Mein Kampf and the Little Red Book (or, to give it the proper title, Quotations from Chairman Mao) are two of the most famous examples of political tracts written by leaders of repressive regimes. But they are not the only ones – Colonel Gadaffi made his ‘Green Book’ compulsory reading in Libya and Turkmenistan’s President Niyazov required all schools to take his book, the Ruhnama, as their primary text for teaching.
Few things reinforce a dictators sense of mission like writing a book. Between its hard, compulsorily revered covers, the dear leader can set out his beliefs, justifications and demands. It can become an almost sacred text to the followers of the personality cults that often accompany such writings. They also reveal some of the insanity at the heart of some of the world’s bloodiest or strangest regimes.
The classic example is Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’, or My Struggle or Battle in English. Mein Kampf was written during Hitler’s incarceration at Landsberg Prison following the failure of the Munich Putsch in 1923. First published 1925, the book is infamous for giving the world sufficient warning and advance notice of his deadly ideology and warped world view.
Hitler sets out his bilious anti-Semitism and anti-Slavism and makes no secret of his belief that Germany needed to fulfil its ‘manifest destiny’ and expand into lebensraum, ‘living room’, in the East (i.e. Poland and the Soviet Union). Further criticism is heaped on the Weimar Republic, democracy, Social Democrats and Communism.
The book was hugely popular – within months Hitler was able to buy a Mercedes with the royalties. On coming to power in 1933, Hitler had made about 1.2 million Reichsmarks from the book at a time when the average annual income of a teacher was about 4,800 Reichsmarks. During the Nazi era, the book was given free to newly wed couples and to soldiers and some 10 million copies were in circulation by the end of the Second World War.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Quotations from Chairman Mao, widely known in the west as the Little Red Book, were widely distributed in Communist China. The 200 quotations covered a wide range of subjects and became required reading during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Academic papers, newspaper articles and speeches all referenced the quotations and some of the defining images of the Cultural Revolution depict workers, students, soldiers and party members holding their vivid red copies proudly, joyfully aloft.
Official statistics released by the PLA’s General Political Department state that over 1 billion copies of the Quotations were printed between 1964 and 1976. Others have estimated print runs exceeding 5 billion, making the Quotations easily one of the world’s most printed books. If you include the copies distributed and given away, it may even vie with the Bible as the world’s most printed book.
Other dictators cannot hope to emulate the financial success of Mein Kampf or the sheer publishing volume of the Little Red Book. But, in their own countries, their works can have disproportionate and disturbing impacts. In Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya, the Green Book was intended to be required reading for all Libyans.
With Gaddafi’s overthrow the book has now vanished from many homes, schools and libraries, with many copies ending up on bonfires to celebrate the end of the dictator. The Green Book centre in Benghazi was looted and burnt out. Reuters quoted Moatz Hadad as saying: “”We hate this book because it is useless”.
The most startlingly insane official publication may be the Ruhnama or the Book of the Soul. Written by Saparmurat Niyazov, with the inevitably hubristic title of President for Life of Turkmenistan, is designed to set “moral, family, social and religious norms for modern Turkmens”.
The book has infiltrated all levels of society – it is required reading at all stages of education and knowledge of the text is required for jobs in the civil service and even to obtain a driving license. Teaching of algebra and physics were replaced by rote learning sessions of the Ruhnama.
The book has even developed something of its own personality cult, with an enormous monument in the capital Ashgabat (see photos here). On special occasions, the cover opens and a recording of a passage from the book is played with accompanying video.