10 Things I Learned From Reading Terrible Books Written by Dictators

The 20th century’s most infamous dictators were also authors, often prolific ones, complementing the atrocities they visited on humanity with crimes against literature. For his new book, The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy, Daniel Kalder read the significant works from this benighted subgenre, from the vast theoretical corpus of Lenin, through Stalin’s The Foundations of Leninism, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Mussolini’s My Life, and Mao’s Little Red Book. Here’s what he found.

From Mussolini to Mao, many are the dictators who have inflicted atrocious books upon their subjects. Yet though these tomes are revered as sacred texts while their authors are alive, they vanish almost as soon as their regimes fall. Fascinated by this phenomenon, I set out to read my way through the dictatorial canon. I wanted to know what was really inside these diabolical books, and to understand what the poetry, political theory and (yes) romance novels of the world’s worst tyrants could tell us about their authors and the relationship between the word and the world. The fruit of my suffering is called The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy. And here, for your reading pleasure, are just a few of the things I uncovered on my odyssey through the long dark night of the dictatorial soul.

  1. Hitler knew he wasn’t any good as a writer. Although generally not known for his modesty, and despite the fact that he forced two volumes of Mein Kampf on the German people (including a Braille edition and a luxury “wedding edition” for newlyweds), the Fuhrer seems to have suffered self-doubt regarding the quality of his magnum opus. Years after Mein Kampf was published he confessed to his lawyer that he would not have written the book had he known he would become chancellor. He also admitted, with startling frankness: “Ich bin kein Schriftsteller”– “I am not a writer.”
  2. In northern Iraq, man-bear love is a thing. Or at least that’s what Saddam Hussein claims in his romance novel, Zabiba and the King. The good news is that female bears (who are the instigators of these interspecies trysts) are tender lovers who seek to please the herdsmen they desire before they possess them. How? By stuffing them with nuts, cheese, and “even raisins,” says the dictator.
  3. While still a teenager in the Tiflis seminary, Stalin published verse in a prestigious literary journal, Iveria. One poem was so admired that it was anthologized in a school textbook long before its author had attained notoriety as the supreme leader-genius of the Soviet Union. This indicates that he probably had real talent, although Stalin abruptly abandoned his poetic career for that of a professional revolutionary and mass killer. And yet decades later, the “Gardener of Human Happiness ” remained active as the supreme editor of the USSR. Running a vast, transnational totalitarian state did not prevent him from performing meticulous line edits on The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Short Course) when it landed on his desk for review.
  4. We have the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan to thank for the invention of the wheel. I made this discovery in the pages of The Rukhnama, a rambling collection of autobiography, poetry, genealogy, myth, and outright fabrication written by Saparmurat Niyazov, a former Soviet apparatchik turned “Father of All Turkmen.” Niyazov developed a grandiose personality cult to rival that of any North Korean dictator and The Rukhnama was central to that cult. Thanks to Niyazov, a generation of Turkmen schoolchildren also discovered that they were direct descendants of Noah (he of the ark). The Rukhnama was also blasted into space, presumably for the benefit of extraterrestrials.
  5. Mussolini’s war diary is actually good. True, it gets off to a shaky start as Mussolini commences his account of the First World War with all the narcissism and self-aggrandizement you’d expect of Il Duce. But as the carnage drags on, the future warlord of Italian Fascism sinks deeper and deeper into a despair that he confronts more or less directly. The book is never completely free of blustering Mussolini-isms, but when he steps outside of his persona to describe the miserable reality of cold, hunger, and death in prose miniatures, the effects are powerful.
  6. “According to gynaecologists, women menstruate every month or so, while men, being male, do not menstruate or suffer during the monthly period. A woman, being a female, is naturally subject to monthly bleeding. When a woman does not menstruate, she is pregnant. If she is pregnant, she becomes, due to pregnancy, less active for about a year, which means that all her natural activities are seriously reduced until she delivers her baby.” – Muammar Gaddafi, The Green Book.
  7. Fidel Castro was a great admirer of Ernest Hemingway. He met the hard living, Nobel Prize winning author twice, and kept a signed photo of “Papa” on his desk. Unlike Hemingway, however, Castro was not known for his brevity and could ramble on for hours. Famously, his 1960 speech at the United Nations clocked in at 4 hours and 29 minutes, and he subjected his domestic audience to even longer performances. So what was it that drew this incorrigible bore to the master of the terse sentence? In his autobiography, the Cuban dictator revealed all. He enjoyed Hemingway’s monologues, “when his characters talk to themselves.”
  8. I should have bought Vladimir Putin’s judo manual when it came out. Nowadays you can’t get a used copy for less than $130 and there’s no way I’m spending that kind of money on pictures of the Russian president in his pajamas. Maybe I’ll see if I can “borrow” Steven Seagal’s copy.
  9. Chairman Mao was responsible for a number of chart-topping pop hits in the late 1960s. As the rebellious youth of the West were irritating their parents by listening to “Sympathy for the Devil” and “I am the Walrus,” their counterparts in Red China were getting down to Mao quotations set to music, including “The Force at the Core Leading Our Cause Forward is the Chinese Communist Party” and the classic “Ensure that Literature and Art Operate as Powerful Weapons for Exterminating the Enemy.” No backward messages for Mao; he just came out and said it.
  10. Exceedingly obscure writers adhering to fantastical political beliefs can take over your country—and you won’t see it coming until it’s too late. Their works doesn’t have to be readable; in fact, impenetrable prose can conceal absurdities and fallacies while creating an illusion of depth (if you do it right). Thus, Lenin went from being the graphomaniac boss of an obscure political sect to leader of the largest country on earth almost overnight in 1917. Mao took a bit longer to go from contributing articles on physical fitness to a nationalist journal to being worshiped as a godlike genius in China–but he got there in the end. It’s not enough to write a bad book, of course. The historical conditions have to be right, and it helps a lot if you’re thoroughly ruthless. But beware! The marginal intellectuals you deride today may be your overlords tomorrow–and such revenges they will have upon us all.

From Publisher’s Weekly

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