History and Biography: Simon Sebag Montefiore Considers the Issues Involved in Writing the Biography of One of History's Monsters

By Montefiore, Simon Sebag | History Today, March 2004 | Go to article overview

History and Biography: Simon Sebag Montefiore Considers the Issues Involved in Writing the Biography of One of History's Monsters


Montefiore, Simon Sebag, History Today


IN THE WORLD OF HISTORICAL biography and even historical fiction, it seems to be the age of dictators all over again. Biographies of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and novels on Caligula and Idi Amin, pour off the presses. Last year, there were at least ten books on Stalin alone, and this year Robert Service delivers a Stalin, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday a Mao--and Richard Overy a comparison between Hitler and Stalin.

In case, we delude ourselves too much on the significance of writing history, I discovered recently that there are plenty of people who remain untouched. While researching my book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar in Tbilisi, in his homeland Georgia, I bought a huge oil painting from the 1950s, showing Stalin in his Generalissimo's uniform with combine harvesters threshing behind him. When I got home I had it framed. I was staying with my parents when the framer arrived to deliver it. He took it in to my parents, and on the way out he said to me, 'I can see the resemblance to your father but not to you. He was a military man was he, your grand-dad?'

Yet these subjects seem fresh and relevant today. When I was researching Stalin, I learned that most of the great decisions of his rule took place not in the Kremlin but in his dachas, particularly those in the south. Few historians had visited all these so I set off to find them in the bandit republic of Abkhazia on the Black Sea, which can only be reached by UN Peacekeeping helicopter. When I was at one of them, I asked the old caretaker if anyone else had visited them all, fearing that she would answer that Robert Service or Richard Overy had just left. 'No,' she answered, 'but in the 1970s there was an Arab gentleman who visited every one.' 'Who was that?' 'Saddam Hussein.'

Saddam was obsessed with Stalin, and Ba'athism was an Arabist pastiche of Bolshevism. When a Kurdish leader was invited into Saddam's personal apartments to negotiate, he was amazed to find, in addition to bottles of Johnny Walker whisky, virtually everything written about Stalin translated into Arabic. The comparisons were legion--and not lost on Saddam: Tikrit and Gori are just a few hundred miles apart. Both men were brought up by strong mothers, rejected by weak fathers, protected and inspired by stepfather figures. Both rose through terrorist exploits. Saddam, born in 1937 the year of the Soviet Great Terror, seemed lo directly ape Stalin's Central Committee Plenums of that year when he took power and held his famous meeting when his leadership rivals were arrested. But Saddam, despite his attempts at fiction writing, lacked Stalin's subtlety, statesmanship, vision, his mastery of men, the power of his fanatical Marxism--and his intellectualism. 'I'm seventy and I never stop studying,' said Stalin.

But is biography the right way to understand these eras, and why is there such a fascination with these gruesome personal studies? Of course such studies cannot ignore the great tides of events, ideas and causes on which even great leaders are no more than flotsam. More seriously, as Michael Burleigh, author of the most brilliant history of Nazism, has written, there is a pornography of gruesome violence, particularly with the growing industry devoted to Nazi ghouls.

I myself loathe the dinner-party demonology competition that asks: Who is worse, Hitler or Stalin? How often I am asked that question! It disturbs me because it means choosing the evil of one murder over the evil of another; one life over another life; choosing one set of victims, fathers, parents, daughters and sons; this two million is worse than that one million. It means, effectively, joining Stalin in his characteristic joke: 'One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.'

Yet biographies of Stalin or Hitler are biographies of Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Germany. Nazism was all about Hitler; Bolshevism became Stalinism. Some imagine that biography simplifies or trivialises; but I think the opposite is true. …

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