When “Litany for Dictatorships” was published in 1935, the world was gripped by cruelty. Adolf Hitler had established concentration camps and—the same month the poem appeared in print—passed the Nuremberg Laws stripping German Jews of citizenship. Joseph Stalin controlled the Soviet Union through secret police and Gulags, while encouraging neighbors to turn one another in for supposed disloyalty. Benito Mussolini had declared himself dictator of Italy and begun arresting citizens for any suspicion of opposition.
Things were not going well for humanity—nor were they, personally, for the American poet Stephen Vincent Benét. In the 1920s, his work—much of it light, accessible, sentimental—had enjoyed popular success. But then he’d lost nearly all his earnings in the 1929 stock-market crash; in 1930, he’d begun suffering from painful arthritis of the spine. Poverty and despair proliferated around him. He began writing poems of nightmare and outrage, sometimes even of apocalyptic science fiction. From that era came “Litany for Dictatorships,” a long, mournful index of victims of political oppression: those average citizens killed “like rats in a drain,” those buried in nameless graves, those reported and doomed by their neighbors. Even those traitorous neighbors themselves, trapped in the same grim system.
A litany can simply be a repetitive list, but it’s also a type of prayer involving a call-and-response between a leader and an audience. I can almost hear Benét crying, “For the man crucified on the crossed machine guns,” and voices rising up to answer: “without name, without resurrection, without stars.” Each victim in this prayer is a martyr added to a dizzying tally of suffering. Benét—who was hospitalized in 1939 for nervous exhaustion, and died four years later—might not have been surprised to learn of fascism’s resurgence today. “We thought we were done with these things,” he calls. His litany responds: “But we were wrong.”