In April 1945, Adolf Hitler – with the Allied forces closing in on his bunker, and Benito Mussolini’s battered corpse swinging from an Italian lamppost a few hundred miles away – was left distraught by the death of his dog. This paragon of moral evil, the closest analogue to a perfect villain that human history can provide, became inconsolable; the man who had six million Jewish people murdered and set three continents alight did, it seems, have human feelings, if not about actual humans.
Admittedly this touching scene is slightly spoiled by the fact that the dog, a German shepherd called Blondi, died at the hands of Dr Werner Haase, Hitler’s personal physician, at Hitler’s orders: he was testing the cyanide pills which would shortly afterwards kill Hitler, Eva Braun, and many of the other inhabitants of the Berlin bunker. But Hitler was, it seems, brokenhearted after Blondi’s death. He had been a “dog person” since the First World War, and Joseph Goebbels reported in his diary in 1942:
He has bought himself a young German Shepherd dog called “Blondi” which is the apple of his eye. It was touching listening to him say that he enjoyed walking with this dog so much, because only with it could he be sure that [his companion] would not start talking about the war or politics. One notices time and time again that the Führer is slowly but surely becoming lonely. It is very touching to see him play with this young German Shepherd dog.
Similarly, Joseph Stalin, another of the 20th century’s great mass murderers, enjoyed Hollywood Westerns and Charlie Chaplin movies, and according to Simon Sebag Montefiore was an extraordinarily accomplished billiards player.
I’m reminded of these jarring biographical details because, this morning, we seem to have been given an insight into the personal life of one of the modern heirs to the Great Dictators. And, unlike Hitler or Uncle Joe, we have been granted it not years after the fact, but while the man in question, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, is still gleefully pounding his own people into bloodied tatters.
The Guardian has got hold of more than 3,000 emails, apparently from Assad. Many are of political and international interest, about the network of aides around him, about how lightly he took his own promises of reform, and about possible exile in Doha. But it’s the personal details that are intriguing.
Apparently Assad managed to set up a US email address, circumventing the sanctions on transactions in and out of Syria – not in order to send money outside for a possible bolthole, but to allow him to buy music and apps through iTunes. And on the day after his assault on the rebellious city of Homs reached its most savage peak, with artillery raining upon the inhabitants, killing hundreds and destroying a hospital, he apparently emailed his wife, the British-born Asma al-Assad, with the lyrics of a country and western song by an American called Blake Shelton:
I’ve been a walking heartache / I’ve made a mess of me / The person that I’ve been lately / Ain’t who I wanna be / But you stay here right beside me / Watch as the storm goes through / And I need you
You could spend hours reading things into the choice of lyric. But it is unsettling to realise that this monster – and surely we can agree that a man who blows apart a city simply to keep his job is a monster – is not an unfeeling psychopath: he has, it seems, human sentiment. More than that, he sounds almost ordinary. He loves his wife. He has terrible taste in music. He plays with his iPhone.
That evil is banal is a cliché. But normally great evil, country-shattering evil, does not reveal its banality until after its destruction, until its leaders reach trial or its henchmen write their autobiographies. Discovering, even as he murders his own people, that Assad is an ordinary, perhaps not that bright, human being, makes the slaughter even worse. It would be much nicer to think that murderers are not like us.