On Tuesday October 6, 2015, the Institute of World Politics hosted writer Jay Nordlinger, who is a senior editor with National Review, to talk about his new book, Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators.
Mr. Nordlinger first had the idea for this book while he was in Albania in 2002 for the first time. The country had once been home to the dictatorship under Communist leader Enver Hoxha throughout the 20th Century. With this in mind, Mr. Nordlinger was drawn to thinking about whether Hohxa had children and then went further to question what it would be like to (in his words) “bear a last name that is synonymous with terror, oppression, and murder?” At first, he thought that the topic would be good as a magazine piece, but then he considered the results that he could gather from surveying of the children of different dictators of the 20th Century, and that is how he realized the need for a book that delved into each of these cases.
When thinking about what children of what dictators to focus on first, he started with World War II dictators, i.e. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Stalin, and Tojo. Nordlinger then branched out to look at other dictators in the Far East (Mao, the Kim family, and Pol Pot), Europe (Hoxha and Ceausescu), the Caribbean (Duvalier and Castro), the Middle East (Gadhafi, the Assad, Hussein, and Khomeini), and in Africa (Mobutu, Bokassa, Amin, Men-Gitsu). In the case of Hitler, he never had children.
However, there is an interesting case where Hitler supposedly had a son with a 16 year-old French girl during World War I. This son then grew up to fight against the Nazis in World War II and “discovered” the supposed identity of his father at age 30. At first the man was in denial, but then upon his own personal investigation, he began to accept the fact that he was Hitler’s son and even derived pride from it. Nordlinger even remarked that when visiting Hitler’s “son’s” house, there was a picture of Hitler on the wall. Even though most historians agree that this man is in fact not Hitler’s son, it is quite interesting to see the psychological effects of knowing that one is the child of a notorious dictator.
Following this preface, Nordlinger delved into the various case studies of the dictators illustrated above. Among all of the various children, legitimate and illegitimate, of these varying dictators from varying time periods, geographic regions, and ideologies, each of them had very different experiences in both their interactions with their parents and the outcomes of being the children of said parents.
However, even with such varying experiences, there are a few noticeable categories into which these children fall. Some children succeeded their fathers as the leaders of their countries and became just as monstrous, if not more, than their predecessors. Two of the most noticeable examples of this in modern history are the likes of Kim Jong Un and Bashar Al-Assad.
Some fell into the category of what Nordlinger terms “normal people.” These include one of Ceausescu’s sons, Valentin, who grew up to become a physicist who was not violent like his father, and Mussolini’s youngest son, Romano, who became a jazz pianist yet retained his last name because of its appeal and his pride in his family.
Still others fell into the category of “defectors”: children who left their home country and denounced the cruel leadership of their parents. These include a grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, who spoke throughout the U.S. in 2003 advocating for an invasion of Iran until he was recalled to Iran and placed under house arrest in 2004, and the daughter of Stalin, named Svetlana, who “sensationally defected to the U.S. in 1967 and wrote several memoires about growing up in the Soviet Union.
With these types of categorizations in mind, Mr. Nordlinger went on to determine what exactly among different dictators caused their children to have very different types of futures. By looking at the effects of “nature versus nurture” styles of parenting, he found that the results were inconclusive. While there was a definite difference between the outcome of cases like Tojo’s children, who were treated affectionately, and Stalin’s children, who were treated for the most part cruelly, there were no unifying factors that indicated the effects on children of the different parenting styles. In fact, there would even be different outcomes for the children of the same parent. This is evident with Ceausescu’s two sons: Niku, a vile man who raped and killed anyone he so pleased, and Valentin, who as mentioned earlier, became a physicist.
Mr. Nordlinger closed with his personal ratings of the dictators and their children. According to his reserach, the best father was probably Tojo because he was a conscientious father and his children loved him . For the worst, it is a tie among all of them since, whether they accepted it or not, they all had tempers and they all bruised their children in some way (physically, mentally, and/or emotionally). In terms of the children, the best were children like Svetlana Stalin and Alina Fernandez, both of who defected to the U.S. and wrote brutally honest books about their childhoods as well as their fathers, and the worst were those who succeeded their fathers and continued their reigns of terror, like Bashar Al-Assad and Kim Jong Un.
Mr. Nordlinger ended his remarks by noting that he was happy to be done with such a gruesome topic. However, he did say that while studying the children of dictators was a depressing endeavor, it had a few redeeming moments because of the children that did something positive with their lives.