In his dual biography of the two bloodiest butchers and worst moral monsters of the twentieth century, Stalin and Hitler (but is Mao not up there with them? and does Pol Pot not get a look-in?), Alan Bullock reprints side by side class photographs of young Iosif and young Adolf taken in 1889 and 1899 respectively, in other words, when each was about ten. Peering at the two faces, one tries to descry some quiddity, some dark halo, some sly intimation of the horrors to come; but the photographs are old, definition is poor, one cannot be sure, and besides, a camera is not a divining tool.
The class photograph test—What will be the destinies of these children? Which of them will go the furthest?—has a particular pointedness in the cases of Stalin and Hitler. Is it possible that some of us are evil from the moment we leave our mother’s womb? If not, when does evil enter us, and how? Or, to put the question in a less metaphysical form, how is it that some of us never develop a restraining moral conscience? In regard to Stalin and Hitler, did the fault lie in the way they were reared? With educational practices in Georgia and Austria of the late nineteenth century? Or did the boys in fact develop a conscience, and then at some later time lose it: were Iosif and Adolf, at the time they were photographed, still normal, sweet lads, and did they turn into monsters later, as a consequence perhaps of the books they read, or the company they kept, or the pressures of their times? Or was there nothing special about them after all, early or late: did the script of history simply demand two butchers, a Butcher of Germany and a Butcher of Russia; and had Iosif Dzhugashvili and Adolf Hitler not been in the right place at the right time, would history have found another pair of actors, just as good (that is, just as bad), to play the roles?
These are not questions that biographers are happy to face. There are limits to what we will ever know for a fact about young Stalin and young Hitler, about their home environment, their education, their early friendships, early influences on them. The leap from the meager factual record to the inner life is a huge one, one that historians and biographers (the biographer conceived of as historian of the individual) are understandably reluctant to take. So if we want to know what went on in those two child souls, we will have to turn to the poet and the kind of truth the poet offers, which is not the same as the historian’s.
Which is where Norman Mailer enters the picture. Mailer has never regarded poetic truth as truth of an inferior variety. From An American Dream and Advertisements for Myself through The Armies of the Night and Why Are We in Vietnam? through The Executioner’s Song and …