Dikötter’s sources are impressive, including 16 archives from nine countries, one of them being the former Soviet Central Party Archive (now renamed RGASPI) in Moscow. Despite this, I did not find the Stalin chapter particularly compelling, no doubt partly because I do not share the author’s view that the cult is the most interesting thing about Stalin... While Dikötter is explicitly dealing with 20th-century dictators, the stage is set in the preface by France’s 18th-century Sun King, Louis XIV... Questions of chronology, sequence and influence are not much discussed here...
Dikötter is especially interesting on the attitudes to dictators of ordinary hard-pressed citizens and gullible foreigners. The masses learn to put on an act and fake consent, he says. When Kim died in 1994, North Korean mourners strove to outdo each other in outpourings of grief, “waving their fists at the sky in feigned rage”... How to Be a Dictator is a timely book and enjoyable to read. It is strangely comforting to be reminded that many of the dictators in Dikötter’s book came to an ignominious end. But that is no excuse for underestimating the need to protect democracy today.
This is a wonderfully moving and perceptive book, written by a very brave man. Dikötter lives in Hong Kong, where he is chair professor of humanities at the university. His books are banned in China. He is not afraid to describe Xi Jinping as recreating a dictatorship on the Leninist model.
Frank Dikötter has written a very lively and concise analysis of the techniques and personalities of eight 20th-century dictators: Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Duvalier (Haiti), Ceausescu (Romania) and Mengistu (Ethiopia). As a comparative study of those individuals, it is enlightening and a good read. The title and parts of the foreword indicate that it aspires to be a guidebook of tactics for those aspiring to be dictators and to retain their status as such... This is an unambiguously good book, even if there may be some over-simplification in the assimilation of these people to each other.
History only makes sense if we understand the psychological pathology that underlies it, and our own propensity for partaking in such pathology. We need a clear-eyed understanding of history as a recurring series of monumental follies, led by cretins who duped or forced millions of us into humiliating childish submission. Only then can we hope to avoid the repetition. Dikötter, in his previous outstanding books on Mao, and again here in How To Be a Dictator, is in the vanguard of historians opening our eyes to this fundamental truth.
How to be a dictator? Ruthlessness matters a lot more than talent, but luck most of all. That is the upshot of Frank Dikötter’s elegant and readable study of the cult of personality in the 20th century. It deals with eight dictators. Some, such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao, are well known. Others, such as Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, Haiti’s “Papa Doc” Duvalier and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, are fading into history. The author’s penmanship and eye for anecdote brings them all to life. Stalin’s calculated humiliation of Mao on his first postwar visit to Moscow left the Chinese leader fuming: “I didn’t come to Moscow just to eat and shit.”...
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.
Given his previous work on Mao, Dikötter is, not surprisingly, at his best when writing about Mao’s leadership cult, showing how it became a central instrument of power as the Chinese dictatorship consolidated its rule. Stalin was an undeniable influence on Mao and other communist dictators, including the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Lenin, whose leadership cult inspired other communist dictators, appears from time to time in the book.
The author of an excellent trilogy about Mao Tse-tung, Dikötter has now turned his attention to the personality cults of eight 20th-century dictators, including the obvious quartet of Stalin, Mao, Mussolini and Hitler, as well as North Korea’s Kim il-Sung, Haiti’s “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam. Each chapter tells the same story. Previously disregarded, the would-be strong man takes power, and almost immediately a nationwide personality cult takes hold. Soon images of the new leader are everywhere. In the 1920s, Mussolini’s features appeared on bars of soap; in the 1930s, Hitler’s Mein Kampf was distributed to newly married couples; in the 1960s, Chinese factories produced 50m badges bearing Mao’s face every month....The really surprising thing, though, is that Dikötter never pauses to consider what kind of people become dictators. In person, Hitler was famously lazy and unimpressive, while the inarticulate Ceaușescu was a man of staggering banality. But Mussolini was a well-read journalist who spoke several languages. Stalin, another journalist, was almost superhumanly well organised and hard-working, while Mengistu struck his colleagues as a patient, humble, likeable sort of fellow. There was, in other words, no pattern. So although we tell ourselves that dictators are monsters, perhaps the truth is that they are simply ordinary people.