What Makes a Dictator?
When we begin to discuss the most odious characters from history, dictators are so often who we tend to gravitate towards. And, might I add, rightfully so, in many cases. However, if we want to understand, and hopefully prevent, the rise and rule of despotic tyrants, we must try to understand what creates a dictator- particularly that of the more brutal variety.
In my, albeit brief, study of history, I have noticed an interesting trend that links many of these dictators to one another. And while the trend I have identified is not applicable to all cases, I was stunned by just how many cases it does apply to. My discovery is that, in short, most dictators had absolutely miserable childhoods.
Of course, correlation doesn't equal causation. Obviously, the vast majority of those who experience great hardship during their formative years don’t go on to become murderous tyrants. However, it would be foolish to discount how these experiences contributed to the molding of the ruthless, callous, power-hungry psychological profile that is a common thread amongst these men.
In this article, I will provide examples of dictators and their terrible childhood experiences and try to extrapolate as to how those experiences may have the shaped the man that would go on to commit atrocities while in power. To do this, we will be looking at 2 very famous dictators and treating their lives as case studies.
The first of the two dictators I have chosen is probably the most notorious of all time: Adolf Hitler. Everyone knows what crimes this man committed: the Holocaust, the concentration camps, arguably starting a war that went on to see tens of millions perish, the Night of the Long Knives, etc. However, what most people don’t know about are the tragedies Hitler witnessed before he went on to commit his own.
By age 10, a young Hitler had already witnessed the death of a sibling. His younger brother Edmund died of measles at just 5 years old. His father, Alois, was a drunk who would savagely beat him, often with the whole family watching.
Alois died, probably from a pleural hemorrhage, when Adolf was only 13. Despite being subject to constant abuse at the hands of his father, Alois’ death deeply saddened Adolf. In his memoir, The Young Hitler I Knew, childhood friend August Kubizek reported that the 13-year-old Adolf “burst out into uncontrollable weeping” upon hearing the news that his father had passed.
Though he had more than his fair share of problems with his father, Hitler always had a very special bond with his mother, Klara. She was always there to comfort and console him after his father's lashings out. She was an exceedingly supportive mother. When Adolf informed her of his dream of becoming a musician, despite not really having the money, she went out and bought him a grand piano. The Hitlers’ family doctor, Eduard Bloch, said that he had “never witnessed a closer attachment” than that of Adolf and Klara.
In January 1907, tragedy struck once again as Klara was diagnosed with breast cancer. Bloch did not wish to inform Klara of such awful news, instead opting to rest that duty at the feet of 17-year-old Adolf. The Hitlers were devastated by the news and, at that point, the cancer had already metastasized, leaving little chance of Klara’s survival. While caring for his terminally ill mother, Hitler was dealt yet another blow: his first rejection from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. On December 21, 1907, Klara was pronounced dead, and an 18-year-old Hitler was left without the person who meant everything to him. Bloch said he “never saw anyone as prostrate with grief as Adolf Hitler”.
Hitler went on to get rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts again in 1908 and, with that, his dream of becoming a famous artist officially died. Directionless, he eventually enlisted in the Bavarian Army and fought in World War I. During his service, he sustained an injury to his left thigh from a shell blast and was temporarily blinded by a British gas attack- not to mention the psychological trauma caused by witnessing unimaginable carnage and horrors of war. After the war, Hitler found himself in and out of homeless shelters.
Adolf Hitler’s formative years were nothing short of hellish. With all of the death and tragedy he experienced starting at a young age, as bad as it sounds, you start to see why such a man may have viewed human life as cheap- a view reflected by the way in which he governed. His destructiveness as a leader was his way of lashing out against a world that had so deeply wounded him.
The other dictator I will be examining is Saddam Hussein. Nicknamed the ‘Butcher of Baghdad’, Hussein’s Iraq was a police state that failed to honor and protect the basic human rights of its citizenry. Some of his more famous atrocities include the Al-Anfal campaign in which the Iraqi army massacred Kurds under the guise of quashing an insurgency and his plunging of Iraq into a war with Iran which killed over million people.
Amazingly, to understand the full extent of Saddam’s early life hardship, we must begin before he was even born. His father either walked out or passed away (there are conflicting accounts) about 6 months prior to his birth. This exacerbated his mother Subha’s already serious depression.
While she was pregnant with Saddam, she would pull out clumps of her own hair and tried to commit suicide on more than one occasion. She also continuously tried to give herself an abortion by beating on her pregnant stomach. These attempts failed and she ended up giving birth to a healthy baby on April 28, 1937.
Shortly thereafter, Subha’s eldest son died of cancer at just 12 years of age, plunging her into an ever deeper hole. At this point she was, without question, no longer willing or able to raise a child. So, she sent Saddam to go live with her brother and father of Saddam’s future first wife, Khairallah Tulfah.
Saddam lived with Khairallah until the age of 3 and was sent back to live with his mom when she remarried. Her new husband was a man named Ibrahim al-Hassan. He routinely physically and psychologically abused the young Saddam as his mother turned a blind eye to her son’s suffering. Al-Hassan would also make Saddam steal for the deeply impoverished family. Saddam became so fed up with his horrible situation that, at only 10 years of age, he ran away from home and went back to live with his uncle.
One of the defining characteristics of Saddam’s regime was his immense paranoia. He constantly felt as though he was surrounded by enemies and was suspicious of everyone he came across. It is largely due to this suspicion that he saw it as necessary to have a police state in which everyone was constantly being watched and surveilled.
These high levels of paranoia and suspicion have a direct link to Saddam’s childhood. Every step of the way, those who were supposed to provide him with love, care, and guidance had profoundly failed him. If he couldn't trust them, how could he trust outsiders? Saddam never learned to trust.
Critics of this article may claim that I am doing a disservice by humanizing people who have committed brutal acts. To that, I would respond that, at the end of the day, they’re people too. We all are influenced heavily by the environment(s) in which we grow up. By gaining a greater understanding of what types of environments tend to produce evil-doers, we can more effectively work to alleviate these harmful circumstances and, in turn, build a better and more just tomorrow.