Humans or monsters?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 November, 2004, 12:00am

Stalin's niece, Kira Allilueva, told biographer Robert Service in 1998 that the dictator 'could be very entertaining'. He had her jailed in his last round of purges, after the second world war, but she still remembered how kind he had been to her when she was a little girl, how he took her on his knee and sang songs to her. Also, he wrote poetry in Georgian as a youth, he read Dostoevsky, and his subordinates saw him as considerate.

He also had millions of people killed, which is why, until Service's recent book, Stalin: A Biography, people were reluctant to write about his human side. Yet a moment's thought will tell you that the great dictators could never have achieved such power over other people if there was not something attractive about their personalities.

It will be quite a while before some brave Cambodian makes the first film that shows the human side of Pol Pot, and in China they have not even got round yet to admitting officially that Mao Zedong was a monster. But in Europe, where the horrors are a bit more distant in time, it is all the rage.

The current wave of books and films about human monsters began with a couple of ground-breaking Italian biographies that showed the human side of Benito Mussolini, although he was not really in the first team as a mass murderer. Service's biography of Stalin is in a different league - and so is Berndt Eichinger's ground-breaking film on the last days of Hitler, The Downfall.

Released in Germany to generally positive reviews in September, it is the first German film to tackle Hitler directly - 59 years after his death. Set in the last 12 days of his life as the Soviet army fought its way towards his deep, multi-storey bunker in central Berlin in April 1945, it documents his rages and his self-pity, but it also shows him as an ordinary human being.

Admitting that Hitler and the other great murderers were human is painful, but to deny it is to absolve ourselves of any moral connection to what happened. Whatever the risks involved in acknowledging our common humanity, they are outweighed by the need to understand that it is human beings who commit the great atrocities.

Consider Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, the revolutionary hero whose iconic image, taken from a 1960 photo, once graced millions of students' walls. There has been a film out about him, too. The Motorcycle Diaries follows the epic trip he and a friend made up the length of Latin America on an old Norton 500 in 1952. It documents how these young Argentine sons of privilege had their eyes opened to the realities of poverty and exploitation in Latin America - and leaves them just before Che joined Fidel Castro in his Mexican exile and began his own meteoric revolutionary career.

Che comes across as an attractive human being, and his dedication to the poor is clearly genuine. But the ideology he espoused in order to change all the human sorrow he saw was Marxism, and he did not water it down. Mass murder in the name of a principle is as human as apple pie, borsht and steamed rice. Treating the perpetrators as space aliens simply disguises the nature of the problem. The potential mass killers live among us, as they always have. The only way to keep them from power is to remember always that the end does not justify the means.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist