Off the shelf
Heads that rose, heads that rolled
V. N. Datta

VIVAóFacts on File: Biographical Dictionary of Modern World Leaders 1900-1991.
ed John C. Fredriksen
Viva Books, New Delhi. Pages 534. Rs 2,685.

Nehru Stalin Churchill

THE present volume, by following a conventional approach, includes biographical entries covering the 132 nations extant at the time along with the United Nations and the Holy See. The editor restricts his entries to heads of state who assumed power at the turn of the century up through 1991. Of course, some of the heads of state rose to power through the democratic process of elections, while others got up high by questionable means.

The editorís objective is to offer authentic information on the celebrities in a scholarly way, based on the latest and most objective works. He hopes to promote research and awareness of global events, varied individuals and political system propelling. In some cases, he has derived information from unpublished sources.

This work is not a mere iteration of facts connected with the lives of political leaders. It is ideologically oriented and the editor has tried to adjust political leaders within the mould of their ideologies. This approach certainly has some merit. The twentieth century was strikingly significant for ideological combats that greatly influenced the character and working of nation states. It is therefore legitimate to see political developments in the context of ideologies. The most influential ideologies that produced a decisive impact on international politics and economy in the world were imperialism, socialism, capitalism, communism, democracy, fascism and Marxism. By relating these ideologies to men, there is always a risk in seeing more than what meets the eye.

Fredriksen includes nearly 400 biographical sketches, commendably without any financial support or assistance. This arduous task has been accomplished solely and wonderfully, maintaining a high standard of performance, both in content and expression. The best way to deal with this study is to dip into it and stumble upon a variety of extraordinary personalities.

Fredriksen is not laudatory. About Winston Churchill, he writes that Churchillís failure lay in not settling the war he worked so hard to win; in looks (and stubbornness), "Churchill personified Britainís indomitable bull dogs". He says that Hitlerís great blunder was to attack the Soviet Union before reaching a peace accord with the West. Committing Germany to waging a two-front war was a cardinal blunder because no resources were left to win it. Hitler is also held responsible for butchering six million Jews and other seven million who perished in the Holocaust.

Mao Tse Tung has been summed up as "one of the bloodiest tyrants of the 20th century". There are pages (p. 431-432) where the text is missing. Stalin, whom the author describes as "paranoid", is held responsible for millions of executions with abandon. "Stalin raised totalitarianism to a fine art". In Russia, 20 million lives were lost. He (Stalin) is both to be reviled as a tyrant and hailed as a hero for many years to come.

Fredriksen claims to have consulted the latest studies. He has, thus, ignored other works, which though not recent, are still valuable guide on world leaders. For writing on Nehru, he has consulted the account by Stanley Wolpert, which is superficial, rather than S. Gopalís three-volume biography of the leader. The author holds Nehru responsible for establishing Indiaís first political dynasty.

The authorís trite sketch of Jinnah raises doubt whether it would not have been better to hire specialists for selecting entries than producing a single-handed cut-and paste job. In the case of Jinnah, his mentor Sir Mohammad Iqbal has been ignored, and so has been the electoral politics that proved decisive in the creation of Pakistan.

The editor says about Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that it was he who forged a treaty with China, which politically and diplomatically yielded rich dividends to Pakistan, and it was he who pushed Pakistan into a 17-day war with India in 1965. Bhutto ignored domestic politics, and had to face the gallows.

The volume closes with Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, whom the US made an ally for his aid in the containment of the Soviet expansion in Afghanistan. However, Ziaís role in whipping up the rise of Muslim fundamentalism lies ignored.