A New Book Analyzes the Poetry of History’s Most Evil People
Apparently iron fists and tender souls aren't mutually exclusive.
This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Suleiman the Magnificent had two major things in common: a tendency to rule with an iron fist and a burning need to channel their emotions into poetry. And as it turns out, they weren't the only totalitarian rulers with a poetic side.
Dutch writer and journalist Paul Damen gathered as many poems by authoritarian leaders as he could find, and he assembled them into the book Bloemen van het Kwaad (Flowers of Evil), which was published by Koppernik earlier this month.
I spoke to Paul to find out why dictators tend to write poetry, how the book came about, and whether or not their poetry is actually any good.
VICE: What do you love about dictators' poetry so much that inspired you to spend eight years studying it?
Paul Damen: Well, I don't really. It's just a hobby that got out of hand. I knew Hitler and Mussolini had written poems, and that Nero had written a lot, so I thought, What about the rest of them?
How did you manage to find all these poems?
It was difficult at first, because when I started the internet wasn't as extensive as it is now. I remember going to the university library in Naples to go through the 36 enormous volumes of Mussolini's Opera Omnia. It all became a lot easier when the works started appearing on the internet.
The whole project was a gamble, because I had no idea how many poet-dictators I would find. If you find five of them after a long search, you still have nothing—you have to have at least 20 to turn it into a book, I think.
How did you translate the poems?
I know about seven different languages, so I could handle most of the poems. Some chapters were difficult, such as the poetry in Arabic, but based on context, I managed to get relatively far.
Hirohito's poems are a good example. By looking at certain key words, I could figure out the context. If you read "mountain," "snow," "green tree," and "panoramic views," it's not difficult to tell what the poem is about. After that, you check character after character—because my Japanese is not great—for a possible translation, based on that context. The translation that I ended up with, I had checked by two or three people who actually do understand Japanese.
Wouldn't it have been easier to just hire a bunch of translators?
No, I wanted to do everything myself. And translators can screw it up, too: A lot of poetry translations, such as the ones I found of Mao's poetry, made no sense whatsoever. So I preferred to translate everything myself, and then have it checked afterward.
Isn't it weird that these ruthless dictators have such a well developed sensitive side?
Well, in most Arab countries, it's perfectly normal that dictators or rulers write poetry. It's part of their culture, as it is in China and Japan. A true warrior should know how to fight and write poetry—at least, that's the idea. That may seem weird from our Western perspective, but we're the exceptions—not the rest of the world.
Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Il-sung were all tremendous assholes, but they're no strangers to poetry. The same is true for Osama bin Laden. He was simply expected to write poetry, and it was part of his education: rhetoric and poetry.
Poetry by Elizabeth I from 'Bloemen van het Kwaad'
Why would they take time out of their busy days just to write poetry?
Their motives vary. A number of them wanted to prove that they had other qualities besides being a dictator. Hitler always said about himself that he was a writer. Someone like Elizabeth I wrote to express her feelings. Suleiman the Magnificent did that, too.
But there are some who wrote purely for propaganda purposes, like Mao, Fidel Castro, and Nicolae Ceaușescu. Or António Salazar from Portugal. He wrote shitty hymns to the Virgin Mary, God, and the Portuguese flag to propagate nationalist and Catholic values.
Mussolini is also an interesting case. He wrote poetry when he was younger, and as a dictator, he used his talent to spread propaganda. So, for example, he established a day to honor bread and wrote a poem about it, like: "Honor the bread, hooray for the bread, everybody's happy with bread," and that was printed on posters and distributed all over the country.Poetry by Suleiman I from 'Bloemen van het Kwaad'
Is any of the poetry actually good?
I like Suleiman's poems. You can see that Mussolini is a writer at heart, and, strangely enough, Karadžić, the Butcher of Bosnia, is pretty good. His themes are terrible—it's all about blood and people coming from the mountains to retaliate—but it's well crafted.
Actually, when you read the poems, you should detach yourself from the idea that they're all bloody madmen. They're not your typical romantic poets; they don't wake up in the morning and suddenly decide to write about the beauty of life. Almost all of them have a hidden agenda or ulterior motives with their poetry.
Are there any dictators missing in your collection?
I would've liked to include dictators like Enver Hoxha, Franco, Pinochet, or Jaruzelski, but they've not written poems, unfortunately. And there are some poets I didn't include. If you look at my personal bullet points of what exactly makes a dictator, you could see the prophet Muhammed as one. He had his own caliphate, where his power was unlimited. And half the Qur'an is full of poetry. But I won't translate it—I love my life and don't want to deal with what could happen if I do.
It's remarkable how many dictators are poets—could you turn it around and say that many poets could have been dictators?
I don't know about that. A poet needs to be somewhat romantic and have an enormous power over language. A poet wants to move with language, shock with language, or at least exert some influence with language. Dictators and poets have that in common: wanting to have an influence and leave a mark on their audience.
Below are two more poems from Bloemen van het Kwaad, the first by Mao Zedong and the second by Fidel Castro.