“How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century” by Frank Dikötter

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, 1940 (Wikimedia Commons)
Date 	June 1940 Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, 1940 (Wikimedia Commons) Date June 1940

Frank Dikötter, author of the acclaimed People’s Trilogy, focuses his latest book on the special role personality cults have played in eight eerily effective 20th-century dictatorships. The wryly titled How to Be a Dictator reminds readers of the depressingly similar tactics tyrants have used throughout history to destroy rivals and win acquiescence, if not exactly adulation, of the people.

 A lot is covered in just over 270 pages, including some 70 pages of extensive bibliography, notes and engaging photos. Benito Mussolini, a forerunner in the dark arts of personality cults, opens the book, followed by narratives on Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung. Less well known to many will be the dictatorships of Haiti’s François Duvalier, Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam that make up the last three chapters.

Each of the above leaders, Dikötter argues, crucially developed a “cult of personality”, a term that’s often credited to Nikita Khrushchev, a phrase he used in 1956 denouncing Stalin’s reign of terror. Despite its wide current use, the term resists simple definition.

Dikötter, who admits it “may not be a rigorously developed concept proposed by a great social scientist”, sets out to show what a cult of personality is and, also important, what it isn’t. The kind of political stagecraft democratically elected leaders everywhere engage in, he says, doesn’t constitute a cult, however repulsive it may be. Calling it such does a disservice to the truly oppressed.

In a “fully developed cult of personality,” he explains, “no one can any longer be quite certain any more who supports and who opposes the dictator.” This confusion, the book shows, has been indispensable to maintaining dictatorships after an initial stage of terror and violence. “A dictator must instil fear in his people, but if he can compel them to acclaim him he will probably survive longer.”

Creating a cult of the individual, it turns out, depends on a lot of people, writers, photographers, artists, diplomats, fellow travelers as well as average citizens. And a veneer of adulation, Dikötter illustrates, has gone a long way to fool many foreign politicians and journalists into at least tacit support for murderous regimes, and outsiders are crucial to a tyrant’s credibility.

The author touches on American journalist Edgar Snow’s central role introducing Mao to the world with the bestseller Red Star over China, a book heavily edited by the “Great Helmsman” himself. There was also French writer Michel-Pierre Hamelet, who touted Ceaușescu’s supposed virtues, and American publicist Herbert Morrison, who helped promote Haiti as a “beacon of democracy.”

Dikötter has an eye for the absurd.

How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century, Frank Dikötter (Bloomsbury, September 2019)
How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century, Frank Dikötter (Bloomsbury, September 2019)

The chapters overflow with detail. Dikötter has an eye for the absurd in and around the lives of men so obsessed with image and power that they would, for instance, have their portraits put on bars of soap (Mussolini) leavens otherwise very dark stories of oppression and terror. Readers learn how Mein Kampf became the “gift of choice for newly-weds”, that air hostesses in China used to read Mao’s Little Red Book to passengers, that when Kim died, a five-year-old “spat in her hand to wet her face with saliva, making it look as if she was crying.”

The book’s best writing has novelistic flourishes, like this passage about Ceaușescu that captures a distinct dictator and dictatorship in three sentences:


An energetic but short man who was touchy about his height, he had the [palace’s] staircases rebuilt twice to match his step. Although he never saw the finished project, work resumed a few years after he was shot on Christmas Day 1989. It remains a work in progress.


The eight leaders in the book are not the only ones that pass Dikötter’s cult-of-personality test. He writes that Sukarno, Muammar Gaddafi, Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, among others, could have easily been included. Yet, the historian, who’s chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, warns that the label probably doesn’t stick to any of today’s dictators—with the exception of North Korea’s Kim Jung-un.

 Readers, of course, may object. Dikötter does acknowledge a mounting list of negative developments in Xi Jinping’s China, for example. But he still concludes that “dictators today … are a long way from instilling the fear their predecessors inflicted on their populations at the height of the twentieth century.”

Vigilance is not the same as gloom.

How to Be a Dictator is serious yet optimistic book, to the extent that a work of history can be optimistic. If nothing else, it will provide some historical perspective for readers as they take to the internet to call out the latest world leader who has taken another worrying step towards dictatorship.

 “Vigilance,” notes Dikötter, “… is not the same as gloom.”

Timothy Sifert is a Hong Kong-based journalist.