How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century

In How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century author Frank Dikötter wrote eight short biographies of the most notorious dictators from the 1900’s. They were chronologically arranged, starting with Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, François Duvalier, Nicolae Ceaușescu and Mengistu Haile-Mariam. Only Mengistu was profiled (and also interviewed) in Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators, which I read ten years ago. Duvalier’s son Jean-Claude was included in the earlier book.

Each dictator’s rise to the top was a riveting read. These leaders all shored up their power by eliminating opposition, bestowing upon themselves more authority and keeping those who surrounded them in a nervous bubble of fear. Purges of the party faithful reinforced the idea that no one was immune to the dictator’s whims or fears:

“A dictator must rely on military forces, a secret police, a praetorian guard, spies, informants, interrogators, torturers. But it is best to pretend that coercion is actually consent. A dictator must instil fear in his people, but if he can compel them to acclaim him he will probably survive longer. The paradox of the modern dictator, in short, is that he must create the illusion of popular support.”

The chapters about the more recent dictators were shorter–since they ravaged the world with fewer murders and other catastrophic consequences–and each of their downfalls was discussed in a matter of a few paragraphs, with their last years given barely a mention in comparison to the others like Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, who had multiple pages devoted to their ends. I can see that the more notorious the dictator, the less the need to identify him by a first name. And the only reason Kim Il Sung is identified by all three names is to distinguish himself from his son and grandson, whose regime is the only one in the book still in power.

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