Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators by Jay Nordlinger, offers a fascinating and unusual question for consideration: “What is it like to be the son or daughter of a dictator?” And not just any old authoritarian, but the worst of the worst? “You have to be very bad indeed – drenched in blood,” Nordlinger writes, “to qualify for my book. Sorry to be ghoulish about it, but body count mattered.”
Nordlinger, a senior editor of National Review, music critic for The New Criterion, and author of Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, presents sketches of the children of 20 dictators who reigned in the 20th century and into the 21st. The rogues’ gallery features Stalin, Mussolini, Castro, Kim, Duvalier, Qaddafi, Khomeini, Amin, Pol Pot and others, as well as a few whose infamy did not quite reach household name status: the Albanian Communist Enver Hoxha, for example, and the Ethiopian Mengistu, known as “the Stalin of Africa.”
The book even includes a chapter on a “son” of Hitler, even though Hitler had no children, technically speaking. But a French woman claimed that during World War I she and the 28-year-old soldier Hitler conceived a child who grew up unaware of his father’s identity. Historians doubt the truth of her claim, but her Hitler-lookalike son apparently never did; upon learning the identity of his notorious father after the Fuhrer’s suicide, he proudly embraced his supposed heritage and even sported the iconic Hitler mustache.
The offspring of these monsters were dealt a very unusual hand in life, to put it mildly, and they responded to that challenge in various ways. Some admired their totalitarian fathers; some even succeeded them, as in Syria, Haiti, and North Korea. A few comparatively normal children went their own way; some tried to distance themselves from the bloody legacy bequeathed them, and some even disowned and actively resisted their fathers.
The promiscuous Italian fascist Benito Mussolini had five children, officially speaking; as with some of the other tyrants in the book, the unofficial count of his children is unknown (Bokassa, president-for-life of the Central African Republic, reportedly had hundreds, as did North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung). Il Duce adored his firstborn daughter Edda, and she him: “I have always loved and admired my father more than anyone else in the world,” she once wrote. Until, that is, her husband participated in an attempted power play against Mussolini. Despite her passionate pleas, Edda’s father had the perceived traitor executed, and Edda renounced her father and even the Mussolini name. The whole operatic tragedy was devastating for both; Mussolini never got over it. In her memoir decades later, however, Edda seemed to have relented, making excuse after excuse for her father.
Others had less complex, less conflicted relationships with their fathers, like Pol Pot’s daughter and Ceausescu’s son, who revered their father but lived relatively normal, blameless lives within the dictatorial orbit. Some openly rejected their fathers’ evil: a daughter of Ceausescu said that she considered her last name a “dirty word”; Qaddafi’s son Saif, one of eight children, so embraced Westernization and liberal values that the New York Times called him the “un-Qaddafi” – until the Arab Spring threatened his father and Saif returned to defend him and the regime “to the last bullet.”
Other children of tyrants didn’t fall from far from the tree, if at all. Kim Il-Sung from North Korea, the “psychotic state” (as Jeanne Kirkpatrick called it), had six legitimate children. Among them, basketball fanatic Kim Jong-Il rose to succeed his father in 1994, and his successor, the current Dear Leader, is of course Kim Jong-Un, also a basketball nut. All three men ruthlessly murdered family members and any other inconvenient people when necessary. Jong-Il, for example, had a child with a mistress; to keep the affair an absolute secret, he had all of her friends sent to a concentration camp, where almost none survived.
In another example of filial succession, Haiti’s Baby Doc Duvalier, at nineteen the youngest national leader in the world, perpetuated his father’s cruel reign of terror until being forced into exile. Afterward he deluded himself that he was no dictator but a beloved president burdened with his father’s legacy. “I have absolutely no sense of guilt, no reproach whatsoever to myself,” he declared in a Barbara Walters interview. Referring to himself in the third person, like Caesar, he complained that “It’s crazy how Baby Doc has to pay for his father Papa Doc’s reputation.”
Nordlinger notes that denialism is common to these offspring of dictators, perhaps a necessary coping mechanism. Surrounded by a core of supporters and collaborators into their adulthood, many of them remembered their childhood, their fathers, and the regimes the way they needed to in order to justify it to themselves. Many now are dead, of course, and most of the living were reluctant to open up about their experiences to the writer of a book which labels their fathers “dictators.” Some, however, were forthcoming with Nordlinger, like one of the sons of Uganda’s Idi “Big Daddy” Amin; some, like Alina Fernandez, one of Castro’s daughters, have written blisteringly honest memoirs.
As for what the tyrants themselves have in common, Nordlinger points out that, “consumed by their colossal egos and busy smothering a country,” they were largely indifferent fathers who barely knew their children, with a couple of surprise exceptions like Amin and the Japanese General Tojo.
Nordlinger rounds out this psychological study by musing upon who were the best and worst of the fathers and the children. Franco wins Best Father, no doubt because he was “a picture of normality by comparison to the others,” while China’s Chairman Mao “stands out in his utter lack of human feeling” toward his ten offspring. Among the children, Nordlinger understandably favors the “defectors” such as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (“My father would have shot me for what I have done’), and it probably will come as no surprise that the monstrous Uday Hussein ranks at the bottom alongside other cruel successors such as Kim Jong-Il.
“We are not the sons and daughters of dictators, you and I,” Jay Nordlinger concludes, and Children of Monsters is a sobering, albeit relentlessly fascinating and entertaining, reminder of our good fortune.