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.”
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.”
When Stalin visited his mother in 1935, shortly before her death, a doctor who was treating Keke recalled a conversation that went something like this:
“Why did you beat me so hard?”
“That’s why you turned out so well. Joseph — who exactly are you now?”
“Remember the tsar? Well, I’m like the tsar.”
“You’d have done better to have become a priest.”
Mugabe doesn’t speak often about his mother, a devout Catholic who sank into depression after her husband abandoned the family and Mugabe’s two older brothers died. But he opened up to journalist Heidi Holland several years ago, noting that books were his main companions as a child. “I lived in my mind a lot,” he recalled. “I liked talking to myself.” Holland’s takeaway?
“Although the family was desperately poor, it was the emotional deprivation of his childhood that scarred Robert for life. While his parental grandfather did his best to compensate for the absent father, teaching Robert how to catch birds for the family pot, it was to austere Bona that Robert looked forlornly for affection.
“As he grew up, Robert got his sense of who he was from Bona. She left him in no doubt that he was to be the achiever who rose above everyone else; the leader chosen by God Himself. She may also have viewed him as a substitute for her own failure to serve the church as she and her parents had intended.”
Bona’s lofty aspirations for her son make one anecdote in Peter Godwin’s recent biography of Mugabe particularly baffling. A former student of Mugabe’s told Godwin he was with Bona in 1980 when Mugabe was elected Zimbabwe’s first black prime minister. “Bona was not happy he had won,” the student explained. “We were at her house and she said, ‘He is not capable of doing it. He is not the kind of person who will look after other people.’ ”
Milosevic entered the world at a tumultuous time; he was born in a Serbian town during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, and his father abandoned the family a few years afterward. Milosevic’s mother, a teacher and Communist activist, “became the center of her son’s childhood universe,” Adam LeBor writes in his biography of Milosevic. “Stanislava took care every day to send Slobodan out in a fresh white shirt, like a junior version of the Communist official she hoped he would be.” The New York Times described the young Milosevic as a “pudgy loner with few friends.”
When Milosevic headed off to university in Belgrade, however, he began visiting home less frequently and started dating a fellow student named Mira Markovic, who did not get along with Stanislava. In 1974, an increasingly depressed Stanislava hanged herself at the family home, just over a decade after Milosevic’s father had committed suicide.
Milosevic appears to have blamed himself for his mother’s death. ”My mother never forgave me for Mira,“ he reportedly told a friend.
When “Baby Doc” Duvalier succeeded his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, as the ruler of Haiti in 1971, at the age of 19, his mother, a voodoo enthusiast of humble origins, emerged as a major power behind the throne. But things began to change in 1980 when Baby Doc married Michele Bennett, the daughter of a wealthy Haitian businessman and the daughter-in-law of a man who led a failed coup against Papa Doc.
“Since the marriage, Simone Duvalier, whose official title is Guardian of the Revolution, has apparently been edged almost completely out of the palace picture by her daughter-in-law and spends most of her time in Paris,” The Los Angeles Times reported in 1985.
The mother-son-daughter-in-law triangle only got more bizarre. In 1986, when Baby Doc was ousted from power, Simone joined him and his wife in exile — first in the French Alps and then in Paris.
“In recent years,” The New York Times noted in its 1997 obituary for Simone, “after Jean-Claude’s bitter divorce from Michele, Mrs. Duvalier was again said to be with her son in France, amid widespread reports they were living in a state of virtual poverty.”
Baby Doc returned to Haiti in 2011 and is technically under house arrest and facing charges of crimes against humanity — though he’s somehow managing to dine with friends at upscale bistros and even give commencement addresses. “Was Jean-Claude Duvalier scary?” his lawyer asked recently. “Not Duvalier. But yes, the people around him, secret police, yes, some of them were very scary. But Jean-Claude is a nice guy, believe me.”
A nice guy who loved his mother.
Uri Friedman is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.