Dictators, gangsters and gun-toting guerillas all seem to have a fondness for facial hair — specifically above their upper lips. But why?
BOGOTA — Saddam. Stalin. Pinochet. Hilter. Dictators all of them, with an unquenchable thirst for power and a terrifying taste for violence. They had something else in common too: All of them had mustaches. The world has also, of course, had its share of clean-shaven tyrants. And yet there's something about strong-man leaders and mustaches that seems to fit.
When Hergé, the creator of Tintin, sought an emblem for Kurvi-Tasch, the dictator of the fictitious state of Borduria in The Calculus Affair, he made the leader's mustache the symbol of his personality cult: It appeared on the national flag, calendars, cars and even in the country's language, as an accent.
More than half-a-century later, in 2012, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad reacted to the popular uprising against him by trimming the mustache he had donned since the start of his political career. French journalists from the website Slate interpreted the gesture as a desire to erase a possible totalitarian image, which prompted them to examine whether or not there was a tendency for despots to don a mustache.
What did they find? Turns out 42% of modern dictators have indeed had what Hergé considered a typical trait of tyrants. The study also found that mustachioed dictators lasted longer than other rulers, and that among the most bloodthirsty dictators, 75% had mustaches. Exceptions included Mao, Cambodia's Pol Pot and the North Korean Kim Il Sung, who as Asians, were less prone to facial hair.
Slate broached the subject of Assad's mustache with an expert, who described it as a "military mustache," something many Syrians have. The source also noted Assad's habit of wearing fine suits tailored in England. His trimmed mustache, the expert suggested, was perhaps an attempt to bridge two worlds: politics and the army, East and West.
Hitler's is the best known dictatorial mustache, though it took him time to cut it into the shape we all know. It was in 1922, when he founded the National Socialist Party and designed its emblem, that Hitler decided to trim his mustache considerably, initially leaving it a little rounded, then square. It seemed to perfectly complement the tyrant's furious tirades at mass rallies.
A terribly comical face
The actor Charles Chaplin closely studied pictures of Hitler for his parody in the film The Great Dictator. He wrote in his memoirs about Hitler's "terribly" comical face and ridiculous gestures, but acknowledged that the humor faded somewhat as people like Albert Einstein and the writer Thomas Mann began to flee their homeland.
I have no idea why I never grew a mustache, or why my father shaved his off, once and for all, on his first trip to the United States in the 1970s. Some of my relatives do have them, however. And others have them just for a while, so I can only speculate on the links between mustache and dictatorship.
Rallying for modern-day mustachioed tyrant, Bashar al-Assad — Photo: Sammy Aw
In 2012, Chile's left-leaning leader, Michelle Bachelet (who was in between her two, non-consecutive presidential terms at the time), advised Josefina Vázquez Mota, the conservative presidential candidate in Mexico, not to "give into the temptation of donning a mustache." If elected, she reportedly told Vázquez Mota, "Govern like a woman."
The historian Lucinda Hawksley believes the mustache trend gains vigor when men feel threatened by feminism, like when women were demanding the vote in late Victorian Britain. It came back with a vengeance in the 70s when feminist politics were in full flow. And these days, with the media turning new attention to gender equality issues, we have the full hipster beard.
Here in Colombia, mustaches have flourished like nowhere else. All the big guerrilla chiefs have had them, from Nicolas "Gambino" Rodriguez Bautista of the ELN to Jaime Bateman and Carlos Pizarro of the disbanded M-19 and Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas, aka Mono Jojoy, of the FARC. The drug kingpin Pablo Escobar had one too. Mustaches are more popular, it seems, among people seeking power through arms than among vote-seeking politicians.
Perhaps what Colombia needs then is a general shave-off. Maybe that's the key to the country's hopes for lasting peace. But that would imply that wearing mustaches was the worst crime committed by the FARC's politburo and field captains. If only it were true.