This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Near the beginning of new film The Childhood of a Leader, a young boy is learning to speak French. At the end of the exercise, his teacher, a prim but gentle Stacy Martin, tells him how well he is doing, and the boy, with eyes as hard as diamonds, purposefully places his hand on her breast. "My mother lets me do it all the time," he tells her.
We're in Versailles, France, in the aftermath of the First World War. The boy's American father, we learn, is helping negotiate the peace terms with Germany. His mother, in public, is distant and cold, leaving her son to the passing whims of nurses, maids, and tutors.
You end up watching a similar creepy-child trope as was shown in We Need To Talk About Kevin, The Omen, and The Bad Seed. This kid isn't just a troublemaker, yearning for attention and engagement from his distant parents. We're watching something else—the early years of someone capable of living without a conscience, and who may well, we're led to believe, become a notorious figure in European history. But, watching films like this where kids are cast as mini-villains, what actually makes children evil? Can you go back to someone's childhood and predict a dickhead demagogue on the way?
"If you look at the childhoods of Franco, Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini, one very obvious thing they all had in common was very complex relationships with their fathers," says history professor Antonio Cazorla-Sanchez, also author of Franco: The Biography of a Myth, on the former Spanish dictator. "Each of their fathers were frequently absent, and then, when present, were drunk and violent and threatening. That meant each child developed very close and emotionally intense relationships with their mothers. They went through their life resenting their fathers, while they always saw their mothers as a sanctuary of emotional refuge. But how might that work?
"It's easy to image the conversation. After a violent outbreak from their father, a mother vesting her hopes in the child could fuel a sense of that the child will be different. A belief in themselves as somehow greater than their environment."
There's an element of that idea reflected in Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism. It's a book published in 1933—the year Hitler took control of Germany—that served as an inspiration for this film, which was written and directed by Brady Corbet (best known for his role in Michael Haneke's 2007 Funny Gamesremake).
In chapter five, Reich wrote that the family is "the first cell" of a fascist society, its "first central reactionary germ cell, the most important place of reproduction of the reactionary and conservative individual." He went on: "Being itself caused by the authoritarian system, the family becomes the most important institution for its conservation."
"There was a widespread idea at the time that the only way to be a parent was to be an authoritarian," Corbet says, speaking to me over the phone. "Children were spoken to and not heard. I wanted to ask whether that might have been a contributing factor to the rise of some of the most notorious figures in history." Jean-Paul Sartre also looms large in the film—The Childhood of a Leader takes its title from a 1939 Sartre short story, a portrait of a young boy who endures a very Freudian form of therapy before embracing the ideology of fascism.
So, theories seem to point towards either a stifling authoritarianism setting children up for a fascist sensibility, or an exceptionalism borne from being molly-coddled. But not everyone who was a bit of a nightmare as a child grows up into an awful adult. And you start to walk into dangerous territory when you try to link distress in childhood with sadism later in life. Spend time with any normal child, from any stable, warm upbringing, and the chances are they're not always going to be good company. They're going to lose their temper, fail to control their impulses, maybe express their latent sexuality in strange and unruly ways.
"Many people of the time grew up with very cold relationships with their parents. That was the status quo, because we're talking about a very repressed period of history," Corbet says. "But, of course, the years between the first and second world wars were defined by famine, poverty and death. They were the dark ages. What made these people different?" The early twentieth century might have been Corbet's idea of the dark ages, but it was also an era that gave rise to figures who felt the need to remodel the world in their own image. People who felt compelled to not be a product of their environment, but to make their environment a product of them—whatever the cost, and however much death and destruction it might cause.
I put that idea, of nature and nurture both playing a role, to Dr. Christopher Clark, a consultant forensic psychiatrist and executive director at Rampton high security hospital in Nottinghamshire. Clark's responsibilities at Rampton have included deciding whether "Soham murderer" Ian Huntley was fit to stand trial for killing two children in a small Cambridgeshire village in 2002.
"When you look around secure institutions like Rampton, you will find that many, and probably most, of the people in them have had traumatic upbringings," Clark says. "They've often been the subject of neglect and abuse themselves. So there's a clear association between criminality and violence and fractured relationships—particularly with parents.
"But we're talking, of course, of people who were ambitious and are skilled enough to negotiate something like the Russian Revolution, or become totally revered by the populous, as Hitler was," Clark says. "You can't do that without being highly capable at getting people onside, and getting people to listen to you. "These are people who have managed to somehow use whatever happened in their background, whilst developing very unusual skill sets. They're rarefied examples."
But Clark is keen to press home a similar point. Institutions like Rampton make it easy for us to analyse people with violently criminal pasts; to link what they've done with what's happened to them. But what about all the people who went through traumatic childhoods, and didn't become dictators or criminals?
"In actual fact, a lot of people who go on to be very successful, and who we would regard as being forces of good, have also had unhappy and fractured childhoods," Clark says. "We know an awful lot about the people that are bad, because, as a society, we collect them all together and study them, but we know much less about the people who have the same backgrounds as them and live decent lives. Maybe that's as much of an important question to answer?"
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