“Veteran soldiers speak of hot iron and cold iron… The warchief’s soul – it either rages with the fire of life, or is cold with death”
House of Chains, Steven Erickson
It took over a year, but seeing as my self-imposed task of watching Legend of the Galactic Heroes is finally over, I figured I should write something about it. Of course, with a show as long and in-depth as this, a general overview would in no way do the show any justice. As such, I’ve decided to focus on my favourite character in the show, the universally (quite literally) despised Paul von Oberstein.
Admittedly, I initially paid him little attention, other than finding it odd that someone who claimed to hate the Goldenbaum Dynasty would become an officer in its military, the very embodiment of classist corruption & incompetence plaguing the Empire. Unlike Reinhard and the various Fleet Admirals, Oberstein struck a relatively underwhelming profile, with his slight frame & quiet, monotone voice opposite to the type of charismatic presence people traditionally flock to; it wouldn’t be a stretch to say his persona deliberately evoked a feeling of distance. It was only after being taken under Reinhard’s command & given the opportunity to flex his gifted, if manipulative & coldly logical talents, that I began to see him as a calculated backstabber and waited for his eventual betrayal to occur. I kept waiting. It was only towards the halfway point of the show that I began to realise I’d fundamentally misunderstood the man, and if anything, he could easily be called the most loyal supporter of Reinhard’s goals.
Early in the show, Oberstein reveals to Reinhard that his eyes are cybernetic implants, due to an illness rendering him blind as a child. Not only does incident seem to be the catalyst behind his hatred towards the aristocracy, with the admittance that he likely wouldn’t have been allowed to survive during the early supremacist stages of the Empire, (it’s implied that he suffered a difficult and undignified upcoming due to the continued prevalence of such beliefs), but his eyes actually become a perfect symbol of how he views the world: distant & removed to an almost artificial level. That isn’t to say that he lacks emotions and motivations, but his experiences seem to have given birth to someone able to stand back and watch humanity, both logically & detached from raw impulses. Both in thoughts and mannerisms, Oberstein very much feels like someone repeatedly burned by the actions of others, until only the ashes remained.
This clearly manifests in the methods he takes when fighting his enemies, learning their weaknesses and using them to sow disharmony and mistrust during Reinhard’s campaign to become Kaiser & ruler of the Empire. His is a war of information, of finding out what makes people tick and using their own flaws against them, before ruthlessly moving in for the kill. What I appreciate most about Oberstein is that for all his scheming and morally questionable methods, he’s pretty open & upfront concerning the choices he makes, unmindful of how others view him. It’s unsurprising that his actions earn the ire and distain of the Fleet Admirals directly under Reinhard, who view his tactics as underhanded and treacherous. While it’s hard not to deny a level of truth to this, Oberstein is the first to accept this reality, while simultaneously pointing out that although his schemes have resulted in the deaths of innocents, likely many more were saved through choosing the path of least resistance, rather than the ‘honourable’ route of large scale naval battles.
Honestly, while it’s difficult to agree with someone who appears to view life and death as statistics to be improved through better strategic management, I can’t help but admire the fact that he’s willing to challenge the notion that causing mass causalities in the name of pride and personal ambition, as merely the selfish and hypocritical actions of impetuous children blinded by their own self-importance and romantic visions of warfare. Oberstein almost acts like a kind of dark mirror, reflecting back that which people don’t want to acknowledge or admit. Really, it should be no surprise people hate him for it. As someone willing to take lives for his ideals, he also accepts the responsibility of laying down his life for them, demanding the same of others, from lowly soldier to Reinhard himself.
When I said earlier that Oberstein was possibly the most loyal supporter of the Kaiser’s goals I meant it, but this manifests itself in a starkly different manner than most in the Empire. His priorities lie with the healthy maintenance of the dynasty as a well-oiled machine, free from corruption or decadence, rather than unflinching support towards the ruler alone; if fact, several times in the show, he deliberately stands in opposition to Reinhard’s plans. To Oberstein, the Kaiser is a suitable figurehead who deserves to stand at the top, but isn’t immune to criticism. While the rest of the military worship Reinhard to an almost deific level, Oberstein understands the inherent flaws of such a mentality; after all, the previous Goldenbaum Dynasty followed a similar path of creating an unimpeachable leader, resulting in the eventual decent into oppression and corruption. If Reinhard or one of his descendants were to become tyrants in a societal structure that treats them as idols, would anyone be able to stop them?
Of course, the problem also exists that while Oberstein fights against this type of dogma, he also has his own beliefs over how things should be, and is often willing to bend the rules of law to do so. He can be as guilty as any in disregarding the law to enforce his plans. However, despite playing by his own rules at times & even briefly considering vying for the position of Kaiser, he also realises that his very lack of charisma and popularity would cause more damage than good, and that Reinhard is clearly the best man for the job.
Ultimately, it takes Fleet Commander, Oskar von Reuenthal, to actually be the one that create a challenge to Reinhard’s rule. What’s fascinating about this incident is how it contrasts the three players against each other, all of whom have suffered deep-rooted pain and humiliation growing up, manifesting in different ways. On the surface, Reuenthal shares a similar level of natural authority and charm to Reinhard, and when given a taste of rulership over the planet Heinessen, goes about his job with diligence, inspiring faith in those under his command (something Oberstein later struggles with when put in the same position). However, his inner wounds in turn create a level of destructive pride and need to constantly push forward, almost in a bid to outrun his memories, a toxic mind-set that ends up leading to his eventual downfall. Oberstein, in this regard appears much closer to Reinhard, making his experiences the foundation for his current goals. Neither tries to escape or forget the past, instead using it to shape the future. Of course despite starting from a similar point, both go about it in different ways with Reinhard using fiery, righteous anger to attack his enemies upfront, while Oberstein coldly picks them apart from behind the scenes. In a sense the two are almost reflections of what the other could have been, making it all the more appropriate that they both die in close proximity at roughly the same time.
As with most of Oberstein’s actions, it’s difficult to interpret the events surrounding his eventual death from a terrorist bombing; was it a deliberate act to lure the enemy away from Reinhard, an uncharacteristic error in judgement, or even a roundabout method of suicide once the Kaiser impending death became known? I’m personally tempted to see it as an act of martyrdom, staged in a way that would never be viewed as romantic or heroic in the annuls of history; it seems very much the kind thing he would do.
In the end, trying to examine Oberstein proves extremely difficult, which is what makes him such a fascinating character. While he’s certainly the person I pay most attention to, that doesn’t mean I agree with or even like him an individual. Despite the reasoning often being sound, it’s natural human instinct to favour people with passionate investment in human affairs rather than those who appear indifferent. A machine might perform a task better, but often a personal touch is required. Ultimately I think Oberstein’s greatest strength was also his biggest weakness; that by walling himself off from the rest humanity he was too much of a closed book for people to read and understand. The likelihood is that his mistrust of others, partly out of an inflated, maybe even insecure sense of superiority and partly from deep-rooted fear often caused more damage than good, by not being able to convey his feelings without antagonistically people ruffling feathers . This is clearly seen during his brief rule of Heinsessen where his inability and unwillingness to diffuse an argument nearly allows a civil war to occur. If he just could have made his ideals more transparent and relatable then the stigma around him likely would have been great reduced. He’d never be beloved like Reinhard or the Fleet Commanders, but understanding goes a great distance towards empathy.
Then again, perhaps that was the point. By performing the role nobody else wanted and accepting the enmity that came with it, he deflected much of the criticism and hatred away from Reinhard. We’ll truly never know exactly how great his sense of loyalty towards the Kaiser was, but I feel his commitment and sense of sacrifice to the Empire is clear. Whether his actions stemmed from a misunderstood notion of altruism or just the coincidental result from being indifferent to public perception remains unknown to anyone but himself. Ultimately, his final words didn’t even concern the Empire, but rather the personal treatment of his dog.
If nothing else, even in death he never lost his ability to confound people.