When hero worship is misplaced
FROM BENITO MUSSOLINI TO HUGO CHAVEZ: INTELLECTUALS AND A CENTURY OF POLITICAL HERO WORSHIP
Paul Hollander, professor emeritus at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, was born in Budapest and left Hungary in 1956, the year the Soviets demonstrated convincingly that they could be just as brutal as the previous occupiers, the Nazis.
After earning his B.A. from the London School of Economics and a Ph.D. from Princeton, he pursued an academic career, writing 15 well-received books, among them “Political Pilgrims” (1981), a classic study of fellow travelers and their pathologies. Much of his work deals with communism, extremism, violence and the political attitudes of Western academics and intellectuals — attitudes that frequently confound escapees from totalitarian repression.
In “From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez,” he sets out to expand his discussions of why communist systems appealed to so many of Lenin’s “useful idiots,” focusing on “attitudes toward and perceptions of the leaders of these systems that … could be characterized as hero worship.”
This includes fascist states, as well as “several contemporary authoritarian regimes” and their leaders, among them Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Pol Pot, each of whom had his western intellectual apologists — even the murderous Pol Pot.
Noam Chomsky “made determined attempts to deny or minimize the mass murders carried out by the Pol Pot regime,” finding the root causes of Cambodia’s problems in “the deep-seated American hostility toward the progressive revolutionary regimes in the region.” And lest we forget, although not mentioned by Mr. Hollander, one of Hugo Chavez’s political supporters was Bernie Sanders.
Among the prominent American admirers of Fidel Castro was Norman Mailer, who wrote: “It was as if the ghost of Cortez had appeared in our century riding Zapata’s white horse.” Academics like C. Wright Mills fell hard for Castro, as did journalists, chief among them New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews, whose romantic view of his relationship with Fidel and Che helped sell the early myth of Castro as warrior-savior.
Whether in Cuba, China or the Soviet Union, New York Times correspondents seem to have played a central role in selling totalitarian regimes. Harrison Salisbury made an idyllic travelogue of Communist China, dedicated to Edgar Snow. Earlier, during the most brutal days of the Stalin collectivization, Walter Duranty, Pulitzer winner and Stalin romanticizer, wrote this in a poem: “Russians may be hungry and short of clothes and comfort,/But you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
The Stalinist duping of western intellectuals and artists has now become a well examined part of the historical record. But perhaps less discussed is the romance of the fascist dictators — a very brief one, but intense while it lasted. And some of the actors and institutions involved may come as a surprise.
Under President James Conant, “Nazi leaders were welcomed on the Harvard campus and invited to high profile social events.” Ties were cultivated with major German universities, even after purges of Jewish faculty and students. One Harvard professor urged the publication of “Mein Kampf,” another defended the occupation of Rhineland “and disputed the charge that Hitler was a militarist.” The dean of the Law School claimed that “freedom of speech prevailed in the Third Reich.” Harvard also sent a delegation to celebrate the anniversary of Heidelberg University, although its curriculum had been thoroughly Nazified. Among the other attendees: Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler. And at Columbia University, “Seven months after the notorious book burning in 1933 the German ambassador was invited to give a lecture and ‘warmly welcomed’ by President Nicholas Murray Butler.”
Mr. Hollander doesn’t attempt to probe in detail the individual motivations of the numerous other useful idiots he discusses, among them Beatrice and Sidney Webb, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Emil Ludwig, Lilian Hellman. But he does conclude that “intellectuals, like human beings in general (and perhaps more so), need the kind of illusions that promise a more meaningful and satisfying life.”
“Their imagination, idealism and urge for self-transcendence make them especially vulnerable to the allure of the good intentions that heroic leaders in their alleged pursuit of social justice personify.”
Or perhaps, more crudely put: Wine them, dine them, give them unprecedented personal access, praise their talent, high intelligence, perceptiveness and sensitivity, and you’ve got them — at least for as long as the atrocities don’t become too noticeable. And in some cases, Lilian Hellman’s, for instance, that makes no difference at all.