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Dutch historian Frank Dikötter on the marks of a dictator

Mussolini and Hitler. Photo/Getty Images

The histories of eight 20th-century tyrants are a call for continued political vigilance.

The title of Dutch historian Frank Dikötter’s new book is a touch misleading. Released at a time when “The Donald” seems set to surpass Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator posturings, How to Be a Dictator is a series of histories rather than a guidebook and contains eight short bios of some the past century’s most appalling tyrants.

It starts with Mussolini and Hitler, proceeds via Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-Sung, Haiti’s “Papa Doc” Duvalier to Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam. It covers their ascent, triumph, deification and eventual disintegration.

They were all male. They ordered mass slaughter and slept well. Their faces were everywhere, on flags, walls, bars of soap and linoleum (yes, George Orwell got it right). When Russian peasants were reduced to eating grass and tree bark, they did so under the gaze of Stalin’s portrait.

Some were mad as well as bad: the runtish Ceauşescu stood on a concealed box to appear taller; Mussolini threw a tantrum when Greta Garbo came to Rome and got more media coverage than him. Mao ranted and screamed when housed by Stalin in an obscure suburban dacha.

They often went in for grandiose Brutalist architecture. They all encouraged the image of themselves as near-divine. Hitler liked being referred to as a messiah; Duvalier dressed as a voodoo priest, complete with top hat; miraculous rainbows were seen across North Korea on Kim Il-Sung’s birthdays.

They convinced numerous useful idiots of their benevolence and vision. Winston Churchill initially called Mussolini a genius, and US journalist Harrison Salisbury said the same of Kim Il-Sung. George Bernard Shaw kept Stalin’s photo by his bed until he died.

They often abandoned Marxism, but held to the revolutionary vanguard elements of Leninism, which feared plots by outside enemies and called for mass obedience and necessary upheavals. They encouraged a corruption of language: vapid and ubiquitous slogans, verbal hyperinflation, savage epithets for opponents real or perceived. Orwell again.

Dikötter finds lots of common elements among them. In particular, there was “the cult of personality”, which he sees as emerging with France’s Louis XIV, and which later exponents used to equate ruler with state, fostering an illusion of consent that debased allies and enemies alike.

He’s strong on the what and how of their actions; less so on the why. He does see all of them as inadequate in various ways, from Mengistu’s rumoured illegitimacy to Hitler’s hand tremors.

He’s graphic on their sometimes squalid ends – Ceauşescu shot in a freezing courtyard while his wife screamed “F--- you!” at the firing squad; Mussolini mutilated and hung upside down from a girder.

You may place your bets on who might make the next volume. Xi Jinping, now lauded as “Creative Leader”? Kim Jong-un? Turkey’s Erdoğan? Dikötter notes that The Donald and British PM Boris Johnson both show the obligatory narcissism.

How to prevent such unlovely creatures?

Vigilance remains the obvious and best defence. That and a genuinely free, challenging press. Reviews of this unsparing, troubling book are a small step. 

HOW TO BE A DICTATOR, by Frank Dikötter (Bloomsbury, $32.99)

This article was first published in the November 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.