Retelling the Last Flight of the Red Baron (Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen)

The song “Death or Glory” (Book of Souls, 2015) tells the story of a deadly fighter pilot and his red triplane. This arguably refers to Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen, a German pilot in WWI and his Fokker Dr I, a bright red triplane. Von Richthofen’s preference for red aircraft would soon grant him the nickname the “Red Baron.” It might not be discernible at first sight that there is a story-line inherent to the song, but, as I show in the following, I argue that the song retells the last flight of the Red Baron.

The Red Baron

FIGHTER PILOTS OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR
Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen, © IWM (Q 67780), https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205124953

Von Richthofen seems to have embraced his nickname since he called his autobiography “Der Rote Kampfflieger,” which more or less translates to the red fighter pilot. In fact, it was not only von Richthofen’s aircraft which was painted in a bright colour, it was all aircraft of his later squadron, Jagdgeschwader 1. Despite common military tactics these airplanes were painted in bright colours instead of camouflage. As Jagdgeschwader 1  had also developed the necessary equipment and strategy to move on ground, they were nicknamed “Flying Circus.” (cf. https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/richthofen_manfred_freiherr_von)

Closing Up: A Bombing Formation of British Biplanes (DH9a s) Closing Up to Beat Off an Enemy Formation of Fokker Triplanes
See the colours of the triplanes. George Horace Davis, Closing Up: A Bombing Formation of British Biplanes (DH9a s) Closing Up to Beat Off an Enemy Formation of Fokker Triplanes (1919) © Art.IWM ART 3071 https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/6671
Manfred von Richthofen (in the aircraft) and his squadron Jagdstaffel 11, which would later become Jagdgeschwader 1. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2004-0430-501 / Fotograf unbekannt (Photographer Unknown) / Lizenz CC-BY-SA 3.0

Despite his many successes (he was honoured with the Prussian Pour le Mérite) and role as war hero, von Richthofen took a fatal decision: he pursued an enemy aircraft, entering wide into enemy controlled territory, and got shot. He did not survive this miscalculation. (cf. https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/richthofen_manfred_freiherr_von).

This last flight is subject to a lot of speculation. Some of it says that von Richthofen had not recovered from a brain injury he had received in an earlier battle and was thus suffering from mental issues which clouded his judgement. (cf. the Wikipedia page devotes a whole section to the research articles and the various mental diseases they attribute to von Richthofen. Read it here.) I say that this theory of a clouded judgement caused by brain injury resulting in the death of the Red Baron is, in fact, what we hear in the song. Dickinson picks up this debate and turns it into his own version of what may have happened.

Retelling the Last Flight of the Red Baron

The song is told from the perspective of von Richthofen, the narrative I is easy to identify because he flies a red triplane. He is driven by blood thirst and does not target an equal opponent. He is out for the weak. He is out for an easy kill.

What causes this raging madness? His brain injury. Von Richthofen is not (only) driven by a lust for violence. He is driven by physical pain. I think that the pain simply drives him mad. He has already accepted that he will not go to heaven. This self-description is the description of a madman which may even hint at self-loathing. Who would say of himself that he does not belong to heaven? Now the brain injury does not (only) cause an undetected mental illness, it causes physical pain, too, which most likely increases the madness. At least it can be said that it does hardly diminish it.

Von Richthofen’s second motivator is his reputation. He knows that his name, assumedly “Red Baron” is well-known and revered. He is famous and cannot afford to be considered weak, or, much worse, cowardly. The role and reputation of a war hero has cornered him. He cannot back down. Fame comes at a cost. This focus on his reputation points further to a mind which has started to malfunction or disintegrate.

As I said we follow von Richthofen’s thoughts in the song, and we follow them at a very specific point of time: when he decides to follow the one victim which will be his last. When he sees that the other pilot enters enemy territory he has two options, follow him at all costs or give up the chase.

Given that he is driven by pain, bloodlust, and a wish to keep his reputation, this decision is taken quickly. He will follow. Which brings him two new options. He will either die, or return with another victory. These are the two possible outcomes and he keeps on repeating these options to himself (this mumbling or repeating to himself makes up the chorus).

Yet, both options are not so different after all, a fact emphasised by the constant repetition. This implies that coming back with another victory is just another form of death. This flight has become a point of no return; there is no way back. And it will end in death either way. I assume that hunting the weakest out of blood-lust does not lead to victory, but, indeed, to another form of death. The mind that has already disintegrated, that has turned the hero into a blood-thirsty monster, has already killed the narrator long before a bullet will do (which we do not learn in the song, but know from historical records – we know that this is how the narrator will die).

Actually, I argue that von Richthofen had been dead already, at least metaphorically. He says of himself that he has come from hell. This brutal creature, generated by brain injury and a malfunctioning mind, has crawled out of hell. Von Richthofen is dead already, what has come back now is a brutal and devilish shadow of the former man. The man who cannot see the difference between victory and death anymore – because he is dead already. In the end, it was not the injury received here which killed him, it was the brain injury received much earlier.

Further Reading:

Featured Image: © Katharina Hagen

Sources

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