The six despots whose biographies constitute the opening section of Madmen of History were dedicated to one idea: power. They were willing to do anything to gain power and anything to keep it. Power is a great intoxicant, and in large enough doses it is poisonous to one’s sanity. Hook argues that this is especially the case with a certain personality type—the alienated loner with a morbid, sadistic streak. Usually, this type of person is destined to failure, but occasionally one crops up with a gift for public speaking, a superior cunning, or sheer brute energy and the incipient dictator emerges. Despots thrive on power, particularly on the power to kill, which is where the madness shows itself. Dictators are prone to paranoia; they see enemies where there are none and, having no moral code to curb them, create a murderous secret police and a spy network. They build up an army and use the same bullying tactics by which they gained power over their subjects and neighboring states. Eventually, they go too far, and then the course of events turns against them. Hook observes that despots typically die by violence or foul play.
The six biographical sketches that make up the “Assassins” section provide an interesting variation on the composite of the dictator type. According to Hook, the assassins, except for Corday, have exactly the same personality as the despots, but they have no talent whatever. They are alienated loners with a severely...
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Madmen of History is the sort of book that high-school students love and high-school librarians hate. Therefore, it is not readily available to young adults; if it were, it would be one of the most widely read books in the public school system. Hook shows his subjects as they really were in public and in private: He shows the modes of torture and execution that each preferred, indicates their sexual inclinations, reveals their relationship with their families and associates, and reconstructs their self-image.
The most frightening thing about this book is that Hook shows how easy it is for a paranoiac to seize power in a democracy in hard times. The country swiftly becomes a dictatorship, complete with a secret police, an active army, a spy network. Civil liberties are nullified. Human rights abuses become a permanent fixture of the land. Political murder becomes commonplace. Soon, the entire nation is in a paranoid frame of mind and remains so for many decades. Dictators are notoriously hard to overthrow or assassinate because they are paranoid and trust no one.
When reflecting on Madmen of History, however, it is important to note that Hook finds nothing attractive about being an egomaniacal bully with a cause. His subjects are all friendless and depraved. When one thinks of the care and love that it takes to make a decent human being and then of the small effort needed to end a life, one sees the madmen of history as truly repellent.