I stumbled on an incredible description of what heroism means, written by Victor Klemperer in his book entitled The Language of the Third Reich.
Allow me to preface the following excerpt from that book by explaining that Klemperer was a Jewish professor married to an “Aryan” woman during World War II. As such, he was allowed to “live” in German society and experience Nazism from an entirely different perspective. He was stripped of his professorship, of course, and allowed less food rations. His wife had to bear the scorn of others, but never abandoned him.
Years later he wrote his book and opened the door for the rest of us to see.
The following quote depicts an imaginary discussion between himself and a student who wishes to defend those soldiers considered heroic despite fighting for the Nazis. He also mentions sportsmen who were portrayed as heroic by society during the time period leading to the war:
“There’s more to heroism than courage and putting your own life on the line. Any ruffian or criminal can summon up these qualities. The hero was originally someone who performed deeds which benefited mankind. A war of conquest, and especially one which perpetrated such atrocities as Hitler’s, has nothing to do with heroism.”
“But amongst my comrades there were so many who were not involved in any atrocities, and who were firmly convinced – we were never told otherwise after all – that, even when attacking and conquering, we were only engaged in a defensive war, and that our victory would also bring salvation to the world. We only discovered the truth much later, when it was already too late… And don’t you accept that true heroism can be achieved in sport, that a sporting achievement can benefit mankind through its exemplary quality?”
“Of course it’s possible, and even in Nazi Germany there must undoubtedly have been a handful of true heroes among the sportsmen and soldiers. It’s simply that I am skeptical precisely when it comes to the heroism of these two professional groups as a whole. In both cases the heroism is too strident, too profitable and too indulgently overweening to be authentic in most cases. It is undeniable that these racing drivers were literally industrial knights in shining armor, their daredevil speeds were meant to promote German factories and consequently the Fatherland, and perhaps they were even supposed to benefit society at large by contributing their experiences to the goal of perfecting automobile construction. But there was so much vanity, so much gladiatorial triumph involved! And the racing driver’s wreaths and prizes are the soldiers medals and promotions. No, only the rarest of cases am I convinced by heroism when it blows its own trumpet in public and makes sure that success is all too handsomely rewarded. Heroism is purer and more significant the quieter it is, the less audience it has, the less it furthers the hero himself, and the less it is decorated. [italics mine] My criticism of the Nazi concept of heroism is that it is always shackled to decoration and vainglorious. Officially Nazism didn’t recognize any kind of decent, real heroism. It thereby perverted the whole notion and brought it into disrepute.”
“Do you deny that there was any quiet, real heroism during the Hitler years?”
“No, not during the Hitler years — on the contrary, they led to the purest kind of heroism, but on the other side so to speak. I am thinking of the many brave people in the concentration camps, of all those people who recklessly committed illegal acts. The mortal dangers and the suffering were incomparably greater than at the front, and the glory of decoration was nowhere to be seen! It wasn’t the much-vaulted death on the ‘field of honor’ which confronted one, rather, at the very best, death by guillotine. And yet – even though there was no decoration in this, heroism was undoubtedly real – these heroes did possess a source of inner strength and solace: they too knew they were members of an army, they had a firm and unshakable belief in the ultimate victory of their cause, they could take with them to the grave the proud conviction that their name would one day be resurrected all the more triumphantly the more ignominiously they were massacred."