When I picked up Paul Hollander’s new book From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chávez for review I had in mind the visit of then–Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Columbia University in 2007. Prior to his appearance there was some pushback from (unnamed ethnic) wealthy alumni, which led President Lee Bollinger, having already extended the invitation, to denounce suddenly (and unexpectedly) the guest while introducing him. In his remarks, the Iranian president did not disappoint: during his oration he checked all the boxes, including the inevitable attempt at Holocaust denial. Afterwards there was some discussion in the media about whether the invitation was appropriate at all. John Coatsworth, the pompous dean of Columbia’s School of International Affairs, rose to defend his school. As he explained to the press, he himself would have had no problem inviting Adolf Hitler to speak at the school “up to 1939.”

This remark fairly took my breath away. In other words, the shutting down in Germany of a free press and independent labor movements, the establishment of concentration camps, the Nuremburg laws which deprived German Jews of their citizenship, the so-called Crystal Night, the forcible end to Austrian independence, the rape of Czechoslovakia—all of these things were nothing to upset the good dean. It was only once Hitler actually went to war that Columbia would feel uncomfortable having the Führer as a guest speaker.

Such is the moral decadence of our clerical class today. And not just today by any means. Indeed, Hollander’s new book shows that there is nothing new here at all. The worship of power by intellectuals is their besetting sin and has been for decades. If not longer. He quotes the British philosopher John Gray to good effect: tyranny offers “relief from the burden of sanity and a license to enact forbidden impulses of hatred and violence.”

In his earlier Political Pilgrims (1981), Hollander documented with depressing abundance the tendency of Western visitors to totalitarian regimes to fall in love with what they see (or think they see). Inevitably that book concentrated on Communist regimes in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and (latterly) Nicaragua. In this new study he narrows his focus to people who should know better—not Methodist grandmothers or “community organizers” from Chicago in Nicaragua, but sophisticated, literate, well-traveled, and often multilingual people who are seduced by raw power, and the rawer the better. He also broadens it to include far-right regimes in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, as well as contemporary dictatorships in Venezuela, Syria, and Iran that defy easy ideological classification.

So here what we have is a kind of depressing catalogue raisonné of intellectual malpractice. What is surprising about Hollander’s findings is not that left-wing intellectuals like the Webbs or Lillian Hellman or (for a time) André Gide would be seduced by Stalin and his Russia, but that both appealed also to conservatives like the U.S. ambassador Joseph Davies. Hollander speculates that, in part, this must have been due to the special techniques of hospitality practiced by such regimes, which made visitors to Russia feel special and honored in a way apparently not sufficiently grand in their own country.

The list of German intellectuals Hitler could claim as followers is a virtual Who’s Who of artistic, intellectual, and scientific worlds, of which Martin Heidigger is only the best known. In fact, Hollander suggests that quite possibly Hitler enjoyed more support among German professors than among the population as a whole. Outside of Germany the list is equally extensive—headed by Harvard President James Bryant Conant, Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler, or Dean of the Harvard Law School Roscoe Pound. The Hitler cult held appeal for the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun (who even donated his Nobel Prize medal to the Germans in the middle of World War II), the French philosopher Georges Bataille, French men of letters like Robert Brasillach and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, poets like
T. S. Eliot and D. B. Wyndham Lewis, not to mention stalwarts of the British establishment like Lord Londonderry, Lord Mount Temple, Lord Northcliffe, King Edward VIII (later Duke of Windsor), or some of the famous (and infamous) Mitford sisters.

The list of admirers of Mussolini, at least in the 1920s, is even more startling, led by Ezra Pound and including people normally thought of as liberals like Charles Beard, Herbert Croly (the editor of The New Republic), the poet Wallace Stevens, and the biographer Emil Ludwig, as well as the inevitable unholy duo—H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw (the latter two also admired Stalin’s Soviet Union).

Hollander notes that the lyrical descriptions by visitors to one regime (Nazi) and another (Soviet) were remarkably similar “often using identical metaphors about handsome people breathing more freely under the blissful conditions created by the benevolent authorities.” When the facts of both Nazi and Soviet dictatorships became too widely documented after World War II there was a search for new authoritarian regimes to praise (or excuse, or both). Thus for many on the left it became permissible to criticize Stalin (particularly after Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956), but it in no way inhibited them from searching new paradigms to worship—Mao’s China and particularly Castro’s Cuba. Partisans of the former included not merely professional apologists like Sartre and Beauvoir or Edgar Snow but distinguished Sinologists like Harvard’s John King Fairbank, who trained (or mis-trained) two generations of Sinologists.

For its part, Castro’s Cuba has always held out particular appeal to intellectuals because anti-Americanism, far more than Communism, has always been the real ideology of that cheerless regime—or to put it another way, Communism is the form, but anti-Americanism is the content. That, combined with the free-wheeling personal style of the dictator himself, not to mention the pseudo-romantic antics of his sidekick Che Guevara, has long provided an irresistible attraction to junketing European and Latin American leftists as well as perennial United States–haters like Graham Greene and former President Jimmy Carter, but also stylish American literati like Norman Mailer, C. Wright Mills, and latterly filmmakers like Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg, who told the head of the U.S. interests section in Havana that his time with Fidel Castro was “the most important eight hours of my life.” Inevitably, the emergence of a kind of tawdry paperback edition of Castroism in nearby Venezuela attracted the same people (or the same kinds of people) for the same reasons.

It would appear, indeed, that self-hatred by Western intellectuals, particularly American intellectuals, is the operative motivation for their worship of foreign dictatorships. How else to explain the extra-ideological attraction of repressive regimes like that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Bashar Assad in Syria? Or Khomeini’s Iran, praised by the Princeton professor Richard Falk as possibly providing the world with a “new model of popular revolution based for the most part on non-violent tactics . . . with a desperately needed model of humane governance for a third world country.” Just why people who enjoy the highest standard of living in history in the freest countries in the world choose to project their fantasies onto regimes such as these is a question that Hollander cannot fully answer. And neither can we. But it serves a useful purpose to document just how far things have gone, and for how long.