Book of the week: How to Be a Dictator by Frank Dikötter

Sycophants and corpses abound in this look at eight of history’s most ruthless leaders

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For Dutch historian Frank Dikötter, the purpose of a dictator’s personality cult is clear. It is not to convince or persuade but rather to “sow confusion, to destroy common sense, to enforce obedience, to isolate individuals and crush their dignity”. And here are eight dictators of the 20th century who, to a greater or lesser extent, did exactly that while murdering millions of their fellow countrymen and women and utterly devastating their nations. 

Dikötter begins with portraits of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong, the bloodstained quartet who represent the top tier of the Dictators’ Premier League. Anecdotes abound. We hear how Mussolini, “at once actor, stage manager, orator and brilliant self-publicist” who never wanted to be overshadowed by anyone, once went into a furious sulk when Greta Garbo visited Rome.

Carefully manufactured within a nation’s borders, adulation of the all-powerful dictator extended across them, too. Thus Churchill, in 1933, considered Mussolini “the Roman genius” and “the greatest law-giver among living men”. A more telling verdict on Benito’s Italy came from the unnamed observer who reckoned it had become “a nation of prisoners, condemned to enthusiasm”. George Bernard Shaw thought Stalin a “charmingly good-natured fellow”, while American journalist Harrison Salisbury, vetted by the North Korean regime in 1972, dutifully declared Kim Il-sung a “monumentally astute and visionary statesman”. When it comes to sucking up to dictators, there is generally no shortage of useful idiots.

Ubiquity is one of the common themes in these pages, above all in the images of the dictators, inevitably reproduced in industrial quantities. The dictator’s alternately smiling or sombre visage appears with relentless frequency on hoardings, walls and medals, in newspapers, books and windows, on television and even on bars of soap. At a time of paper and cardboard rationing in pre-war Germany, four tonnes of paper were earmarked monthly for the photographic business that produced portraits of Hitler. In 1968, the Chinese state was producing 50 million Mao badges a month, still insufficient to prevent the emergence of a thriving black market knocking out even more likenesses of the benevolent Chairman. Choose your leaders with care — individuals shape history

It goes without saying that behind every image of a smiling or scowling dictator lay the millions of corpses of those who had opposed him, those who were suspected of opposing him, or those innocents whose deaths were an effective tool pour décourager les autres. And without the scrutiny and checks provided by national parliaments, a free press and independent judiciaries, many more died as a result of dictatorial lunacy, from Stalin’s campaign of collectivisation (six million dead) to Mao’s Great Leap Forward (anywhere between 18 million and 56 million) and his Cultural Revolution (up to two million). As Dikötter remarks in a characteristically dry aside: “The greater the misery, the louder the propaganda.”

Stalin may have been, in Trotsky’s great phrase, “the outstanding mediocrity of our party,” but he proved exceptional according to the only measurement that matters to dictators: longevity in office; something that equally applies to Syria’s Assad dynasty, North Korea’s Kim dynasty and, don’t forget, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, who has been prime minister then president for 44 years and counting, currently a world record.

Another recurrent theme which emerges — and which Dikötter barely pauses to analyse — is the debasement of language. It would have been interesting to learn what the author makes of the sycophantic bilge that is the dictator’s linguistic handmaiden. “The Party is Hitler and Hitler is Germany just as Germany is Hitler,” Rudolph Hess opined in 1934. The Romanian regime’s newspaper Scînteia compared Ceaușescu to “Julius Caesar, Alexander of Macedonia, Pericles, Cromwell, Napoleon, Peter the Great and Lincoln.”

In Haiti, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who liked to project himself as a Voodoo spirit and had a penchant for wearing a top hat, black tailcoat and sunglasses, was hailed as the “Apostle of the Collective Good” and “Greatest Man in Our Modern History”, as well as being, conveniently, “President for Life”. From Hitler, Ceaușescu and Duvalier then, it is not far, linguistically speaking, to China today. In 2017, the Communist Party bestowed seven titles on President Xi Jinping, including those of “Servant Pursuing Happiness for the People” and “Architect of Modernisation in the New Era”. Pity the Chinese.

How to Be A Dictator proves to be a misleading title, because Dikötter does not offer much in the way of explanation or analysis. Narrative takes centre stage instead. Would-be dictators are left to formulate their own playbook. It would go something like this: rise through the ranks discreetly, choose your moment to seize power, take control of the military, security and intelligence agencies, bump off all your rivals and fire up the personality cult. And keep killing. Although much remains unexplained, Dikötter’s book is still essential reading because the standalone portraits of his eight dictators are riveting.

Justin Marozzi’s Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization, is published by Allen Lane.

How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century by Frank Dikötter (Bloomsbury, £25), buy it here.

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