With the accessibility of the internet, podcasts became a popular medium for creators to share content. Proving humanity’s insatiable appetite for knowledge, education podcasts are among the most popular and history is no exception. Because history podcasts were personally my inspiration for returning to school and getting a BA in History, I wanted to give back to the community by connecting history podcasters with their listeners through online interviews and episode reviews.
Peter and Alex are the hosts of History’s Most a podcast that “that delves into interesting, under-reported and controversial topics in history and applies superlatives to them.” They, “dive headfirst into a variety of topics, from history’s most guilty man, to the most disastrous voyage, to complicated wars and confusing politicians.”
History’s Most Ep. 7 covers history’s most benevolent dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera, the Spanish dictator who ruled from 1923 to 1930.
“Often regarded as a populist and a paternalist, and calling himself an “Iron Surgeon”, Primo de Rivera is one of the most fascinating dictators of 20th century Europe, and one of the most fascinating people of 20th century Spain as well. With Spain’s best interests at heart, he set out to revitalize the country from the old days of the turno pacifico, root out the political corruption prevalent in the Spanish political system, quell the civil unrest, and deal with the war in Morocco.”
What are your backgrounds in history? What led you to team together to make a podcast? What do you hope your listeners take away from History’s Most?
Alex: I have loved history for as long as I can remember (apparently age five I used to watch a VHS copy of the film Waterloo on a loop), studied it at Leeds and Munich universities and am now a history teacher in a secondary school (ages 11-18). Additionally, since leaving university in 2016 I have continued to research and write, especially my favourite topic, the Spanish Civil War, and I have just published my first book – The People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War.
Peter: I don’t have a professional or academic background in history, but I have always had a great interest in learning about and discussing history (especially 20th century military and political history) since I was young.
We are good friends and often put the world to rights in lengthy conversations. We’ve always enjoyed talking about history, topics of mutual interest, unusual or unlikely people and events, and History’s Most was kind of a graduation of those conversations we would have. One day we decided we might record some of those conversations, make them a bit more structured and maybe others might like to listen.
By framing historical subjects in a superlative context, “most”, “worst”, the listener is compelled to compare each subject against other examples that they know from books, videos, and other podcasts. I enjoy this about History’s Most because I believe the value of history is that it gives a larger context to our current political and social realities. Have you had to rethink any preconceived notions about how you see the world as a result of your podcast, or have modern events caused you to see a historical figure or event in a different perspective?
Something we hope listeners can take away from the show is a fresh perspective on a person or event they otherwise wouldn’t have thought about, but also be entertained at the same time. As we’ve mentioned in a number of episodes, most of all we hope listeners get at least half of the enjoyment listening that we get from making the show but also perhaps go away more informed – our target audience is history lovers and we hope to bring them stories they haven’t heard before and that make them think. We frame each episode with a superlative ‘most’ or ‘worst’ in order to get the audience thinking; what would their choice of ‘most’ or ‘worst’ be, and how does it compare to our selection. Superlatives are emotive and everyone jumps to an answer when they are asked the most or worst ‘thing’. We always try to go beyond the obvious answers.
In terms of rethinking our preconceptions, in the past few years, we’ve seen a great deal of conspiracy theories and theorists rise to the mainstream (e.g. Alex Jones and his rhetoric). I had originally thought that that kind of mass publicization of fringe beliefs was a relatively new phenomenon, (mainly thanks to the internet) but researching for our first episode on Ludendorff and the “stab in the back” myth showed me that this kind of thing has happened before, and that the consequences can be far reaching. It really shows that some of the problems we perceive to be current or new have been there all along. While it might seem as if liberal democracy has become vulnerable in recent years, a lot of our episodes have highlighted how vulnerable it has always been.
The office of dictator originally came from Ancient Rome, where one man would be given to power to deal with major crises facing the republic. The most celebrated Roman dictator Cincinnatus gave up his power to return to the life of a solider farmer, while the dictators of the later republic, Sulla and Caesar, took the office for life. How does the Roman office of dictatorship compare with modern dictatorships? Is there an argument to be made about giving a brief period of unhindered power to an executive office to restore order or solve some major crises?
It can be tempting to say ‘yes’ in some cases, but once you give uninhibited power to one man to solve temporary problems, you immediately raise another question; will they actually leave when the problems are solved? or even how do you decide when those problems have actually been solved? Most important of all perhaps, if power is handed to a dictator on a temporary basis, how can it be removed when the time is right? Dictators like Primo de Rivera who actually concede that their power has waned and step down from office are the rare exceptions. I think it’s too easy for a dictator to fall into the trap of believing “if I give my power up, the same problems will happen again”, which just leads to them cementing their position, and possibly cracking down on any resistance to their regime, which just leads to more violence, corruption and different problems. While a dictator can add faster than a democratic government, that is not always a good thing. Without wanting to go to a cliched quote, there is something to be said for his famous Churchill line that democracy is the least worst option.
The comparison with ancient Rome is an interesting one but I don’t feel the Roman office is directly comparable. The most important reason is the completely changed nature of the nation state in the intervening period. In modern times, the state reaches into every aspect of our lives through legislation, regulation and government services. Thus, a dictator today, or in the 20th century, has a vast apparatus through which they can control every aspect of the culture, society and economy of their nation, something unimaginable in Roman times. The Nazi trade union leader Robert Ley claimed that the only private life a German could have in the Third Reich was when they were asleep. Modern technology, communication and state apparatus means that a dictator of the 20th or 21st century has vastly more power than even the most autocratic ancient ruler.
The interwar period saw the right of extreme ideologies from the political right and left. While most would associate ‘Fascism’ with Hitler and Mussolini, fascism was present as a movement in most countries at the time, such as France and the United States. In your episode on Miguel Primo de Rivera, his ideology is described as “comparable to fascism but not fascism” could you elaborate on this some more?
Primo’s regime is very difficult to pin down politically, not least because the man himself had very little ideology or politics other than a vague right-wing patriotism. Shlomo Ben-Ami has labelled the Primo dictatorship ‘Fascism from Above’ in the sense that while it shared many traits with fascist regimes, the military dictatorship was imposed from above by the elite (the king and the army) without any mass movement from below. King Alfonso XIII famously labelled Primo ‘my Mussolini’ and Primo did adopt some fascist visual styles, rhetoric and corporative economic and social policies. However, as well as lacking a mass movement, the regime also had peculiar quirks we outlined in the episode that stand it apart from fascism to some extent. Most importantly, Primo permitted considerable political plurality and handed the rival Socialist party and trade unions power and influence through joint arbitration and inviting them to join his new parliament. There was also nothing like the totalitarianism and repression one would see in typical fascist states. Finally, there was very little revolutionary about Primo’s government – he didn’t seek to remould or mobilise society or tear up old institutions in the same way most fascists do – in this sense he was thoroughly conservative.
In your episode on the most benevolent dictator you make several comparisons between Miguel Primo de Rivera’s rhetoric and U.S. President Donald Trump’s in his 2016 campaign which presented him as someone who was not a politician, above party politics, and who would end corruption. To what extent does the appeal of personalities like Primo still exist today? What historical conditions have led to the recent upsurge in nationalist politics and how are they connected with your episode on the most benevolent dictator?
I think that the idea of an ‘Everyman Politician’ is quite possibly as popular as it’s ever been. People like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson all bill themselves as just ‘normal’ people like you or me. They don’t portray themselves as politicians and deliberately don’t act like politicians which is exactly what Primo de Rivera was doing in the 1920s. He said he ‘learned politics in the casino’ as an attempt to earn the trust of the average Spanish citizen, which isn’t far off from the kind of rhetoric Trump or Johnson uses in an attempt to earn the trust of the average American or British citizen. Much like Trump saying he is the only one to ‘drain the swamp’, Primo billed himself as an Iron Surgeon who would root out the corruption within Spanish politics, however, Primo’s own government still had corrupt elements and little purpose other than maintaining power which ultimately lead to his downfall.
The success of populists, both then and now, can be linked to the sense that the system wasn’t working for ordinary people. In our episode History’s Worst Democracy, we showed how the corrupt, façade democracy that Spain had up to Primo’s seizure of power failed in almost every respect, meaning most Spaniards welcomed his dictatorship, even if it meant the restriction of their civil liberties. While in modern times, the failure of western democracies has not been quite so cataclysmic, I think there has been a sense since the 2008 crash that the financial and political world is disconnected from peoples’ everyday lives and that people feel powerless in the face of global forces they don’t understand. Therefore, they turn to politicians who claim they have the easy answers with simple slogans and messages that, at least at first glance, ‘make sense’. Ultimately, populism relies on appealing to emotions and feelings and Primo was able to do this with his patriotic rhetoric and benevolent paternalism.