Written 81 years ago, book applies to today’s US politics

Book 'Living Bios of Famous Rulers'

Do you like old books? I do. I like to read and re-read them, and one I’ve been reading lately probably wouldn’t stand a chance with publishers today.

The book Living Biographies of Famous Rulers was written by Henry Thomas and Dana Lee Thomas. It was published in 1940 by Nelson Doubleday, Inc. As I read, the book gave me a slight shock when I saw the entry on Kaiser Wilhelm—he was still alive the year the book published.

There are many nuggets in this book originally marketed at a price in the range of $2 and some change. Biographies of rulers like Asoka (now referred to as ‘Ashoka’), Charlemagne, Kublai Khan, and Ivan the Terrible give an idea of how much blood was spilled in humanity’s ever-ending service to the state.

Certain curiosities apply. The book contains no hefty references section. There are no footnotes although the authors do acknowledge ancient texts and historians when possible. The writing style is entertaining—the authors focused on much of the personality and traits of each ruler. The entry on Catherine the Great and the lovers she took until she was very old might surprise the reader unfamiliar with Russia’s famed ruler who was German by birth. Another entry on Ivan the Terrible gives an idea of the horrors that can happen when one individual has absolute power over all a nation’s resources and people.

One passage seems very appropriate now as we in the United States watch the ongoing battle between political parties. The passage relates to Joseph Stalin who was born “Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili, the son of a slave who became a czar.” The passage is an indication the US isn’t the only country to have striven—unsuccessfully in my opinion—for a “free press”, and the passage begins with a reference to Vladimir Lenin who successfully transformed Russia into a one-party state:

“Lenin was an honest man who undertook a task beyond his powers—beyond any human powers. He had hoped, by a single stroke of the pen, to transform a monarchy into a democracy. But he soon realized his mistake, and he was frank enough to admit it. Theoretically he had believed in the freedom of the press…In actual practice, however, he found himself compelled to stifle every free expression of opinion.” [pg. 274]

How did that compare to Stalin?

“A democratic form of government was not congenial to his autocratic tastes…To express different points of view, he said, was a waste of time.” [pg. 275]

History does repeat itself, but often not in the way we expect.

I wasn’t able to find much about the authors, but I did dig up a surprise after a lengthy search. This book I have enjoyed immensely allegedly sparked a riot in India after a newspaper there claimed the book “blasphemed” the top prophet of Islam. Apparently the rioters didn’t read the book, and the newspaper, like so many today in the US, had an agenda unrelated to truth.

(Kay B. Day/January 14, 2021)

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