In his most recent book, Common Good Constitutionalism, Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule presents two big ideas. The first idea is a very good one. Unfortunately, this good idea depends entirely upon the success of idea number two. Idea number two is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard. Taken together, the good idea crashes and burns because of the bad idea.
Professor Vermeule calls his two-idea combo “common good constitutionalism.” But common good constitutionalism, as Professor Vermeule explicates it, will bring about uncommonly bad constitutionalism. And a lot worse besides. Although of course Vermeule doesn’t say so, and surely would be repulsed by the idea, what he is asking for is the Führerprinzip, a leader strong enough to steamroll all opposition. Vermeule doesn’t like liberalism. Fair enough. But he would have the state overcome liberalism’s various contradictions. This is not constitutionalism, but its opposite.
First, however, Vermeule’s good idea. That idea is the title of the book. Professor Vermeule argues that the United States should return to the pursuit of the common good in the life of the law, and that this pursuit will help us all leave behind the fruitless debate between progressivists and originalists over the interpretation of the United States Constitution. (Vermeule was once a clerk for the original originalist, the late Antonin Scalia (1936-2016).) The classical legal tradition in the West, the ius commune, Vermeule writes—“the classical European synthesis of Roman law, canon law, and local civil law”—can help Americans recover the distinction between lex and ius. This distinction, and the moral jurisprudence that can flow from properly making it, can be, Vermeule hopes, common good constitutionalism. In other words, let’s stop fighting over what the laws do and don’t really say, and let’s start pursuing justice for all, a better America freed from the stale constitutional battles of the previous century. This is, indeed, a good idea.
Lex and ius may not be familiar terms, however, so let us clarify. Lex is not the villain from Superman, but, Vermeule writes, “enacted positive law,” that is, the law on the books, the law which legislators and (to foreshadow the bad idea) administrators promulgate and which judges interpret and executives enforce. Ius is “the overall body of law generally, including and subsuming lex but transcending it, and containing general principles of jurisprudence and legal justice.” If you use ius to guide lex, and if ius is morally sound, then, Vermeule is saying, you may get something much better than the originalist-progressivist muddle we have now. You may get a legal dynamic that effects real social good in the land.
The recovery of ius, Vermeule argues, will entail a return, in part, to the natural law. Vermeule also wants to “draw… upon the classical [law] tradition,” as well as, “in limited ways… the parts of [Ronald] Dworkin’s [(1931—2013)] jurisprudence that are consistent with the classical view of law and that explain and illuminate the latter’s commitments.” Why Dworkin? Vermeule wants to use him “in the negative, invoking him as the unsurpassed modern critic of positivism and originalism in Anglophone legal theory.” In many ways, Vermeule’s common good constitutionalism is a creative extension of Dworkin’s “law as integrity” insights. Vermeule takes Dworkin’s arguments about the centrality of legal principles and buttresses those arguments with a deep history of law in the West as moral touchstone.
So far so good. I agree completely with Vermeule that the rediscovery of the natural law, of ius both more generally and more narrowly, will pave a royal road between originalism and progressivism, that is, between obsessing over the lex of the United States Constitution from, respectively, the political right and left. It would be a fine thing were the United States to return—and Vermeule says it is not really so long, approximately the middle of the twentieth century, since we left it—to the sincere pursuit of the common good.
But there’s a catch. Vermeule thinks the way to do this is by reclaiming the “ragion di stato” tradition in early modern Europe, which articulates the central goods at which constitutionalism should aim.” “Ragion di stato” is a Continental idea from the 1500s and after which calls for a strong monarch (Vermeule translates this into a strong chief executive/administrative state for the American milieu) to act decisively for moral ends. I understand Vermeule to be explicating ragion di stato as the police power with a social justice teleology. Uh oh. It is on this very point, right at the pivot of the argument, that Vermeule’s good idea swings around and smashes headlong into his bad one. At the moment of Vermeule’s triumph, on my reading, he fails.
Let us look closer to see what’s gone wrong. What are the “central goods” of the ragion di stato tradition? Classically, Vermeule writes, they are three: “peace, justice, and abundance.” (Emphases here and elsewhere in the original.) Very nice. Let us certainly have as much of all three as we can get.
But wait. Vermeule does something remarkable—one is almost tempted to say foolhardy—to the three central goods of yesteryear. After listing peace, justice, and abundance, Vermeule adds: “which I extrapolate to modern conditions to include various forms of health, safety, and economic security. I also elicit from the tradition the key principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.”
I thought I was reading a book about the recovery of ius, of the natural law, of a regard for the common good. But Vermeule, in seeming to argue for a return to the classical legal tradition, in fact dismantles that tradition, putting in its place a triad of justifications for the modern administrative state. “Health, safety, and economic security”: in one sentence, perhaps the most important one in his book, Vermeule leaps from the classical legal tradition to the New Deal. The rest of Common Good Constitutionalism is an attempt to make that leap seem like a smooth transition, and to justify the enormous federal apparatus necessary to effect a permanent social transformation.
This is where the second idea, the bad one, comes in. It’s like a Mack truck plowing at breakneck speed into a tulip garden. All the good stuff scatters and all that’s left is pure aggression, with no concern for the consequences. Vermeule wants peace, justice, and abundance, as do I. But he wants the administrative state to ram those through, and to top it all off with health (shall I read here “forced vaccinations at the pleasure of a health bureaucracy in the pockets of Big Pharma”?), safety (“so long, Second Amendment, and First”?), and economic security (“central planning”?). Elsewhere in Common Good Constitutionalism, Vermeule adds other items to his revision of the ragion di stato. For example, we later get “health, safety, and a right relationship to the natural environment.” The Incorruptibles at the EPA, too, apparently, are to lord it over us. This is all very, very concerning. Common decency would suggest that Vermeule’s vision of common good constitutionalism be shunned.
A clear-eyed understanding of the nature of the state might have led Vermeule to suggest that the good things in human life come in direct and inverse proportion to the size of the government. What Vermeule presents instead is what others have termed, rightly I think, Vermeule’s “baptism of the state” and “Deep State constitutionalism.” Vermeule counters that “abusus non tollit usum.” Yes, but “abusus” here implies a Dworkinian discernment, does it not? Grace completes nature, but how much grace does it take before any state will act humanely? This is to say that there are limits to how much a thing may be said to have been merely misused before one is forced to admit that the thing itself is harmful.
Ignoring his own calls for ius to trump lex, Vermeule twists the arm of sound logic to make it seem to support statism. Vermeule writes:
In a globalized world that relates to the natural and biological environment in a deeply disordered way, a just state is a state that has ample authority to protect the vulnerable from the ravages of pandemics, natural disasters, and climate change, and from the underlying structures of corporate power that contribute to these events.
Vermeule then rejects the notion that the “main aim of common good constitutionalism” is “the liberal goal of maximizing individual autonomy or minimizing the abuse of power.” Instead, the main aim of common good constitutionalism “is to ensure that the ruler has the authority and the duty to rule well.” Abusus non tollit usum be damned.
Once this logic is in place, and digested, readers should not be surprised to find Vermeule patiently building up to an homage to “a central statute, indeed a super-statute, that bears out Dworkin’s view [on ‘the growing importance of “general statements of principle”’] by embodying general statements of high principle: the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).” The APA was passed in 1946 to accommodate the federal bloat which Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s statism had brought about. It is not even the elected statists who are to rule over us, Vermeule posits, but the unelected legion who answer to no one but themselves. If this is common good constitutionalism, I want no part of it at all, and I pray that no mortal ever suffer what Vermeule would unleash.
Now for something completely different. I should clarify here that, while I am adamantly against what Vermeule is expounding in Common Good Constitutionalism, I nevertheless highly recommend his book. Vermeule writes beautifully, and he knows much. The history of the APA, the legal wrangling among those who fought against the ballooning of the administrative and those who fought for it (including, as Vermeule mentions, former Harvard jurist Roscoe Pound (1870-1964), who variously found himself on both sides), which Vermeule lays out is fascinating. It is well worth the price of Common Good Constitutionalism to witness a Harvard Law professor sort through the threads of intellectual influence which now make up the huge and sprawling patchwork of administrative law. As legal history, Common Good Constitutionalism is grand.
However, I am afraid I cannot join Vermeule in his view that the bureaucratic maneuvering and fiat rule-making—this is my caricature, of course, and not Vermeule’s—in which the administrative state has indulged these past hundred and more years have been done in the spirit of “a jurisprudence of principles.” Nor can I follow Vermeule even further afield when he says that “such principles are ius, in all but name.”
On Vermeule’s own terms the administrative state seems not to clear the bar which Vermeule sets for it. Recall that Vermeule threw subsidiarity and solidarity into his de novo interpretation of the ragion di stato. Solidarity and ragion di stato would appear to be prima facie contradictory, so I leave the solidarity business at that. A good definition for subsidiarity, in the Catholic context from which it emerged as a social principle, comes from The Acton Institute’s David A. Bosnich, who writes:
One of the key principles of Catholic social thought is known as the principle of subsidiarity. This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.
For good measure, Bosnich adds:
This is why Pope John Paul II took the “social assistance state” to task in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. The Pontiff wrote that the Welfare State was contradicting the principle of subsidiarity by intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility. This “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”
This would all seem to be bad news for Vermeule’s vision for common good constitutionalism. Here we have a pope from Vermeule’s lifetime, in an encyclical no less, dropping the hammer on statism. How does Vermeule deal with this contradiction? How does he justify a strong administrative state, on subsidiarity grounds, when subsidiarity would seem to necessitate a devolution of power away from the center and toward the lowest rungs on the social ladder?
Vermeule is not at all insensitive to the difficulty. He gets around it by inverting the definition of subsidiarity. “The core original meaning of subsidium is the military reserve that stands ready to enter battle if the front line faces a crisis,” Vermeule writes, citing a Latin dictionary from 1879. Very well, but the above definition of subsidiarity above comes from 2010, and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical is of course from 1991. Furthermore, “centisimus annus” refers to the hundredth anniversary of John Paul’s inspiration for the document, Pope Leo XIII’s (1810-1903) Rerum Novarum. To be fair, Rerum Novarum does not contain the word “subsidiarity” (although it does crack down hard on socialism, another stumbling block for Vermeule). The encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which as the title suggests was issued in 1931 on the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, does have a nice discussion of subsidiarity, however. Vermeule is aware of all of this of course, and cites research highlighting “the neglected positive aspect of subsidiarity” in the Catholic tradition. I would counter that a plain reading of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on subsidiarity (which draws on some of the documents mentioned above) frustrates virtually all of what Vermeule calls for in Common Good Constitutionalism.
Rebuffed by Rome (with the notable exception of Vermeule’s favorite encyclical, the 2015 ecostatist Laudato Si’), Vermeule seeks refuge with Catholic jurist Carl Schmitt’s (1888-1985) ‘state of exception’ idea to buttress his argument that the subsidium, the reserve power of the administrative state, should intervene whenever lower-down orders of hierarchy come up against limits to their power. It would be unfair to bring up the Führerprinzip right after mentioning Schmitt and Vermeule in the same sentence, so I will leave that be. Note, however, that Vermeule (like your humble correspondent) is also a Catholic, a fairly recent convert. On this note, it is worth mentioning that Vermeule’s book inadvertently calls into question something which passes for almost a natural truth in Catholic political philosophy, and one which Vermeule appears to endorse in Common Good Constitutionalism (see Vermeule’s discussion of epikeia, e.g.), namely that the state is an organic outgrowth of the family and the polis. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225—1274) argued this, we are told, as did his philosophical model, Aristotle (384—322 BC). Only, St. Thomas didn’t do so blindly. Aristotle, for his part, never met Jeremy Bentham. And Catholics ought to remember their St. Augustine (354-430), whose understanding of government was basically Rothbardian.
Vermeule nevertheless rejects what he calls “the libertarian sense of ‘subsidiarity’” (he might just as easily have called it “Augustinian”), connoting
a negative limitation, according to which the public authority should not intervene if a given function is more appropriately carried out at a lower level. This view is not invalid; it is a corollary of the positive sense, a statement of the limitations inherent in the positive grant of power for certain purposes and under certain conditions.
“But the corollary should not be mistaken for the main theorem,” Vermeule closes, accusing libertarians of doing precisely what he has just done.
Even more worrisome is that there are echoes of Plato’s Republic in Vermeule’s upending of subsidiarity and glorification of the state. Plato’s ghost clings closest when Vermeule waves aside scruples about philosopher kings by appealing to the degrees on the wall of the person arguing in favor of them (or as one). For example, Vermeule quotes Catholic social philosopher and theologian Johannes Messner (1891—1984), who opined that:
Where the will to moral responsibility in a society shrinks, the range of validity of the subsidiarity principle contracts and the common good function [of the state] expands to the extent that the moral will to responsibility in society fails. In such cases, even dictatorship may be compatible with the principle of subsidiarity.
“This sounds alarming, of course” Vermeule allows, in a way that, for me at least, serves only to compound my alarm,
but we should understand that Messner with his massive classical erudition is certainly best understood as speaking not at all of the modern strongman or junta, but rather within the tradition of the carefully cabined Roman model of dictatorship—a fundamentally legal and constitutional authority, limited by term, granted for a certain purpose, and authorized by the Senate.
I certainly do not have Johannes Messner’s, or Adrian Vermeule’s, massive classical erudition. But I remember, hazily, somewhere between learning that Hannibal crossed the Alps and that Gaul is divided into three parts, that the Roman Senate was a one-stop-shop for bribery, warmongering, intrigue, and assassination. It was also more often than not cowed into silence, even fake adulation, by abuses of imperial power which shock the modern conscience even across a score of centuries. I hope I will be forgiven a rube’s clarification, but, that Senate?
I will also mention, for what it’s worth, that Anthony Fauci was also presented, by our own spotless political assembly, as having a massive erudition. Not in the classics (although Fauci’s education was Jesuitical), but in the language of the administrative state. Adrian Vermeule wants that administrative state to force you to take the coronavirus “vaccine,” the one which the massively erudite Anthony Fauci pushed (at great personal financial gain) upon a populace which had long been waiting in Lochnerian darkness for just such an administrator as he to save them. To be fair, however, and at the risk of getting sucked into another subsidiarity-like whirlpool of definitions, I am not sure whether Professor Vermeule still holds these views now that the data would seem to confirm, in spades, the skepticism on the part of the hoi polloi about those fabulous serums. Or maybe ragion di stato means never having to say you’re sorry.
At any rate, Vermeule, along with his colleague (and Obama-and-Biden-era Richelieu) Cass Sunstein, has a good answer to this kind of nay-saying. He would categorize such talk as above as “conspiracy theorizing” and have the federal government put the kibosh on it.
Finally, there is abortion, an area where Vermeule and I largely agree. I am very much with him in celebrating the 2022 Dobbs decision ending the federal government’s involvement in nearly fifty years of inhumanity. But that’s just where Vermeule and I disagree, too, and doubly so. First, the administrative state has been a champion this past half century of the practice which it now, second, remands to the oversight of the several states. Dobbs did not end abortion in America. It simply shifted the onus for it from one capital to fifty-odd. The common good appears to have been lost somewhere among the bureaucratic hedgerows. I don’t know how to square with “common good constitutionalism” Roe, Dobbs, and administrative state superstar Kathleen Sebelius. Perhaps Vermeule can enlighten me.
These are details, however. As for the overall thrust of Vermeule’s argument, which in nuce is that the administrative state can and should wring ius from lex and return us all to the straight and narrow of the natural law, I would like to refer readers to Ludwig von Mises Institute powerhouse David Gordon’s review of an earlier Vermeule book, one with a very similar theme. Speaking of The Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic, which Vermeule co-authored with Eric A. Posner, Gordon writes:
“The authors’ defense of the Führerprinzip is repellent; but the book has at least the value of showing how the world looks to a cast of mind enamored with power.”
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.
Featured: Zwervers in de duinen (Vagrants in the Dunes), by Jan Toorop; painted in 1891.
Would you like to be a dictator? It isn’t very hard. You needn’t be particularly clever. Ruthlessness helps. Sociopathy is better. But these are optional. All you really have to do is be willing to act as a stand-in for the frustrated ambitions of a group of people. Friends are verboten; intimacy of any kind is out of the question. Simply go along with an unhinged political drama (one already unfolding, or create your own if none exists to work with) and let waves and waves of sycophants fall at your feet in craven, self-abasing adoration.
If the above sounds like something you can manage, then you might just have what it takes to be a dictator.
The above is the greatly foreshortened takeaway from historian Frank Dikötter’s remarkable 2019 volume How To Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century. Dikötter, native of Holland, is Chair Professor of the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a prolific author of scholarly and popular-press works on modern China. His “People’s Trilogy,” a richly-researched record of how communism burns holes through the fabric of ordinary lives, includes the 2011 Mao’s Great Famine, a book on the Communist-made catastrophe of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Dikötter estimates that as many as forty-five million people died early deaths during approximately four years of famine and state violence. Other researchers put the number even higher. At any rate, Mao Zedong was a dictator’s dictator, and Dikötter knows the ins and outs of the Mao years like the back of his hand. Suffice it to say that when it comes to writing about dictators, Dikötter knows whereof he speaks.
In a bold departure from his Asia-focused work, in How To Be a Dictator Dikötter puts his remarkable archival and analytic skills to use examining the lives of eight figures from the disastrous twentieth century, only two of whom (Mao and Kim Il-sung) are Asian. The rest—Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Ceaușescu, and Mengistu Haile Mariam—hail from other hellholes which the twentieth-century cult of personality created.
Aha, here we get to the rub. As How To Be a Dictator’s subtitle suggests, the cult of personality is Dikötter’s theme. In eight very different case studies, Dikötter tracks how a cult of personality was built up around psychologically damaged political demigods, a hivelike polity formed around a living image of statism personified. In retrospect, all eight of Dikötter’s subjects appear unworthy of not only a personality cult, but a second glance in a crowded train station. All eight are singular only in their mediocrity. All eight were, in short, pitiful losers. The political center was built around mere mortals, and not very impressive mortals at that.
And yet, twentieth-century politics raised each up into the statist pantheon. It is a puzzle with no solution. At the end of How To Be a Dictator, I was left wondering, as I believe other readers will be, how in the world anybody could have been cowed into hero-worshipping any of the eight rogues in Dikötter’s gallery. As Dikötter qualifies, not all dictators have personality cults. “For two years after [Pol Pot] took power [in Cambodia],” Dikötter explains, “even his exact identity was in dispute” (xvi). But Dikötter also agrees with “historian Henri Locard,” who finds that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge suffered badly for not having apotheosized their mercurial leader. “Failing to induce adulation and submissiveness,” Dikötter quotes Locard as writing, “the Angkar [‘Organization,’ shadowy ruling junta of Cambodia] could only generate hatred” (xvi). Cambodia is the exception that proves the rule, then. Dictatorships seem to require personality cults to outlast whatever political frenzy initially ushers a dictator into power. But no dictator, no human being, is equal to the political god-making required to keep dictatorships in business. But still dictatorships perdured.
Perhaps the puzzle needn’t trouble us any longer. Dikötter ends his book on a faintly hopeful note, remarking that:
Dictators today, with the exception of Kim Jong-un, are a long way from instilling the fear their predecessors inflicted on their populations at the height of the twentieth century.… Even a modicum of historical perspective indicates that today dictatorship is on the decline when compared to the twentieth century. Most of all, dictators who surround themselves with a cult of personality tend to drift off into a world of their own, confirmed in their delusions by the followers who surround them.… As hubris and paranoia take over, they seek more power to protect the power they already have. But since so much hinges on the judgements they make, even a minor miscalculation can cause the regime to falter, with devastating consequences. In the end, the biggest threat to dictators comes not just from the people, but from themselves (206).
To an extent, yes. But that somehow doesn’t feel like the real end of the dictatorship story. Dikötter, to my mind, fails to see how much the state has metastasized since the dictatorial heyday wrapped up in the 1980s with the shudder and fall of the Soviet Union and its equally evil satellite states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Dr. Anthony Fauci had a personality cult of his own as recently as a year or so ago, for instance. There was, apparently, a Tony Fauci fan club at the former propaganda clearinghouse known as Twitter. Fauci was not standing on a parapet firing rifles into the air and crying out to the masses to go out and defend the motherland. His press conferences were, nonetheless, political theater, and Fauci has equated himself with “the science” in a way that dictators used to equate themselves with the regime or with the nation as a whole. The old style of dictatorship—think fatigues and Mao suits, towering statues and frenetic military parades—is definitely passe. But has the cult of personality really gone the way of the six-hour May Day speech? I don’t think so.
But I digress. Let us return to the wretched twentieth century, and to eight of the worst people who darkened it.
Dikötter’s first subject is Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), who “in 1919… launched a movement that would become the Fascist Party” (3). When Fascism failed to catch on, Mussolini grew dejected. But then, in September of 1919,
the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio [sic: should be D’Annunzio] [(1863-1938)] led 186 mutineers in a raid of Fiume, a city to which Italy had made a claim in the wake of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy a year earlier. Mussolini realised that the power he had failed to obtain through free elections could be seized through brute force. But d’Annunzio also inspired Mussolini in other ways. In Fiume the flamboyant poet pronounced himself Duce, a term derived from the Latin word dux, meaning leader (3).
Here we glimpse what I believe to be a trait common to many twentieth-century dictators, namely a flair for the melodramatic. In this Mussolini was unrivaled, making him, to my way of thinking, the twentieth-century dictator par excellence. Here’s more of Mussolini’s antics:
Mussolini… wanted to develop the myth of a March on Rome, one in which he entered the capital on horseback, leading his legions across the Rubicon to impose his will on a feeble parliament (4).
This is of course silly, but it is almost everything one needs to know about Mussolini, and, writ large, most of what one needs to know about twentieth-century dictating. Mussolini, like the dictators who followed him, was basically an actor in a historical recreation skit. In Mussolini’s case his role had him imagining himself a new Caesar and his gaggle of Blackshirt goons a new Roman army. (The press, Dikötter says, “acclaimed” Mussolini as “the Cromwell of Italy, the Italian Napoleon, the new Garibaldi in a black shirt” ). To state the thing so baldly is to show Mussolini to be a deluded, pitiable mummer, which indeed he was. He was the saddest clown, a failed actor who used, as a last resort, the heady atmosphere of unhinged post-WWI politics as his stage.
Consider this paragraph:
While Mussolini occasionally professed to dislike the cult around his person, he was actually its main architect. He was a master of the art of projecting his own image, carefully studying certain gestures and poses. He rehearsed in Villa Torlonia, a vast, neoclassical villa on a sprawling estate which became his residence in 1925. In the evenings he would sit in a comfortable chair in a projection room to study every detail of his public performance. Mussolini considered himself to be Italy’s greatest actor. Years later, when Greta Garbo visited Rome, his face clouded over: he did not want anyone to overshadow him (9).
What is truly disheartening for us in 2023 is not that Mussolini took himself so seriously, but that nearly everyone else did, too. What does it say about human nature that such a man was lauded as an Olympian deigning to live in the plains below? Dikötter samples some of the effusive words of praise which those who should have known better reserved for Il Duce. René Benjamin (1885-1948), for instance, a French literary sensation, was “won over” by Mussolini’s “broad grin.” Another French man of letters, Maurice Bedel (1883-1954), wrote a whole chapter about Mussolini’s smile: “Does he ever stop, even for a few brief moments, being a demi-God carried by a violent destiny?” So, rhetorically, asked Bedel. “The poet Ada Negri thought [Mussolini’s eyes] were ‘magnetic’,” and that his “beautiful hands” were “psychic, like wings when they unfold” (13). This is a lot of stuff, but it gets worse. “Mohandas Gandhi, who visited [Mussolini] twice, pronounced him ‘one of the greatest statesmen of the time’, while Winston Churchill in 1933 described ‘the Roman genius’ as ‘the greatest law-giver among living men’” (13). Mussolini, apparently, was not the only one daydreaming that the glorious past had snapped back to life again in the person of a former schoolteacher. “Thomas Edison,” Dikötter writes, “called [Mussolini] the ‘greatest genius of modern times” after a short meeting” (13).
One winces now to read these encomia, but in a sense perhaps Edison was right. Mussolini was, in his own way, a very modern genius, with a real skill at getting others to clothe him in their unrealized ambitions. That seems to be what at least half of the cult of personality is all about. The past is gone, obliterated by modern times. But we can have the past again, we can touch the old Roman emperors right in the here and now, if only we make believe that Benito Mussolini is Vespasian or Augustus. It was suspension of disbelief that made the whole thing go. (“The [Mussolini] regime’s motto,” Dikötter recalls for us, was “‘Mussolini is Always Right’”).
What’s more, Mussolini appeared to believe the now ridiculous-sounding comparisons of himself to Napoleon and Garibaldi, and the elevation of his mortician-faced “Il Duce” schtick to the level of genius. This is all precisely, Dikötter I think is telling us, how dictators get to be dictators. If there is someone so lost, I would put it, or so divorced from reality, as to believe what flatterers and hangers-on say in even the giddiest flights of political hyperbole, then more and yet more flattery and sycophancy will flow to him. If someone says, with a straight face, that I am a world-conquering genius, and if I, with a straight face, give him to believe that he has not gone nearly far enough in his estimation of me, then we have all the makings of a personality cult. You think I am Charles Martel and Genghis Khan all rolled into one. I tell you that you had better throw in Ramesses II and then put me higher than all three. Now, give me a radio and a Stasi and I will give you a dictatorship like you have never seen. Voila, the cult of personality, where delusion and delusion merge.
In Mussolini’s case, Dikötter opines, his personality cult
was also tinged with superstition and magic. In a country steeped in religion, people projected onto Mussolini feelings of devotion and worship characteristic of Christian piety. There were holy sites, holy pictures, pilgrimages, even the hope of a healing touch from the leader. His photograph was sometimes used as a talisman, carried around to bring good luck (27).
Such fanaticism is jet fuel for a would-be dictator’s handlers. But popular fanaticism is much fickler than one might imagine, and at any rate no dictator banks on being loved over being feared. “As Emilio Lussiu, a committed anti-fascist, noted in 1936,” Dikötter continues,
the regime demanded expressions of popular consent, and the blackshirts pursued these, bludgeon in hand. When the Duce gave speeches, people turned up on orders from the police and cheered on command, “like extras in a cast of thousands, so that papers could publish photographs of public sites full to the brim with exulting people” (27).
A cult of personality will thus acquire a gravity field (more like a sucking black hole) of its own, helped along by raw and thuggish violence as needed, and farce will then follow ruinous farce until it all comes crashing down around everyone. This happened for Mussolini and his fascist Italy in 1945. And it happened for Dikötter’s next subject, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945).
There has been so much written about the half-mustachioed Austrian who helmed the third German Reich that I did not expect there to be much new in How To Be a Dictator about Hitler. And yet, Dikötter delivers, focusing not only on the platoons of Sieg-Heil-ers which eventually bristled around their Führer, but on Hitler’s powers of public address. Hitler was a failed artist, that is well known. And it explains much of how Hitler saw politics, namely as an aesthetic testament to the collective will of the German people, a Volk which had also failed, but which nevertheless longed to be recognized for its inherent greatness. But Hitler was, in that sense, not a failed artist at all, but an unmistakably successful one. He curated his own image as such, but couched the self-praise in terms of German destiny and political revenge such that those who heard Hitler and read his words in print agreed with his auto-caricaturing in Mein Kampf. Hitler and the Germans were, in other words, in a very unhealthy co-dependent relationship. As Dikötter puts it, readers of Mein Kampf found Hitler described as
A genius child, a voracious reader, a born orator, an unrecognised artist driven by destiny to change the fate of a people. A man overcome by a passion like no other, one that allowed him to recognise the words that would ‘open the gates to a people’s heart like the blows of a hammer’. A man chosen by heaven as a messenger of its will. As a close follower put it, Hitler was an oracle, a Traumlaller, one who speaks prophetically in his dreams (37).
And the readers, by and large, ate up every word. That it was all hoo-hah was beside the point. Germans needed to believe something again. Hitler needed them to believe it through him. The result was Stalingrad. The result was also Auschwitz.
The way this all hung together was through performance, the state acted out in the person of the spittle-flecked corporal. Hitler was an actor, as was Mussolini, and a devoted student of the possibilities of the new mass media of image and sound. Dikötter notes that it was Mussolini who inspired Hitler to up his game after “the Duce upstaged him” in Venice in June of 1934 (23). “A pale, insecure Hitler,” Dikötter writes, “in a baggy yellow coat and patent-leather shoes, had watched [Mussolini] from a balcony in a neighbouring palace, mesmerised by a man so adored by his people” (23). Hitler would not make the same thespian mistake twice. Hitler’s, and his National Socialist Party’s, mass rallies in Nuremberg under the stage production of architect Albert Speer (1905-1981) are, let us admit, masterpieces in the genre of political theater. (45) But long before that, Hitler had relied on a man named Heinrich Hoffmann (1885-1957), a photographer who ran a shop in Berlin, to record his heroic figure for the masses and for posterity (37). What Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) did for the Nazis’ image, not least through her 1935 Triumph of the Will film of Nuremberg, Hoffmann did for Hitler’s, and in a much bigger way.
Hoffmann’s photos of Hitler were everywhere. They were officially endorsed by the Führer himself. Hoffmann’s photographs overcame whatever negative press was thrown against Hitler, rescuing him from scandal and rehabilitating him when party politics did not bend to his iron will (38-41). Hoffmann’s photographs made of Hitler both a soaring political deity, and an approachable, right-living human being. And Hoffmann made a fortune off of the arrangement. “Since the Führer’s image was protected by law,” Dikötter explains, “the court photographer [i.e., Heinrich Hoffmann] had a virtual monopoly over the market” (49). Sales of Hitler’s mug printed on “portraits, postcards, posters and calendars” as well as in book form sold hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of copies (49). Dikötter’s foregrounding of Hoffmann in his chapter on Hitler is a very welcome departure from the usual dreary rounds of the Hitler biography (although, to be sure, the Hoffmann angle is if anything even drearier). A cult of personality requires an endless supply of images (recall that Anthony Fauci spent many of his waking hours on TV for a couple of years), and Hoffmann gave Hitler exactly what he needed to keep the cult in motion.
But every false god will fail. No photograph can paper over the stark political reality of bread lines and disappeared neighbors. Dikötter therefore also does readers a service by focusing on the climate of skepticism vis-à-vis Hitler which spread over Germany as the consequences of the Führer’s political maneuvers began to bite at home. American philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), in Germany during 1936, observed that “‘Germany is silent, nervous, suppressed; it speaks in whispers; there is no public opinion, no opposition, no discussion of anything’” (53-54).
Skepticism at home is easily checked by secret police. All that Hitler needed by the late 1930s was for foreigners to buy his performances. Which, in at least one notorious case, one did. In September of 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) “travelled to the Obersalzberg, where his host,” that is, Adolf Hitler,
received him on the Berghof’s front steps. Halfway through a three-hour conversation, Hitler suddenly switched roles, transforming himself from an unpredictable megalomaniac who threatened war into a perfectly reasonable negotiating partner. Hitler pledged not to use force against Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain agreed to the cessation of the Sudetenland, signing the Munich Agreement two weeks later. ‘He looks entirely undistinguished’, the prime minister admitted to his sister, but Hitler was ‘a man of his word’. Hitler clapped his hands in sheer delight the moment Chamberlain left the Berghof. The Sudetenland was occupied without a shot being fired (55-56).
The cult of personality can catch even the most levelheaded of statesmen unawares.
Dikötter’s next subject, Josef Stalin (1878-1953), is often presented as Hitler’s dictatorial counterpart (see, e.g., 83), but the way that Dikötter frames things it is Mussolini and Hitler who should be seen as a pair of theatrical rivals. I agree. Stalin, as Dikötter makes clear, was much more concerned with inheriting the shade of Lenin than with competing with Hitler and Stalin for best performance in a political play, and Stalin made full use of his own obvious inferiority to Lenin as the very mechanism by which he stole Lenin’s mantle and then used it to bring post-revolutionary Russia under his dominion (see p. 67). False humility was Stalin’s Venus flytrap, drawing in those who dared challenge what he saw as his non-negotiable title to be Lenin’s heir. And as Stalin stepped deeper and deeper into Lenin’s shadow, as it were, he was able to be bolder and bolder in reshaping Lenin’s revolution into a personality cult redounding to Stalin’s power.
Much of that power Stalin used to effect revenge on his enemies. He built a propagandistic case against Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), Grigory Zinoviev (1883-1936), Lev Kamenev (1883-1936), and others against whom Stalin had developed, or long nursed, a grudge. (69-70) By 1929, Dikötter writes, “The party [i.e., the Communist Party of the Soviet Union], under Stalin’s leadership, was now sacrosanct, the party line presented as a mystical will that was beyond debate. Stalin became the personification of that sanctity, the vozhd, or great leader, a term previously reserved for Lenin” (72). Anyone who dared cross Stalin effectively tread on Lenin’s own grave. Stalin wasted no mercy on those who could be crushed under the weight of Stalin’s wrath and Lenin’s borrowed ghost.
In this atmosphere, in which Stalin’s mood was life or death, fear became the baseline of human existence. Rafts of breathless and completely over-the-top praise for Stalin reverberated into a kind of standing wave of surreal man-worship.
The usual dupes from abroad made their obeisance, too. In 1931, “the socialist author George Bernard Shaw received a military guard of honour in Moscow and a banquet to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday,” Dikötter writes.
He toured the country, visiting model schools, prisons and farms, with villagers and workers carefully drilled to praise the party and their leader. After a two-hour private audience, masterfully staged by Stalin, the Irish playwright found the dictator a ‘charmingly good-humoured fellow’ and proclaimed: ‘There was no malice in him, but also no credulity’. Shaw never tired of promoting the despot, and died in 1950 in his bed with a portrait of his idol on the mantelpiece (75).
That a professional playwright, most of all, could not see through the masquerade is perhaps the most damning confirmation of Dikötter’s cult-of-personality thesis in the whole book. Remember also that Walter Duranty (1884-1957), once a darling of the perennial fake news outlet the New York Times, won a Pulitzer for pretending that Stalin had not induced famine in Ukraine—a famine the victims of which Duranty had seen with his own eyes. Like Hitler, and like many other dictators since, Stalin had the strange power to inspire in foreigners the sincere love and even worship which his countrymen begrudged him. As if to confirm that it had all been a tragically empty vaudeville act, the cult of Stalin, and the show trials and Great Terror and bloodbath Great Patriotic War that followed in its train, was over in almost an instant when, in 1953, Stalin mercifully died. “One month after his funeral Stalin’s name vanished from the newspapers” (92). No one wants to remember how cowardly he has been or how little he respects himself, even to the point of pretending that a Georgian hooligan is a man of steel. A cult of personality is, in many ways, a survival technique, discarded as soon as it is no longer needed.
(And Duranty got to keep his Pulitzer Prize.)
Dikötter writes next of Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Hitler once felt upstaged beside Mussolini, and Mao, standing on one of Stalin’s flanks “when Stalin appeared at the Bolshoi Theatre to show himself to the cameras for his seventieth birthday gala,” had, it seems, a similarly uncomfortable experience. “Mao looked dour, awed by his counterpart in the Kremlin but resentful at the way he was being treated. He had expected to be welcomed as the leader of a great revolution that had brought a quarter of humanity into the communist orbit, but had been met at Yaroslavsky Station by two of Stalin’s underlings who did not even accompany him to his residence” (93). (The person on Stalin’s other flank, by the way, was Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), the man who would lead the ”de-Stalinization” campaign later on, a sort of smelling-salts gambit to get the Communist Party to quit swooning over personalities.)
Mao was made to feel insignificant standing beside Stalin, but he might have seen such a slight coming. “For the previous twenty-eight years,” Dikötter points out, “the Chinese Communist Party had depended on Moscow for financial support” (93). Mao’s rival, Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), had been on the communist dole, too. And the Comintern was deep in the politics of China this side and that, making decisions about small things and big. Between Stalin and Mao, few, if any, in Moscow had any illusions as to who was boss and who was supplicant.
But as Dikötter shows, Mao was, for all his dependency, a formidable cultivator of personality cult in his own right. Of the eight people featured in How To Be a Dictator, Mao deserves, I think, most credit for keeping and grooming his cult by himself. Mao was not one to be pandered to or flattered into distraction. Although he had his ghostwriters (Dikötter mentions Chen Boda (1904-1989) ), Mao was also, as the legend goes, a poet, wooden and bombastic by turns but an impassioned versifier all the same (see 105). And, to be sure, Mao wrapped even the worst and most devious elements of society around his little finger as he built his power base and policed the thoughts of the masses. Kang Sheng (1898-1975), for example, was surely one of the most dastardly men in all of twentieth-century China—a real achievement considering the competition (99). But all the while Mao was writing out a kind of political epic, his verse the fluttering rows of students waving the Little Red Book in the air, his ink their blood and the blood of those whom he sent them out to murder. Mao did all that. Not his handlers. Mao.
Mao had his Hoffmann, too, a “handpicked… photographer named Hou Bo. She had joined the party as the age of fourteen, and her pictures where soon printed in the millions” (104). The famous 1955 image of “Mao Zedong Swimming Across the Yangzi” was from Hou’s lens. Many other shots were, too. Her photos, Dikötter reveals, “were among the most widely distributed images of the twentieth century” (104).
But as garish as Mao’s political tastes ran—he was a foul-mouthed yokel at heart who interspersed half-masticated Marxist-Leninist claptrap with earthy slogans rich in the vocabulary of the barnyard latrine—he wisely avoided having roads and buildings and whole cities named after him (104). He was to be, Dikötter says, a “philosopher king of the East,” which I think captures Mao’s ambitions to a T (104). He was good at dissembling, convincing even the rope-hearted Richard Nixon (1913-1994) to come and pay him homage in his Forbidden City (120). And he was good at getting others to take the fall for his own bad ideas, even when those ideas—the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution being two of the worst ideas in, I think, human history—left whole fields of corpses in their wake. Mao’s cult of personality built and built, as it consumed one lieutenant after the other—Lin Biao (1907-1971), Peng Dehuai (1898-1974), Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), Liu Shaoqi (1898-1969). Those who know the history of “philosopher kings of the East” will know that Mao was every inch their equal.
What Mao did best of all was to involve everyone in his cult of personality in a full-contact way. Mao encouraged all of China to get into the business of fighting for the purity of the revolution (which was exactly the same as fighting for the primacy of Mao). Old scores were settled under the convenient and universally-available pretext of revolutionary zeal. The Red Guards, street punks, who in a saner society would have been in reform school, fought openly in the cities and the countryside. Other factions in other places went for each other’s jugulars, too (117). Once the violence had turned almost all-consuming, Mao stepped in and reminded the country that he was the arbiter of all force, for example overseeing a half-million-man army as it paraded through Tiananmen Square in 1967 with, out front of the goose-steppers, “an enormous silver-coloured, plastic figure of Mao pointing the way forward” (117-118). Either you were on Mao’s side, or you were a counter-revolutionary and thus marked for death. It was probably the most murderous and heavily populated personality cult of the twentieth century.
And it goes on today. As Dikötter notes, Mao’s “portrait still hangs high in Beijing, while his face beams from every banknote in the People’s Republic” (122). Not every cult of personality has a built-in stop-date with the leader’s death. Xi Jinping, many say, is the new Mao. In graduate school, I had professors who were proud to call themselves Maoists. (The professors fancied themselves philosophers—Mao wins again). So maybe cults of personality are also fungible when the circumstances are right and ambition burns brightly enough to outstrip restraint.
Kim Il-sung (1912-1994), the North Korean tyrant, was very different from Mao. Mao was sui generis, a man who had a Patton-like sense of his having been coughed up by Hegelian Geist and put on Earth to do the will of capital-H History. Kim was a Soviet puppet in the beginning, and then, when he and his clique ginned up a cult of personality in the 1950s, Kim became in many ways a plaything of the very political religion of which he was the putative apex. Mao inspired the Chinese people to police one another, to lacerate one another’s deepest thoughts so as to maintain a high-pitched devotion to the poet-philosopher in Beijing. Kim ruled with a secret police and labor camps (although Mao had plenty of both of his own), and was constantly, unlike Mao, going among his people to present the smiling face above the iron fist which kept everyone fearful and in line (131).
Kim also emulated Mao in some ways, to be sure, such as the 1958 “Chollima Campaign, named after a mythical winged horse that could gallop a thousand miles in a day… designed to propel North Korea into the future… without economic assistance from the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic” (133). This was, obviously, a Great Leap Forward with Chosen characteristics (133). And, like Mao, Kim was indifferent to the suffering of everyone but himself, for example doubling down on the “Juche Thought” campaign of self-reliance, even as North Koreans starved (135-136). The usual cycle of sycophancy followed, increasing in direct and inverse proportion to the failures of the dictator, and before long Kim was, like others of his profession, hailed as a “genius,” as this or that heavenly body, as a liberator and a force of history in his own right (136). Again, Mao redux.
But Kim could see that Mao was reckless, that the Cultural Revolution, for example, was “chaos” (136). Mao fought the Americans in North Korea, but Kim knew when to pull back from the brink. Kim skirted war with South Korea and with the United States in 1968, with his generals sending commandos to assassinate South Korean president Park Chung-hee (1917-1979) and seizing the USS Pueblo in the same year (137). But Kim was far too smart to push his luck any farther, and he settled for the fortress-socialism in one country of which his grandson is sole proprietor today. Mao left no dynasty. Kim did. Pro tip for those who would be dictators: as Celine Dion might have crooned, your cult can go on and on.
Dikötter doesn’t say so, but I cannot help but think that the cult of the Kims, which its inflationary rhetoric of loyalty-signaling and its gargantuan statues and other monuments to the three incarnations of the Kim dynasty thus far, is a kind of compensation for the failure of the Kimist revolution, despite its supporters’ bluster and bad behavior, to export communism anywhere, even to the other half of the Korean Peninsula. Communism was supposed to take over the world. In North Korea, it barely keeps a grip on the fifth-rate capital Pyongyang. Hence the huge statues, huge in the way that some older men buy red Ferraris. Also scarring is the fact that the Kims relied heavily on forced donations and forced repatriated labor from Japan (139). Perhaps this explains the Kims’ terrorist campaign of kidnapping Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.
In any event, like Stalin, few truly grieved when Kim Il-sung died. “One five-year-old spat in her hand to wet her face with saliva, making it look as if she was crying,” Dikötter writes of average Koreans during the “ten-day mourning period” after Kim’s 1994 demise (144).
If Hitler and Mussolini are counterparts, political actors in the most literal sense, in Dikötter’s book, then so are his next two subjects. François Duvalier (1907-1971), dictator of Haiti, and Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918-1989), sad-sack tyrant of Romania, seem equally out to sea in Dikötter’s telling, equally unaware of the political realities enveloping them and equally unable to control the flow of events as they unfolded.
Duvalier is by far the more fascinating psychological portrait of the two. On Dikötter’s reading, Duvalier saw himself as a kind of Voodoo paragon of blackness, a second act of the career of Dumarsais Estimé (1900-1953), under whom Duvalier had once served as “director general of the National Public Health Service” (147-148). Estimé was deposed by an upper-crust, army-backed military man named Paul Magliore (1907-2001) in 1950, but when Magliore met his inevitable fate in the turnstile of Haitian politics Duvalier was able to seize power and avenge his former mentor (147-149). Duvalier had his Hoffmann as well—American journalist Herbert Morrison (1905-1989), whom Duvalier appointed “director of public relations” (149). He also had his secret police, the fearsome “tonton macoutes, a Creole term for bogeymen” (151).
Duvalier also had something that perhaps no one else in How To Be a Dictator had, namely, a sincere, if clearly pathological, belief that he was, in all actuality, a living god, even God Himself. Duvalier disported himself in black like “Baron Samedi, the spirit of the dead and guardian of cemeteries” (151). He saw himself as a “houngan,” a Voodoo priest (151). But he didn’t stop there. “On radio,” Dikötter writes, “where his voice was heard regularly, Duvalier portrayed himself as the personification of God, exclaiming ‘and the word was made flesh’” (156). Later, “a poster appeared, showing Christ with his hands on the shoulder of a seated Duvalier: ‘I have chosen him’” (157). Duvalier idol-worshiped the former Haitian freedom fighter Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806), “who had declared himself emperor in 1804” (158). but he also seemed to think that he was a metaphysical force as well as a human or even world-historical one, “the spiritual leader of the black world” (159). He proclaimed that he was unafraid of weapons, because “bullets and machine guns capable of frightening Duvalier [(he had taken to referring to himself in the third person)] do not exist.… I am already an immaterial being” (156). Newsweek stated the obvious when it wrote that Duvalier was “utterly, irretrievably mad” (156).
Duvalier made the usual rounds of executions and terror-campaigns (161-162), but of all the dictators in Dikötter’s book, I am guessing that Duvalier’s body count was lowest. He executed his enemies and had others shot for good measure and to keep the people in line, of course. And the macoutes were a terror and a scourge to the average impoverished Haitian. But still, Duvalierism was, violence-wise, mild compared with the hecatombs offered up to, say, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. And yet, the terminology used to describe Duvalier, some of it virtually verbatim from Catholic teaching and liturgy only with Duvalier’s name transposed with that of the Deity, is surely the most outlandish of all. That Duvalier had outlawed the Catholic Church might explain, in part, his felt need, as perhaps it was, to act as understudy for the God he had exiled (151, 154).
Duvalier tried the dynasty thing, too. Like Kim Jong-Il, Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc,” turned out to be even more unsavory than his insane father. When Jean-Claude died in 2014, the Duvalier dynasty died with him.
In comparison with Duvalier, Nicolae Ceaușescu was a regular stick in the mud. Although he sat like a knob atop a nightmarish killing machine, Ceaușescu was as nondescript as surely any dictator in the twentieth century. His wife, Elena (1916-1989), was, it seems, the real hate behind the throne. Not that Nicolae was innocent, though. He was certainly party to, and in part author of, the horrors carried out in his name. But still Ceaușescu seemed too dense to understand what was going on around him. He sat by rather stupidly, acquiescing, for example, acquiescing as the most preposterous lines of obsequiousness were printed and read out loud about him. The communist paper Scinteia said of Ceaușescu, for example, that he was “Julius Caesar, Alexander of Macedonia, Pericles, Cromwell, Napoleon, Peter the Great and Lincoln… our lay God, the heart of the party and the nation” (174). On his sixtieth birthday, in 1978, Romanians fell over themselves to laud him: “He was ‘the measure of all beings and things in this blessed country called Romania’. He was the Christ-like incarnation of the people, ‘a body from the people’s body, a soul from the people’s soul’” (175). He was compared, in addition to the historical figures just listed, to “Mircea the Elder, Stephen the Great, Michael the Brave, all rulers of medieval Wallachia” (178). Ceaușescu was not floridly insane, like Duvalier, but he still went along with the political psalmody about him, smiling lamely and appearing only moderately discomfited by the idiocy surrounding him.
But even if Ceaușescu was all that the people and his government lackeys said he was, and more, the Romania over which he lorded it was in ruins, and getting worse. There was not enough food, not enough anything. As the economy collapsed and people went hungry and cold in the dark, the cult of personality surrounding Ceaușescu became ever more frantic (179). This is another very strong feature of cults of personality. “The greater the misery,” Dikötter pithily sums up the dynamic, “the louder the propaganda” (179). It was, ironically, Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-2022) who helped bring Ceaușescu down (183). Ceaușescu had always postured as a communist purist over and against the various heresies of the Soviet Union. Ceaușescu amped up this rhetorical line when Gorbachev came to power, with the latter’s talk of perestroika and his “la[ying] out a vision of democratisation in January 1987” (183). But by setting himself, and with himself the political destiny of Romania, against the historical tide, now turning in favor of democratic revolution instead of communist, Ceaușescu sealed his own fate (184). And that of Elena. In late 1989, Christmas Day to be exact, the husband and wife were shot. One day before that, during a disastrous speech, it had become apparent that the Ceaușescus had lost their psychological grip on Romania (185). Yet another cult of personality evaporated in a moment. Yet another living god had failed.
With Mengistu (1937- ) Dikötter comes to the last float in his sad dictator parade. I find the Mengistu float to be the least interesting, to be honest, even duller than that of Ceaușescu. Not that it was all bland. Mengistu—who may have had Emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975) killed—later “had the emperor’s remains buried underneath his office, placing his desk right above the corpse (189). As should be apparent from this macabre revelation, Mengistu should be seen as a kind of Stalin, an unworthy slipping into an exalted shade. But there is something even more past-ripe about Mengistu than even Ceaușescu, the latter a diehard true-believing communist who, according to Dikötter, apparently sang the “Internationale” as the firing squad prepared to dispatch him and his wife. (Elena, we are told, remained in character to the end as well, shouting at the firing squad, “Fuck you!” ). Mengistu was railing against “feudalism,” unleashing the already-cliched “Red Terror” on Ethiopians, “modell[ing] himself on Fidel Castro,” and interpolating his revolutionary portrait among those of Engels, Lenin, and Marx (189, 191, 193, 195). It was all old hat before Mengistu even got started. By Mengistu’s day, a Marxist revolution was just hopelessly outdated.
But what was new was, I think, the global response to the horrific famine which Mengistu, his disastrous communist policies, and his obsessive persecution of war with Eritrea and with internal foes had caused (200-201). As the Eritrean forces reached within striking distance of Addis Ababa and Mengistu, revolutionary manque, fled to the protection of a much more interesting dictator, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (1924-2019), in 1991, the old Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist brand was already staler than week-old toast. What was increasingly in vogue was the kind of soft-pedaled globalism of the 1985 “We Are the World” celebrity charity campaign for all of Africa, a campaign held in large part to help the Ethiopian people survive the famine which their dictator had helped cause. The charity initiative countering Mengistu-ism was a new kind of internationalism, one driven by business, fashion, and PR. Personality cult was the essence of the Western schmaltz. Michael Jackson, himself a moonwalking demi-god, was in his hair-sprayed pantheon, and Mengistu was entirely outclassed. There is more than one kind of Marxism, and more than one kind of ready-made idiom of global control. Perhaps the revolution was televised after all.
And there is, as the King of Pop reminds us, more than one kind of personality cult. What I mean is that not all personality cults center on dictators. When we look back now and wonder how anybody could have been so slavish toward Ceaușescu or Stalin, perhaps we ought also to ask how anyone ever took seriously Kim Kardashian. Not that the latter is a dictator. But cult of personality is a funny thing, and hardly confined only to the hyperventilating world of theatrical politics. You buy toothpaste and automobiles because famous people tell you to. Don’t you?
Frank Dikötter’s How To Be a Dictator is, of course, not a how-to guide for the aspiring despot. But it is a reminder that human beings are the bearers of a pretty weird psychological makeup, and we are never really inured against becoming enablers of dictators in our own time. When a ruler rules through fear, many people will get by by flattering the ruler to save their own skins, or at a minimum keeping their heads down and playing along. That phenomenon became especially pronounced in the twentieth century, when mass media and concomitant advances in the organization of mass groups quickly gained in power. A dictator could, through his image and voice, be everywhere at once. His spies and informers, and jailers, could do the rest.
Dikötter thinks that dictators are on the wane. Is this true? To his great credit, Dikötter skirts the Trump question so handily that I was left wondering if the book was not a very subtle jab at those who spent the four years of the Trump Administration breathlessly insisting that we were on the verge of another Reichstag fire. Or perhaps Trump is to be made conspicuous by his absence.
Notice one more absence from Dikötter’s book: Vladimir Putin. Putin is a strong leader, that is unquestionable. But is he a dictator? He has no cult of personality, which would seem to go far, on Dikötter’s rubric, toward disqualifying Putin from dictator status. To argue in 2023 that Putin is not the Slavic Hitler, however, is to invite those who cultivate personality cults along the Potomac River to level charges of “disinformation,” “working for a foreign power,” and “undermining our sacred democracy.”
You can see, then, why I am not so sure I agree with Dikötter that dictatorship is on the way out. Communication technology is a couple orders of magnitude beyond what was available to opinion manipulators in, say, the 1930s. And as the Twitter Files have made clear, the conglomerates which throttle our communication are perfectly willing—eager—to cooperate with naked political power. Naked political power returns the favor. Want to know what’s really going on behind the media-Democrat-academic curtains? Try mentioning “Ukraine,” “vaccines,” or “FBI” in public and see what happens.
Also, one of Dikötter’s sub-themes in How To Be a Dictator is that dictators are often messiahs for people who have stopped believing in revealed religion. Unless the world recovers faith in God, we are all sitting ducks if anyone comes along promising this-worldly salvation. Anyone can be a dictator in a Godless country. Ask Joe Biden, kingpin of a crime family and occupier of a stolen office. But all is well, dear reader, in Washington. So saith the anchors of the evening news.
To my mind, How To Be a Dictator is much more than work of history. It is also a word of warning.
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.
Featured: “Long Live! Long, Long Live Chairman Mao, the Reddest and Reddest Sun in Our Hearts!” Poster, ca. 1967.
In 1896, English writer and political observer Rudyard Kipling published a short poem titled, “The Deep-Sea Cables”:
The Deep-Sea Cables
The wrecks dissolve above us; their dust drops down from afar --
Down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are.
There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep,
Or the great grey level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep.
Here in the womb of the world -- here on the tie-ribs of earth
Words, and the words of men, flicker and flutter and beat --
Warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth --
For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet.
They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time;
Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun.
Hush! Men talk to-day o'er the waste of the ultimate slime,
And a new Word runs between: whispering, "Let us be one!"
The late nineteenth century was the halcyon age of the British Empire, an empire for which Kipling is often remembered (or, more accurately, detracted) as an “apologist.” It is rare to find a mention of Kipling in the popular press without a damning association, with his 1899 verse encouragement of the American takeover of the Philippines, “White Man’s Burden.”
On that reading, and given Kipling’s reputation as the “unofficial poet laureate of Empire,” it would be justified to explicate “The Deep-Sea Cables” as a typical pith-helmeted glorification of British rule over the planet—now, with the laying of the submarine cables, aided by the cutting edge of communications technology. With the “deep-sea cables” spiderwebbing the ocean floor, Kipling seems to be anticipating, the world will finally, as the British Empire aimed for all along, “be one.”
I take a very different view of “The Deep-Sea Cables,” and a very different view of Kipling. The later British Empire subject Eric Blair, who very much wrote in Kipling’s shadow, when he wrote about imperialism as George Orwell, adopted a cynical view of British rule which Kipling, the usual interpretation goes, was too tally-ho and forward-march to understand. However, if we take Kipling on his own terms, and read the poem for what it says, I believe we arrive at a much darker vision for the touted unity of humanity than one finds when “The Deep-Sea Cables” is read flat against the page and in the darkroom redlight of post-imperial autopsies. “The Deep-Sea Cables” was not encomium but Greek tragedy, a warning against the hubris of men who think they have become like the gods.
In the September, 2019, issue of The Kipling Journal, I find an intriguing note about “The Deep-Sea Cables,” linking it to a couple of other Kipling poems “in which we are treated to a glimpse of a huge blind sea monster, which an underwater earthquake hurls up to the surface.” Godzilla some sixty years in advance, perhaps. But I think the analogy is more than coincidental. The 1956 Japanese movie Godzilla, like “The Deep-Sea Cables,” can also be read two ways. On the one hand, Godzilla is a campy horror flick—more for laughing at than for being frightened by—about a monster (so obviously a guy in a rubber suit) lurching out of the Pacific Ocean to stomp around Tokyo. On the other hand, Godzilla is a commentary on war, imperial politics, and the nightmare of nuclear holocaust. “The Deep-Sea Cables,” too, can be read as a celebration of empire; or, as I read it, as a warning about human pride, about the false ecumenicism of what today I think we would call “globalization.”
To get a sense of what Kipling was trying to say in “The Deep-Sea Cables,” let us start with the last line of the poem. Here, we find the word “Word” curiously capitalized. This is the hinge of the work.
In a 2015 essay in Modern Fiction Studies, Heather Fielding interprets the capitalization this way: “As the capitalization of ‘Word’ indicates, Kipling ascribes a clear moral authority to the unifying power of the telegraph wires, which enable communication and in the process draw subjects of different nations toward a ‘common good’ that was certainly imperial, Christian, and British in nature.” In the endnote following this sentence Fielding drives the point home further: “Of course, Kipling’s vision of the common structure uniting mankind is an imperialist one. As Bernhard Siegert argues [in Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System, trans. Kevin Repp. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999], ‘[t]he command given… in the “deserts of the deep” was not to become one, but to become ‘British.’” Again, the standard “Kipling as imperial apologist” interpretation.
But consider that Rudyard Kipling, although notoriously difficult to pin down theologically was a product of a British education, and as such would no doubt have been more than passingly familiar with the Holy Bible. Even if Kipling was an atheist, as he himself seems to have said, he would have known the foundational text of Christianity much better than most in our contemporary secular culture do. The Bible would have been baseline for his literary development, storehouse for the imagery and phrasing which a poet deploys in his crafting of lines. In the Bible, in the Gospel of St. John, we read of the “Eternal Word,” Who came into the world, which knew Him not.
The capitalization of “Word” in Kipling’s poem has nothing at all to do with the glorification of empire, nor of being British, nor of being Christian. Kipling was no Pollyanna, no evangelical soapbox orator. Kipling’s odd use of the capitalized “Word” is a warning, with unmistakable Biblical overtones, that man is arrogating to himself a power which he does not understand, and which has the potential to ruin him.
Working backwards from the last line, the rest of “The Deep-Sea Cables” follows from this single capitalized word. At the beginning of the poem, we find ourselves at the bottom of the pitch-black sea, with the wrecks of the vessels which men have built “dissolv[ing]” above us and “drop[ping] down from afar.” The world of men is distant from this deep, dark place. The surface of things, the ships and commerce and battles of nations, is another world, one which, heretofore and while the old technology has prevailed, has left this abyssopelagic cosmos undisturbed. “Blind white sea-snakes” live here, slithering in “great grey level plains of ooze.”
But now there is a new trick that men have learned, a new Promethean moment in their history. It is on this otherworldly muck-bottom that the cables which men have laid—and by Kipling’s day submarine telegraph cables were already a highly-developed technology—repose, providing a home for mollusks. This unpeopled deep is not where men ought to go—this is the strong sense of Kipling’s poem overall.
The Biblical motif of the poem continues. It is impossible for me to read the second stanza, about “the womb of the world” at the sea floor, “the tie-ribs of earth” where the planet is mortised and tenoned, without thinking of the first chapter of Genesis, of God’s awful might in calling forth the bottomless waters out of nothingness. Or of the Book of Job, wherein God taunts a member of his puny human creation who dares inquire after the ways of the Almighty:
Then the Lord answered Job out of a whirlwind, and said: Who is this that wrappeth up sentences in unskillful words? Gird up thy loins like a man; I will ask thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid up the foundations of the earth? tell me if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Upon what are its bases grounded? or who laid the corner stone thereof, When the morning stars praised me together, and all the sons of God made a joyful melody? Who shut up the sea with doors, when it broke forth as issuing out of a womb; When I made a cloud the garment thereof, and wrapped it in a mist as in swaddling bands? I set my bounds around it, and made it bars and doors: And I said: Hitherto thou shalt come, and shalt go no further, and here thou shalt break thy swelling waves. … Hast thou entered the depths of the sea, and walked in the lowest parts of the deep? (Job 38: 1-11, 16)
Once we have this Biblical context in place, the poem knits together, and in a way very unlike the glib celebration of the British Empire that many scholars understand “The Deep-Sea Cables” to be. This is Godzilla, a shudder at what is going to come out of the “ooze,” the “waste of the ultimate slime” if men keep “whispering” words in the blind, deaf, and dumb deep, “Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun”—where men ought not go. In their hubris, Kipling is saying, men are making a new dispensation, a new “Word” for the world. This is not empire; this is something that men do not understand. And it will cost them dearly in the end.
Kipling senses that the old world of politics and dominion—the ships whose wrecks filter down as rotted powder from above (and Kipling would have been completely aware, of course, that the British Empire rested on naval prowess)—is meaningless in the new age of instantaneous information sharing. Some people have called this network of telegraph cables “the Victorian internet,” which may sound outlandish at first, given the extraordinarily slow (by today’s standards) rates of information transmission of which even the best telegraph cables were capable. But I think the internet metaphor is more apt than might at first appear. It seems that Kipling’s poet’s antennae were sensing, in “The Deep-Sea Cables,” what a later inspired writer, Marshall McLuhan, tried working out in the 1960s—namely, that new modes of communication exert profound, transformative influence on human society. Whispers across cables thrill the pride of man—we are becoming one! But as the second stanza gives way to the third and last, we find this chilling turn: “For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet./They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time.” This is no longer empire. This is now myth, the eternal retelling of the same story of man’s rise and fall.
Who is “Father Time?” In the deep of the underworld, Tartarus, dwelt the old, wild gods, the Titans, imprisoned there by the Olympians, the bright and shining deities (“Zeus” comes from an Indo-European root meaning “to shine”) who banished the horrible Titans to their prison in the bowels of the earth. While there are many theories on the etymology of the name of one of the Titans, Cronus, in Kipling’s day the most common would probably have been “Father Time,” thought to derive from the Greek word chronos. Cronus was identified in Roman mythology with Saturn, the god of bounty. In ancient Rome, the Temple of Saturn was where the imperial treasury was housed.
Cronus as Saturn, Saturn as the god blessing the political dominion of Rome over the known world. But once a line is crossed, the god no longer blesses, but destroys. In the myth of the Titans, all was well until Saturn, Cronus, “Father Time,” thought that his children were going to usurp him, just as he had usurped his father and mother, the heavens and the earth. Fearing this rebellion by his offspring, Cronus ate his children one by one. The god turned on his empire. The Titan devoured what he had brought forth.
Rudyard Kipling was no Boy Scout cheerleader for progress and the British Empire. He was, above all else, a poet, a man with a mystical connection to the incantatory power of words. “The Deep-Sea Cables” represents one of the most prescient and accurate foreshadowing of the dangers which men were stirring up—“the timeless Things” which men were “waken[ing],” the “Power troubl[ing] the Still” which men were disturbing with their globalist chatter in the primordial deep.
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.
Featured image: “Rudyard Kipling,” by Sir Philip Burne-Jones, painted in 1899.
It is time to rethink the “American Century,” which Republican internationalist Henry Luce declared in February of 1941—nearly ten months before the Japanese military attacked the American naval outpost on Oahu. Luce could hardly have known at the time what would transpire over the next thirty years, but the decades after Luce penned his call to impose American ideals on the rest of the world did, indeed, appear to be the makings of an “American century,” just as Luce had prognosticated.
What nearly everyone fails to understand about the “American century,” however, is that a large part of it was spent in Asia. If one includes the Middle East in wider Asia, then almost all of the “American century” was an Asian one. (Luce himself was raised in China, and China was the context for much of his idealism—another crucial but often-overlooked fact.)
Author and economist Parag Khanna’s book The Future Is Asian would appear to be a signal that the tide has turned and the American century has given, or is giving, way to an Asian one. But this would appear to be more a distinction of leadership cohort than of geographical focus. Contra Khanna, I think it is not the case that the world was “Europeanized” in the nineteenth century and “Americanized” in the twentieth. Rather, Europe and America were Asianized, at least in terms of economics and foreign policy. Europe and America have long been making the journey to Asia, and not the other way around. From a world historical perspective, there have been many Asian centuries prior to this one, now said to be dawning—including, especially, the “American century” which, we are now told, is passing away.
Before expanding this argument, let us first make a germane distinction between land powers and sea powers, a very old distinction and one made again with great skill recently by historian S.C.M. Paine in her 2017 book The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War. One of Paine’s geopolitical motifs in this volume is that Japan, an island nation, enjoyed great success as a modern naval power following the Meiji Restoration, but was undone by the Japanese army’s insistence on fighting ground wars in Asia. This is an excellent point. We can take it further and say that the Americans were able to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific because the Japanese were viewing the Pacific campaign as, disastrously, a ground campaign—holding islands—while the Americans virtually ignored the islands and pressed through, via ship, deep into Japanese Imperial territory. (Paine lays this out very nicely in her volume.)
The Americans ran into serious trouble in Okinawa, a land campaign, and were calculating the loss of hundreds of thousands more men if an invasion of Kyushu and Honshu became necessary. It was air superiority, not naval superiority, which brought the Americans victory. Midway, after all, was an air battle fought over water, and not a naval battle—the two carrier groups never came within sight of one another and no shots were fired directly from fleet to fleet.
Once the Americans had the Mariana Islands, the air campaign could be taken directly to the Japanese homeland. The firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were arguably much more effective than even the unrestricted submarine attacks on naval and merchant shipping had been. Japan might have been able to defeat the Americans in the Pacific had Japan focused on sea power—her natural strength—rather than ultimately pointless and ruinous land wars on the Asian continent.
I make this detour into Pacific War history because it brings us to two key points important for this essay. First, the war between the United States and Japan was largely contrived by Stalin and the Comintern. The fact that the two greatest naval powers in the Pacific embarked on a meaningless death-match, despite being separated by thousands of miles of open ocean and having no discernible geopolitical reason for waging war, is testament not to the strategic genius of either Tokyo or Washington, but to that of Stalin and his Comintern.
Some will argue that the United States did have a geopolitical interest, namely in China. This putative interest, too, was in large part a trap laid for the Americans. For example, Australian propagandist Harold John Timperley wrote his 1938 book What War Means at the behest of the Nationalist forces (whose head, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, was trained at the Soviet-backed Whampoa Military Academy). What War Means was published by Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club, which was essentially the mouthpiece of the Communist Party in England at the time. American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s circle of Communist, and sometimes Soviet-backed, advisors and officials is widely known. The Japanese government, too, was infiltrated. Revisionist scholars in Japan have argued, for instance, that imperial household member and prime minister just before the outbreak of war with the United States, Konoe Fumimaro, was sympathetic to the Communist cause. Japan and the United States were enticed, maneuvered, into war. War in Asia.
The second point is that the battles in Asia, in World War II, pull back the curtain on what I think should be called the “long Asian century,” which to my mind begins with the first forays of the Portuguese into the Asian trade at the closing of the fifteenth century. Perhaps we can define the long Asian century as the time when European sea powers sought entrée into the vastness of Eurasia, and ended up centering much of their political activity on Eurasia as a result. The long Asian century thus more neatly explicates what conventionally in the West we have called “the Age of Discovery.” The discovery of what? Of the Americas, of course, but the strategic fulcrum for geopolitics and world history has remained Asia, despite and even because of the European discovery of North and South America.
EastWest Institute senior fellow and Diplomat senior editor Franz-Stefan Gady writes:
In just a little over 16 years at the beginning of the 16th century, the impoverished Kingdom of Portugal, under the House of Aviz, became the dominant power in the Indian Ocean region and laid the foundation for one of the largest and longest-lived empires in world history. Between Vasco da Gama’s epoch-making 309-day voyage from Lisbon around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to the docking at the Indian port of Calicut on May 20, 1498, and the death of the general Afonso de Albuquerque in December 1515, Portugal established a permanent foothold in Asia from which it would not be finally dislodged until 1999 when China repossessed Macau.
Thus begins the long Asian century. Two other Iberian monarchs, shut out of the European-Atlantic-Mediterranean economic order by Portugal and other European powers, sponsored a risky exploratory voyage by Christopher Columbus to find a new route to, not America, but Asia. From the moment of first European contact, America was an adjunct to Asia in the West.
During the age of European imperialism which followed Spain’s and Portugal’s forays into Asia and the Americas, it was usually Asia which was weighted more heavily in European strategic calculations. The Spanish galleons, which brought Mexican silver to the Philippines, reinforced an Asia-centric view which Jesuit missionaries also largely shared. Britain and France clashed in North America in the eighteenth century, and Britain then clashed shortly thereafter with its erstwhile colonists there over the bill for the war Britain had waged against its continental rival; but in the end the British cut their losses in North America and focused their expansionism on Asia, including of course the crown jewel of their empire: India. (Note that Boston was never once thought of as the “crown jewel” of the British imperial project.) Napoleon threw his armies into Egypt and Moscow, but sold his holdings in central North America as so much useless overhead. The Dutch gave up on Manhattan and focused instead on Borneo.
Britain fought the Boer War in South Africa as an extension of the struggle to command old stopover points along the pre-Suez Canal ocean route to Asia. European powers intervened repeatedly in Qing Dynasty politics, wars, and state finances. Britain’s “Great Game” with the Russian Empire was over control of Asia. Colonel Francis Younghusband went to Tibet because Britain feared Russian inroads into India and central and southeast Asia. In World War I, Europe was a sideshow to the momentous changes taking place in the territory once occupied by the defunct Qing. Eastern Europe remains a cauldron of instability, as events in Ukraine now testify. The Qing, by contrast, re-emerged from its early twentieth-century shambles and is now set to become the biggest economic and military power on earth. Asia always rises again.
Japan participated in World War I desultorily on the side of the Allies—it was an option, hardly a necessity. Asia was where the action was. Japan had already gone to war twice in Asia, once with the Russian Empire and once with the Qing, over control of the Korean Peninsula and Port Arthur. After Japan had secured a vast new territory in continental Asia, she restored the scion of the Qing house to his throne, this time in the Qing heartland of Manchuria. This set in motion the events which would bog Japan, and the United States, down in an Asian war. Japan had been in Asia for decades by that point, and was fighting mightily to control the warlord-wracked eastern quarter of Eurasia. Richard Sorge was dispatched to Tokyo to spy on the Nazis and also to foment war between Japan and the United States, thereby relieving Stalin of the necessity to concentrate troops along his eastern front. Japan attacked Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Luzon, Guam, and elsewhere in Asia and the Western Pacific almost simultaneously with her attack on Oahu. The Americans got drawn into the new war first in Asia. Hitler declared war against Washington after Japan did. It was always an Asian fight.
For more than five hundred years, world history, in the Hegelian sense, has been hovering over Asia, taking Asia as its GHQ. All other conflicts and historical processes have been peripheral to Asia.
For Hitler and Stalin both, the war in Europe was about the East. It is certainly true that Hitler’s, and his National Socialists’, grotesqueries pushed the German theater of World War II into the spotlight. But remember that Hitler and his National Socialists had a distinct hatred for what they called “the West.” The bourgeoisie mentalities that the National Socialists loathed were thought, by them, to represent a tragic departure of the German spirit from the hard, martial, romantic ideals of the East. Deeper into Eurasia the German National Socialists wanted to go. Into Prussia, into the places not ruined by reason and philosophy, namely “the West.” Hitler drew attention to himself by his mad theatrics, but his focus was on the East. The casualties on Hitler’s eastern front stagger the imagination—D-Day was truly a minor event compared with the carnage in Eastern Europe and Russia. The West Hitler saw fit only for burning.
This explains the difference between Hitler and Stalin, and also indicates why it was Eurasia, the Asian megacontinent, which was the main battleground of World War II. Hitler was both a sociopath and a psychopath. He had no compassion, but he also had no powers of calculation rooted in reality. He was the last Romantic; and his only desire was to destroy. As Canadian academic Jordan Peterson has pointed out, Hitler probably wanted to lose World War II. Yes, I think so too. This is why he did, in fact, lose it.
Hitler took steps that were irrational, and he took them because they were irrational. Hitler lost the war in Eurasia, not in the West. Hitler sent his armies to overwinter in Russia, in the midst of which he provoked a showdown with Stalin in the Russian snow, deep within Russian territory. Hitler gave Stalin every advantage, and Stalin took whatever he was given. Stalin used his slave labor much more efficiently than Hitler did, too. Stalin killed indiscriminately, as did Hitler. He was also a sociopath, like Hitler. But he wasn’t a psychopath. Stalin knew what reality was, probably much better than anyone with a normally functioning conscience and emotions. Stalin put his slave labor to use building up his empire. Hitler committed resources to murdering his slave labor, an action which contributed precisely nothing to the German war effort. The Holocaust makes no sense, tactically or strategically—unless one admits that Hitler was out to destroy Europe, not rule it.
Hitler’s vision was apocalyptic, infernal. He was saying, as I read him, that it would take a thousand years of hell on earth before the West could be drawn out of the bourgeoisie daydream and reset as a great Eurasian power. Hitler spoke of blood and iron, not sail and seawater. World War II was always a land war at heart, and a land war for Asia. In this way, it was part of the long Asian century.
Let me close by saying that the United States is going the way of all European empires before her. The United States is being absorbed by the geopolitics of Asia. The American navy has lost the advantage in the Western Pacific, and its defeat in the first major naval showdown since the Battle of Leyte Gulf—this time with the Chinese Communist Party’s proprietary fleet, the People’s Liberation Army Navy, and not with the Imperial Japanese Navy—appears now inevitable.
The United States was defeated on the ground in Southeast Asia fifty years ago. The United States was brought to a standstill—from which it still has not been able to extricate itself—in a land war on the Korean Peninsula seventy years ago. The United States was defeated less than a year ago by a comically inferior militia (if the Taliban even warrant that probably too-generous description) in central Asia. As I write this, the United States is offering itself up to a land war in Ukraine, with the very power which now claims the territorial dominion once swayed by none other than Josef Stalin. For nearly three quarters of a century, the Americans have done the Russians a favor, as I see it, by occupying Europe, via NATO, and thereby keeping Russia’s only credible rival, Germany, from rampaging again. As the Soviet empire collapsed, the Americans broke their promises and expanded NATO—into Eurasia, not into the Atlantic or Africa, but deeper into Asia.
The United States, like Japan, is a natural maritime power that has no business getting involved in foreign wars of any kind, especially not in foreign land wars, and especially not in Asia. In that sense, the current adventure in Ukraine is also part of Stalin’s war. The “American Century” began, was squandered, and will die, in Asia. Today, as yesterday, it is the Russians—the masters of Eurasia, now joined by the Han Chinese—who are calling the shots.
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.
Featured image: “The reception of the diplomatique & his suite, at the court of Pekin,” published by Hannah Humphrey, 1792.