The art of tyranny

The musings of dictators reveal manipulative minds, disjointed insanity

Hitler. Mussolini. Stalin. Mao. Saddam. Men with one name often described with one adjective: evil. But there’s another descriptor in common: writer.

Over and over something grabs hold of dictators and tyrants and makes them pick up the pen. Is it the muse contemporary authors praise? Or something a little more calculated?

In his most famous literary work, Mein Kampf, written before he came into power, Adolf Hitler writes, “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” That doctrine sheds light onto why all of these men published books, and it’s not because the magic of storytelling struck them.

Isaac Asimov, American author of I-Robot, who died in 1992, claimed that, “It is the writer who might catch the imagination of young people, and plant a seed that will flower and come to fruition.” People can be tricked into believing what they read over what they see, and when these seeds are planted, it’s why propaganda is so useful. And writing delivered to the masses penned by their illustrious leader is even more likely to be at least considered.

And so, one reason that the urgent passion for writing seizes highly empowered individuals is that it gives them the perfect soapbox upon which to preach to a large audience and alter their mindsets. Books contain ideas, and ideas spread like wildfire once they take root.

These men recognized the power of books, which is why in addition to flooding libraries with their own works they destroyed others. Hitler’s Nazis burned books all the time, and Mao Zhe Dong claimed, “To read too many books is harmful,” which is written, ironically, in his book, The Little Red Book. Stalin also recognized the idea that this is an obstacle to gaining complete control, “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas.”

And that’s just one reason for “evil” to put pen to paper.

Another key reason is found when contemporary writers are described. The world has always been in awe of those rare gifted people who can create something beautiful with ink. Not many can do it; at least not many can do it well, which makes the ability to write something almost superhuman.

Dictators present themselves as something akin to God. They are above the huddled masses at their feet, raised on an invisible pedestal of ambition. But to stay on that pedestal and not get knocked off they need proof that they are actually better. And what better proof than to identify with geniuses? Through writing their own manifestos, or even writing a romance novel like Saddam Hussein’s, these men prove their magnificence, at least for a time.

This method is most successful when used in areas that have limited accessibility to the outside world.When one is starved for knowledge and lacks other resources, one can turn to works like these. And many such books, like Mussolini’s and Hitler’s, are so well penned that many could believe what they read and submit themselves willingly to these leaders as loyal subjects.

That is an important distinction to make. Certainly not all tyrant manifestos are masterpieces, but what may be surprising, is the amount of them that are. For example, in Mussolini’s, My Rise and Fall, the reader is drawn into his world.

This book is split into two pieces, the first part, The Rise, is older, was published while Mussolini was at his height and called My Autobiography at the time. The surprising thing is that if the readers allow themselves to forget who this man is, and the crimes he has committed, he becomes almost a sympathetic character.

He is desperate to defend every decision he makes, and sticks to his values and ideas in part two, The Fall, as everything falls apart. There are no negative reflections; even in the end he blames everyone around him, but never himself.

Another potentially surprisingly, breathtaking creator is Stalin. Stalin is unique in that while he did publish a short book of his speeches and various addresses, he also wrote before he rose to power. And he didn’t write violent stories, or detailed plans for world take over, they weren’t even Napoleon fan fictions. He wrote poetry. Poetry so good, “One might even find reasons not purely political for regretting Stalin’s switch from poetry to revolution,” as professor Donald Rayfield, who has translated the poems into English, suggested. Stalin’s poetry was published under the pen name Soselo, and his works became minor Georgian classics. They were published in anthologies and memorized by schoolchildren until the 1970s under Anonymous, not as part of Soviet worship, but rather, in respect of a talented poet.

However, the actual talent that defines Stalin’s work and Mussolini’s can be an anomaly among their fellow conquerors. Most of these mass produced works are lackluster, praised only by people afraid for their lives, and criticized as nonsensical, in addition to insane, everywhere else. For instance, in a scathing review of Saddam Hussein’s books, including the romance Zabibah and The King, The Guardian writer Jo Tachell claimed, “The obvious conclusion from the work is that we are looking at an author who is insecure, untalented and delusional.” Many also criticize Mao’s Little Red Book for being a mess of confusing propaganda, not the persuasive quotes it was meant to be.

Rather than the work of a near god, today the Little Red Book is even regarded as comedic. The danger in writing books lies here, a poorly written story can diminish a leader in the eyes of their masses.

But when there is talent in the writing of leaders, full control is one step closer, and a little bit easier. And so it makes sense that people who desire power, people that history has defined as “evil,” would put pen to paper and produce their own books. They all recognize the power of ideas, and they know how to influence the ideas that shape the people around them, hopefully shaping a path to power.

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About Jorie Schwab

Jorie Schwab is a senior and the editor and founder of the online Creative Arts Magazine. This is her fourth year writing for The Talon. Jorie is also a staff writer and section editor for online news source The Prospect, and enjoys working on fiction novels and short stories in her time off from journalism. She is also a high school athlete and avid reader. Her favorite book of all time is The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas.

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