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Older and newer tyrants

Tyrants: A History from Caligula to Putin
Despots / The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century caused disasters and crimes of completely different dimensions than any pre-modern tyrants could have imagined. But what qualifies those in power over the centuries to become tyrants?


Just over two hundred years ago, a French nobleman and writer reflected on the phenomenon of 'evil'. He thought there was a lack of research on the topic – and decided to correct it. The fieldwork led to his death sentence, but when the accused fled Paris and took the opportunity to make an art trip to Rome, a doll was burned in his place. The crime? Having organized sexual "orgies" and authored "amoral" literature. Marquis de Sade, originator of the term 'sadism', indeed avoided death, but not twentyseven years in prison.

Richard III, King of England; Ivan IV, "the terrible"; Napoleon Bonaparte; Leopold II, King of Belgium; Idi Amin; Augusto Pinochet; Robert Mugabe; Bashar al-Assad and Kim Il Sung.

'Freethinker' or 'sexual savage' – marquis de Sade has received many labels, but today his excesses would hardly achieve more than raised eyebrows. De Sade is a good reminder of how decisive the zeitgeist can be for a person's destiny and legacy. This is precisely the theme of Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger and André Krischer's literary collection with the title Tyrants: A History from Caligula to Putin. Here they deal with a selection of historical bad guys, which serves as a showcase for the tyrant concept. The book is authored by 20 researchers in science and academia. 20 is thus also the number of the selected protagonists.

If the world had only seen twenty tyrants, it would have been a much better place. But one book does not have room for them all, instead the crucial question is asked: What qualified those in power over the centuries to become tyrants or despots? The emphasis focuses on political interpretation.

Who can indeed be defined as a tyrant or a despot? The terms originate from Greek antiquity. According to Aristotle, the greatest authority in the field at the time, the tyrant is a person in power who rules on impulse instead of conforming to society's rules. During Europe's civil wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the rebels formulated the maxim that "every legitimate regime is based on a mutual contract between monarch and people, and a monarch who breaks this contract becomes a tyrant."

Caligula and Nero

A British adviser under Oliver Cromwell made a statement in the XNUMXth century about Roman emperors. The "mad" Caligula, he claimed, exemplified that "it affects the mental health of a ruler when he believes that his power is limitless and independent of Parliament [...] only the lack of control of power had made Caligula a "bestie" – beast. Without it, he would perhaps have remained human."

In ancient times it was not uncommon for emperors to be killed. A regular system for abdication in the modern sense did not exist. Society was built on slave labour, and the ideal of human equality belongs to later times. In the book, it is claimed that the fall and violent death of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (Caligula) in the year 41 were the catastrophic consequences of broken communication between the emperor and the aristocracy. The latter were at the time the only relevant political actors on behalf of the people.

A similar life course also applied to another celebrity from that time – Emperor Nero. The story describes a madman who lives in obscene luxury, puts Rome on fire, has incestuous relationships with his sister and mother, orders the death of senators and really just wants to be on stage as a guitar-playing troubadour. After four years of autocracy, he is destroyed. So one might wonder who was more tyrannical here, a misplaced emperor or those who put him on the throne. (For film enthusiasts, Peter Ustinov's portrayal of Nero in Quo Vadis from 1951 is a treat.)

Coffin. Also see the interview on the following pages

The tyrants

The Tyrant anthology spends a lot of time on biographical sketches, including of Richard III, King of England; Ivan IV, "the terrible"; Napoleon Bonaparte; Leopold II, King of Belgium; Idi Amin; Augustus Pinochet;Robert Mugabe; Bashar al-Assad and the Kim Il Sung dynasty. These sketches are less inspiring than the passages describing systemic changes. Here we note the "soldier king" Fredrik Vilhelm I of Prussia. He even described himself as a "tyrant" – in personal relationships he was unruly and violent. Towards the nobility he behaved in the same way, declaring: "I deprive the Junkers of their authority." Thus he cashes in some praise among historians, including compliments for preparing the way into a modern, rational rule of law. Now "order and justice" must apply.

That tyranny can be used as the 'end justifies the means' method is a recurring theme for the book's writers, exemplified by Mao Zedong. In China's Communist Party, his reign of power is compared to the brutality of the founder of the Chinese Empire, Qin Shihuang, XNUMX-XNUMX BC. A debate ensues: Were the despotic means necessary? If so, shouldn't Mao, having achieved his goals, have returned to a decent regime, where moral authority and voluntary alliances prevailed? Mao himself participated in this discussion and referred to the relevance of XNUMX year-old arguments.

Erdogan, Trump, Putin

In the discussion of the book's three last tyrants, a common feature becomes clear, namely the connection to a glorious and honorable past. Erdoğan with a "neo-Ottomanism"; Trump, who wanted to make America "great again", with few further specifications. But then, he did not need to, according to the authors: “At the center of all Donald Trump's considerations stands alone Donald Trump.” Finally we look at Putin, with his wishes for Soviet Union and tsarist era glories.

Putin = Louis XIV's motto 'l'etat c'est moi'.

Above all, it becomes clear to what extent we are dealing with something new here. Trump is the one who embodies not only his own depravity, but also his country's societal erosion. The even more extreme figure, however, is Putin, whose person in his own and others' eyes is equated with Russia, in the style of Louis XIV's slogan 'l'etat cest moi'. With Putin, we have the link back to the tyrants of antiquity, those who broke all the chains of decency; a difference being that Putin is breaking the chains despite a universal societal consensus, where the leader must serve the people, not the other way around. Finally, what is new with Putin is that the term 'tyrant' itself, which was long out of the political vocabulary, has returned with a vengeance.


Stollberg-Rilinger and Krischer formulate a disillusioned thesis: "That the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century caused disasters and crimes of completely different dimensions than all pre-modern tyrants could have imagined, can hardly be denied. In comparison with such phenomena, the register of sins of the old princes seems anachronistic and does not really beg for analysis. When the concepts from that time have found new relevance in public debate, it is perhaps a sign of a general helplessness that has spread, evidenced by the crumbling democratic progress."

The following warning, not quite so gloomy, reads: "If Vladimir Putin were to go down in history as a 'great man', it is a declaration of bankruptcy for all universal values ​​since the Enlightenment."

Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Eckhoff is a regular reviewer for Ny Tid.

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