Should we humanize the world's most inhumane leaders?
Adolf Hitler. Joseph Stalin. Benito Mussolini. Mao Zedong. Kim Il Sung. Vladimir Lenin. These cruel dictators wrote their names on the pages of history in the blood of countless innocent victims. Yet they themselves were once young people searching for their place in the world, dealing with challenges many of us face—parental authority, education, romance, loss—and doing so in ways that might be uncomfortably familiar.
Historian Brandon K. Gauthier has created a fascinating work—epic yet intimate, well-researched but immensely readable, clear-eyed and empathetic—looking at the lives of these six dictators, with a focus on their youths. We watch Lenin’s older brother executed at the hands of the Tsar’s police—an event that helped radicalize this overachieving high-schooler. We observe Stalin grappling with the death of his young, beautiful wife. We see Hitler’s mother mourning the loss of three young children—and determined that her first son to survive infancy would find his place in the world.
The purpose isn’t to excuse or simply explain these horrible men, but rather to treat them with the empathy they themselves too often lacked. We may prefer to hold such lives at arm’s length so as to demonize them at will, but this book reminds us that these monstrous rulers were also human beings—and perhaps more relatable than we’d like.