Frank Dikötter on Dictators

Posted on 6th August 2020 by Anna Orhanen

Dictators, our Non-fiction Book of the Month for August, offers a crisp and acute analysis of twentieth-century authoritarianism in action by examining eight notorious leaders. In this fascinating piece, author Frank Dikötter discusses the ways in which the cult of personality helped these modern tyrants to flourish.

Resurrected Dictators 

Everyone, apparently, is a dictator. Maybe we have lost sight of what the term means. 

A few years ago a satirical novel entitled Look Who's Back was published, imagining how Hitler wakes up in a park near his former bunker in the year 2011. He thanks destiny for his resurrection and begins to plot his way back to power. One wonders what the Führer would have made of leaders in some of the world's leading democracies who are sometimes accused of being 'dictators'. I think he would have scoffed. When he visited Rome in 1938, he was greeted in style by Mussolini but put up in the Quirinal Palace as a guest of King Victor Emmanuel. The King was aloof. 'This place smells of catacombs', Hitler complained, wondering why the Duce continued to play second fiddle and did not simply eliminate the monarchy. 

Hitler had a point. Dictators are supposed to have a monopoly over power, making all major decisions themselves. Lenin had set the example, as the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 and launched a Red Terror in the following years, ruthlessly liquidating all enemies of the revolution and concentrating power into their own hands. Labour activists were executed, priests and nuns crucified, the entire imperial family shot or stabbed to death, their bodies mutilated, burned and dumped in a pit. 

It was a model that revolutionaries throughout the twentieth century would emulate, not least Mussolini and Hitler. It took Mussolini a mere three years after the March on Rome in 1922 to muzzle the press, police the streets, suspend freedom of association and eliminate all political organisations other than the National Fascist Party. In the words of a foreign visitor who toured the country in 1925, the Duce was 'like a jailer with all the keys hanging at his belt and revolver in hand, pacing unquestioned up and down Italy, as in the quiet and sullen corridors of a vast prison'.

Hitler accomplished the task in even less time, as hundreds of thousands of brownshirts hunted down their opponents in January 1933 after their leader came to power. A few months later trade unions were dissolved, while all other political parties were disbanded over the summer. More than 100,000 ordinary citizens were rounded up and imprisoned that very same year. Merely expressing doubts about the regime in the privacy of one's own home could land a German citizen in prison for a year. 

What if Stalin were to be brought back to life? He, too, would pour scorn over today's rulers. What kind of dictator takes nineteen years to pass a law criminalising disrespect of the state and its representative, as Putin did in March 2019? Under Stalin the population cheered on command, parroted the party line, shouted the slogans and praised their leader's genius, each and every day, whether they liked it or not, never mind disrespecting the state. 

Any self-respecting dictator in the twentieth century, from Hitler and Stalin to Mao and Ceausescu, would have used the secret police and a small army of spies, informants, interrogators and torturers to crush dissent. But what was truly distinct about modern dictators is that they also demanded adulation. They tried to police not only every street, but also every mind. Ordinary people had to bow to his likeness, pass by his statue, recite his work, praise his name and extol his genius (it was always a he, never a she). They were required to create the illusion of consent, to proclaim their undying love for the very man who crushed their dignity as well as their freedom. A dictator, in short, condemned his subjects to perpetual enthusiasm. People who failed to play along were fined, imprisoned, occasionally shot. And as everyone became the captive of an extravagant cult of personality, some people not only self-censored but also monitored others, denouncing those who failed to appear sufficiently sincere in their expressions of devotion to the leader. Soon enough no one knew quite who believed what. 

There is a reasonably straightforward test to find out whether or not, today, we are dealing with a dictator. Take a plane and fly to the capital of the country under scrutiny. Is there anyone willing to openly take their leader to task? Is it possible to buy a newspaper at the airport that is critical of the government? Can a leader of the opposition be identified? It would have been difficult in large swathes of the planet half a century ago. Today Pyongyang and Beijing remain as eager candidates.


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