Review | How to Be a Dictator – Frank Dikötter

About the Book

Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Ceausescu, Mengistu of Ethiopia and Duvalier of Haiti.

No dictator can rule through fear and violence alone. Naked power can be grabbed and held temporarily, but it never suffices in the long term. A tyrant who can compel his own people to acclaim him will last longer. The paradox of the modern dictator is that he must create the illusion of popular support. Throughout the twentieth century, hundreds of millions of people were condemned to enthusiasm, obliged to hail their leaders even as they were herded down the road to serfdom.

In How to Be a Dictator, Frank Dikötter returns to eight of the most chillingly effective personality cults of the twentieth century. From carefully choreographed parades to the deliberate cultivation of a shroud of mystery through iron censorship, these dictators ceaselessly worked on their own image and encouraged the population at large to glorify them. At a time when democracy is in retreat, are we seeing a revival of the same techniques among some of today’s world leaders?

This timely study, told with great narrative verve, examines how a cult takes hold, grows, and sustains itself. It places the cult of personality where it belongs, at the very heart of tyranny.

304 pages (hardcover)
Published on December 3, 2019
Buy the book 

This book was a library loan.


Dictators fascinate me. Seriously. I read so much about them, it’s probably shocking to some people. There’s a reason for this, though. I think it’s interesting how such repulsive people can gain, and often retain, so much power. How do they do it? Why do they do it? What makes people think, “sure, this is fine, let’s go with them”? 

I heard about this book on a podcast. I’ve really liked the author’s stuff on Mao, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Famine, and more. He has a great way for distilling complex topics, and I enjoy how he can cross the cultural divide and make some things that might seem strange to western understandings, easier to grasp. So when I heard that he’d written a book on the personality cults of dictators, I was there with bells on. 

As it happens, I got this book about two days before the libraries closed to COVID-19, so it’s still sitting in my living room, shiny and nearly new. 

This book covers a handful of 20th century dictators. The first covered is Mussolini, then Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il-Sung, Ceausescu of Romania, Mengistu of Ethiopia, and Duvalier of Haiti. Now, the book is only 300 pages long, maybe a few more pages than that, but not many, so that really doesn’t leave a whole lot of wiggle-room for exploration and I think that’s where my biggest problem rested. 

As I’ve said before, when I read history, I don’t typically enjoy overviews, and that’s really all we are left with here. A few sweeping overviews with all the nuances and nuggets I enjoy left out. And that’s fine. If someone is not very well versed in these individuals, likely an overview is exactly what you’re looking for. It’s a great jumping-off point for further research, and the important points are all detailed here and laid out nicely. However, for someone like me who has been voraciously studying dictators and routinely reads 1000+ page books on these people and topics that apply to their times in power, this book was really nothing new, and nothing incredibly informative or illuminating. 

I think the biggest problem rests with me. I went into this book wanting one specific thing, and I didn’t get it. It’s a good overview of the bullet points of these people, but there’s really nothing about the how or whys of personality cults, and that’s what I think I wanted. I wanted some deep dive exploration into WHY people follow these guys, and HOW these repulsive figures managed to get people to say, “Sure, let’s set up concentration camps. I think this is a great idea. Please pass the potatoes.” I wanted to know how this sort of thing becomes normal, and why people are so willing to buy into these really terrible, horrible, tragic ideas.

Stalin, for example, killed MILLIONS of people in his various purges. Millions. MILLIONS. And still there were Russians who were all, “This is great. All of my neighbors were executed. Long live Stalin.” Yeah, a whole lot of people followed him because they were killed if they didn’t, but many people really, genuinely believed in the dude. Talk about a cult of personality. He wasn’t even Russian. Not really, and his early days were spent very engaged in Georgian politics, not Russian politics. But still… And WHY? That’s what I wanted to know. Why, with all this death and tragedy all around him, did a whole bunch of people still march under his particular banner. 

Not only that, but there are people in Russia today who think, “If we had Stalin back for five minutes, he’d sort this shit out.” He oversaw mass executions. He starved an entire nation, wherein up to ten million people died. He really exercised the Gulag system to its limits. This isn’t a secret. And still, people are still existing in the world today who are all, “Let’s get another Stalin in this place. He is exactly what we need.” THAT is what I want to dig into. That small bit of humanity who sees all those facts, and are still behind this guy, and people like him.

So yeah, I wanted to know WHY. I wanted to know what these people do to get people to buy into what they are selling, and why humans as a species are so willing to do so—to excuse horror, in favor of the person who is at the helm of such horrific policies. However, what I ended up getting was a brief rundown of the highlights of every individual, with some new nuggets thrown in here or there to keep me going, but it wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t a book on how to be dictator, rather it was a footnotes course on these specific dictators. Interesting? Yes. Well written? Yes. 

Perhaps better suited to a person just being introduced to these people, and the historical periods they represent, though, and not someone who is interested in delving deeper into the psychology of these movements.

3/5 stars

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