Che, Stalin, Mussolini and the Thinkers Who Loved Them
Why are intellectuals and thinkers, who normally face persecution and risk under dictatorial regimes, nonetheless attracted to tyrants and would-be liberators?
Some of it can be chalked up to intellectual laziness rather than intellectualism. Like Thomas Jefferson cheering on the bloody excesses of the French Revolution from a safe distance and smugly declaring that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed . . . with the blood of patriots,” many of the intellectuals Hollander writes about were armchair fascists or communists yammering away in the relative security of Western bourgeois democracies. But others actually visited or lived in the tyrannies they praised, and knowingly continued to propagandize for them after witnessing their brutality firsthand. Some of their effusions are little short of nauseating.
Consider this tribute to Che Guevara from the radical journalist I. F. Stone:
“He was the first man I ever met whom I thought not just handsome but beautiful. With his curly, reddish beard, he looked like a cross between a faun and a Sunday School print of Jesus . . . In Che, one felt a desire to heal and pity for suffering . . . It was out of love, like the perfect knight of medieval romance, that he had set out to combat with the powers of the world. . . . In that sense he was, like some early saint, taking refuge in the desert. Only there could the purity of the faith be safeguarded.”
When Guevara’s attempt to fan the flames of revolution in Guatemala failed miserably, ending in his own death, Jean-Paul Sartre, based on little if any personal knowledge, would gush that he “was not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age,” which, if Sartre’s observation was confined to the rarified circle of parlor radicals and celebrity Eurotrash he spent most of his time with, might almost have been true. In reality, Guevara was a deluded idealist, a man in whom emotion overpowered reason (and the quality of mercy) to the point where, in Hollander’s words, “Doubtless Guevara was a genuine idealist but, as is often the case, this idealism had its dark side, stemming from the sense of entitlement to ruthlessness conferred by the strongly felt good intentions and selfless dedication to the cause.”
Hollander cites Daniel Benveniste, “an American leftist disillusioned with both communist Cuba and Venezuela under Chavez,” as wondering at
“how members of the counterculture who previously embraced the values of peace, love, nonviolence, free speech, tolerance of differences, human rights . . . could turn around and celebrate Che Guevara, who personally executed or oversaw the execution of about five hundred people . . . [and who] spoke of ‘hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, cold-blooded killing machine.’”
Yet the photo of the dead Guevara, still seen on many a poster and T-shirt on college campuses, with its blank eyes staring into nothingness and framed by a taut, expressionless face, would be described by an adoring writer, Michael Casey, with a mix of maudlin piety and lurid imagining better suited to a medieval nun suffering from a severe case of religious vapors:
“Che exudes the wisdom of the dead. He looks at us with neither condemnation nor pity. This is ‘the gaze of the dead Guevara,’ wrote biographer Jorge Castaneda, ‘looking at his tormentors and pardoning them because they know not what they are doing, and [looking] at the world, assuring it that one does not suffer when one dies for one’s ideas.’”
The truth was a lot less fanciful, rendered in a few insightful, unintoxicated sentences by author Cabrera Infante: “Che, like Trotsky, advocated permanent revolution. But loving humanity, an abstract idea, he forgot all about people. He believed in the New Man but not in human beings, new or old.” There, in a nutshell, is the fatal character flaw in so many well-intended utopian revolutionaries and their intellectual camp followers.
Nor are these aberrations strictly confined to the far Left. Hollander offers us a minor episode, but one that served as a catalyst to the rise of fascism in Italy, in which the role of intellectual and the role of dictator merged into one man, symbolizing the overlap between intellectuals who dream of being all-powerful leaders of men and leaders who dream of being intellectuals. While largely forgotten today, both as a writer and as a would-be philosopher-king, the Italian poet and author Gabriel D’Annunzio (1863–1938) was in some ways a warning tremor for the fascist earthquake to come in post–World War I Italy.
“While his enormous popularity, influence, and active participation in World War I sets him apart from typical intellectuals, he did personify many of their essential attributes in an extreme form. He was a powerful public intellectual (before the concept was invented), a celebrated national hero, and a potential role model for intellectuals striving for authenticity and longing to connect words and deeds, theory and practice. He devoted much of his life to attempting to restore what he perceived as the lost heroic dimensions of life driven by an unconcealed hunger for power and glory . . .
“Although widely ignored in our times and barely known in the United States, D’Annunzio would have been at home in the protest movements and counter-culture of the 1960s; the young protestors and activists of that period would have found his lifestyle and vivid denunciation of liberal bourgeois society appealing and congenial.”
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: