A book entitled “Before Evil” examines the childhood of the most prominent dictators of the past around the world

Adolf Hitler was a young man more ridiculous than a despot. He avoided physical activity except occasionally walking and swimming, read Wild West novels and was so shyly in love that he never told a young woman named Stephanie about his admiration for her.

Does this portrayal of a dictator as a young man seem disturbingly normal? A new book by historian Brandon Gauthier asks this question about six of history’s most famous figures – “Before Evil: Young Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao and Kim.”

Gauthier told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview that he understood his humanitarian approach was “controversial”. Some of us just have to see the beast in the making. What do you and Hitler have in common? An inflamed question.

As he pointed out, the “crimes against humanity” committed by the Hexagon were extremely heinous, among the worst crimes, including the Holocaust and Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. He added that his focus on the early years of dictators “was not to provide an exact formula for how they turned into tyrants, but to highlight the humanity of inhumanity – a phrase that is not often heard not”.

The idea arose from a 2015 trip to North Korea, when Gauthier – then a doctoral student in US-North Korea relations at Fordham University – had a rare opportunity to visit the communist dictatorship . When he saw the bodies of Kim Il-sung — the last dictator in the book — and his son, Ken Jong-il, he began to think of the people behind the system, and then expanded his list of topics.

Gauthier focused on the formative years of the tyrants – a demographic known to him from his current position as director of global education for Deerfield School in New Hampshire, where he teaches children ages 14-18. The book’s release on April 26 comes on the heels of the infamous birthday anniversary: ​​Kim Il Sung on April 15 and Hitler on the 20th.

Gauthier delivered some counter-intuitive results. Although his research figures were associated with atrocities as the cumulative death toll exceeded 90 million, it did not show signs of sadism early in life, such as the torture of young people on animals that characterized serial killers.

Instead, the hexagrams buried themselves in books. Vladimir Lenin devoured Russian novels such as Ivan Turgenev’s Rook, while Benito Mussolini absorbed the plight of the needy in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Some wanted to emulate heroic figures from national literature: Joseph Stalin adopted the nom de guerre Cuba after the hero of Alexander Kazbegi’s novel The Patrised, while Mao was inspired by the portrayal of Chinese Emperor Songjiang in Shi Nayan’s The Edge of Water.

Gauthier quoted a similar version of another futuristic dictator — a teenager Vladimir Putin who read the Cold War espionage novel turned into a hit movie, The Shield and the Sword, and then entered the headquarters of the National Security Agency have to ask for work; The future employer politely refused him.

He describes Putin’s coming of age as “a striking example of similar parallels”.

“It’s not a story of a mass murderer in the making,” Gauthier said. He rather explains: “We see that his parents were not bad, they were passionate and caring. When Putin was a college student, his mother gave him a car (a rare luxury) after winning it in a lottery. “Instead of selling the car so that the family could move into a nicer apartment, the Putins chose to let their son own it.”

“I have been thinking a lot for the past six weeks. “I’m sorry I did not include a seventh dictator as part of the story,” Gauthier said.

Vladimir Putin, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s deputy chief of staff, center, posing with his friends at a party in St. Petersburg. Petersburg, in this photo from February 1997. (AP Photo / Dmitri Lovetsky, File) A Popular History of the Populists Although the book is based on scientific research, Gauthier avoids the academic tone of Ian Kershaw’s best-selling Hitler biographies or Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin, using an informal approach to enhance the text’s ease. He refers to the young heroes with the names they used for each other: Lenin and his older brother Alexander Ulyanov became “Volodya” and “Sasha” in a narrative that Gauthier considers comprehensive.

Born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, young Lenin was an ordinary student who enjoyed trips to his father Ilya Ulyanov’s cottage, or summer cottage. After Ilya’s death in 1886, Sasha joined a conspiracy to assassinate Tsar Alexander III, but was captured and executed the following year. Lenin, who showed no interest in the revolutionary movements flooding Russia, then devoted himself to the case of his murdered brother.

Lenin would not be a revolutionary. It was Sasha’s hangover that changed everything. He thought his brother should feel that what he was doing was right, and that he could not act differently. “If that is the case, I need to understand the path that the future dictator has taken, and the impact of the ideas that inspired him to become Lenin,” Gauthier said.

Overall, he said, the Six Tyrants became who they were by a toxic combination of factors that did not necessarily include trauma, even though Hitler, Stalin and Mao each had abusive fathers. Instead, the greatest influence on their early lives was “ideas born of a good education, exposure to books, and exposure to the influence of intellectuals from a young age.”

Adolf Hitler as a corporal in the German army in 1916 (AP Photo)

Later in life, it helped them embrace ideologies such as communism and fascism, with little interest in the massacre that followed. Although young Volodya mourned over his brother, the adult Lenin did not sympathize with the victims of the Russian Revolution.

Similarly, the teenager Hitler cared for his mother when she died of breast cancer and was appreciated by her Jewish doctor, Eduard Bloch. Decades later, in 1941, the doctor obtained permission to emigrate from the Third Reich. However, Bloch was quoted as saying how rare it was for a Jew in Nazi Germany.

Gauthier remembers a professor who asked him, “Brandon, who cares about the fact that Hitler loved his mother, that he had moments of sympathy before the ghost of the Holocaust?” “Shouldn’t we talk about victims of the Holocaust instead of young Hitler?”

“I thought about it a lot while I was writing the book,” Gauthier said. “If we try to prevent crimes against humanity because we care deeply about the suffering of the victims … we need to go back to the roots and find the people in the story, looking for an explanation for the evil.”

“We never definitively understand what we are essentially seeing,” he added.

What can we gain by digging up the childhood of dictators?

Co-scientists have mixed reactions to this approach.

“In terms of methodology, it depends not only on empathy, but on efforts to understand or find patterns,” Thomas Bigelow-Kaplan, director of the Center for the Study of Judaism, Holocaust and Peace, told the Appalachian University.

Kaplan asked how he would “convey the language of the book to readers, who might misunderstand the idea of ​​portraying dictators like Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini – and many people would be quick to add Putin.” There are all kinds of problems, flaws and warnings of evil that need to be understood. ”

Florent Briard, a Holocaust historian at the Paris-based École Normale Supérieure des Sciences Sociales in Paris who was part of a team of 17 people who translated a new edition of Mein Kampf, wondered how much could have come from Hitler’s younger days, as she struggles as an artist.

“Before Evil” by Brandon Gauthier. (With permission)

“From that period we can draw no conclusions about what he would become, not even about his position as a political leader, which he later became after 1933,” Briard said.

Ironically, Hitler considered his younger years important enough to require plastic surgery. In “Mein Kampf” he claims to have encountered an Orthodox Jew in Linz before the First World War.

Briard described it as detailed but erroneous: “Historians have shown that anti-Semitism after the war, the First World War, in 1918, 1919, and not before … Anti-Semitism was not an integral part of the family tradition or his early personality. “

“Most of Hitler’s biographies admit that he was grateful for the Jewish doctor who cared for his mother,” said Eric Korlander, professor of history at Stetson University and author of “Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich.” said.

“There are all sorts of strange and contradictory things that need to be investigated. I do not know if it is human. “Recognizing the historical, psychological and social complexity of dictators’ childhoods is not uncommon or a problem,” Kurlander said.

“Many biographies of Stalin, Mao and Castro ‘forgot’ or looked at the complexity of these individuals before they did evil,” he said. “There are obvious reasons why it is dangerous to do so if you do not do it responsibly.”

Conversely, he referred to the “benefit of humanization” – it “shows people that anyone, people who look a lot like people you may know, can become dictators, or people who do evil things.”

For Gauthier, however, he thought more after learning about the reading habits of the young Mussolini.

“I think Mussolini is in love with Victor Hugo,” Gauthier recalls. “I took the time to go back and read Les Miserables. It was exceptional. ” He suggested that Mussolini’s father bring his message of help to the poor: “His father said, you have an obligation to make things right, an obligation to do something … I thought about the effect of such words on the young man. “

Is the message not to make teens read Victor Hugo? no. “Hugo’s work has often inspired young people to make the world a better place,” he said. However, he is tormented by a frequent question: “How can things go so terribly, terribly wrong?”

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