Che, Stalin, Mussolini and the Thinkers Who Loved Them

Image: Cubans march during the May Day parade on Revolution Square in Havana, May 1, 2007. Reuters/Claudia Daut

Why are intellectuals and thinkers, who normally face persecution and risk under dictatorial regimes, nonetheless attracted to tyrants and would-be liberators?

January-February 2018

It all came together in September of 1919 in the Adriatic port city of Fiume (known today as Rijeka, and now part of the modern Republic of Croatia). Fiume, with a largely Italian-speaking population, had been part of the Hapsburg domains for centuries. But with the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I, it became the target of rival claims from Italy and the new Serbian-dominated union of South Slav territories that would soon become known as Yugoslavia. Since Italy and Serbia had both sided with the Allied victors, negotiations were protracted. Before a conclusion could be reached, D’Annunzio and a ragtag band of ex-soldiers, students, youthful idealists and assorted political, social and even sexual bohemians “occupied” Fiume and declared it an independent city-state, with D’Annunzio as its supreme leader. Many strutting balcony appearances and much hot air followed for about a year, after which the Italian government first occupied and then annexed Fiume. But D’Annunzio’s swaggering style, and his romantic appeal for a rebirth of Imperial Roman greatness, served as a template for Mussolini on the road to national power.

LOST IMPERIAL glories and lost faith in traditional social institutions, including religious faith itself, all played a role in the rise of dictators like Mussolini—a fairly skillful journalist who considered himself a man of intellect at a time when the designation “intellectual” was still somewhat hazy. While charisma and a strong projection of self-assurance and command presence undoubtedly played a big part in the rise of Mussolini, Hollander points to another, less commonly acknowledged factor: “dormant religious impulses.” Charismatic leaders typically arise in times of severe social-political crisis and dislocation. People long for simple, quick and radical solutions:

“These attitudes culminate in the belief that certain individuals of indistinct qualifications—the new leaders—will become redeemers, who will resurrect, revitalize, and reinvigorate decadent, corrupt, morally bankrupt social systems and establish social justice, variously defined. While deteriorated objective conditions (lost war, domestic disorder, economic crisis, inflation, unemployment, etc.) play an important part in the rise of these hopes and beliefs, in the final analysis modern political hero worship, and the attributions of charisma it entails, are nurtured by dormant religious impulses that surface in the virtual deification of the dictators here discussed.”

This spiritual or religious factor is encapsulated in the title quote at the beginning of Professor Hollander’s chapter on Hitler and the intellectuals, taken from Laurence Rees’s excellent book, Hitler’s Charisma:

“Above all, what Hitler offered his audience was redemption. In his speeches he talked less about policy and more about destiny. It was a privilege, he said, to live at such a decisive time in history. The Nazis were on a ‘splendid crusade’ that would ‘go down as one of the most miraculous and remarkable phenomena in world history’ . . . the forthcoming journey offered every German a chance to find meaning in their lives.”

Hollander follows this succinct characterization of Hitler’s quasi-religious appeal with a suitably messianic quote from Martin Heidegger: “The Fuhrer alone,” declared Heidegger, “is the present and future of German reality and its law. . . . The Fuhrer has awakened this will in the entire people and has welded it into a single resolve.” An iron cross if ever there was one.

Communism’s attempt to make itself a new universal religion also embraced many elements of traditional religiosity. The endless lines of party faithful that used to cue up at Lenin’s tomb fit very comfortably into the age-old Russian Orthodox enthusiasm for pilgrimages to monasteries and other sacred sites, and the reverence for the relics of saints and holy hermits believed to embody mystical powers. Some communist dictators even achieved near-godlike stature while they still walked the earth in human form. A particularly repulsive example of this living deification was Mathias Rakosi, the sanguinary creature Joseph Stalin chose to be the first communist boss of postwar Hungary. Rakosi proudly—and all too accurately—described himself as “Stalin’s best pupil” and was such a crudely obvious political hoodlum (journalist John Gunther once described him as “the most malevolent character I ever met in political life”) that he was unceremoniously dumped as Hungarian dictator by Khrushchev and the post-Stalin politburo. Physically, the bald-pated Rakosi bore an uncanny resemblance to Uncle Fester on the old Addams Family television series, but this didn’t stop his (intellectual) court poets from composing effusions such as:

“Today Rakosi speaks on the radio . . .

The wind subsides, and the heart of the country

is throbbing in the palm of his hand.”

Like Stalin, Hollander informs us, Rakosi “was credited with being omniscient, omnipresent, powerful, just, kind, and caring. He too got by with minimal sleep; stayed in his office from early morning until late night; managed to read several hundred pages a day, which included politics, history, science, and fiction.” I could go on, but I’m sure you’ve got the idea.

About Uncle Joe himself, Hollander draws an interesting distinction, emphasizing that the admiration of intellectuals for Stalin