The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose
Lights Out, 1917
What Edward Thomas had to say on the subject of sleep was beautifully expressed but not altogether true. Adolf Hitler took drugs to stay awake and drugs to fall asleep. In doing so, he was able to hold body and soul together on as little as three or four hours a night, to stay awake from six in the morning until 3am.
If you happened to be the Fuhrer of the Third Reich, with lands stretching from Calais to Leningrad and possibly far beyond, an ability to keep this side of the borders of sleep was useful and even necessary. More than this, it helped prove to the volk that you were superhuman.While ordinary mortals slept off lashings of wurst and beer, safe in their Hansel and Gretel homes, the leader (vegetarian, teetotal) worked on through the night, his only waking thought the welfare of those he led. That, and world domination and extermination of the Jews.
"Man," said Nietzsche, the Fuhrer's favourite philosopher, "is something to be surpassed." That way lay the Superman (ubermensch), and Adolf Hitler, pumped and primed with pills and injections from Dr Morell's little black bag, was a sleepless Superman to hero-worshipping Germans, even though he wore grey tunics rather than blue-and-red body stockings. A superman does not need to sleep, and a Fuhrer - leader, guide, revenging angel of Versailles - cannot be seen to follow in the wake of whimsical English poets, even one like Thomas who served, like him, in front-line trenches.
Hitler, master of mass manipulation, understood this well. Of course he slept. In fact, he catnapped frequently, but only in the company of those he trusted. He snoozed by the side of his lovers: first, Geli Raubal, and then Eva Braun; he dozed after late-night viewings of romantic American movies (and Mickey Mouse) with the likes of Albert Speer (his architect), Magda Goebbels (his muse) and Martin Bormann (his secretary), at the retreat he designed for himself at Berchtesgaden. He nodded off, too, as shown by a rarely seen photograph on these pages, on the deck of a KdF steamer ("Kraft durch Freude", or "Strength Through Joy", otherwise the Nazi labour movement) as it skirted the Baltic coast: while Joseph Goebbels and Rudolf Hess debate, perhaps, the Polish question, Hitler catnaps. It does seem strange to see him, spark out on a sun-kissed deckchair and in full Fuhrer regalia - the peaked cap, Iron Cross First Class, that ankle-length leather coat, those gleaming jackboots.
Photographs like this, it hardly needs saying, were banned during Hitler's life: they would have given the lie to the notion that Hitler was a Superman. Similarly, photographs of Stalin, Mussolini, or Mao asleep are almost unheard of. Il Duce, from the land of the siesta, must surely have slept off the occasional bowl of pasta after such heroic endeavours as draining the Pontine Marshes or making trains run on time; yet, in pictures, he is never less than a man of action, a burly, jaw-jutting successor to Julius Caesar himself.
Mussolini proved himself masterful by striking beefcake poses for glossy magazines. A man of dumbbells and Indian clubs, he did not march on Rome when it was time to seize the reins of power - famously, he ran. Fascism was a dynamic creed, and Benito Mussolini was never less than dynamic. Up all hours, he brooded in his study; like Hitler, his only thought at such times was the future welfare of the childlike nation he fostered.
We know that Joseph Stalin did sleep, eight hours at a time, but at the most inconvenient hours for his cohorts and comrades. Uncle Joe went to bed at four in the morning after a late-night banquet (he ate like an ox) and a carafe or two of neat vodka. Despite his slight frame, he could drink almost anyone under the tables of the Kremlin, proving again that he was a cut above his more than half-cut comrades.
He also slept well, usually until midday, and at least he died, albeit painfully, in his own bed at the Kremlin, eight years after the insomniac Hitler had fired a bullet through his seething brain, and after Mussolini had slept the Big Sleep, strung upside down from a streetlamp in Milan. By then, he had won the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. Uncle Joe had the last snore.
But perhaps the greatest of all political sleepers was the father of Red China, Mao Ze Dong. From the mid-Fifties on, this communist emperor spent consecutive days in bed in a room in which the curtains were always drawn. The bedroom was built on the scale of a ballroom, the bed itself immense. Mao reclined here in great splendour, surrounded by books, food and women. Like Stalin, Mao lived to be an old man and was never deposed.
This brings us to an interesting question: is the politician who sleeps the most soundly the ultimate winner? Starved of sleep, most of us buckle like rabbits caught in a trap.We can only stay up so long. If one of us can stay awake longer than the rest and continue to work, the probable outcome is that he or she will be the leader of our tribe. But what if a lack of sleep leads to poor decisions, and even a form of waking madness?
To dictator or dustman, sleep is the sweet balm of the poet's imagination, with powerful healing properties. For Freud, sleep was the state in which we, through dreams, exorcised demons. Or, as William Golding puts it in his novel Pincher Martin, "Sleep is where all the unsorted stuff comes flying out as from a dustbin upset in a high wind." Those who sleep well and dream long cleanse the dustbins of their minds. In doing so, do Night's dustmen make better decisions?
Deprived increasingly of sleep, Hitler appeared to make fewer and fewer rational decisions as the world war of his making screamed on into its fifth and sixth years. He lashed out, seeing conspiracies all around him. After the Stauffenberg assassination attempt of July 1944, his paranoia was not without justification; but was Hitler, awake, experiencing nightmares that should have been dealt with asleep? "I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleepwalker," he once said. Perhaps that's it: the Fuhrer ran the Reich in its Gotterdamerung years, fast asleep with his eyes open.
If he had slept normally, might Hitler have beaten Stalin? It is easy to say that Hitler would have lost the War whether or not he slept those extra hours a night. Even so, Stalin's decision-making improved during the War as Hitler's all but deserted him. As Harold Wilson, a virtuoso catnapper, said in 1975, "I believe the greatest asset a head of state can have is the ability to get a good night's sleep."
Psychiatrists tend to agree that, while sleep is essential, it can be taken in either one uninterrupted seven- or eight- hour stretch, or else in small, frequent doses. Either is effective, although some people do appear to thrive on less sleep than others. The American humourist, Peter de Vries, put it another way. "It is not true," he wrote, "that some people need less sleep than others. They simply sleep faster."
"We appear to need something like four hours a day to rehabilitate our bodies and to clear away dead cells," says Professor Simon Folkard of the Manpower Resource Centre at the University of Wales in Swansea. "We also need a little more, up to three or four hours depending on the individual, to sort out experiences of the day before. While it is possible to train ourselves to sleep less than we might ideally want to, sleep deprivation reduces life expectancy and causes people to work poorly and to make poor decisions. Sleeping too much, by the way, has much the same effect.
"The biggest accidents - Chernobyl, chemical spillages from ships, railway crashes - tend to occur when people working night shifts have been unable to enjoy a normal pattern of sleep. Humans are essentially diurnal: they sleep best at night and work best during the day. Those who work at night on a regular basis cannot be expected to perform as well as those working during the day."
Edwina Currie, Tory MP and bodice-ripping novelist, gave evidence to the recent Jopling Committee on the hours worked by MPs. Mrs Currie spoke of "broken marriages", of "ruined health" and "exhausted rationality" caused by MPs working improbable hours and sleeping too little. House of Commons debates that dragged on into the small hours served no useful purpose, reported Currie: they were simply politics being played out as a "machismo game". In other words, he (or she) who stays up longest rules the roost, or the world.
Members of Parliament and, more particularly, ministers, who doze on duty are at best teased mercilessly by the press; at worst, they are accused of being lazy, uncaring or dilettante. Newspaper photographers catch politicians at party conferences fighting sleep as if for their very lives, which in a way they are. Fred Mulley, for example, was the Minister for Defence in Jim Callaghan's Labour government of 1975-79. When, with the Queen in attendance, he dropped off at a Silver Jubilee flypast at RAF Filingly, his career was all but over.
This is why the dynamic, youthful John F Kennedy had to present himself as a sleep-free zone. "We must use time as a tool," he said, "not as a couch"; although he certainly spent a lot of his time on couches.
Margaret Thatcher was also a famously energetic leader. Taking her cue from Winston Churchill, Mrs Thatcher (as she then was) claimed that she needed just four hours sleep at night. The truth of this was borne out on the night the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where Thatcher and her Cabinet were staying during the 1984 Tory party conference. Up in the wee hours at her dispatch boxes, Thatcher was shaken but not injured by the bomb. Had she been asleep in the bedroom next door, she might well have been badly hurt. Like Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini before her, Thatcher worked on during the night while a grateful nation slept.
"The difference between Mrs Thatcher and Hitler," suggests Ashley Weinberg of the Department of Psychology at the University of Manchester Medical School, "is that, while Thatcher chose not to sleep, Hitler, like Macbeth, couldn't sleep. Choosing not to sleep when others have to sleep is a potential source of power."
Weinberg has written two reports, based on extensive interviews with MPs, on the effect a lack of sleep has on the lives and performance of politicians. "I found, in my 1992 survey, that 20 per cent, or one in six MPs, was in a state of poor psychological health. Quite simply, far too many were taking on too much work, too many engagements, and sleeping too little. This made them tetchy at home, reliant on influences outside the home [the bottle, mistresses] and encouraged a breakdown in family communications."
Most of all, a lack of sleep made them liable to error and poor judgement. Here, the findings of Weinberg's surveys bring us back to the Hitler-Stalin question. If Hitler had slept properly, would he have lived to see Germania, the imperial capital of fitful dreams, built on the site of Berlin? If MPs slept properly (ate a balanced diet, kept off the floozies, wrapped up well in winter), would they make better decisions than they do?
Nighthawks, who are not necessarily poor sleepers, often reach the top of whatever greasy pole they are trying to climb. Many highly-charged people cannot imagine why anyone would want to spend hours in bed. Calling people late at night, waking them from the depths of sleep, is an effective way of undermining others and showing who wields the bigger stick.
Fidel Castro and Che Guevara favoured late-night meetings, which were more an emanation of youthful exuberance than Machiavellian manipulation - bearded young men in jungle-torn fatigues sticking a finger up at the establishment they now controlled. You can find photographs of Che and Fidel snoozing on "Papa" Hemingway's fishing boat when out hunting marlin, but you will be hard-pressed to discover photos of these rebellious and fiercely intelligent nighthawks other than wide awake at three in the morning. Castro is still bating the Yankees, but, if you study photographs of the "Maximum Leader" over the past decade, you will see that he has learned to relax.
Very rarely, there are leaders who have made a political virtue of sleep. Mahatma Gandhi slept in public as a sign of peace. His bed-ins preceded those of John Lennon, a famous sleeper and dreamer, by at least 60 years. Sleep, Gandhi's prone body says, is good karma. In sleep, we cannot display aggression. If the world slept more, it would be a happier place.
Which brings us to Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a successful US president. His stagey, good ol' boy manner may have been an act, but it came naturally. He was only too happy to kip for the world's press. Sleep, and hammock- loads of it, demonstrated that the presidency was in safe hands.
Of course, no one, including Reagan, gets to the top by staying in bed; when Aunt Ada Doom, tyrant of Cold Comfort Farm, saw something nasty in the woodshed, she retired to her bed and thus was toppled by breezy young Flora Poste. Natural born leaders are nighthawks. They are always the children who had to be dragged to bed and then spent half the night reading under the blanketsReuse content