HOW TO BE A DICTATOR: The Cult of personality in the Twentieth Century
by Frank Dikötter
Bloomsbury Publishing, London
Paperback: 304 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
The three volumes of Frank Dikotter’s trilogy on Mao’s China (The Tragedy of Liberation; Mao’s Great Famine; The Cultural Revolution) have been reviewed in News Weekly, and together constitute an important contribution to the history of the 20th century.
By contrast, How To Be A Dictator comes across as something of a potboiler. A quirky and entertaining potboiler, but a potboiler nonetheless.
Would-be members of the World Domination League should also be warned that the “How to” in the title does not imply an offer of self-empowerment. This is not Dictatorship For Dummies in Ten Easy Lessons.
Dikotter’s selection of eight representative tyrants from the last hundred years – Mussolini (Duce), Hitler (Führer), Stalin (Vozhd), Mao Zedong (Great Helmsman), Kim Il-sung (Great Leader), Duvalier (Papa Doc), Ceausescu (Conducator) and Mengistu – undoubtedly illustrates the “cult of personality”.
And he certainly describes how they constructed and practised the cult by exploiting all the means that 20th-century science put at their disposal, from radio, newspapers, cinema and aeroplanes, to the humble and ubiquitous loudspeaker.
(This year marks the 70th birthday of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a reminder for us to be grateful that these dictators did not possess the sort of surveillance technology that Orwell envisioned, and that modern IT has actualised!)
Dikotter points out that mass conditioning by means of the media and education is supplemented by a con trick.
The dictator’s universal popularity is asserted and celebrated in such a way that it is impossible for any potential dissident to discover whether or not it is genuine. After all, who was going to argue against a referendum such as the one held by Duvalier, which gave him 99.89 per cent of the votes?
What Dikotter does not do is go further, and use the findings of political psychology and political sociology to analyse how the cult of personality functions: that is, the working out of its subterranean dynamic both individually and corporately.
Of course, each situation in which this dynamic operated was distinct from those of the others. There were differences of geography and national background, as well as a variety of emphases in content, ranging from the ideological, to the racial, nationalist and even religious.
So, in a nostalgic tribute to long-forgotten history exams, let’s “ compare and contrast …”
What were some of the features, in no particular order, that these practitioners of the “cult of personality” (which Dikotter places “at the very heart of tyranny”) had in common?
The most pervasive, obviously, is summed up in Dikotter’s description of François Duvalier, president of Haiti, as “a dictator’s dictator, a man who wielded power without [even] the pretence of ideology”.
Power is the despot’s bedrock narcotic, an end in itself even when it is sometimes used to provide other and lesser satisfactions.
G.K. Chesterton, in his Song of the Strange Ascetic, imagines himself as a heathen emperor who would have “filled my life with love affairs / My house with dancing girls”, and wonders at the riddle “Of them who do not have the faith / And will not have the fun”.
Mussolini and Mao both exploited their power to indulge in countless sexual liaisons, while others, such as Stalin and Hitler, were relatively abstemious in this area.
Out of megalomania, or a desire for high brand profile, or both, dictators tended to go in for quasi-religious veneration.
It took the form of not just icons, hymns and theology (a hagiography of Mengistu compared “the savior of Ethiopia … to the second coming of Christ”) but even relics – such as “a rock on which [Kim-Il-sung, allegedly] had rested”.
The same impetus produced myriad statues, often of Brobdingnagian and kitschy proportions – though not of Ceausescu or Duvalier: “Like Hitler, [Duvalier] believed that statues were for the dead”.
And no religion is complete without holy writ. Mao’s Little Red Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf are two well-known examples. But most dictators felt compelled to publish even the least of their obiter dicta, which in the case of Ceausescu ran to “an impressive twenty-eight weighty tomes”.
Then there is the issue of support for dictators from beyond their jurisdiction.
Their subjects might have obeyed them out of fear, infatuation, or desire to get their snout in the trough. But what about outsiders?
We are familiar with the concept of “useful idiots”, those who supported left-wing dictators such as Stalin; and “fifth columnists”, who supported fascists such as Hitler. But Kim Il-sung was a global hermit, while Ceausescu, by contrast, somehow managed to get himself lauded by Queen Elizabeth II.
Another common feature of dictatorship is famine.
Stalin, Mao, Kim Il-sung, Mengistu, Ceausescu and Duvalier specialised in mass starvation, and it took all possible internal propaganda measures, along with the ruthless application of state censorship, for them to survive the consequent opprobrium in the short and long term.
One of the means by which the cult of personality endured was the mantra: “If only [insert dictator’s name] knew!”
Indoctrination of a populace by state monopoly of the media resulted in the apotheosis of the leader, so that any shortcomings in the system were always blamed on his corrupt or incompetent underlings.
It worked. Russians wept when Stalin died, and Mao is still venerated by many citizens of China, of whom he killed tens of millions.
Maintenance of a tyrant’s mystique could be effected by either one of two contrasting techniques. The first was populist posturing as a “man of the people”, which involved a high public profile and constant crowd contact, and was practised by Mussolini and Ceausescu.
The other, exemplified by Duvalier, was the cultivation of Olympian detachment and ominous mystery (in his case, based on reputed voodoo connections).
Likewise: “Mao, like Stalin, was a remote, godlike figure, rarely seen, rarely heard”.
In between, there was the method of strategically spaced and carefully stage-managed appearances to crowds who had been shipped in, or who knew better than to stay away, and who cheered and applauded because they were being watched.
How To Be A Dictator might be more of a mixture of quality journalism and popular biography than benchmark scholarship, but it never fails to stimulate and intrigue its reader.
PS: One question which this book neither poses nor answers is why there were few, if any at all, female 20th-century dictators. Perhaps Dikotter felt it did not need to be explicitly stated that women have more sense than to engage in something so simultaneously wicked and childish.