Simon Sebag Montefiore: Saddam, Like His Hero Stalin, May Well Be Revered by Some in the Future

Roundup: Historians' Take

Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, in the NYT (July 2, 2004):

...Aristotle said men do not become tyrants"to keep out the cold." They are motivated by forces that are as unfathomable as they are impractical. While we cannot say for sure what forces drove Mr. Hussein to achieve the rank of tyrant, we can say something about the man on whom he modeled himself: Stalin. By looking at how Stalin fared in Russian popular opinion after his death, we might also hazard a guess as to how Mr. Hussein and his image will fare during and after his trial.

Saddam Hussein admired, studied and copied Stalin, the paragon of modern dictators. Here's one story. Stalin had 15 scenic seaside villas, some of them czarist palaces, on the Black Sea coast of Abkhazia. In 2002, I visited and photographed these extraordinarily well-preserved Stalinist time capsules. At one point, I asked an old caretaker if any other Westerners had visited them."No," she replied,"but there was an Arab gentleman in 1970's who insisted on visiting every one!" His name?"Saddam Hussein."

According to Mr. Hussein's courtiers, he was obsessed with Stalin. Kurdish politicians who visited his apartments recall seeing shelves of Stalin biographies, translated just for him into Arabic.

Small wonder. The parallels are powerful: Gori, Stalin's Georgian birthplace, and Tikrit, Mr. Hussein's hometown, are barely 500 miles apart. Both men were raised by strong ambitious mothers, abused by useless fathers, inspired to greatness by stepfatherish patrons. Both found absolutist belief and personal respect in radicalism: Bolshevism and Baathism respectively. Neither seized power overnight; instead, both eased into supremacy through a mixture of patronage and personality within a tiny one-party oligarchy. Both were promoted by revered potentates whom they ultimately crossed.

And both were avid avengers. In 1937, Stalin orchestrated a terror against erstwhile comrades, making them accuse one another at a Central Committee Plenum, then supervise one another's torture and execution; in 1979, Mr. Hussein parodied this at a filmed Baathist conference in which his"enemies" were named, then shot downstairs by their colleagues.

When such characters find and embrace their creed, self-belief fuses with fanatical ideological devotion. Once Vasily Stalin dropped his father's name:"I'm called Stalin too," insisted Vasily."No," shouted Stalin."You're not Stalin and I'm not Stalin. Stalin is Soviet power." The question today is whether the same will be said of Mr. Hussein and Iraq....

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