Please allow me to introduce myself: I’m a man of wealth and taste.
—The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”
If you could somehow go back in time to late April, 1889—and also teleport magically to Braunau am Inn, Austria—would you kill baby Hitler? This question was put, somewhat in jest, to Jeb Bush on the 2015 campaign trail.
“Hell yeah, I would,” he replied. “You gotta step up, man.”
The catch to this little mental exercise is that in the spring of 1889, Adolf Hitler was not yet the universal standard-bearer of pure evil. He was an infant, guilty of no more than colic and keeping his mother up at night.
We don’t like to think of Hitler that way. It makes us uncomfortable. This is the genocidal dictator who was directly responsible for the deaths of many millions of people, the author of human misery on a scale too profound and horrible to quantify. We rightly see him as a monster. And he was. But he was also a human being, with all that that implies.
“Should we humanize the inhumane?” asks the historian Brandon Gauthier, today’s guest on the PREVAIL podcast. His answer, emphatically, is yes. His fascinating new book, Before Evil, is a series of portraits of strongmen as young men: Kim, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler.
What he discovered was surprising. While we might assume that monsters like these were either born that way, or else suffered through traumatic childhoods with equally monstrous parents, this is not entirely the case. As Gauthier tells me:
If you asked someone on the street. . . what do you think gave rise to the evil of Adolf Hitler, who’s responsible for starting a world war in Europe which ultimately killed tens of millions of people—responsible for the murder of six million Jewish men, women, and children? What do you think happened in his childhood? And the common answer is: I imagine this person was the product of trauma, a lot of abuse. And that’s part of the story for sure. Hitler had a bad dad. Hitler’s dad was very abusive towards him, towards his half-brother.
But the defining story of Hitler’s childhood—and this is the parallel with Mao, and Stalin, and Mussolini, and Kim Il-Sung, and Lenin—is not trauma. It’s a certain degree of privilege. And a certain degree of having a loving parent. . . . The most important relationship in Hitler’s life. . . was his mom. He had a wonderful mom.
When Gauthier talks about privilege, he doesn’t mean that the fathers of these strongmen owned emerald mines in Zambia or residential apartment complexes in Coney Island—although those things could certainly provide the raw material for aspiring strongman, as we have seen. What he means is that these future autocrats did not grow up in hardscrabble situations: they had at least one parent who doted on them, and all of them had access to, and voraciously devoured, books. It’s not at all what the proverbial “person on the street” might guess.
With that said, there is no perfect formula. Not everyone with an asshole father and a loving mother who dies of cancer becomes as evil as Hitler. Not everyone whose brilliant older brother is executed for trying to overthrow the tyrannical Romanov government winds up as bloodthirsty as Lenin (although there is admittedly a smaller sample size in the latter case). But if you combine privilege, one abusive and one doting parent, malignant narcissism, and a wicked imagination, you can wind up with a Mao or a Stalin—or, indeed, a Donald John Trump.
I understand the reluctance to learn about the childhoods of these monsters—to humanize the inhumane, in Gauthier’s phrase. But that misses the point. We don’t read books like Before Evil to learn about Hitler’s humanity, or Stalin’s or Mao’s, but rather to learn about our own.
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
S3 E5: Strongmen as Young Men (with Brandon Gauthier)
Should we humanize the inhumane? Brandon Gauthier, author of the new book “Before Evil: Young Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, and Kim,” talks to Greg Olear about his travels to North Korea and his impetus for writing the book, and shares incredible stories about Hitler, Mao, and Lenin as young men. Plus: a new Nashville Twitter alternative.
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Photo via Wikipedia: Hitler has a young boy.
Greg, Thank you. I think of three things: Environment, training and trigger... (1) How was the monster brought up, e.g. Saddam Husein in poverty and brutal life on the streets, (2) how were they treated and trained, especially in their late childhood and teen years e.g. Hitler with monster father and doting mother as counter influences, and (3) what incident(s) triggered the hatred and cruelty that felt so good to them, along their path to becoming fully fledged monsters. I am sure some historian will find that Hitler was deeply insulted or humiliated by someone or some class of people, and carried that shame and anger his whole life.
Wow! Really interesting subject!!! I hope everyone I shared this with listens to it. Thank your introducing Brandon to my radar, I will certainly follow him.