Watching real-life strongman moves while reading Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present from Ruth Ben-Ghiat is both surreal and chilling. But given that the book’s publication date was also the U.S. Election Day, comparisons are inevitable. At least to one of the candidates … you don’t need me to specify which one, right?
Ben-Ghiat takes a measured, scholarly, historic approach to strongmen in the second half of the twentieth century and first twenty years of this century. She addresses leaders from around the world, dividing them into these categories: the fascists, the coup leaders, and the new authoritarians. As strongmen, they evolve from the first version through the third, since the world changes with them.
Rather than turning a macro lens on just a few men with these tendencies, Ben-Ghiat offers a broad variety with seventeen examples. Some history she tells with more detail than others, but each strongman gets their due. Moving from the ways they gain power to the tools they use to maintain it, the details show precisely how they damage the nations they rule.
Tools of Power
When Ben-Ghiat turns to how these strongmen gather, increase, and consolidate power, the book gets difficult to read. Page after page about violence, corruption, and propaganda isn’t easy. Not to mention the challenge of digesting her chapter on how strongmen use virility and sexual abuse to enhance their power and turn against their own citizens.
In this section, you’ll find relatively familiar events and those which didn’t get enough exposure. When a strongman falls, the skeletons generally come out of the closet. But the people who suffered at their hand may choose to stay silent, having gone into exile and started new lives. So many atrocities stay hidden until historians and political scientists seek the truth. Which makes books like Ben-Ghiat’s more necessary now than ever.
On the other hand, Ben-Ghiat uses familiar events like Hitler’s concentration camps or the disappearing of Chilean dissidents to make her points. And then she carries those same principles through a variety of other strongmen to show the similarities. I learned more about Pinochet and Berlusconi, and well as Erdogan and Gaddafi. Things maybe I wish I didn’t know …
Thankfully, Ben-Ghiat includes a third section about the resistance to and downfall of the various strongmen. Whether it’s the rebellious Russian musicians, Pussy Riot, or the downfall of Pinochet by virtue of a constitutional citizen’s vote, the implication is clear. Citizens who stand by and do nothing risk their very lives, and the existence of their country as they know it. If this isn’t a message for the moment, I don’t know what is.
For most of my life, I’ve felt lucky to live in a country that wasn’t blatantly corrupt, that didn’t seem fooled by propaganda, and wasn’t ruled by violent men. The last few years have helped me see American history and current events more accurately, and this book contributes to that awareness. As they say, those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it.
Because Ben-Ghiat covers decades of history, I found connections to many books I’ve read from Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh to Night by Elie Wiesel. She mentions the supposed healing touch of French and English monarchs, as the authors of Quackery did. And the discussion of Vladimir Putin’s penchant for poisoning brought to mind Luke Harding’s book A Very Expensive Poison. And books by Isabel Allende often touch on the rule of Pinochet. Without knowing it, I’ve chosen books touched by strongmen rulers. Their very presence in history is painfully common.
I recommend Strongmen if you’re a student of history and politics or a citizen of the world. It’s intense, readable, and insightful, and a topic that’s critically important to understand.
Many thanks to NetGalley, W.W. Norton and Company, and the author for the opportunity to read a digital advanced readers’ copy in exchange for this honest review.