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Dictators used own books as another tool
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Dictators used own books as another tool

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Mao was much better than Lenin or Hitler.

Maybe Mussolini, who started out as a journalist and could get his ideas across to people, was the best.

But all ultimately used their writing to nefarious ends to gain control over the citizens or subjects of the countries and areas they came to rule.

In “The Infernal Library,” Daniel Kalder argues that “literature” was a common and essential element used by 20th-century dictators.

For the most part, dictators are not particularly good writers. Often, Kalder says, the dictator-to-be’s efforts are ponderous, abstract, sometimes painfully personal, a screed of pain that becomes, for instance, the basis of a national movement, as in the case of Germany’s Adolf Hitler.

A Scottish journalist who lived in Moscow for 10 years and is in Texas today, Kalder has pulled together the writings and pronouncements of these men — no prominent female tyrants come to mind — to see what made them tick.

Equally interesting is what made them appealing to their followers, who did their bidding as they created rationales for murdering fellow citizens.

Some of the writers were deadly dull, like Lenin, who in 1917 led the Bolshevik Revolution that gave the world the USSR for more than 70 years.

Some were disorganized and hate-filled second-rate thugs like Hitler, who nearly destroyed Europe in the 1940s with World War II and European Jewry with the Holocaust.

Italy’s dictator, at least, earns this compliment from the author: “Mussolini’s pleasure in language is nevertheless infectious. There is an exuberance to the play of insults, a delight in the mockery, a joy in the blasphemy. It is much less personal than Lenin’s vituperations and consequently less tedious. Mussolini is not engaged in a life-and-death battle over doctrine: he is having fun annoying people …”

One budding dictator was responsible for the deaths of many millions of Chinese.

Yet Mao Zedong (alternately spelled Tsetung or Tse-tung) was a clever writer who created slogans and epigrammatic thoughts that could be assembled into a little red book, “Quotations From Chairman Mao Tsetung,” printed in the People’s Republic of China, Kalder writes, as “The Red Treasure Book.”

I still have one I bought — against Army regulations — while on a visit to Hong Kong during a tour of duty in Vietnam.

The era of “the giants of dictator literature was not over,” writes Kalder of the post-World War II period. “Far from it: in the East, a new rough beast was slouching toward Beijing to be born. The billion-selling Quotations From Chairman Mao was coming. In comparison, the text worship of the Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini regimes was tame, a prelude to a madness unprecedented in its scale of passion.”

To follow the Mao track a bit more (Kalder devotes 52 pages to the chairman and a mere 24 pages to that former Austrian soldier who became Der Führer), the author quotes Lin Biao, a defense minister who later turned against Mao and died in a suspicious plane crash in Mongolia.

In better days, Lin so liked Mao that in 1966 he wrote that “newspapers should regularly carry quotations from Chairman Mao relevant to current issues for readers to study and apply.”

He went on: “Once Mao Tse-tung’s thought is grasped by the broad masses, it becomes an inexhaustible source of strength and a spiritual atom bomb of infinite power. The large-scale publication of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung is a vital measure for enabling the broad masses to grasp Mao Tse-tung’s thought and for promoting the revolutionization of our people’s thinking.”

If nothing else, this obsequious devotion to China’s national leader, who died in 1976, shows just how far China has ventured into revisionist capitalism in the global economy.

As for Hitler, Kalder can find nothing kind to say about his major work, “Mein Kampf,” which spelled out his incoherent view of European history and his extreme hatred for Jews.

Kalder writes: “Mein Kampf is staggeringly incompetent. Without the benefit of hindsight, why would anyone have received this literary atrocity as a warning? This is the danger of dictator books: they hide in plain sight, and their sheer awfulness makes it impossible to believe in their power to infiltrate and transform brains until it is too late.”

I’d put Kalder’s analysis of “dictator books” with others out today that warn of the decline of Western liberal democracy. We should learn from the grave mistakes of the 20th century.

Repps Hudson is an adjunct instructor and freelance journalist who lives in University City.

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