 1975. Eusebios of Caesara often goes by the epiphet of "the father of ecclesiastical history" and was the Bishop of Caesara (currently Palestine) from approx. 313 AD. The work depicts the history of the Church from the time of Christ to the time of writing. It includes the first known "act of martyrdom" -- documents the sufferings of the Christians during the persecutions, often including official documents such as court protocols -- usually known as "Polycarpus' martyrdom" (c160 AD). These acts, in turn, have precedents in the Books of the Maccabees, in which Jewish martyrs are described, and in the Acts of the Apostles describing the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen (about 35 AD). In 297 AD at the Carthage Synod, after the persecutions had stopped as a result of the edict on religious coexistence in Milan in 313 AD, it became statutory to read from the Martyrology on the days of the martyrs' deaths, i.e. from the calendric compilation of the lives of the martyrs (including information about, for instance, where, how and when they died) which had grown orally during and after the persecutions. See also Herbert Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, Clarendon Press, 1972.

Cf. Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saint. Its Rise and its Functions in Latin Christianity, SCM Press 1981.

Cf. E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, Phaidon 2006.

Blaise Pascal, Thoughts on religion and other curious subjects, transl. Basil Kennet, para. 421. For a more in-depth investigation of this theme, see also my essay Vittnet, Glänta Produktion, 2008, and Alison Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness, Society for New Testament Studies, Monograph Series 31, 2004.

"The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas", in Herbert Musurillo (editor and translator), The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, Oxford, Clarendon Press 1972, 131. It is not entirely clear how many Christians fell victim to the persecution. The statistics vary, but some modern historians believe that the number would not have been greater than a few thousand -- and this refers to the mortalities during the worst era of persecution, 303-313 AD under Emperor Diocletian. Edward Gibbon, in his classic work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88) was the first commentator seriously to question the Christians' own stories as exaggerated and propagandist. Gibbon mentions a figure of about 2000 dead. Among the causes of the persecution of Christians, it is often asserted that they refused to take part in sacrifices to the Roman gods and the Roman (Divine) Emperor, which is entirely reconcilable with the prohibition of making offerings to other gods, as established in the law of Moses. Some historians have perceived these ceremonies as a sort of oath of fealty to the state, and by not participating, the Christians were seen as traitors and a threat to the order (further exacerbated by the fact that the number of Christians was growing steadily in the kingdom). Emperor Decius was the first to issue an edict (in 250 AD) to the effect that all citizens had to participate fully in the worship of the state's gods -- or be executed. Under Diocletian the persecution intensified and a number of new edicts were proclaimed ordering the demolition of churches and the burning of Christian books, while Christians themselves were forced into blood sacrifice and the making of libations. This persecution was documented in Eusebios' work of ecclesiastical history. Cf. W. H. C. Frend Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church, Blackwell 1965, Elisabeth Castelli, Martyrdom and memory, Columbia University Press 2004, chapters 1-3, and Thieleman van Braght, Martyrs mirror: The Story of Seventeen Centuries of Christian Martyrdom, from the Time of Christ to AD 1660, Herald Press 1938.

Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, Princeton University Press 1997.

The punishment of "hanging, drawing and quartering" was initially devised in the middle of the thirteenth century, but was applied for high treason until the end of the 1800s. The full judgment went as follows: "That you be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being (still) alive cut down, your privy members shall be cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four quarters to be disposed of at the King's pleasure." See For a critical discussion of what is really known of Cromwell's posthumous execution see H. F. McMain, The Death of Oliver Cromwell, University Press of Kentucky 2000.

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals/Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, Vintage Books 1989, (II, sec 3) 57-62. Cf. Alain Badious' reflections on this theme in Le Siècle, Seuil 2005, 49ff.

Cf. my essay Döden i Beirut, Glänta Produktion, 2007, in which I develop this theme further. A part of it has been published by Eurozine:

Cf. Nicolas Kulish, "Spy fired the shot that changed West Germany", New York Times (26 May 2009),

The leader of The Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) Jimmie Akesson quickly tried to exploit the victim role and wrote a letter to Svenska Dagbladet on 13 September exposing "the violence of the extreme left", in which he refers to the attack as "one of the worst political acts our land has seen in modern times". However, according to the medical examiner's report there were "strong indicators in terms of the position and appearance to suggest that the injury is self-inflicted". Cf. Dagens Nyheter, 18 September 2010.

Here I am obviously paraphrasing Karl Marx's remarks from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Another book worth consulting on this matter is Jacques Derrida's Spectres de Marx, Editions Galilée 1993, which, among other things, examines the constantly recurring rumours of Marx's death.

Walter Benjamin, Theses On the Concept of History, § VI, (translated by Dennis Redmond, 2005).

Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (translated by James Strachey), London, Routledge 1999, 59.

"The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans", in Cf. David Seeley, The Noble Death, Sheffield Academic Press 1990, chapters 5 and 6. Ignatius's letters are reminiscent of video films in which young aspiring martyrs in Hizbollah take leave of life and explain the motives behind their forthcoming actions against their enemy. It is worth remembering that theological equivalents of suicidal self-sacrifice also came up in the Christian tradition. How to reconcile the severe prohibition against suicide -- enshrined at the Arles Synod 452 AD -- and on the other hand the fierce longing to die a martyr? The Papacy at the end of the first millennium called for crusaders and celebrated as martyrs those who died in the fight against the Infidel. Explanation was forthcoming from the Holy Bruno in the same period, who declared that suicides were "martyrs for Satan". See Albert Bayet, Le suicide et la morale, Arno Press, 1975, 424, Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, § 131, and Joyce Salisbury, The Blood of Martyrs, Routledge 2005, chapter 10.

Ernst Jünger, Der Arbeiter, Hamburg 1931, 71.

Cf. Achille Mbembe, "Nécropolitique", in Raisons Politiques (21: 29-60).

See: Cf. Robert Royal, Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History, Crossroad Publishing 2000, also the Protestant organization Voice Of the Martyrs (VOM), whose goals included an increased awareness of contemporary martyrs in the global arena.

See David Loades, "John Foxe and the Traitors: the Politics of the Marian Persecution", in Diana Wood (ed.), Martyrs and Martyrologies, Blackwell Publishers 1993, 231ff.

See John Foxe, Book of Martyrs, edited by W. Grinton Berry, Spire 2009.

For a discussion of the inner conflicts in Christendom about the criteria of determining who should be considered as martyrs in the 1500s and 1600s, see Tripp York, The Purple Crown, Herald Press 2007, particularly chapters 3 and 4.

Quoted in Anthony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War, Penguin Books 2001. Cf. Carlos Jerrez-Farrán & Samuel Amago (eds.), Unearthing Franco's Legacy: Mass Graves and the Recovery of Historical Memory in Spain, University of Notre Dame Press 2010.

Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (English Edition of 1871), online at:

Cf. Albert Soboul, "Sentiment réligieux et cultes populaires pendant la Révolution: saintes patriotes et martyrs de la Liberté", Annales Historiques de la revolution française (n.148, 1957); Ernst Kantorowicz, Mourir pour la patrie, P.U.F 1984; Louis Aragon, "Le témoin des martyrs", in L'Homme Communiste, Gallimard 1946. For a more detailed discussion of the role of the process of secularization in the martyrdom concept in the West, see Lacey Smith, Fools, Martyrs, Traitors: The Story of Martyrdom in the Western World, Northwestern University Press 1999.

Fidel Castro, La Historia me absolverá, La Habana 1973,68, 108. For the English translation, see Castro, "History Will Absolve Me", online at: (translated by Pedro Álvarez Tabío & Andrew Paul Booth).

G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte, Band 18, Frankfurt am Main 1979. Online at:

Cf. Vincenzo Vitiello, "Die Zeit der Philosophie und die Zeit der Geschichte", in Hegel Jahrbuch, Hegel und die Geschichte der Philosophie, Akademie Verlag 1997, 58.

Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la soledad, Fondo de cultura economico 1996.

Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, (transl. Daniel Heller-Roazen), Zone Books 2002, 17, 28-35. The term "Holocaust" originated in the Classical Greek adjective holocaustos, its literal meaning being "completely burned".

Published 7 July 2011
Original in Swedish
Translated by Henning Koch
First published by Glänta 3-4/2010 (Swedish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Glänta © Michael Azar / Glänta / Eurozine


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