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Quite a cast of characters in Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s ‘Strongmen,’ a brutal tour of the tyrannies of the last hundred years

Stan Fellows for The Boston Globe

Idi Amin. Mohamed Siad Barre. Francisco Franco. Muammar Gaddafi. Adolf Hitler. Saddam Hussein. Benito Mussolini. Augusto Pinochet. Vladimir Putin.

That’s quite a cast of characters, all principal players in Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s “Strongmen,” a brutal tour of the tyrannies of the last hundred years. She asserts that “ours is the age of the strongman,” and her roster includes the 45th president of the United States. These are men — curiously, Eva Peron is overlooked, though she may not technically qualify — marked by their “dependence on corruption and censorship and their neglect of the public good.”

Readers might expect that a book such as this would be a compendium of murder, mayhem, malfeasance, and misanthropic behavior, and they will not be disappointed in the fast-moving pages of this volume. But what they might not anticipate — and what separates this book from the many others that examine tyrants and tyranny — is the analysis that puts this phenomenon in perspective.

Here Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, attributes the rise of her strongmen to the rejection of liberal democracy that came with World War I and its aftermath, particularly communism, fascism, and fascination with leaders of strength and national redemption. In this regard she portrays Mussolini as the founding father of the genre and argues that the experience, tactics, and methods of the 1914-1918 conflict became domestic tools, “attracting veterans who exchanged state-issued military uniforms for black and brown shirts.”


Later, World War II and its Cold War aftermath made their own sad contributions, preparing the globe for a series of military coups. Finally, the collapse of communism in the last dozen years of the 20th century “created the conditions for the rise of a new right and a new authoritarian era” marked by what she calls “hypernationalist and tribalist sentiments and ethnic conflicts,” particularly in the lands once part of the old Soviet Union.


The chapter titles of this book are as good a guide as any to its contents and to the characteristics of strongmen themselves: Propaganda. Virility. Corruption. Violence. Fortunately the book concludes with chapters titled Resistance and Endings. Along the way Ben-Ghiat, who is particularly strong on Mussolini and Franco, takes us across the continents, not neglecting Africa (Zaire) and South America (Chile), and we discover that in the darkest days of the last century the word “disappeared” was transformed from verb to noun.

She does not exclude or exempt Donald J. Trump, calling him out for what she calls "his fidelity to strongman tactics,'' and provides us with this evocative statement: “The idea of the strongman who brings his nation to greatness is a foundation of authoritarian history.” In fairness, Lyndon B. Johnson, too, was fond of the word “great” and called his domestic agenda the “Great Society.”

Even so, no reader can mistake her intention when she writes, “Nostalgia for better times is also part of the equation, since the ruler’s vow is to make the country great again.” Nor is there much mystery of her views of contemporary America in this passage, part of a discussion of propaganda in which she describes strongmen as having “direct communication channels with the public, allowing them to pose as authentic interpreters of the popular will.” Nor in this: “Making misogynist and racist comments to shift media attention from their corruption and incompetence is a common tactic.”


In the course of all this, Ben-Ghiat dwells on corruption and self-dealing, arguing that what she calls 21st-century “strongman kleptocracy” frequently involves tyrants' takeovers of profitable businesses, followed by the laundering of money, often through real estate investments and other ventures with unsuspecting partners.

Many readers can well live without Ben-Ghiat’s explicit disclosure that Mussolini and Gaddafi each had sex addictions, though even the prudes among us might find it intriguing to learn that Mussolini fathered about 20 children, that his first wife ended up in a mental institution, and that he had a son he caused to be murdered by lethal injection. And the prominence of sons-in-law in this group is one of this phenomenon’s curiosities. One of them is Galeazzo Ciano, son-in-law to Mussolini and Italy’s foreign minister from 1936 to 1943. Even the casual reader of the Globe and other news sources will readily be able to name another prominent son-in-law.

But whew: There is light amid the darkness here, for in the end tyrannies often come to an end.

“Nothing prepares the ruler to see his propaganda ignored and his charismatic hold weaken until he loses control of the nation and is hunted by his own people,” she writes. But she warns that, like earthquakes, the tyrannies of strongmen have aftershocks. “In fact, strongmen do not vanish with their exits from power, but instead remain as traces within the body of their people,” she writes. “The muscle memory to salute and sing the songs can be hard to shake.” She might have introduced another American president into these sorrowful pages, and reminded us that, as Abraham Lincoln put it, in the end the better angels of our nature sometimes prevail.


Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present

Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Norton, 384 pages, $28.95

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.