Book of the week
How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century
However weak the state of democracy looks today, said Tony Barber in the Financial Times, “much of the world was in an even darker place only a few generations ago.” In his “strangely comforting” new survey of eight 20th-century dictators, Dutch-born historian Frank Dikötter tells us that Mussolini, Mao, Hitler, Stalin, and their lesser imitators inflicted more pain and damage than any of today’s strongmen but also—eventually—came to ignominious ends. To Dikötter, who previously wrote an acclaimed trilogy on Mao, the most salient feature common to each dictatorship was a cult of personality. Each ruler fostered the appearance of widespread public support while silencing critics through fear. And those tactics worked—for a time.
Dikötter takes too much reassurance from his subjects’ eventual demises, said Tunku Varadarajan in The Wall Street Journal. Joseph Stalin didn’t fall; he died of natural causes after 31 years in power. Mao himself ruled for 27 years and Mussolini for 23. But the author’s eight “superb” minibiographies do show how crucial personal branding was to each man’s success. Mussolini, a pioneer in this regard, put his image on bars of soap and distributed 800,000 free radios to speak to his fellow Italians daily. Mao created shortages of pots and pans by insisting that 50 million aluminum badges bearing his likeness be produced every month. North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, Haiti’s “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam all followed the template. And, crucially, each dictator’s demand for public praise from every citizen generated a useful atmosphere of distrust. “When everyone lied,” Dikötter writes, “no one knew who was lying, making it more difficult to find accomplices and organize a coup.”
“Dikötter’s final point is his best,” said Edward Lucas in The Times (U.K.). He argues that the distrust tyrants cultivate in the end becomes their undoing, because they cease hearing the advice and information they need to run their countries. But that doesn’t seem a sufficient reason to conclude, as Dikötter appears to, that all’s well that ends well, said Sheila Fitzpatrick in TheGuardian.com. He argues that excepting North Korea’s, the cults established by the book’s featured dictators ultimately collapsed, forfeiting all hold on the nations once subject to them. By his reckoning, dictatorship is also clearly on the decline. “That’s reassuring. Perhaps it would be churlish to ask how we got so lucky.” ■