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What We Can Learn From The 20th Century’s Worst Dictators


What did Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Haiti’s Duvalier, Romania’s Ceausescu, and Ethiopia’s Mengitsu have in common? They were all dictators in the 20th century – and now they make appearances Frank Dikötter’s new book, How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century.

Dikötter is a historian who specializes in modern Chinese history. He resides in Hong Kong and teaches at the University of Hong Kong. His three-volume “People’s Trilogy,” which covers communist China from 1945 to 1976, won him worldwide fame. The trilogy covers the darkest period in China’s long history, a period that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been doing everything in their power to erase from history.

Thanks to Dikötter’s books, he has kept that history alive and exposed. Through his thorough research, Dikötter has informed the rest of the world of the unbelievable miseries the Chinese people suffered under the CCP’s ruinous policies and the evils of the party’s socialist ideology. Writing these books also enabled Dikötter to closely examine Mao, one of the worst dictators and mass murders in the 20th century. Dikötter’s insights into Mao likely inspired him to write How to Be a Dictator.

Different Countries, Same Terrors

The title of the book is a bit misleading. Unlike Machiavelli’s The Prince, Dikötter’s book is not a “how to” guide for whoever aspires to be the next dictator. Instead, through analyzing the rise and fall of dictators, he shows us how one becomes a dictator and the nature of a dictatorship. It’s hoped that next time, the public will be wise enough to stop a would-be dictator before he causes too much harm.

Dikötter presented eight dictators of the 20th century: Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Francois Duvalier, Nicolas Ceausescu, and Mengistu Haile Mariam. Each chapter reads like a mini-biography. They came from different cultures, reached the peak of power in different circumstances, and ended their lives in different ways. However, they all share a number of commonalities.

Their road to power was paved with corpses. Mao began to purge his Communist Party rivals from the late 1920s on through the early 1930s, long before he became a dictator. He used torture, nonstop interrogations, and threats of execution to get false confessions.

Once confessions were obtained, prisoners were nonetheless killed without amnesty for being “counterrevolutionaries,” “despotic landlords,” and “reactionary rich-peasant elements.” It was estimated more than 1,000 CCP members were killed as the result of Mao’s purge. For Mao, this was merely a rehearsal of terror tactics he would rely on again and again to suppress dissent as he climbed to the peak of his power.

Once in power, the killing didn’t stop because, as Dikötter observes, “power seized through violence must be maintained by violence.” All these dictators established armies of police, secret police, informants, spies, interrogators, and torturers to put down any real or imaginary threats, as well as keep the population under control through fear.

Hitler was responsible for the killing of six million Jews during the Holocaust. Millions of Russians were executed or sent to gulags in Siberia due to Stalin’s Great Purge or Great Terror (1936-1938). At the height of the Soviet purge in 1937 and 1938, Dikötter observes “the execution rate was roughly a thousand per day, with people accused of being class enemies, saboteurs, oppositionist or speculators, some denounced by their own neighbors or relatives.”

In 1977, after surviving an assassination attempt, Ethiopia’s dictator Mengistu authorized house-by-house searches in Addis Ababa. “Sometimes cameras and typewriters were treated as evidence of spying activities. Suspects were arrested in the hundreds and executed on the outskirts of the capital. They included children as young as eleven,” Dikötter writes.

Ideologically, Mussolini and Hitler were suspicious of Communists/socialists but their fascism was in fact a dark version of socialism. The rest of the six dictators in this book explicitly claimed they followed Marxist ideology with their own interpretation and imposed socialistic economic policies, which caused similar disastrous results in all their countries. Stalin’s agriculture collectivization campaign in Ukraine, which forcefully replaced Ukraine’s independent farms with state-owned collectives and sent procurement squads to villages to grab every last bit of food at gunpoint, claimed the lives of close to four million Ukrainians, about 13 percent of the population.

Following the Soviet model, Mengitsu compelled seven million households in Ethiopia into peasant associations, which were owned by the state. “These associations imposed grain quotas on the villagers, forcing them to sell their crops to the state at prices determined by the state,” Dikötter notes. In addition, farmers were conscripted to work on the state’s infrastructure projects without pay, becoming “tenants of  the state.”

Mao topped them all in terms of the scale of the calamity resulting from his socialist policies. His Great Leap Forward movement (1958-1962), hoping to turn the nation from an agrarian economy into an industrialized communist society within a decade through agriculture collectivization and backyard iron/steel furnaces, was the direct cause of the Great Chinese Famine (1959-1962), during which between 20 to 30 million Chinese people perished in three years.

The Illusion of Popular Support

While these dictators rule by fear, they all wanted to create the illusion of popular support. At the height of their power, their images were ubiquitous in the nations they ruled. Their portraits could be found outside every building, inside every building, factory, office, and home. People bowed to their portraits and statues when passing by.

Under their watchful gaze, people studied and recited every word these dictators said or wrote. They were showered with great titles, each more outlandish than the previous ones. Stalin was called “the Great Driver of the Locomotive of History.” Ceausescu was hailed as “our lay God, the heart of the party and the nation.” Mao was compared to the sun.

Dictators were worshiped like gods. A memorial was built at Mussolini’s birthplace, and every party member was recommended to go on a religious pilgrimage there and take an “oath of loyalty and devotion” to Il Duce. In China, people started and ended a workday by bowing to Mao’s portrait. Newlywed couples exchanged collections of Mao’s writings as wedding gifts. Even today, many Chinese like to hang small charms with Mao’s portrait inside their car as if Chairman Mao still carries some magic power.

Some of these types of expressions of devotion to a dictator might be genuine at times, but mostly, they were fake. Dictatorship creates liars. Dictators lied to their people and people who lived under a dictator learned how to lie in return. “They had to smile on command, parrot the party line, shout the slogans and salute their leader. They were required to create the illusion of consent. Those who failed to play along were fined, imprisoned, occasionally shot,” Dikötter writes.

Everywhere Romanian’s dictator Ceausescu’s visited, Dikötter observes “the crowd cheered enthusiastically with the secret police in the background to ensure that everyone joined the chorus.” Similarly, at Kim’s state funeral, secret police kept watching everyone, “trying to measure their sincerity by observing their facial expression and listening to the tone of their voice.” Knowing they were being watched, North Koreans “tried to outdo one another in displays of grief, pounding their heads, collapsing in theatrical swoons, ripping off their clothes, waving their fists at the sky in feigned rage.”

While domestically, people put on acts of “admiration and love” for their dear leaders for the sake of survival, every single one of these dictators collected admirers from the west. In 1939, Winston Churchill described Mussolini as “the Roman genius.” After a two-hour private meeting with Stalin, American socialist George Bernard Shaw proclaimed “there was no malice in him but also no credulity.” French journalist Pierre Hamelet wrote a Romanian government-sanctioned biography of Ceausescu and portrayed the dictator as a “passionate humanist” who “announced nothing less than the coming of a new era.”

It was through these western admirers’ lavish and wholehearted praises that each dictator got to perpetuate his myth and the illusion of popularity, while the rest of the world looked away from the horrors in these dictatorial regimes.

How Dictators Die

In the end, some dictators met their death in most gruesome fashion: Mussolini and his mistress were shot and their bodies hung upside down from a girder; Hitler and his mistress committed suicide in an underground compound; Ceausescu and his wife were lined up against a wall and shot. “Stalin was found lying on the floor, soaked in his own urine. A blood vessel had burst in his brain, but no one had dared to disturb him in his bedroom. Medical help, too was delayed, as the leader’s entourage was petrified of making the wrong call,” Dikötter records. Stalin died three days later.

Other dictators such as China’s Mao and North Korea’s Kim died of natural causes. Since they made their parties accomplices in their crimes committed against humanity, their party successors and in Kim’s case, also his bloodline, have made adjustments in their governance as the time goes by to sustain their staying power, while relentlessly preserving these dictators’ legacies as justification for the new generation of dictators: Xi Jinping in China and Kim Jong-un in North Korea.

Of course, the book leaves out many dictators such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Not being included in the book doesn’t mean these other dictators are less evil or less tyrannical. Dikötter concludes that all dictators survived by cult and terror. There are enough variety of the eight dictators included in this book to serve as a warning and reminder to all of us: Liberty is fragile. It will require vigilance from everyone to protect it.