History – The Terrible Rulers

Caligula, Nero, Ivan the Terrible, Catherine de Medici, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, Pinochet, Mugabe, Napoleon, Richard III, Trump . . .

Trump? – Trump.

They are all tyrants – at least they appear as examples of such figures in the book “Tyrannen”, edited by André Krischer and Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger.

Questions already arise: What is the purpose of this selection? Donald the Terrible of North America? That Hitler and Stalin don’t appear – given, enough paper has been printed about them. But acquittal for Cromwell? Mussolini not mentioned, but Trump already – at least as a “wannabe”?

Very strange, all of that.

The most interesting chapter is at the beginning: Caligula. Aloy Winterling’s theses should be read throughout the book as a fine mycelium of universal understanding. Of that later.

Apparently, the editors themselves were not entirely comfortable with their approach. In the preface they admit that “bully” is a value judgement. Certainly: In his “Politics” Aristotle defined the tyrant as a ruler who rules only at his own discretion. Such rulers can be found in democracies as well as in dictatorships, write Krischer and Stollberg-Rilinger. According to Aristotle, the despot is the head of the household and thus the master of the slaves. The tyrant treats the state like a despot, he treats the people like slaves.

So Trump has led the citizens of the USA into a bondage that corresponds to slavery? – You can find this politician unsympathetic and incompetent, you can actually reject his often disgusting statements. But with the quasi-enslaved people of the USA during the Trump era, eyebrows will still be raised in question. Well, then you’re giving Trump the “wannabe bully” suffix: he’d like to, but he didn’t make it. Is this the way history is written, which since Tacitus is supposed to be practiced “sine ira et studio”, i.e. without resentment and partisanship?

It remains true: A tyrant is whoever is called a tyrant. It is enough to be in a position of power and to violate a historian’s canon of values.

In this respect, the selection in the book is interesting. These are by no means just the rulers commonly decried as tyrants, but also supposed luminaries like Tsar Peter I., and one or the other is pardoned.

There are always gaps

On the other hand, there are gaps – as always when it is listed. Admittedly, one can perhaps get over the fact that Ranavalona I., who established a regime of terror as Queen of Madagascar in the 19th century, does not appear; one can possibly also overlook the fact that Tojo Hideki is missing, who first as Chief of Staff of the Japanese Army was responsible for the massacres during the Japanese invasion of China, then as Prime Minister of Japan for the attack on Pearl Harbor and the atrocities of Japanese warfare.

But some tyranny continues to have an often devastating effect to this day. The rulers of Papa Doc François Duvalier and his son Baby Doc Jean-Claude Duvalier have turned Haiti into a state where nothing works. Likewise, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini left a disastrous mark on Iran, and it is only the current growing opposition to the restrictive leadership based on unenlightened Islam that offers a glimmer of hope to the people. Romania, too, is still suffering from the effects of Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime. And sometimes the transfiguration sugarcoats an image: what about Maria Theresa and her intolerance against Jews, her commitment to torture, the threat of the death penalty for homosexuality and abortion?

As is always the case in historiography: it requires a closer look, careful consideration. The question of who has behaved as a bully and who has not is no exception. And not every tyrant who may be individually perceived as a tyrant is also a tyrant. Interior and exterior views do the rest that the matter becomes even more complicated than it naturally already is.

The prime example of this was the Roman Emperor Nero. He was crushed between the Scylla of senatorial Roman historiography and the Charybdis of Christian post-Roman historiography. The Roman authors did not forgive the esthete his Greek attitude with a lust for the good life, for sporting and artistic competitions and a decided aversion to the Roman ideal, war. Post-Roman historiography blamed Nero for the only thing that Romans found good about him: that he persecuted the Christians.

The Nero case, of course, has largely been worked up today. Meanwhile, Aloys Winterling proposes an equally source-critical approach to Caligula. Finally: Very few tyrants have gone down in history with their nickname: Caligula, the little boot, was called Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus because as a child he wore soldiers’ boots. Could this Caligula, like Nero, have gotten into the grindstone of ancient and modern historians – namely in that of the ancients, because he admittedly cynically manifested the powerlessness of the Senate and thus the actual end of the Roman Republic; and that of the new historians, who unthinkingly adopted the image of the insane ruler in order to write, as it were, in an exemplary manner against the form of government of the monarchies?

Differentiated considerations

If there is any merit in such an (admittedly persuasive) reasoning, shouldn’t all actual and perceived tyrants be subjected to such a re-examination? No doubt the results will hold up in the extreme cases like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Idi Amin and similar phenomena. But if even a warmonger like Napoleon is allowed to take a differentiated view, what about Erdoğan? And with Trump?

Dreadful thought: Is contemporary history about to fall into the trap of being too close? Will it one day be seen as interest-driven, as Winterling proves in Roman historiography? Then it would be quite possible that the current reports and analyzes failed before the source criticism of posterity.

Good books answer questions. Better books ask questions.

So this is an excellent book.

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