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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy

Kenneth C. Davis

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)




Tyranny naturally arises out of democracy.

—Plato, The Republic

We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

—Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address


One was a boy who loved to read fanciful tales of America’s Old West and play at being a cowboy. With dreams of being a great artist, he only wanted to draw and paint.

Another dropped out of the seminary where he was training to be a priest and later worked briefly as a meteorologist making weather charts.

And still a third was a bullied schoolboy who balked at an arranged marriage at the age of fourteen, then registered to join a police academy and a soap-making school before working as a librarian’s assistant.

Little in their early years hints that these men—Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong—would become three of the most murderous dictators in history. They chafed at the plans their fathers made for them. As young men beginning to find their way in the world, they were certainly rebellious, as many teenagers and students are. Yet all became capable of ordering the deaths of tens of millions of people through war, starvation, forced labor, and mass extermination. They achieved their genocidal legacies with the consent and complicity of many loyal disciples, obedient generals, secret police forces, willing politicians, and vast numbers of the people they ruled.

How could they do it? How did they do it?

This book tells how a Strongman—a dictator or autocrat with unlimited control—gains that power. It shows how such a leader ruthlessly suppresses dissent and eliminates enemies, real or imagined. It is also the story of how a leader can wipe out any semblance of the freedoms that many Americans and people in other democracies may take for granted today, including free speech, the freedom to worship—or not—and the freedom of the press.

Each of the five men discussed in this book—Benito Mussolini of Italy, Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, China’s Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq—were responsible for genocidal crimes against humanity with unthinkable numbers of victims. Stalin killed millions of people well before World War II began, in 1939. The grim death toll mounted as Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union fought each other in that war, and then, with Mussolini’s assistance, the Nazis began the “Final Solution,” mass executions, starvation, and other war crimes. Mao Zedong, who secured Communist control over China in 1949, was responsible, historians now contend, for the deaths of at least forty-five million people. The leader of a tyrannical regime in Iraq for decades before he was overthrown by the United States in 2003, Saddam Hussein employed torture, chemical weapons, mass executions, and wars against neighboring countries to secure his place in the list of infamous killers.

“One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” This quote, attributed to Stalin, reminds us that reading such astonishing numbers can be mind-numbing.

But we must never become unfeeling. This book is not a list of faceless statistics. Neither is it an encyclopedia of the worst atrocities of fascism, Nazism, Communism, and other -isms. It is a collection of portraits of men who caused unthinkable death and destruction. By exploring the lives of some of the twentieth century’s most deadly dictators, this book sets out to put a human face on inhumanity. It looks at who these men were; how they were able to gain such unlimited power; what they shared in common; and how the people they ruled—either willingly or under a reign of terror—followed their murderous paths.

History is often a matter of emphasis. It can be presented as an eye-glazing list of dates and numbers. Or it can be told as heroic, rousing tales of “great men” to stir pride and patriotism. But sometimes history is something else. Often, it is simply horrible. This history contains an ugly catalog of crimes and injustice. It is about executions, unspeakable torture, and secret police forces coming in the night to spread terror among common citizens. It is about genocide.

Many visitors to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., are brought to tears by a display of shoes. Each victim of this mass murder was a person, and these shoes belonged to some of the millions of people who were consigned to death in the Nazi gas chambers and labor camps. These shoes remind us that history is about people—real, ordinary people.

Strongman, then, is a human story—the story of real people doing terrible things to other people. Telling this story is difficult because it is so dreadful and yet cannot be sugarcoated. There is no way to adequately discuss the countless deaths and horrific misery these leaders left in their wake without laying bare the specific horror of their crimes against humanity. These crimes include beatings, rapes, individual acts of murder, deliberate starvation, and mass exterminations—all grim, but unfortunately too real to explain away and too dangerous to ignore.

Telling these stories has been made even more difficult because the lives of these men have been cloaked in misconceptions and continuing propaganda. Today, pilgrims visit the burial sites of Mussolini, Stalin, and Mao Zedong, drawn by nostalgic recollections of men celebrated as great national leaders, not murderous dictators. Propaganda upends, twists, and denies fact. But facts are stubborn things. If history is really supposed to help us learn from the past, we must relentlessly look for truth to answer some important questions:

What turns a seemingly ordinary man into a monstrous killer?

What makes a country fall prey to a dictator at the cost of millions of lives?

Is democracy the most desirable government?

If democracy is desirable, how do we safeguard it?

These are crucial issues. Around the globe today, political leaders—some elected legitimately—have begun whittling away at civil liberties, human rights, religious freedom, and the established rule of law. They use suppression of the media, mass arrests, and assassinations of people considered political threats or “enemies of the people”—journalists among them. Authoritarian rulers make widespread use of propaganda, or “fake news,” to manipulate public opinion. And very often, they target some group—immigrants, one particular race, or religious minorities—as scapegoats for a country’s ills.

In March 2020, Freedom House, an international organization that monitors democracy around the world, issued a report that said that global freedom had declined for the fourteenth consecutive year. “Democracy and pluralism are under assault. Dictators are toiling to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic dissent and spread their harmful influence to new corners of the world. At the same time, many freely elected leaders are dramatically narrowing their concerns to a blinkered interpretation of the national interest. In fact, such leaders—including the chief executives of the United States and India, the world’s two largest democracies—are increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas … The protests of 2019 have so far failed to halt the overall slide in global freedom, and without greater support and solidarity from established democracies, they are more likely to succumb to authoritarian reprisals.”

For that reason, this book is also about democracy. It opens with a case study of how quickly a democracy can die. It then offers a short biography of democracy as an idea.

Democracy is a fragile flower, as the opening chapters will show. When the U.S. Constitution was being written in 1787, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin worried that the United States might end up with an elected monarch. Some two thousand years earlier, the Greek philosopher Plato predicted that democracy—an idea born in ancient Greece—would end in tyranny.

Were they right?

The stories of the five men presented here pose even more difficult questions. Examining their repressive systems forces us to ask whether the bleak picture predicted in 1984, George Orwell’s nightmarish dystopian novel, is the way the world will go. Written in the aftermath of World War II as the Soviet Union extended its totalitarian hold over Eastern Europe, Orwell’s book envisioned a world divided among three superpowers constantly at war, a bleak world in which personal freedom and individuality have vanished and many Party members wear the same blue overalls. Will Orwell’s Big Brother displace Lady Liberty? Will his frightening Newspeak—a language controlled by the government—crush objective facts? Will history go down the “memory hole” in ashes, as it does in Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, where records are destroyed and constantly rewritten to serve the state?

And finally, we are left with the hardest question of all. It is a personal one. “If faced with a Strongman, what would I do?”

You’ve probably heard the popular expression “to die for.” Maybe a friend has said, “Those shoes are to die for.”

Of course, we don’t really mean we would give our lives willingly for a beautiful pair of shoes. But that figure of speech raises the ultimate question: What, if anything, would you be willing to die for?

Family? Friends? Faith?

In 1776, the men who signed the Declaration of Indepen- dence pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” to the cause of freedom. Those words were more than flowery sentiments. They reflected the enormous risk taken by those fifty-six men in the cause of some timeless ideas: that “all men are created equal,” that we are entitled to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and that governments can only obtain “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The idea that we consent in the decisions that affect our lives was solidified in the first three words of the Constitution: “We, the People.”

For two centuries, those words have inspired people around the world, even though the history of the United States is admittedly filled with many deep injustices, starting with the treatment of the land’s original inhabitants. In addition, many of those Founding Fathers enslaved people even as they fought for their own liberty. The nation they helped create has weathered many difficulties and crises, including a civil war, a great depression, and two world wars, without surrendering democracy to a Strongman.

So for many of us today, democracy is a matter of fact. A great number of people take those democratic ideals for granted. That may be one reason so many Americans fail to vote or make their voices heard. They prefer to sit on the sidelines instead of actively participating. But democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires work, participation, and sometimes sacrifice. And it can be very fragile. Democracy can die quickly. And that is where we begin.

Copyright © 2020 by Kenneth C. Davis