What turns a soldier into a war hero? Is it his bravery, his tenacity or his superiority on the battlefield? With nearly over 80 confirmed kills while serving as a fighter pilot for Germany during the First World War, Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918 and a distant relative) was regarded as the ace of aces. Despite the fact that the war was over a century ago, the Red Baron’s legacy has withstood the test of time, with his name still ringing a bell within a vast population.
The first airplane was flown in 1903 (by the Wright Brothers), so when war broke out in 1914 the technology was still relatively new. Manfred — a great-great uncle on my father’s side — was a pioneer in this area, and as is customary, being a pioneer and the first one to do something contributes to one’s legacy being recorded in history. He joined the army as a Cavalry Reconnaissance Officer on the Eastern and Western fronts, not with the intention of becoming a pilot. However, Manfred’s role was viewed as ineffective and superfluous when the war evolved into an attrition-based conflict. After requesting a transfer to join the flying service in May 1915, the Red Baron began his spectacular transformation into an assassin in the sky.
In spite of being a mediocre pilot in the beginning, consistently struggling to control his aircraft and even crashing his first controlled flight, Manfred persevered through his trials. In April 1916, he was selected to join the unit of one of the first German fighter squadrons, then securing his first victory kill on Tom Rees in September of that same year. Compared to the stories related by most front-line soldiers—a harsh, faceless, almost machine-like carnage in the trenches—a heroic battle in the sky conjures up images of knightly, man-to-man combat that people are more likely to remember.
It takes a madman to willingly fly in one of early fighter planes (with them being made out of wood and cloth with little to no safety equipment), let alone fighting in a war environment. If one loses a fight, he is only left with terrible options, either eject without a parachute or be burned to a crisp by your burning motor. This did not discourage Manfred as since he was young, he had always had a hearty appetite for risks. In his autobiography, he tells a story of how he once “climbed the famous steeple of Wahlstatt by means of the lightning conductor and tied my handkerchief to the top.” Fearless indeed.
Though he had accomplished superhuman feats, Manfred, at the end of the day like all of us, he was still human. Losing your friends to the same fate as you’ve brought upon many other young men is bound to take a tremendous psychological toll on one’s mental health. Towards the end of his career before getting shot down, he started falling into the deep depths of depression. Even he states in his autobiography, “I like to fly, not to kill.” His honesty about his feelings and his willingness to share his raw and unfiltered perspective is admirable, particularly when considering the social stigmas of the time. Such a move only earned him more respect.
The Red Baron’s Albatros D.III fighter plane is almost synonymous with his legacy.The crimson-red plane has appeared in numerous pop culture allusions and has been referenced or copied across a wide range of media. The Peanuts Universe is the most notable member of this group, with the Red Baron serving as the primary antagonist in imaginary battles against Snoopy, beginning with a comic strip in October 1965, and as the main antagonist in Snoopy’s subplot in “The Peanuts Movie.” It is the arts which keep a legend’s name alive, enabling his story to inspire a new generation. The Red Baron’s fame has seemingly endured for over 100 years which for a war hero to be known and revered by both their own country and by their enemies is no common feat.
The Red Baron is one of the most notable names of the First World War. His celebrity status has extended far beyond the realm of war and pilots, streamlining its way into popular culture. Manfred’s accomplishments separate him from all the other pilots of his era, but his grit and his bravery to conquer such an untested field distinguishes him among all the other soldiers, the making of a true war hero.