How do dictators seize power? The malevolent careers of eight 20th-century leaders explained

How do dictators gain power? In the latest episode of the HistoryExtra podcast, historian Frank Dikötter talks to our deputy digital editor Elinor Evans about his new book How to Be a Dictator, which explores the malevolent careers of eight 20th-century rulers including Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Mussolini. Read the full, unedited interview below

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler watch a Nazi parade staged for the Italian dictators's visit to Germany. (Photo by Getty Images)

Note: this is an unedited transcript of our recent podcast Dictators Explained

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Elinor Evans, deputy digital editor of HistoryExtra: Your book How To Be A Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the 20th Century focuses on eight figures that many of our listeners will be familiar with. Could you talk about this ‘cult of personality’ and how it links these eight figures together?

Frank Dikötter: The book does as it says it really; how to be a dictator. It traces every step these eight dictators take to seize power and stay in power for as long as they can. Some fail, some succeed. Hitler dies, kills himself. Stalin and Mao die in their beds.

I believe that there are two main instruments that dictators use – one is terror and the other one is image. Now the terror, we know – the concentration camps; the secret police; the knock-on-the-door in the middle of the night; the atrocious crimes against humanity – but I think image, in particular the ‘cult of personality’, we tend to overlook a bit – even though if you look at the 20th century, literally hundreds of millions of people cheered their own dictators, even as they were led down the road to serve them. I thought that was rather striking; so the book does focus quite a bit as well on that cult of personality. I don’t think it’s a French phenomenon; I think it’s very much fear and image that go hand-in-hand.

Now, why is this cult so important? Because I think there is a paradox at the very heart of modern dictatorship: people in an age of democracy are supposed to be sovereign – it is they who elect those who should represent them. But dictators go for a shortcut; they seize power, and once they do this, through violence, they realise that they must maintain it through violence – violence is a very blunt instrument. Of course they need the police; they need the praetorian guard; they need to rely on armed forces (torturers, spies, informers, you name it)… but the cult of personality helps a great deal. They must instil fear into the population at large, but if they compel ordinary people to acclaim them in public, they will last a lot longer.

The second point about the cult of personality is not to do with the population at large; it’s to do with their inner circle. These people were not elected; in other words, they are – rather paradoxically – weak, they seize power, but by seizing power they run the risk that someone else might do exactly the same thing to them. There might be traitors in the ranks; there might be equally ambitious rivals – so it raises the prospect of a stab in the back. How do you keep control of your inner circle? Of course, there are many techniques – and I go through many of them with my eight dictators. There is manipulation; there are constant purges with people quite literally being dragged out and shot in the back; there is divide and rule. But again, the cult of personality works rather well.

If a dictator can compel not only his allies but also his rivals to acclaim him, in public, it creates a very different sort of context. Most of all, with the cult of personality, there is a point since all of them have to acclaim the dictator in public, all of them become liars. When people lie, it becomes very difficult to find out who thinks what; it becomes very difficult to organise a coup because you have no idea who stands where.

So in that sense, the cult of personality really makes everyone a captive.


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EE: Can you give us a quick introduction to the eight dictators who feature in your work?

FD: Yes, I did it chronologically. I start with Mussolini – he’s very much the first one (not counting Lenin of course, with the Bolshevik revolution of 1917). He is the very first one to start his own cult of personality. Lenin is, of course glorified already while he’s alive but in particular after his death. So Mussolini really must be the first one in there, although one might say he’s only half a dictator – his image has to compete with that of the pope and of course the king. It will be the king who will have him arrested at the end of his career, so to speak.

The second one seems reasonably straight forward – Adolf Hitler, how can you miss him? Or Stalin. Or Mao Zedong. All of these being the classic 20th century dictators. I’ve put Kim Il-Sung in there for North Korea. Now to some extent, he’s even faster or better than Mao in seizing control of his own country, imposing a dictatorship and promoting his own cult – which assumes huge proportions.

I thought I had to take three figures who are not necessarily all that well known, but somehow, I think, shed light on the five big ones. One of these is Papa Doc (François Duvalier) in Haiti, and the second one is Ceaușescu, because he is truly utterly insane and probably the only one who truly believes in his own cult, believes he’s a genius, the genius of Romania. The final one is Mengistu. A few readers may have heard of him, but he’s one of the great mass murders of Africa (in Ethiopia).

EE: Your first point obviously – you said that there’s no cult without that fear aspect – so how did these dictators foster their self-image alongside the brutality that came hand-in-hand with their regimes?

FD: They work at it tirelessly, from the very beginning. Adolf Hitler works at his image, and, of course, also works at building up his own party from the very beginning – the early 1920s onwards. It is he who designs those garage-red flyers that attract new recruits; it is he who is behind the marches, the flags, etc. And, of course, he is behind his own image; he hires a photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, to produce photos that project sheer strength of character and iron determination. And again and again, he works at building up his own image as a charismatic leader. You can read Mein Kampf, for instance. In there, of course, is a very clear program: aggregate the Versailles treaty; get rid of the Jews, make Germany greater, invade the Soviet Union. But there are also many elements of the Hitler myth – you know, the voracious reader, the born orator, the unrecognised artist driven by destiny to save his people. So they spend a great deal of time ‘working at it’.

Mussolini, by one account, spends pretty much half of his time projecting his own image as the omniscient, omnipotent, indispensable leader of Italy, on top of running about half a dozen ministries. So, again and again, with each dictator it becomes very clear that they are ultimately responsible for building up their own cult. They begin with a low-key approach and with every step that they increase the terror, they manage to compel people to acclaim them in public, to cheer them in public. And the key point here – coming back to what you said – is that the cult often is seen as brainless enthusiasm. But it’s not about that; it’s really about making sure that nobody knows who thinks what – so ‘fear’ at the very heart of the cult of personality. If you want to know whether there is a cult of personality, you go to a country and you find out whether you can find anyone who has anything negative to say about the man in charge. If the answer is no, you will know what a cult of personality is. I say ‘man’, because they are invariably men.

EE: So, what about the people they ruled over, and possibly appealed to as well? What conclusions did you draw about them?

FD: They are great actors. Dictators are great actors. In an unguarded moment, Adolf Hitler said that he is “Europe’s greatest performer”. Mussolini thought of himself as a great actor. We forget, also, that ordinary people have to become great actors themselves; they have to chant on command; they have to parrot the party line; they have to invoke the slogans; they have to cry, cheer, shout… on command.

There’s a mythological point here; if it is a dictatorship, you don’t know what people think. It’s a very basic point. There’s no good way in which we can find out what people really, quote unquote, believe under Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. I’m not trying to say that these dictators have no supporters at all. The only thing I’m trying to say is that as a result of the cult, we don’t know who believes what. It’s very difficult to say who believes what.

But again, there is plenty of evidence – in the case of Hitler, in the case of Stalin, Mao, Kim Un Sung and all the others – that there are always people who refuse to go along with this cult of personality – and they’re the ones who will be arrested, interrogated, imprisoned or occasionally shot. So it is not just some bizarre ritual that operates under fear.

Now the point here, really, about ordinary people is to make clear that the cult of personality is not designed to convince, or to persuade people that their leader truly is a great genius; no, the cult is there to destroycommon sense, to destroy reason, to sow confusion, to enforce obedience, to literally isolate individuals and crush their dignity. People have to self-monitor what they say and how they say it – and in turn they start monitoring other people.

EE: You mentioned, as we’ve been talking, how they edited their own image and a massive part of this was control of the press…

FD: Yes. In the case of Mussolini, he’s so obsessed with control that after a couple of years he is in control of about half a dozen ministries. It’s a dictatorship at every level; he will find time to change the colour of a women’s magazine in the 1930s. It’s the same for Duvalier in Haiti, which of course is a much smaller island, with a much smaller population. He will prescribe who can graduate; how Creole should be spelt; what people can read; which side of the road the cars should drive; it’s an extraordinary dictatorship down to every little detail. They’re obsessive, some of them.

Now all of them realise that control of the press is important; that no good dictator will allow freedom of press to continue for very long. Infact, the very first act will be to close down publication houses and to eliminate, step-by-step, every single freedom. This happens in Germany within two or three years; it happens under Mussolini in about five six years… everywhere freedom of speech becomes the victim. These are replaced by massive ministries of propaganda. And these dictators – Stalin, Mussolini and Duvalier – do that very carefully; they scrutinize what happens. What is so interesting about Mussolini is that he replaces those in charge of propaganda every 3/4/5 years to make sure that he’s the one who retains ultimate control of how his image is projected to the rest of the population. So the words of the dictator, whether it is under Hitler in Germany or Stalin or Mao or Kim Il-Sung, is everywhere and in every newspaper – there are posters everywhere. The voice of the dictator frequently, but not always, will pursue you wherever you go – certainly in the case of Germany, with loudspeaker pillars erected in cities and mobile ones taken to the countryside. Not so in the case of Stalin, who cultivates a very remote image – so you will rarely see him in the newsreels; you will very rarely hear his voice. He very deliberately cultivates an image of remoteness. But again, as I said, Stalin himself is a compulsive editor who will check everything that is said about him in the press; every photo must be censored and approved; every word attributed to him must be approved. So it’s a great amount of work – they work very hard. It’s just not easy to be a dictator (just in case some of your listeners think that they might have a go at it); it demands a great amount of almost obsessive labour and I think, to be fair to, demands a good deal of talent. Some of them are very talented – and not just organisational skills.

EE: Can you speak a little bit more about that? In many of these cases, whether it’s their natural state or not, a lot of these men do seem to have this charisma that they can turn on and off…

FD: Well, one skill they have is that they are great actors. They can literally not just do it with foreigners, but with people who were quite close to them. I find it always amazing that after years of collaborating with Mao Zedong, the number 2 in charge just before the cultural revolution, Liu Shaoqi, still doesn’t see how extraordinarily duplicitous his master really is. In terms of China, only one man really sees through it and that’s Lin Biao, a general who was more or less eliminated when he dies in a plane accident in September 1971 – it puts an end to the role of the army in the cultural revolution. But Lin Biao writes, at the height of the Great Leap Forward (when literally tens of millions of people were worked, starved and beaten to death), Lin Biao writes that Mao is someone who will only take credit and he will not be criticised for anything; you must flatter him all day long. And then he writes in his own private diary that the Great Leap Forward is a “complete disaster”; Lin Biao clearly understands how duplicitous his master really is.

It’s the same with Stalin. He’s very good at presenting this image of a man that is rather simple and quite approachable… they’re always very good at controlling their emotions. Neither Mao nor Stalin will react when somebody opposes them; they know how to bide their time; they know how to calculate – in a very cold manner – and they know how to strike like a cobra when they need to.

EE: Can we talk about the role of visibility in this self-curation, because there is often a desire, it seems, for dictators to portray themselves as humble, accessible ‘men of the people’ type icons – and you explore this in a number of ways. Can you talk about this?

FD: Most of them – there are always common features, but you’ll always find an exception to the rule. A great many of them do cultivate this image of modesty. Hitler is not one of them. Duvalier, Papa Doc in Haiti, knows full well that when he presents himself as an electoral candidate in 1957 he has virtually no chance to succeed, because these elections are really nothing but a show piece organised by the military. So he assumes the air of a very unassuming country doctor, a man who wouldn’t harm a fly, who is devoted to the welfare of his subjects. Of course, the moment he is granted power, with the protection of the military, he turns around and purges the ranks of the army.

In the case of Stalin, it is slightly different. There is a paradox in the Soviet Union (and other communist countries), namely that the Soviet Union is supposed to be the dictatorship of the proletariat, not that one particular individual. It’s ok for Hitler and Mussolini to make their own spar the guiding principle of their country; to put themselves at the centre of their own ideology. But not so if you are a Marxist Leninist. So how does Stalin get around this? By creating the illusion that it is not him, but rather the people who want to see him, the people who adore him; it is the population, the masses, who pays homage to him because he is the embodiment of the revolution. In the case of Stalin, there is another element to this. His main rival is Trotsky, from 1924-28 he spends his time plotting against Trotsky – who is finally isolated and expelled from the country. Once abroad, Trotsky starts writing about Stalin as a rather devious, underhanded, mediocre character. So what Stalin does is he invites a string of writers and journalists to visit him his office at the Kremlin – and what he does is he presents himself as a very plain, simple and ordinary man. So again, the way these dictators present themselves is extraordinarily calculated – all of them are literally acting.

EE: You talk about this phenomenon that is a result of the curation of image, that when things start to go wrong within the regime, a lot of the population are still inclined to blame underlings, or the party – rather than the leader. How do we see that playing out in the figures featured in your book?

FD: It’s one of the great advantages of the cult of personality that the dictator towers above allies and rivals alike. You must not forget that in the case of Mussolini – and in the case of Stalin, whose main rival was Trotsky (a far more well-known figure, a far better orator, a far better writer, a far better revolutionary than Stalin) –they have rivals around them. When Mussolini seizes power with his march on Rome in 1922, he is but one of several quite determined fascist leaders. So the cult of personality is a way to abase all of them, exploit their rivalries, and have them collaborate and common subordination – that’s the key here.

EE: So as well as being reliant on many subordinates who supported their image, the figures in your book, there are crossovers and relationships between them. It seems that there is envy between dictators, they learn from one another’s mistakes – what can you say about that?

FD: Ultimately dictators and students of power. And ultimately you can say that my book is a study of power; how to seize it, how to keep it, what to do with it. So what they will read might not just be, in the case of Marxist dictators, the classics of Engels and Marx. It might be anything, anything that helps them to study how to take power and how to keep it. As a result, of course, they observe each other; they are very interested in how others manage and how others fail. In the case of Mao – good old chairman Mao – he takes so much from Stalin, including Stalinism and the cult of personality, but believes that Stalin has failed miserably in spotting his nemesis: Nikita Khrushchev, who, of course, starts destalinisation in 1956, three years after the death of Stalin. Stalin’s body is literally dragged out of the mausoleum – so Mao is determined not to meet the same fate. What is his answer? His answer is the cultural revolution. Since Stalin failed to spot Khrushchev as his enemy, Mao thinks let ordinary people hunt down anyone at any level within the party who might have harboured reservations about his rule. So this is the cultural revolution: people are pitted against people; ordinary people can denounce party members, all the way to the very top. In the end, it becomes an endless cycle of violence in which people are desperate to prove their loyalty to the chairman. And he reigns supreme; he feels secure enough at the very end of his life to somehow reign in the cult of personality.

EE: Without wanting to trivialise the brutality of any of these regimes or people, there certainly are elements of the preposterous that come out in your book when you look at the incessant self-curation of this image. What can you say? Can you give some examples of how it descends into the ridiculous…

FD: I think the more successful ones are the ones who were able to very carefully curate their own quotes and control it until the very end, without necessarily believing in all of it. Let me take Stalin; he is a compulsive editor. He will pour over newspapers, revise articles, look at how he is written and how he will be published. He literally is a gardener who will prune his cult of personality and cutback to allow it to flourish in good seasons, so to speak.

The same is truth of Mao. At the very end of his life, he feels very secure. He allows the cult to be somehow cutback from the height of the cultural revolution. What I’m trying to say, is that all dictators very much teeter between hubris and paranoia; hubris because they are surrounded by sycophants or flatterers. In the end they tend to make all the decisions themselves, with fatal consequences for huge numbers of people. Stalin makes the mistake of signing a pact with Hitler, for instance. Hitler makes the mistake of invading the Soviet Union, which will be his downfall etc, etc. And the paranoia – hubris and paranoia – in the sense that they are constantly afraid of others.

It doesn’t help that they get older. At the end of his life, Stalin was probably more paranoid than ever, and continued the purges, ordering even larger statues of himself. But the point I’m trying to make is that some of them, the ones who tend to fail, in particular Ceaușescu, start believing in their own cult. I’ve no doubt that Ceaușescu (Romania), after a while, starts to believe that he is the genius that the people portray him to be. He’s got a never-ending insatiable appetite for more distinctions – university degrees and honours, he collects them very much like a stamp collector. He becomes a victim of the cult himself! I said earlier on that the cult is there to make the general population (and members of the inner circle) a captive. But Ceaușescu becomes a prisoner of his own cult – believes in it and fails to read the signs. He is very upset, very full of disbelief, that the population actually turns against him – he can’t see it.

EE: You mentioned this paranoia as a common theme in the fall of these dictators. Did you find any other commonalities with what brought these cults to an end?

FD: The paranoia is of course there all along. In the case of Adolf Hitler, it is said of him that he has an instinct from the very beginning that tells him who he can trust and who he can’t. Of Mussolini, it is said he has a peasant’s suspicion of other people. All of them are extremely suspicious of others, in particular those that might stab them in the back. I think this is probably one of the great attributes of dictators – that they trust no one. In the case of Duvalier, and in the case of Stalin, and in the case of Mao, they prevail because they’re happy to purge/punish/occasionally execute friends and foes alike. It helps a great deal; you should never trust the hand that feeds you, you should always turn against it.

In Ethiopia, Mengistu is someone who is mentored by a general a mere year or two after the coup of 1974 against the emperor. Mengistu has a team sent to his mentor’s home, where is shot dead.

EE: What’s it been like living with these dictators? Was there anyone there who you wish you could have included or were these men self-selecting for your book?

FD: I had a longlist of about 12, but then you realise that it’s an awful lot of work to write so much. And in any event, I think about eight seems to me to be the right number, to see common features – but also to see that in every single case there will be an exception to the rule. So you can’t come up with the title of ‘how to be a dictator’, you can’t come up with the 12 characteristics of the dictator. You might say, for instance, that every dictator basically relies on what is basically the Leninist conception of a revolution – that you have a party that carries through the revolution and engineers it from above: the revolutionary vanguard. Hitler has one; Mussolini has one. Both are admirers of Lenin. But not so Duvalier, he does not have any party at all. Mengistu seizes power but doesn’t start building up a Marxist party until many years later – some 10 years after the revolution, so there is always an exception to the rule. So I thought eight was about right. I had Gaddafi on my shortlist but he didn’t quite make it.

I think there is another question: who would you like to spend an afternoon with? Well they’re all quite awful. I think there might be a slight misconception because of Hitler, in the sense that we only see him rant and rave at crowds. There is only one tape available where he speaks normally to another human being – a recording made when he was traveling on a train. It sounds reasonably straightforward, but nonetheless he always dominated the conversation – there’s not a lot you could say. Possibly Kim Il-Sung; he would have been not only a charming man – like many others – but also someone who would have been interested in a conversation (unlike the others), so he would have been the one I would pick, if I had to be punished with spending an afternoon having tea with one of them.

EE: Well we won’t inflict that on you! You do write that dictators today – with the exception of Kim Jong-Un – are a long way from instilling the fear of their predecessors. But nevertheless, you do question (in the book) whether we are seeing a revival of some of these techniques on the world stage today. Where are we seeing the cult of personality today?

FD: Putin comes to mind. I think only about a week ago, slandering Putin was outlawed. This tells me that he is not really a very good dictator, because a good dictator would have done this many years ago! A good friend of mine says you can go to Moscow and you can google quite a few things about Putin – and you will find the people that disagree with him. Look at the demonstrations going on in Moscow, right?

When it comes to Kim III – I call him Kim III, it really is a dynasty – then quite clearly we are dealing with a straightforward, old-fashioned 20th-century dictatorship. Xi Jinping, across the border in China, I think is very close to being one of those old-fashioned dictators; he certainly has quite drastically closed down that country over the last number of years. You may remember what I said earlier that there is a very simple test: go to a country and try to find somebody who speaks out against the man in charge. This is very difficult in the People’s Republic of China today; people are demonstrating by the hundreds of thousands in Hong Kong, but across the border it is difficult to find any one person who offers support for Hong Kong. It is not a clash of civilizations, but an indication of the extent to which public opinion is strictly controlled there. So yes, Xi Jinping has his little red book. And, yes, Xi Jinping has his whole iconography. And yes, he towers well above his peers – and it would be as far above dangerous to speak out against him. There is a good list of people. But even if we look at North Korea. The extent of human misery and death is measured by the tens of millions in those regimes in the 20th century – it would be very hard to say that it is similar today; they are not on the ascendant, they are playing a losing game. It may not seem to us like that; it might seem that democracy is on the attack. Now it’s always good to be vigilant, we must be vigilant – but seen from a much longer historical perspective, these dictators are playing a very weak hand. They will lose.


Listen to the full podcast interview with Frank Dikötter here

Elinor Evans is the deputy digital editor of HistoryExtra

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Frank Dikötter is Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century