THE INFERNAL LIBRARY: ON DICTATORS, THE BOOKS THEY WROTE, AND OTHER CATASTROPHES OF LITERACY
By Daniel Kalder
Henry Holt, $32, 395 pages
Before there was “fake news” there was “fake science.” From Karl Marx through Joseph Stalin (and far beyond, even reaching into many an American college classroom today) the spurious notion of a “scientific socialism” for remaking society by remodeling human nature has obsessed fanatic left-wingers.
The few of them who have actually managed to gain power — usually through mass murder, torture and deceit — have left a blood-stained paper trail that is both abundant and boring. Not the least accomplishment of author Daniel Kalder’s “The Infernal Library” is that it turns the evil, droning banality of 20th century dictator-authors (posing as philosopher kings) into a source of both enlightenment and mirth.
While earlier dictators like Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte wrote a lot — Caesar in his self-serving Gallic Commentaries and Napoleon in his bombastic and usually mendacious Imperial Bulletins — such men at least had a literary knack. In the 20th century, however, quantity quickly bumped quality. “[T]here was a Krakatoa-like eruption of despotic verbiage, which continues flowing to this day,” Mr. Kalder tells us. “Many dictators write theoretical works, others produce spiritual manifestos, while still others write poetry, memoirs or even the occasional romance novels.”
Sad to relate, the best-selling book of all time “attributed to a man rather than a deity” is “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung.” Not so sad to relate is the fact that “most of these books are entirely unread today, or are treated as jokes, despite the fact that their authors once enjoyed record-breaking print runs, (literally) captive audiences and the acclaim of intellectuals who should have known better.”
So why look back? Since many of the authors were “mass murderers of some note” the subsequent lack of interest in their scribbling struck Mr. Kalder, with masterful understatement, as “something of an oversight.”
The largest genre by far of what Mr. Kalder calls “dictator literature” is collectivist drivel based on the monumentally bloody and undeniably failed experiment of the Soviet Union, that long-running farce written by Karl Marx, produced by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and directed by Joseph Stalin.
As the author shows by comparing derivative passages turned out by Soviet stooges in satellite dictatorships like Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland and East Germany, “[b]y subtracting a handful of phrases, a speech delivered by a leader of one country can easily be turned into a template for another to be delivered by a different leader in another socialist utopia.” In other words, one straitjacket fits all.
Right-wing tyrants like Hitler and Mussolini tended to be less obsessed with pseudo-science (with the notable exception of phony Nazi racial theories) and more prone to nationally- or ethnically-based chauvinism.
Two relatively sane examples were longtime Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar, a mild-mannered economics professor who most prided himself on balancing the national budget (with a little help from his secret police) and Francisco Franco, Spain’s Caudillo-for-Life, a decorated career soldier who was more of a 19th-century Spanish nationalist and conservative Catholic than a fascist.
In fact, Franco got rid of thousands of “Phalangists” (Spain’s home-grown fascist movement) by encouraging them to volunteer for service with Hitler’s armies on the Russian Front. Most of them never came home: End of problem.
Salazar wrote mostly about thrift, education and economic development, while Franco wrote an unremarkable but fairly readable family novel set in the Spanish Civil War. For all their flaws, both Salazar and Franco left their countries better off than they had found them (and now long-standing parliamentary democracies). And both men died peacefully in bed, as did most of their fellow citizens once they had settled into power.
Daniel Kalder is a witty, informed and — where called for — profound guide through his literary “Little Shop of Horrors.” For those interested in additional reading, I enthusiastically recommend Paul Hollander’s 2016 master work, “From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship.” David King’s 1997 “The Commissar Vanishes” serves as a useful visual supplement showing how the same recurring photographs, with more and more liquidated comrades air-brushed out, were recycled as Stalin and his minions found it necessary to doctor photos as well as rewrite history.
What makes Mr. Kalder’s subject worthy of continued study is that fact that, while individual tyrants and their pseudo-science may go out of style, the dark human tendency to be “carnivorous sheep” — as Konrad Adenauer once characterized his fellow Germans — remains a latent but lurking part of human nature.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.
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