In the introduction to his extraordinary book from 1998, Explaining Hitler – the search for the origins of his evil, Ron Rosenbaum detailed what has been termed ‘the survival myth’ in the realm of Hitler explanations. While obviously dismissing the idea that Hitler escaped his Berlin Bunker, Rosenbaum puts his finger on the attraction of these myths though: “Seductive, perhaps, because it reflects a feeling that although Hitler did not escape us physically, in certain important respects he may have eluded us. The survival myth suggests a persistent anxiety that Hitler has somehow escaped explanation” [Explaining Hitler Pg XI]
And while Hitler has become the ultimate symbol of evil, by the end of the twentieth century there were plenty of dictators who had followed in his footsteps, with their own brand of evil, but for reasons of realpolitik had managed to survive their own downfalls. Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio, in his Talk of the Devil – Encounters with Seven Dictators, shows that while you may question a surviving dictator, it doesn't necessarily follow that their answers become an explanation.
The book came into being from an obsession held by Orizio, two press clippings held yellowing in his wallet, both taken from The Guardian, and both detailing the eccentricities of two African dictators: Idi Amin and Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Perhaps attracted at the start by the colourful details of their deranged rules (both were alleged cannibals), Orizio's project developed and came to encompass several very different dictators, all of whom shared one thing in common: they had all fallen out of power in disgrace. The author comments:“I deliberately chose those who had fallen from power in disgrace, because those who fall on their feet tend not to examine their own conscience. Augusto Pinochet, for example, is still a powerful figure, revered by many in Chile. Suharto has been driven from power in Indonesia, but is protected by his wealth. Imelda Marcos, despite being indicted for corruption, has returned to Manila and amassed yet another huge collection of exclusive footwear”.
Orizio is a superb journalist and these encounters manage to be soul searching, intriguing, horrifying and even at times light hearted (One can't help but suppress a smile at some of the more over the top acts of Idi Amin, such as his famous telegram to Queen Elizabeth II of England : “My Dear Queen, I intend to arrive in London for an official visit on August 4th this year, but I am writing now to give you time to make all the necessary preparations for my stay so that nothing important is omitted. I am particularly concerned about food, because I know that you are in the middle of a fearsome economic crisis. I would also like you to arrange for me to visit Scotland, Ireland, and Wales to meet the heads of revolutionary movements fighting against your imperialist oppression.”). It's a brave book, in so far as it avoids moralising and seeks to present the human complexities of these men, regardless of their crimes. It's also a brave book in so far as these men and women (he interviews both Hexhmije Hoxha, wife of deposed and deceased Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, and also Mira Markovic, the wife of imprisoned Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic), have by and large fallen off the media radar, and it's in the interest of many to keep them that way. During his trip to Albania he ends up imprisoned and interrogated by the police force of a Government that looked far from kindly on his investigative work.
His choice of Deposed dictators is interesting, and one imagines as much down to opportunity as to thematic concerns, aside from the overarching one of disgrace already mentioned. Indeed, Orizio describes thrillingly his chasing of these dictators, as in the case of Idi Amin, exiled in Saudi Arabia. Orizio arrives in the notoriously press shy country on the pretext of doing a story on joint Italian-Saudi investment projects, and when he manages to shake off his guide he goes in search of the former Ugandan dictator. Linking Amin and figures like Gen Jaruzelski of Poland (possibly the most soul-searching and intriguing chapter), and indeed Slobodan Milosevic though may at first glance seem tenuous, the former being very ostentatiously mad, while the latter two were ruthless, practical politicians taking disastrous decisions for the lives of their country. There is a strong sub-theme though that links these men perfectly – that of the Cold War with its political stratagems, and the inevitable fall from grace with its end. In fact, while Orizio doesn't shy away from presenting the brutal facts about each of his subjects, equally abhorrent in his narrative is the support given to each by the major powers in the name of political expediency. France and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing's relationship with Jean Bedel-Boukassa, in particular, come in for a hammering. The message is plain throughout, that these men, while in many cases insane and deranged, were kept in power and allowed to be brutal, by both sides of the Cold War.