Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy
Author: Kenneth C. Davis
Published October 6th, 2020 by Henry Holt and Co.
About the Book: From the bestselling author of the Don’t Know Much About books comes a dramatic account of the origins of democracy, the history of authoritarianism, and the reigns of five of history’s deadliest dictators.
What makes a country fall to a dictator? How do authoritarian leaders—strongmen—capable of killing millions acquire their power? How are they able to defeat the ideal of democracy? And what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
By profiling five of the most notoriously ruthless dictators in history—Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein—Kenneth C. Davis seeks to answer these questions, examining the forces in these strongmen’s personal lives and historical periods that shaped the leaders they’d become. Meticulously researched and complete with photographs, Strongman provides insight into the lives of five leaders who callously transformed the world and serves as an invaluable resource in an era when democracy itself seems in peril.
Q1. What led you to choose this topic and this audience (teens) for your new book?
A1. I have been writing about history for some thirty years and was always fairly optimistic about the future of America. In spite of the flaws I have catalogued in my books, I always believed in the United States as the “last, best hope on earth”—Lincoln’s words—and that its democratic system still moved towards more progress.
But something has changed. And for some time now, I have been concerned that democracy, at home and abroad, was under assault. That is not only sad but dangerous. I felt I had to tell the story of these dictators and how quickly democracy can vanish. It is meant as a warning, a cautionary tale for our time.
On the question of writing for teens, let me first say that I think my books aimed at younger readers are not that different from my earlier work aimed at older adults. In fact, many older readers don’t know these are “Young Adult” books. I try and write for everyone in an accessible style that welcomes the reader, older or younger.
I started writing for younger readers several years ago because I have spoken to so many of them in classrooms over time and came away impressed by their curiosity, engagement, and interest in history. But I wanted to deliver a message to those young people that democracy can’t be taken for granted and that they have a real stake in protecting our rights and freedoms.
Q2. What is the key takeaway you hope that young people get from reading it?
A2. There are several key issues at work in this book and, I would say, all of my work. First is that history is not a collection of facts—dates, battles, speeches, laws – but real stories about real people doing real things. When we read about history that way, it becomes far more compelling and connected to our own lives.
Next is that we read and learn from these accounts to understand who we are and how we got here. Part of that idea is the story of how enormous sacrifices have been made in the name of rights and progress—from abolition to suffrage, civil rights, and fair labor laws. That often comes from the bottom up, not the top down, which means people without a vote still had a voice.
It is also a book that asks hard questions about what people are willing to do in following a leader. And that brings me to my earlier point: Democracy is not a spectator sport. We must protect it if we think it is worth keeping.
Q3. What was the hardest part about writing the book?
A3. I actually write about that in the closing words of the book. This was, in many ways, an extremely difficult project. I have written about many hard and awful events and periods in the past, including the stories of racial slavery I told in my earlier book, In the Shadow of Liberty.
But describing the levels of cruelty, inhumanity, and indecency are unavoidable in writing the history of the Strongmen –the murderous dictators whose stories I tell. We can’t sugarcoat that history. Or ignore it. That made this project a true test of my fundamental belief in the general goodness of humanity. I had to write about the vast numbers of people who were complicit in the genocidal crimes of a Strongman like Hitler or Stalin.
Q4. If a teacher asked for recommendations for teaching your book, what would you suggest?
A4. My writing career has mostly been about asking questions and presenting facts and evidence in real stories. I think that teachers –especially those in Social studies—can follow that general premise with their students. Ask questions and allow students to find answers through accurate, documented evidence.
This approach of getting students to do real research, assess evidence, check sources, and make considered judgments based on facts is the essence of thinking for themselves. It is what today’s education must be about, especially in this era as facts and truth are under such assault.
In a more practical way, this book should fit into a number of curriculum areas – 20th century history; the Holocaust; civics and government; ethics, religion, and basic philosophy; economics; sociology and the behavior of crowds. I have always been a proponent of crossing disciplines.
Q5. What other resources do you feel would complement STRONGMAN in a curriculum?
A5. I would start with reputable journalism, including newspapers and websites that accurately document their reporting. We must establish the clear connection between history and the headlines. That will also help develop those “media literacy” skills that all of us –not just students—need to negotiate the world we live in.
Certainly, there are also a great many other books that could be placed beside Strongman –biographies, war narratives, Holocaust and other memoirs from each of these eras. I’ve included many of them in the Bibliography of Strongman.
I think you can include some historical fiction –cautiously reminding students that novels are not always accurate depictions of events. There are also a wealth of documentary films and series, often starting with what is offered from PBS.
Finally, I did not set out to write three books as a “set” – but I think that my earlier books can be read alongside Strongman. I think that In the Shadow of Liberty provides more context for how the history of slavery developed alongside American democracy. More Deadly Than War provides background for the role World War I played in shaping the world that produced the dictators I profiled in Strongman. And that is how we must read history – as a long, complex, series of connected narratives, not a list of events that are unrelated.
About the Author: Kenneth C. Davis is the New York Times–bestselling author of America’s Hidden History and Don’t Know Much About® History, which gave rise to the Don’t Know Much About® series of books for adults and children. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed In the Shadow of Liberty, which was an ALA Notable Book and a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, as well as More Deadly Than War, which was named a Washington Post Best Children’s Book of the Month. A frequent guest on national television and radio and a Ted-Ed Educator, Davis lives in New York City.
Ken also offers free classroom visits to teachers through his website, which might be of interest to include: https://dontknowmuch.com/for-
Thank you, Kenneth, for sharing the truth of history with our students!