Svetlana Stalina, who died last week, always said that Stalin, her father, “broke my life”. Her troubled life illustrates how power coarsens, corrupts and corrodes family itself. Even in democracies, the relentless demands of power are wearying, then coarsening then corrupting. In the long reigns of despots, the more absolute, the more corrosive. The gentle ties of family are ground to dust by steel wheels of power. Men of power such as a Stalin or Hitler usually see themselves as selfless, lone knights riding with swords drawn into hostile territory. Even for those such as Colonel Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein or the Assads for whom politics is dynastic, power is paramount.
In the end, as we saw in Gaddafi’s downfall, the sons were expected to sacrifice themselves on the pyre of his narcissistic megalomania. Saddam struggled to hold the balance between the rivalries of his own diabolical princelings – his daughters were squeezed in this filial vice and in the ultimate poisoning of family life, he allowed his sons to murder his sons-in-law. The Assads have been cursed by familial rivalries. Gaddafi groomed several atrocious sons for power, even when they plotted against him – but all were sacrificed in his Bedouin hybrid of Saharan götterdämerung and Arabic King Lear.