How to be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century    
by Frank Dikötter, London, Bloomsbury, 2019, 304 pp

In the opening passage of his latest book, How to be a Dictator, Dutch historian Frank Dikötter quotes British novelist William Thackeray’s caption of a satirical engraving depicting the Sun King Louis XIV in his unadorned, sickly body. “Thus do barbers and cobblers make the gods that we worship.”  

Dikötter’s book is the verbal equivalent of Thackery’s visual mockery, reducing once godlike 20th century dictators to wretched, sickly, insecure men. His list includes Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Francois Duvalier, Nicolae Ceaușescu and Mengistu Haile Mariam. Each established a predatory state that forced people into ritualistic, cult-like worship of their leadership, which was enforced through appalling violence.  

Dikötter’s book reveals the paradox of dictatorial power, as all these dictators were in essence weak rulers who had a shady claim to authority. Had they been strong, Dikötter says, they would have been elected. But they ruled with unbridled supremacy by manipulating men and women into a seemingly mindless adoration, performing their roles in bloody political theatres of power.

Professor Dikötter is an exemplary historian who gathers government documentation, public records and private memoirs, and with a kind of literary alchemy, transforms this scattered information into coherent interlocking narratives. His account of the rise and fall of the eight dictators moves rapidly, laced with rich anecdotes and bizarre incidents.

One such incident took place in 1964, in the heyday of Duvalier’s Haiti, forged out of forced elections that involved moving truckloads of kidnapped people into the capital to produce the obligatory vote. With a victory of 99.98 percent, the stage was set. On June 22, Papa Doc made his followers wait for an hour before delivering his 90-minute inauguration speech. Dikötter recounts, “[h]is audience had to stand, but after a while a German diplomat, through sheer fatigue, took his seat. Duvalier stopped, turned around and instructed a protocol officer to ask him to rise again”.

By spending 65 percent of all funds on state security in the ensuing years, the national performance carried on long after his speech had ended. In 1971, the ailing Duvalier still managed to secure all but one of 2,391,916 votes for his 19-year-old son before passing away. It was not until 1986 that the people of Haiti finally dropped the act and overthrew Baby Doc before demolishing Duvalier’s mausoleum.

Dikötter lets the facts speak for themselves and resolutely refuses to theorize. He informs readers that the number of modern dictators “reaches well beyond a hundred” but offers no explanation as to why the 20th century was ravaged by dictatorship. Despite the title, there is no systematic summary of common tactics used by dictators.

Yet after eight chapters of narratives that mirror and echo each other, a clear pattern emerges. Despite their differing ideologies and cultural backgrounds, the rulers he selected share a number of characteristics. They were all charismatic leaders who had risen from obscurity; they managed to fabricate infallibility through state-sponsored propaganda; and they exercised uninhibited power by instilling fear through extreme violence.

Dikötter’s narratives illuminate an elusive quest for legitimacy carried out by charismatic leaders who came into power by demolishing the existing institutional order. Their reigns relied on the continuous manufacture of social unrest – through either aggression towards other nations or the elimination of internal dissent.

Dikötter demonstrates that the legitimacy of charismatic leaders relies heavily on the two indispensable tools of propaganda and violence. While other historians have emphasized the role of terror (i.e. Robert Conquest, The Great Terror, 1968; Jung Chang, Jon Halliday, Mao, the Unknown Story, 2005), Dikötter claims that the cult of personality is “at the very heart of tyranny” and stresses the vital role of the state-controlled propaganda industry in creating and sustaining the personality cult.

Using the Khmer Rouge as an example, Dikötter argues that naked terror without the cult of personality tends to collapse far more quickly than dictatorships built around a charismatic leader. By contrasting the many directions Marxism evolved in a variety of communist dictatorships, Dikötter contends that organizing the masses around the tangible personality of an idealized leader is far more effective than relying on the appeal of an abstract, potentially divisive ideology.

Repetitive, mind-numbing propaganda is used as an irreplaceable instrument in fashioning personality cults and generating the illusion of popular support.  Mussolini spent 410 million lire (the equivalent of US$20 million) in newspapers promoting his regime. Some 40,000 free radios were given to elementary schools so that children could hear the voice of Il Duce.

Hitler’s Mein Kampf was deemed “the holy book of National Socialism” and sold a million copies in a year. Stalin promoted books of socialist realism in which children were permitted to read only about tractors and coal mines. Workers composed letters to their beloved “Soso” in “the Stalin House of Culture of the Stalin Factory on Stalin Square in the city of Stalinsk”. The production of Mao’s Little Red Book required 4,000 tons of plastic by 1968. Aluminum baskets, kettles, pots and pans were stolen by underground factories devoted to manufacturing Mao badges, paralyzing the whole aluminum industry yet still failing to meet soaring demands.

Dikötter’s narratives are disturbing yet unduly hopeful. He is determined to dethrone these demigods of 20th century and strip them of their glory. He recounts the 61-year-old Mussolini calling himself a walking corpse, before being shot and hanged upside down for public exhibition. He describes the 74-year-old Stalin soaked in urine, his medical treatment delayed by the fear he had instilled into his staff, leading to his death. He portrays the 71-year-old Ceauşescu, failing to calm the flood of jeering crowds with his “hoarse, frail voice” as he was consequently shot on a freezing night next to a toilet block.

Dikötter’s brisk storylines create the impression of dictators’ fleeing power, each “a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more”.

In truth, these roughly 20-page-long chapters do not reflect the longevity of dictatorships, and we still live with many of the consequences. Though these men pushed their own people to ruinous devastation, their reigns lasted for decades. Hitler ruled for 12 years, Mengistu 14, Mussolini 23, Ceauşescu 24, and Stalin 31. Mao Zedong is dead but not buried, Duvalier put his son on the throne, and Kim Il-sung’s grandson is still in power today. Not all dictators meet untimely death or fade into irrelevance.

In a brief “Afterward”, Dikötter acknowledges the rise of strongmen politics in our times, yet reassures readers that Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan or China’s Xi Jinping “are a long way from instilling the fear their predecessors inflicted on their populations at the height of the twentieth century”.

True enough, but I do not share Dikötter’s optimistic conviction that “dictatorship is on the decline”. After all, the worship of man-god kings has a far longer global history than the rational-legal institutions of democracy. Dikötter has noted that many 20th century personality cults had strikingly religious overtones. Indeed, many dictators enlisted a mythical past to claim legitimacy; Korea’s Kim Il-sung and Haiti’s Duvalier are both examples. The theatres of public displays of loyalty or of mass political purges are indications of whole societies behaving in a ritualistic rather than a rational manner.

Such phenomena invite us to re-examine the Weberian assumption that modern politics is shaped by individuals making decisions on a rational basis. As Erich Fromm noted in his 1941 book Escape from Freedom, a vast number of individuals seek to escape from the responsibilities of freedom and prefer to project their agency onto the personality cult of the leader. This has a primitive appeal. When a leader becomes the only arbiter of power, he is also the sole bearer of responsibility. Dikötter’s account of Mussolini single-handedly bearing the blame for fascist movements confirms the allure of the personality cult – that it exempts its followers from ultimate responsibility. 

The fact that a dictator’s power can collapse overnight may not be a sign of the inherent fragility of personality cults. In The Golden Bough (1922), Sir James Frazer observed that the slaying of the man-god king at the first sign of an ailment is an archaic ritual found in many primitive communities across the globe. Frazer proposes that the man-god kings serve the dual purpose of representing the community’s collective strength and the purging of its sins. Charismatic leaders of the 20th century yielded unparalleled power compared to their democratically elected counterparts perhaps because they served mythical functions that rational-legal office holders cannot fulfill.

The theatre of power may just be the latest revival of an ancient ritual reminding us of the fallibility and frailty of human rationality.

Emma Zhang

Emma Zhang is Lecturer of English at Hong Kong Baptist University