Demagogues and dictators


Lenin, Stalin & HitlerI’m not sure why they fascinate me, but I’ve been reading about demagogues and dictators for many decades now and still can’t seem to get enough of them. Of course, it’s in part because I like to read about politics in all its forms and fashions, but there’s something more than just celebrity watching with these. There’s the psychology of propaganda and mass movements, the inoculation of widespread ideologies, the use of technology and mass culture.

The period between the two World Wars in particular intrigues me because it was an era of great social change. Upheaval, really. The rise of the automobile, the telephone, radio, film… technology changed the world in ways no one could have predicted before WWI. And it was the first time mass propaganda was used to propel politics. Effectively, too. The old pre-war social orders and empires crumbled and new ones emerged. Democracy blossomed, too, albeit not without conflict.

But while many of the issues may have changed since then, the methods and the styles of today’s demagogues, how they appeal to the masses and spread their message, are much the same as they ever were. Watching Donald Trump in action as he campaigns, I can see echoes of his predecessors back into the 1920s and ’30s.

There’s a certain fusty notion of political correctness not to play the Hitler card or the Stalin card in these comparisons, but they are there and people would be foolish not to see the parallels in methods and popular appeal. After all, those who forget the lessons of history…

I’m almost finished reading Lenin, Stalin and Hitler, The Age of Social Catastrophe, by Robert Gellately. I’ve read so many biographies of these three that I’ve lost count. This is merely the latest in a long list and won’t be the last (by the way, I’ve never read a comprehensive biography of Mussolini, although his life and the politics of Italy have been somewhat covered in other books. But if you can recommend a good book, I’d appreciate it…)

This is not so much a collective biography as a social and political history of the era and, of course, the war. I’m a bit disappointed that he doesn’t delve even deeper into the social reasons and popular responses to both the inter-war dictators and how they manipulated their populations. Both faced very different social structures and had to use very different approaches to motivating and galvanizing the masses.

Gellately’s attempt to provide comprehensive coverage is, I think, an admirable effort but his reach isn’t as long as the subject. It’s simply too big for a single volume to encompass, especially if you include (as he does) some history of the European theatre of war (especially that of the Eastern front). Still, for me the most intriguing part was the rise to power of the three. And what lessons there are for modern politics. Yes, even local politics.

This weekend, in a local used book store, I found a biography of Richard Nixon by Anthony Summers (The Arrogance of Power). Nixon has also long intrigued me, I suppose in part because I lived through his era. My first recollection of any political interest was in the Nixon-Kennedy debates and presidential race of 1960. I’ve been hooked on politics ever since. I watched Nixon scramble up the ladder to become president, watched him tumble into disgrace. It’s almost Shakespearean, albeit without any of the redeeming characteristics or events of, say, Lear.

A few years back, I read Perlstein’s excellent book, Nixonland, about the American civil rights movement, the rise (and fall) of Nixon, and then I read his Before the Storm, about Barry Goldwater. Perlstein casts a critical eye on events and personalities, but I liked his style and insights.

I am always trying to make sense of how American politics descended from Dwight Eisenhower. Dwight was a wise, intelligent and compassionate Republican – it’s a far fall from him to the shambling mess of Ronald Reagan, the bumbling, self-serving George W. Bush and the utter madness, bigotry and theocracy of this year’s crop of Republican presidential candidates.

Still trying to figure that out, but Nixon seems the lynch pin, and his rise to president the point when American politics changed perhaps irrevocably. Nixon’s private life is interesting in a mildly voyeuristic way, but what really intrigues me is how he climbed to power, used the system, and what he did in office. How he engaged both his party and the public.

Summers is very critical of him (I’m only on Chapter three, but the reviews say so…), but it’s hard to be kind to the first president to leave his office in such disgrace. I suspect that future biographies of Steven Harper will have a similar tone: critical, uncomplimentary and contemptuous.

Gellately differs from many other biographers, even those who pair Hitler and Stalin, by including Lenin. I agree: you can’t really understand Stalin without understanding Lenin, nor can you understand the social upheavals in Germany that led to Hitler’s rise without understanding how Lenin fostered the international Communist movements. Hitler’s successes were tied to his attacks on Germany’s Communist parties.

Lenin’s influence was vast and should not be underrated; it included Mao, as well, another dictator I’ve read several books about. True, Lenin’s world was at the end of its life and he used vastly different methods and technologies to achieve his successes than his followers and opponents would later use. In fact, the ideologies he preached were, by 1917, already outdated and becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern era, even in the backwards Russia.

By the time of his death, the great upheavals in world politics were well underway; Lenin was sidelined by his own party from active participation in its future. But his influence lived on after his death – and his ideas subverted to the personal agenda of Stalin. And of course that influenced Hitler, so yes, it’s worth including him in the trio.

One of the great joys of summer is to be able to sit on my porch with a couple of books, in the company of my wife and all our pets, a glass of wine by my hand, and to read for an hour or two in the warm, quiet evening. These are just two of the books that I bring out for those moments.

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