Strongman by Kenneth C. Davis : a quick summary and review. Although this book tells some important stories from history, it definitely doesn't read like a textbook. This is a highly readable, gripping book for teens and tweens (and adult readers too!).
This is one of those books I tend to get a little evangelical about. I want everyone to read it! Especially, the teens it was written for, and their teachers. It's a powerful, fascinating book that couldn't be more relevant right now.
Last week I opened the New York Times to see this article, "It Wasn't Strictly a Coup Attempt. But It's Not Over, Either." by journalist Amanda Taub. I read the article, eager for more context about the recent events at the Capitol, but I was particularly struck by Taub's look at how democracies collapse. She says,
"These days, democracies tend to collapse from piecemeal backsliding that falls short of the technical definition of a coup, but is often ultimately more damaging. A clear pattern has played out in countries around the world, including Turkey, Russia, Hungary, and Venezuela, in which leaders come to office through elections but then undermine norms, gut institutions and change laws to dismantle any restraints on their power. Eventually, their countries become dictatorships in all but name."
I was immediately reminded of this new book by Kenneth C. Davis, Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy (affiliate link). It's a non-fiction book for teens and tweens that profiles five of history's most ruthless dictators and provides historical context for how they rose to power. It also provides thoughtful commentary on how we can act to avoid similar evils in the future.
It's a timely book given the current violence and upheaval we're experiencing right now in the United States. It's also a captivating book that can help get teens and tweens engaged in both history and the current American political situation.
A Summary of Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and The Fall of Democracy
The first chapter opens with a mysterious story about the Reichstag fire in 1933 Germany. It immediately hooks the reader and sets the stage for the gripping stories that follow.
Chapter two presents a brief time line and history of Democracy - From Athens to 1918, which gives context to the tyranny of the five dictators as well as the fragility of democracy.
In the next five chapters, Davis tells the stories of the five dictators, their regimes, and how they toppled democracy.
- "Believe, Obey, and Fight" | The Story of Benito Mussolini
- The Big Lie | The Story of Adolf Hitler
- Man of Steel | The Story of Joseph Stalin
- The Long March | The Story of Mao Zedong
- Stalin on the Tigris | The Story of Saddam Hussein
The writing is compelling and fast paced, which keeps the pages quickly turning. To help put the stories in context, there is an easy-to-read timeline between each chapter, which young readers will find helpful. The book is also filled with powerful black & white photographs that break up the text for young readers and greatly enhance the histories.
In the final chapter, titled "Never Again?", Davis does the difficult work of making history important to our world right now.
It might be useful to think about authoritarianism, totalitarianism, or any kind of dictatorship in the same way we think about dangerous, life-threatening, infectious diseases. The best prevention against such a disease is to build immunity. Education is like a vaccination. Understanding history is part of the process of making ourselves more immune to the dangers of dictatorship."
Davis leaves the reader with some important questions to ponder as well as a better understanding of complex history and the need for vigilance to protect the democratic freedoms we currently enjoy.
My Review of Strongman by Kenneth C. Davis
I loved this book and was so happy to pass it right along to my daughters to read. I highly recommend this one, as do my teenagers! And while it's written with a teen audience in mind, it's a great read for adults that want a quick and compelling history book.
The writing is concise and entertaining, so it never feels like a textbook. I was also impressed with the extensive research Davis put into the book. Having studied history as an undergrad and graduate student, I'm always compelled to study the bibliography and end notes of any book that purports to explain history. Strongman's bibliography is impressive and helps to explain the sophisticated depth of the biographies in the book.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the brief but deep dive into each dictator's life, the most striking part of the book for me was the final chapter. When Davis distills the lessons from the rise of the five dictators down into what he calls "the Strongman's Playbook," the steps that go into the making of a dictatorship, I was blown away! Here, take a look at what I mean:
- extreme nationalism that calls for restoring a country's past glory or greatness
- placing blame on a single group - usually an ethnic or religious minority, or foreign threat
- warning of an emergency, often nonexistent, or responding to severe economic distress that threatens the nation
- calls for "law and order" and eliminating corruption
It brought it all full circle for me, right back to what just happened at the Capitol last week. Wow! Now seems like a good time to be reminded of how fragile democracy can be and just how important it is to protect it.
Definitely get your hands (and your teenagers' hands) on this book.
I highly recommend Strongman by Kenneth C. Davis for teens and tweens ages 12-18, but also adult readers too. You can find it here on Amazon (and read the excellent introduction).
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. All opinions are entirely my own.