In his nine years as Prime Minister of Macedonia – a country now riddled with failed institutions, ethnic tensions, and murderous conflict – Nikola Gruevski morphed from a man once considered reticent and insecure to a megalomaniacal tyrant. It remains unclear how to explain this miserable metamorphosis.
What is clear is that it is not unusual. Tyrants, dictators, the most atrocious of autocrats, seem at a distance to be made not born. This is not to say that rigorous biographical analysis does not yield a childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood that in some ways foreshadows the murder and mayhem yet to come. Rather it is to say that to all outward appearances even the worst of the lot tend to start life in ordinary, and in some number of cases even promising, ways.
Adolph Hitler wanted to become a fine artist. He turned to politics only after being rejected twice from Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. Nor was he the only member of the Nazi elite with other, early ambitions. Joseph Goebbels, for example, Hitler’s acolyte and notorious Minister of Propaganda, studied history and literature and wrote his doctoral thesis on a 19th century German romantic writer.
Joseph Stalin published poetry and won a scholarship to the leading Orthodox Seminary in Tbilisi.
Mao Zedong originally studied to become a teacher.
Radovan Karadzic received his degree in medicine and went on to become a practicing psychiatrist, with a subspecialty in depression. He was also, like Stalin, a published poet.
And Bashar al-Assad, held largely responsible for the deaths of some 300,000 Syrians and for the largest refugee crisis in a generation, was also a practicing physician, in his case with a specialty in ophthalmology.
Is there a lesson to be learned here? Not about individuals, maybe, but about groups. Clearly we cannot predict with any certainty which individuals will evolve from being apparently ordinary to obviously fiendish. What we can say for certain is that this evolution does not take place in a vacuum. It is allowed by others who, for whatever constellation of reasons, tolerate and even enable it.