The Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, who was very close with his mother, once remarked that “people who know that they are preferred or favored by their mother give evidence in their lives of a peculiar self-reliance and an unshakeable optimism which often seem like heroic attributes and bring actual success to their possessors.”
Whether you subscribe to Freud’s theories or not, it’s certainly true that some of the world’s most powerful rulers have had fascinating relationships with their mothers — some surprisingly loving, others ambivalent or just plain bitter. Alexander the Great’s power-hungry mother, Olympias, is thought to have been a driving force behind her son’s ascension to the throne of Macedonia. Napoleon Bonaparte’s mother, Letizia, taught her son discipline (“She sometimes made me go to bed without supper,” he once recalled) and followed him to exile in Elba and then back to Paris before the Battle of Waterloo.
Modern-day dictators have had their share of complicated mother-son relationships as well.
Although he often clashed with his father over his poor performance at school, the Fuhrer adored his mother. Hitler left his home in 1907 as a teenager to try to make it as an artist in Vienna (Klara encouraged his artistic endeavors) but returned briefly after his mother died of cancer that same year, leaving him an orphan. In Mein Kampf, which Hitler wrote in the 1920s, he reflected on his reaction to her passing:
“I am thankful for that period in my life because it hardened me and enabled me to be as tough as I now am. And I am even more thankful because I appreciate the fact that I was thus saved from the emptiness of a life of ease and that a mother’s darling was taken from tender arms and handed over to Adversity as to a new mother. Though I then rebelled against it as too hard a fate, I am grateful that I was thrown into a world of misery and poverty and thus came to know the people for whom I was afterwards to fight.”
Eduard Bloch, the Jewish doctor who treated Klara, would later recall that while Hitler “was not a ‘mother’s boy’ in the usual sense,” he had “never witnessed a closer attachment.” He had also never witnessed “anyone so prostrate with grief as Adolf Hitler” as he sat by his mother’s deathbed, sketching her to “preserve a last impression.” Some have speculated that Bloch’s failure to save Klara contributed to Hitler’s hatred of Jews. But the Nazis permitted Bloch to leave Austria for the United States in 1940, and Bloch claimed that Hitler once remarked, “If all Jews were like him, there would be no Jewish question.”
Country: Soviet Union
Mother: Ekaterina (“Keke”)
Stalin, like Hitler, was fond of his mother, but had a tumultuous relationship with his father, an alcoholic who savagely beat him and Keke (“Soso,” as Stalin was called, once arrived at a police officer’s house in the Georgian village where he grew up with his face covered in blood, yelling, “He’s killing my mother!”).
Keke worked hard as a laundress to enroll Stalin in a church school and later a theological seminary — even fighting to send him back to school when his father, who had since left the home, briefly kidnapped Soso and set him up as an apprentice cobbler. But she, too, meted out corporal punishment and grew angry with Stalin when he misbehaved at school. And while Stalin installed his mother in a palace in Georgia during his rise to power, he rarely visited her. His letters to her included lines such as “Dear mother, please live for 10,000 years. Kisses, Soso” and “I know you’re disappointed in me, but what can I do? I’m busy and can’t write often.”