Arts and Books

Book review: Why dictators love the family unit

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk championed Turkish women’s education and rights (PA)

Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival 1900-1950
by Paul Ginsborg
Yale, £25

Professor Ginsborg has produced a reflective, wide-ranging study of an area often neglected by historians. He has chosen for his analysis the history of family policies and family politics in five nation states during a period of huge upheaval and turmoil: Russia, from her imperial past to the Soviet Union; Turkey, from the demise of the Ottoman Empire to the rise of the modern republic; Italy, from a fragile liberalism to fascism; Spain, before, during and after the civil war; and Germany, from the failure of the Weimar Republic to National Socialism.

“All these regimes attempted to mould and manipulate family life,” Ginsborg argues, charting the suffering endured by millions of families during the period. The dictatorships of Stalin, Atatürk, Mussolini, Franco and Hitler all recognised, in different ways, the importance for their regimes of stable, compliant families. Heartbreaking problems arose for those families and communities that found themselves on the “wrong side” of government ideology – republican families in Spain after Franco’s victory; “bourgeois” families in Soviet Russia; Jewish and gypsy families in Nazi Germany; Armenians in Turkey, and so on.

Ginsborg explains why the devastation of families was greatest in Russia. Many factors contributed to this: the appalling conditions endured by the Russian peasantry during and after the Russian Revolution, and the disease, famine and slaughter that followed its civil war, which caused a death toll of perhaps eight million. Writer Walter Benjamin, commenting from Moscow in 1926, wrote that “the tensions of public life … are so great that they block off all private life to an unimaginable degree”.

Mustafa Kemal (later to style himself “Atatürk”) forcibly modernised his country when he and other “Young Turks” took control after the First World War. They championed women’s education and rights, alongside the implicit assumption of a male patriarchal society. Kemal envisaged the new republic’s family structure as “a nuclear and monogamous unity, a secure ‘nest’ which would serve as the primary cell in the life of the new nation” – as long as you were not from a minority group such as the Armenians or Kurds.

The regime least destructive of family life during this period was in Italy, where the influence of the Catholic Church remained very powerful despite the rise of fascism.

Analysing the unhealthy family environment which seemed to nurture the dictators he studied, Ginsborg suggests: “A highly unsatisfactory father-figure and a devoted mother are the necessary, if not sufficient, familial conditions for forming a dictatorial personality, one ready to affirm in violent fashion his own individuality and masculinity.”

Ginsborg is very critical of Franco. Although accepting that both sides in the Spanish Civil War committed atrocities and that the massacre of clergy and nuns in 1936 “can never be forgotten”, he makes it clear that the slaughter on the nationalists’ side was much greater than that of their opponents.

Generally, the author is critical of the position taken by the churches, especially the Catholic Church in Germany and Spain during this period. In particular, he censures the Church in Germany for not protesting loudly enough against the Nazi euthanasia programme for the elderly and disabled during the 1930s.

Not least among the poignant features of the book are its many photographs, propaganda posters and paintings. Often these images summarise the dictators’ ideology better than words, such as Hitler’s sentimental yet ominous family portraits.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (26/6/15).

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