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The Indiscreet Charm of Tyranny


The military assault on Iraq may not have been a wise move. But few people, even those who were most firmly opposed to the Bush administration, can have felt anything but joy at the sight of Saddam Hussein being dragged from his underground pit. There is sweetness in a tyrant’s come-uppance. It doesn’t happen too often. Many have lived to a ripe old age; some still live on, as mummies, their waxen corpses displayed to the public. But rather than dwell upon what may turn out to have been a Pyrrhic victory in Iraq, I would like to consider a different question. Was Saddam one of the last of his kind? Have great dictators become obsolete?

This might seem an absurd question, for there are still too many of them around: Robert Mugabe is still busy wrecking his country; the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il runs North Korea like a nationwide concentration camp; Uzbekistan is ruled by Islam Karimov, a murderous despot and, as it happens, a US ally. Fidel Castro is said to be popular, but has never allowed an election, and his police regularly arrest dissidents. But on the whole, history’s tide has run against the Great Leaders of late. If we take the last thirty years or so, and especially that annus mirabilis 1989, the list of deposed dictators is longer than fresh ones: Nicolae Ceauçescu, Todor Zhivkov, Gustav Husák, Ferdinand Marcos, “Baby” Doc Duvalier, Idi Amin, Mariam Mengistu, the Shah of Iran, Emperor Bokassa, to name just a few. And, though horrible enough, these were provincial tyrants, small fish in the ocean of mass murderers. And the late Communist leaders were hardly great dictators, but more like autocratic bureaucrats. There is no one left of the stature of Hitler, Stalin, or Mao. Not even Saddam was remotely in their league. And this alone is something worth celebrating.

I do not mean to say, like some neo-con Pollyanna, that democracy will sweep the world in the wake of armed US liberators. It may even be that some democratic states will become steadily more authoritarian. Vladimir Putin, though not yet a dictator, shows signs of intolerance toward any opposition. But the God-Kings, Führers, Great Helmsmen, Big Daddies, Number One Brothers, and Caudillos are vanishing. They might of course come back some day, reincarnated in a different form. I rather suspect that they will. For dictators cannot rule by terror alone. Terror is a necessary part of their monopoly on power, but not sufficient in itself. Dictators would only disappear forever if people were to give up their willingness, and sometimes even desire, to be ruled by them. But alas, man is weak, especially when faced with a crisis, and his desires are easily manipulated.

Before speculating on the future shape of dictatorships, I would like to return to the past, not only to reflect on the nature of the great dictators themselves, but on something that to me is more interesting, namely our fatal attraction to them. What is it about them that is so alluring, and allows them to destroy the lives of millions? Why, to be more concrete, did so many Poles cry in the streets when Stalin died, even though he had done Poland nothing but harm? Why do Chinese taxi drivers still have images of Chairman Mao in their cars, even though he killed tens of millions? If only we knew that, we might have a better chance of seeing what might still be in store for us, before it is too late.


Jacques Vergès, the radical French lawyer who once defended Klaus Barbie and now hopes to defend Saddam Hussein, put the case for great dictators in a nutshell. He admired Stalin and Mao because they had “grandeur,” unlike democratic politicians, who were by nature mediocre. The great dictators, he observed, give the people a destiny, whereas democrats can only promise happiness. Dictators embark on great missions, while the plans of politicians are inevitably crippled by shabby compromises. This view has been shared by too many intellectuals in the past, who fell under the spell of absolute power. It is the fatal romanticism that justifies unlimited murder.

I do not know who would qualify as the first great dictator in the history of man, but the Emperor of Qin, who unified China in 221 BC, was certainly a man of destiny who had unmistakable grandeur. A mere king when he conquered the states of other kings, he became the first Chinese emperor and was known as Qin Shi Huang Di, a title with divine connotations. Although his name has made Chinese shudder for the last two thousand years, the influence of his reign is still profound. He was the archetypal despot, and it is astonishing how little has changed. The Qin Emperor was a permanent warrior, a great unifier, a builder of grandiose projects, a censor of thought, and a paranoiac obsessed with his own mortality.

It was the Qin Emperor who unified the Chinese writing system, established a standard legal code, common weights and measures, and a centralized bureaucracy. His most famous grand project was the Great Wall, erected to divide Chinese from the barbarians. Since no barbarian invasion was actually stopped by the wall, one suspects that this was largely symbolic. It gave the Chinese people a sense of unity by defining a common enemy, to be feared at all times. Instead of keeping the barbarians out, it fenced the Chinese in.

The reason for the Qin Emperor’s reputation as a brutal tyrant was not just the huge death toll among the slaves who built his Great Wall, or the draconian nature of his legal code, but the way he monopolized the truth. Again, like all tyrants, he wished to control not only the present, but also the past. History was in his possession. He was the first great book burner. The traditional task of scholars was to measure the virtue of kings by invoking the Confucian classics, and criticizing their rulers if they were found wanting. An idealized past of virtuous rulers was used to judge the present ones. The Qin Emperor did not wish to be judged or criticized; his rule was the beginning of everything, and history was bunk. So the classics were torched and the scholars buried alive.

Not only humans had to conform to the tyrant’s view of reality, but inanimate objects too. Enraged by a persistent storm that impeded his progress during a mountain climb, he had all the trees felled by slaves and the mountain painted red, the color of a condemned criminal. When the fall of a meteor was deemed to be an omen of the Emperor’s death, he had the offending stone melted by fire and the people who lived in its vicinity executed. The thought of his eventual demise was so intolerable that anyone or anything that reminded him of his mortality had to be eradicated.

We don’t really know what his subjects thought of their emperor at the time. As Kafka described brilliantly in his short story “The Great Wall of China,” the farther away people lived from the wall the more remote the center of power was. In fact, we only have limited knowledge of the man himself. His notoriousness was largely due to his bad press among the Confucian scribes whose fortunes revived under his successors on the dragon throne. For many centuries the Qin Emperor’s Great Wall was associated with tyranny and bloodshed. But in modern times something interesting happened. The symbol of oppression became a symbol of modern nationalism, universally admired for its grandeur. And the Qin Emperor’s own reputation was also rehabilitated, in the early 1970s, by Mao Zedong, who saw himself as his modern heir. The violence of the Emperor’s rule was praised for its revolutionary spirit. And the burning of books and burying alive of scholars was seen entirely in a positive light, as a case of “emphasizing the present while slighting the past.”

This is a common characteristic of radical dictators; they create a tabula rasa which cannot be challenged by meddlesome priests or fussy scholars. The immediate past is by definition inferior, even evil. Still now one hears people respond to critical descriptions of Mao’s China by saying that China under Chiang Kai-shek was infinitely worse. In the same way, Leninist-Stalinist tyranny is sometimes glossed over by pointing out the horrors under the tsars. In the propaganda of postcolonial dictators, the evils of colonialism justify the violence of their rule. Mass murder is cleansing, purifying, wipes the slate clean. Those who emphasize the past to chastise the present are conservatives, like those Confucian scholars, and revolutionary tyrants are never conservative.

The violent break with history, the illusion of a tabula rasa, appeals to a certain kind of youthful idealism. There is beauty in destruction. Think of the relish with which thousands of Chinese students took hammers and axes to the priceless treasures of Buddhist or Confucian temples. The idea that a completely new society can be forged through sheer human will is attractive to dreamers of grandeur. During the Cultural Revolution, armies of Red Guards thought they were exercizing their will. In fact, they were acting out the will of their oppressor. To make enough people believe that he, the great leader, represents the collective will of his people is an essential skill for a tyrant.

There are conservative despots, to be sure, such as Philip II of Spain, who use traditional institutions as justification for oppression. This type has been a common feature in the Spanish-speaking, Roman Catholic world. Philip II’s main tool of oppression was the Inquisition. General Franco, who ruled over Spain four hundred years later, was an heir to this tradition. So was Portugal’s Antonio Salazar. But not Mussolini, who was a radical. The effete liberal democracies, he boasted, would be crushed because they were entangled in the past, whereas he, the new Roman emperor, looked to the glorious future. His frequent mention of the Roman Empire would seem to contradict this claim, but contradictions never stood in the way of absolute rule.

Conservative dictatorship can be brutal, and as deadening to the human spirit as the revolutionary kind, but it is usually less destructive. Under a conservative dictator the past is frozen; under a revolutionary ruler it goes up in flames. Freedom is crushed in either case, and thus the ability, in Václav Havel’s words, “to live in truth.” If forced conformity to an ossified tradition is deadening, the compulsion to fit into a utopian fantasy is almost always more deadly. Hitler had the stuffy tastes of a nineteenth-century petty bourgeois, but his radical instincts and the purity of his murderous fantasies were in the line of the revolutionary dictators—more Emperor of Qin than Philip II.

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