Why good books could not deter bad leaders

Some of the world’s worst dictators, including Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler, loved great literature. But it did nothing to improve their minds

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Stalin in his library: The dictator devoured Balzac and Zola (©Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Dictators don’t have a great reputation as supporters of literature. Regimes throughout the 20th century burned books, censored them, or simply forbade their publication. Those they did permit to appear were frequently turgid and mendacious.  As for the literary efforts of dictators themselves, from Mein Kampf to Quotations from Chairman Mao, they have achieved world-historical levels of awfulness.

Yet the truth is that many dictators were very well-read — bibliophiles even — in comparison to today’s political leaders, who rarely give the impression of ever having read anything more challenging than a cabinet briefing.  Their vast and impenetrable bibliographies, much praised by sycophants, reflect a yearning for that which they could not have: the respect accorded those who actually can write great books.

Dictators also tend to spoil their pet authors: Stalin’s gifting Gorky a mansion may have reflected a Faustian pact on the author’s part, but there were few downsides to Castro’s providing Gabriel García Márquez with a house in Cuba, or the signature lobster dish named in his honour.

In short, the bonfires and bans are actually a sign that dictators revere the written word and fear its power. Nobody would bother to suppress something they considered irrelevant. But on what basis was this reverence established? What literature did they read?

Vladimir Lenin, the father of the Russian Revolution, was a prolific writer: the most complete edition of his collected works runs to 55 volumes, excluding sensitive documents that lay in the Soviet archives until the USSR collapsed. As the son of a regional school inspector and hereditary nobleman, he grew up in a world of books. Supported by his parents, then by the rents of tenants, then by bank robberies organised by Stalin, he always had plenty of time to read.

Lenin not only read Marx and Engels, but Russian radicals such as Sergei Nechaev and Georgy Plekhanov. He also read the books of his enemies, dedicating time to studying and savaging the work of theorists he despised (his own Materialism and Empirio-criticism was the result of a sustained hate-read of rival Bolshevik Alexander Bogdanov and his sources).

But there was another, more literary side to Lenin’s tastes. As a youth he enjoyed Virgil, Ovid and Horace in the original Latin. He was also familiar with Goethe and the works of Russian satirists such as Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Saltykov-Schedrin, as well as (then) contemporary authors such as Chekhov and Maxim Gorky, whom he befriended.

Dostoevsky, and avant-garde writers such as Mayakovsky left him cold, but Tolstoy was another matter. In his essay “Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution”, Lenin forgave the author his pacifism and religiosity, and praised him for his portrayal of the people’s striving for “a better lot”. The American novelist and activist Jack London was another favourite. As a wheelchair-bound Lenin teetered on the brink of death in 1924, his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya read him the story “Love of Life” in which a man dying of hunger fights a starving wolf and wins. Lenin enjoyed it a lot. The next story was less satisfying. Soon afterwards he died.

But Lenin’s favourite book was What is to be Done?,  written in a St Petersburg prison by the anti-Tsarist journalist Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Didactic, politically radical and not very well-written, the novel is no classic; yet it had a huge impact on a generation of revolutionaries. Indeed, according to Orlando Figes, “It converted more people to the cause of revolution than all the works of Marx and Engels put together.”

Lenin read it five times in a single summer and carried a photo of Chernyshevsky in his wallet. He consciously modelled himself after one of its minor characters, Rakhmetev, an austere revolutionary who cuts out everything that distracts him from the cause of revolution. Duly inspired, Lenin abandoned such pleasures as chess and the study of the classics while also taking up weightlifting. And so it was that a bad book overwhelmed the influence of all the good books he ever read.

Stalin was obsessed with culture and ascribed near-metaphysical power to writers. In 1932, he famously toasted a group of authors meeting in Maxim Gorky’s house as “engineers of the human soul”. A poet in his youth, he would on occasion call writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov or Boris Pasternak for late- night telephone chats and he corresponded with Alexander Afinogenov, a leading playwright of the time.

Unlike Lenin, however, he was not born into a world of learning. His father was a drunken cobbler, his mother a cleaner. The only education available to a poor boy in rural Georgia was that of a priest and so his mother pulled strings to get him accepted into the Tiflis seminary. Later, he would adapt much of what he learned there to provide the USSR with its own array of secular icons, catechisms and sacred relics (foremost among them Lenin’s mummified body). Like many teenagers, he was also drawn to that which was forbidden, which in the seminary included high-quality literature of the kind you couldn’t pay most teenagers to read these days.

Thus Stalin devoured Balzac, Zola, Maupassant and Hugo, as well as the Russian authors Lenin had read. Stalin had more time for Dostoevsky, enjoying The Devils despite its portrayal of Russian radicals as pathological murderers and liars (perhaps as with many readers of Paradise Lost, he found the bad guys more interesting). He also enjoyed Victor Hugo’s classic Ninety-Three, in which the Jacobins who suppressed resistance to the Revolution in France’s Vendée  in 1793 are celebrated as heroes.

As with Lenin, however, early exposure to great writing did not inoculate him against the appeal of lower-quality work. Stalin’s favorite author was Alexander Kazbegi, a Georgian noble who wrote melodramas packed with cultural detail. Stalin so loved The Parricide ­­— the tale of a Robin Hood-style bandit who fought against aristocratic Russians — that he adopted the name of the book’s hero, Koba, as his primary pseudonym for many years. Like Lenin, he chose the simple over the sophisticated and saw himself reflected in fables of the fight against oppression.

But what about dictators on the Right? Mussolini projected a strongman image and publicly glorified violence. He also had a puerile, scatological side: his Fascist bands forced their foes to drink castor oil until they lost control of their bowels. Hitler, meanwhile, was burning thousands of books in public within months of becoming Chancellor (including those of Jack London) and chased more than 2,000 authors out of Germany, among them such literary titans as Thomas Mann and Erich Maria Remarque.

Yet these men, too, were steeped in literature. Mussolini, who had trained as a teacher and could read in several languages, had a roving eye when it came to books. He knew the classics: as a youth he had memorised chunks of Dante which he recited aloud as he strolled through town. While living in Switzerland in his early twenties, he practically camped out in the library of Lausanne University, where he read Spinoza, Kant, Hegel and the French philosopher Georges Sorel, who denied the goodness of human nature and extolled violence.

His own writings further demonstrate the catholicity of his reading. His first publication, in an educational magazine, was an essay on the Russian novel. He wrote about Frederick Klopstock, a German poet who wrote an epic religious poem entitled “The Messiah”, and in another essay described Nietzsche  as “the most extraordinary mind of the last quarter of the last century”. He was so impressed by Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel that he translated it into Italian. In 1927, he became honorary president of the International Mark Twain Society.

Mussolini attracted Thomas Marinetti, author of the Futurist manifesto, and the Modernist playwright Luigi Pirandello to the party. Meanwhile, he stole heavily from the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, who had seized power in the city state of Fiume after the First World War. The Roman salutes, black shirts and war cry of Fascism were D’Annunzio’s inventions, which Mussolini appropriated (D’Annunzio later joined the party and was rewarded with a national edition of his works). In short, for all his bluster and buffoonery, Mussolini was a literary voyager, far more widely read than either Lenin or Stalin.

As for Hitler, the homeless ex-corporal turned anti-Semitic book-burner was also a stupendous bibliophile, although his own writings provide little evidence of the fact. In Mein Kampf,  he cites The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but is otherwise keen to present himself as sui generis. However, upon his death, his library contained some 16,000 volumes. Hitler had claimed that he read one book a night (even at that rate, it would have taken him close to 44 years to work through every book on his shelves).

Hitler had a writer-mentor, Dietrich Eckart, who had written a highly successful adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. He  owned many books on the occult, including the 18th-century Rosicrucian textbook Annulus Platonus, and the more snappily titled The Dead Are Alive! from 1922. But he also had a special fondness for the literature of a land he could not subjugate: England. Hitler preferred Shakespeare to Goethe and he was also fond of tales of far-off lands, such as Robinson Crusoeand Gulliver’s Travels.

Yet Hitler was primarily a pulp fiction enthusiast obsessed with the faux-Western tales of the German novelist Karl May, who cast the white man as villains and the Indians as heroes — his Indian brave Old Shatterhand remains famous in Germany today. When the war went awry, Hitler, it is said, advised his generals to read May’s books to learn about strategy. He also brought a set to with him to his bunker.

Mao Zedong’s bedroom was full of books even as his minions in the Cultural Revolution wrought havoc outside. The Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha enjoyed vampire novels. Fidel Castro loved Ernest Hemingway and reviewed Gabriel García Márquez’s novels before publication. In 2015, the Ayatollah Khameini took to Twitter to praise the works of Mikhail Sholokhov and Alexei Tolstoy, Leo’s less talented, pro-Bolshevik cousin.

The reading habits of dictators have long-lasting consequences. Lenin and Stalin’s preference for the classics over the avant-garde helped keep Russian literature half-preserved in amber for the best part of a century. This legacy was not entirely terrible: some great literature enjoyed huge print runs. There were other curious consequences: Jack London had a lake named after him in the Magadan region.

Meanwhile, new literature was severely compromised. Under Stalin, the Socialist Realists wrote their own interpretations of the socially-engaged literature of the past as flat pabulum aimed at moral uplift and political instruction. Writing that aspired simply to entertain, such as detective fiction, did not exist. The dictators were serious people and literature had to follow suit.

What does this mean for our understanding of literature itself? At the very least, the fact that some of history’s worst mass murderers were avid bibliophiles should kill any lingering notion that there is something innately ennobling about the book. Literature is far too ambiguous for that. We take what we want from it and dictators are no different. When Lenin wrote his essay on the religious-vegetarian-pacifist Tolstoy, he focused on the prophet’s “pent-up hatred”. When Mussolini read Dante, he enjoyed the poet’s invective best of all.

It is also striking that all these well-read men preferred mediocrity to masterpieces. Just as their political theories reduced the ambiguities of history to simplistic narratives of good and evil, they were most inspired by crude tales with a moral or political message.

They could burn and censor books or shoot and exile writers, but their own libraries contained a truth: that all their efforts at controlling the written word were, in the long run, futile. Literature is a slippery thing: bad books, too, can inspire doubt, dissent and even revolution in the hearts of those who desire it.