The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The deadliest books the world has ever known

Imagine a vast library, its interminable stacks groaning with unread books. Its dusty aisles are haunted by long departed authors who once wielded unimaginable power, now doomed to wander among their forgotten words.

This is not a tale told by Jorge Luis Borges. Far from it, as we learn when Daniel Kalder takes us on a tour of what he calls “The Infernal Library”: books written by (or ghostwritten for) tyrants of the past century (and a few from our current one). These are tomes once forced upon subject populations, printed in vast numbers for no existing markets, resulting in what Kalder terms the “genre of dictator literature,” much of it “aggressively dry, theoretical prose” designed to “distort reality.”

Kalder begins with famous 20th-century dictators, all published authors, though of very different kinds and for different reasons. Lenin introduced a “vision of the text as warfare” with his “awesomely belligerent” style. Pamphlets such as “The Liquidation of the Liquidationists” posed as theories of political action while paving the way for man-made catastrophes. While still a bookish teenager, Stalin published a nature poem in a textbook that remained in print until the 1960s, while adopting his familiar nickname, “Koba,” from a Robin Hood-style character in a potboiler. Yet given the “Bolshevik reverence for the word,” Kalder notes, one only rose in the party ranks through an appreciation of theory and production of further theory, which in Stalin’s case came in the form of “The National Question and Social Democracy,” his literary breakthrough. While Lenin dispatched his opponents in a few paragraphs, Stalin opted for “a ruthless stockpiling of citations, a plodding, relentless, great heaping up of rhetoric.” Unfortunately, Kalder reminds us, such theories required “massive violence” to be put into practice.

Mussolini, never beholden to any one philosophy for long, was free to foretell his own bloody fate in a variety of genres. Kalder concedes that the prolific Il Duce is at “times highly readable.” A self-styled man of action, Mussolini nonetheless marched himself through Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel before writing a novel called “The Cardinal’s Mistress,” filled with “lurid fantasies of rape and revenge,” including “the beating of a horse out of sexual frustration,” a far cry from “the sterile, bodiless world of Bolshevik prose.” In it he divines that “the mob’s patience is finite, and it does not forgive failure. Lose control, and you will lose everything.” He anticipated his own future again in a play about the last days of Napoleon, in which the French Emperor is warned “the days of autocracy are over.”

Adolf Hitler is the father of what is probably the most famous and dangerous of all dictators’ books, “Mein Kampf,” which not only remains in print but continues to find avid readers, enjoying “a genuine popularity far in excess of any text written by any of his dictatorial peers.” Kalder takes pains to show that the Fuhrer was not really much of a writer, despite being “a keen reader” with around 16,000 books in his library by the end. On the contrary, Hitler saw himself as a great orator. It is likely he started “Mein Kampf” while in Landsberg Prison because he was not free to work the crowds. The book, in which he transformed himself into “a Teutonic super-warrior,” is a rambling, incoherent mess, nothing like the methodical theories of the communists. It did not matter. Hitler believed that “speakers, not writers, turned the world upside down.” Following his release, Hitler wrote the second half of his unwieldy tome while under a speaking ban, after which he promptly dropped the pen and reached for the microphone. Kalder demonstrates that despite enormous sales, the book attracted few eager readers. Top-ranking Nazis admitted little familiarity with its contents. Even Hitler himself acknowledged that the book was “not much good.”

Kalder goes on to tell of books by a grotesque cast of dictators: assembled aphorisms like Mao’s “Little Red Book,” the world’s second best-selling book after the Bible; impossible blueprints like Gaddafi’s “Green Book”; novels like Franco’s family saga “Raza” and Saddam Hussein’s “Get Out, You Damned One!”; Soviet-style pabulum by “Papa Doc” Duvalier and Robert Mugabe; and efforts at a great national book like “The Rukhnama,” by Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbashi. In all, this is a mesmerizing study of books by despots great and small, from the familiar to the largely unknown. Millions of books came off the presses. Then millions of people went to their graves.

Kalder’s survey of the bizarre library of dictator literature might easily leave a reader shaken, even dejected. The badness of these books, and their effects, is almost impossible to fathom. As he explains, the danger is that “their sheer awfulness makes it impossible to believe in their power to infiltrate and transform brains until it is too late.” Luckily, Kalder maintains a skeptical sense of humor throughout. How else could one confront men of terrifying real-world power who nonetheless had “faith that writing could alter reality,” typing out “sacred texts endorsing the use of the fist?”

These volumes can be as laughable as they are frightening. We do well to study their legacies, even if we never choose to turn their pages.

Ernest Hilbert is a poet and dealer in rare books.

By Daniel Kalder

Henry Holt. 400 pp. $32

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