‘Dictators: The Cult Of Personality In The Twentieth Century’ By ‘Frank Dikötter’

Frank Dikotter 

Power is a heady brew. It changes a person as nothing does. Achieving it makes a person reach unimaginable coordinates. With the right mix of instinctive qualities and fierce ambition, a person reaches the peak of his powers. But it is exactly at the point where the summit is achieved that the downfall towards the valley starts. History is replete with millions of people who turned themselves from being backyard hulks to criminals to dictators and genocidaires. While some of them have gotten detested to abandon, a few of them continue to hold significant places in the history of their respective nation-states and countries.

The book ‘DICTATORS: THE CULT OF PERSONALITY IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY’ by ‘Frank Dikötter’ is one of its unique kind of books on the lives of some of the harshest of rulers of the twentieth century. Frank Dikötter is a Dutch historian, who specialises in the modern part of Chinese History. The book, DICTATORS, is one of his more than a dozen books. As is true for his other books, the present book relies heavily on cutting-edge archival material of the regimes of the people mentioned. At an individual level, I found the book refreshing and instructive on what actually were the ideas and people behind making the twentieth century hitherto the most dangerous of all for humankind.
The DICTATORS documents the lives, times, ideologies and dogmatic cults of 8 rulers of the twentieth century. In order, they are Benito Mussolini of Italy, Adolf Hitler of Germany, Joseph Stalin of the USSR (Soviet Union), Mao Zedong of China, Kim Il-Sung of North Korea, Francois Duvalier of Haiti, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and Mengistu of Ethiopia. The commonality that undergirds their rise is their call to unite the mauled and humiliated nativist groups and redemption of their collective glorious past. In fact, it has been only the appeals to problematic redemptionism, couched in demagoguery, which has led to a series of authoritarian regimes to date. It is bound to do so in the future as well, especially when bruised ethnic pride is conflated with crude wishfulness for the restoration of the past.

Mussolini, the first of such megalomaniacs, is often eclipsed by the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. While the latter did outdo the former in his atrocities and aggression, Mussolini was clearly the path-setter for Hitler. If Hitler adopted the title of Führer, the tyrannical leader, Mussolini had years before started calling himself the ‘Duce’. Mussolini had created such a charismatic cult around him that different world leaders and luminaries like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Romain Rolland, Winston Churchill, etc paid him a visit or praised his individual qualities. 

The high degree of acceptance was used by him to suppress any creaking sounds of dissent back home, and elimination of any of his opponents. Mussolini’s blackshirts led a killing spree against the communists and socialists without any let-up, accompanied by death March in Greece, Albania and North Africa. All of the misadventures, coupled with a stagnating economy, restiveness in population and competition with Hitler led to Italy becoming weaker by the day in the late 1930s and early 1940s. By the middle of world war-II, Mussolini was only a pale shadow of his earlier self. He was finally killed on 22 April 1945, wading through the blood in the same streets which had catapulted him to the top of his powers.

Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) followed the cue from Mussolini. He was born in Austria and was associated with German Army from 1913 and German Workers’ Party (DAP) from 1919, onwards. He was a naturally-gifted orator, who could rouse the entire populace with his orations. While he felt dwarfed in his earlier years in the shadow of Mussolini in Italy, he deployed full-scale propaganda and state machinery in order to aggrandize his position. All along, he went on a technological onslaught, which gave him the muscle to edge over the allied powers, albeit temporarily. 

Hitler accumulated such power within himself that even the remotest of crannies in far-off villages and towns had to be named after his name. He outmaneuvered Mussolini on the degree and scale of the foreign invasions he made. From 1933 onwards, his propaganda machinery, militarisation drive and belligerence ran lockstep with each other, but his invasion of England and breaking pact promises with Joseph Stalin in 1940-41 proved to be the start of his downfall. Finally got killed in his bunker in 1945.

Joseph Stalin of Russia and Mao Zedong of China rose to the apogee of power on the back of the same or similar qualities as were present in Mussolini and Hitler. But where do Stalin and Mao differ, rather distinguish, from the earlier two is their widespread popularity and constituency, continuing even to this day. A tyrant is a tyrant and can go to any inconceivable extent to make his way the only way, Stalin’s and Mao’s cruelties made Mussolini look like a sober gentleman. 

Both raised the howls of nationalist pride, reclamation of thoughts of liberation and technological prowess as the planks of their rule. Both caused immense suffering among large swathes of people. Together, their policies and actions, directly and indirectly, account for the deaths of around 60 million people. They were intolerant of the existence of their opponents. The most debasing being the hoax trials and purges of even the closest of their comrades. Almost all of their ideas like collectivisation of agriculture, Mao’s Hundred Flowers Bloom campaign and Great Leap Forward ended up being the abortive accesses of broken laboratories. Both of them, despite their irreparable sufferings caused to the people, share a fair degree of acceptability across the world.

Kim Il-Sung, Duvalier, Nicolae Ceausescu and Mengistu belonged to the countries which are smaller in size, have a smaller geopolitical footprint and are poor by any yardstick even today, except Romania (Nicolae Ceausescu). Kim Il-Sung is largely known as the founder of North Korea. He perpetrated such gross lies about the events surrounding his life in Russia, independence from the occupation of Japan and the war against South Korea that he was hailed as the invincible leader. All of his sayings were codified in the form of what is popularly known as ‘Juche Thought’. Somebody who could go no wrong and do no wrong. He created such a chilling effect that public bonfires of any antagonistic literature were carried out. Dummy cheers were raised on the loudspeakers as if lakhs were present in the audience to his lectures. When he died, people were so afraid, as not to break into tears spontaneously, that they faked the grief on their faces by applying glycerine, saliva and phlegm. 

Quite unfortunate for North Korea that they have to continue under duress for the third generation of Kim Il-Sung continuing.

Francois Duvalier of Haiti, popularly known as Papa Doc, is a physician by profession, Haiti is perhaps the poorest country in the world, located in Latin America, having had to pay back the unjust debt to France. Francois Duvalier ruled the country from 1957 till his death in 1971. He used the ploy of utilising Haiti’s geographical location, proximity to Cuba (an ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War) and anti-communism to keep the United States of America’s money tap running for his regime. With his occultist beliefs and voodou practices and utilisation of his militiamen, Tonton Macoutes, to spread terror among people, he kept his rule intact. 

His militias burnt his opponents, maimed their critics and caused en masse starvation of the people. The graphic details of the crimes committed being soul-rending. In his final years, he became a recluse, many commentators saying that his mental instability had reached the point of non-restoration, and rarely came out in public. By the time of his death, all his actions had almost been undone. But the fear psychosis that his regime caused still grips the country.

Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania was born in 1918. He married his wife, Elena Petrescu, in 1947, who would go on to play a substantial role in all his future endeavors. Ceausescu rode to the larger pedestal of power on account of his independent foreign policy and steering clear of the Soviet Union on many an occasion in the 1950s and 1960s. He is credited to have formed a copy-book totalitarian state. The mass surveillance system he devised had a very less number of precedents in history. He sent thousands of his opponents to mental asylums and namesake psychiatric hospitals. As is almost a norm with all types of dictators, he focused on mad-race industrialization, increase in the native population and making divorces. It was aimed to make Romania a superpower. But it led to large-scale poverty and an increase in the number of orphans. 

While the West courted him for his recalcitrance towards the Soviet Union, he utilized his growing popularity to hush up his opponents. By the late 1980s, his control had gotten considerably whittled down with large-scale unrest and rebellions bubbling up in the different parts of Romania.

Mengistu was born in 1937 in Jimma, Italian East Africa, now Ethiopia. He was an army man before he overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie under mysterious circumstances in 1975. He utilised his famed ‘Red Terror’, with Russia and Cuba by his side, to crush his opponents. He secured victory against Somalia over Ogaden, a disputed region between the two in 1977-78. This consolidated him to run roughshod on any and everybody who came in his way. He is known to have killed around 1-2 million, including thousands of children. By 1991, he was ousted from Ethiopia and lives in Harare, Zimbabwe, since, facing a trial for Genocide.

All of the eight Dictators described in the book were individuals with gruesome views about life and people. They were ruthlessly cruel in their own contexts. The book DICTATORS describes them in detail from varied dimensions. Frank Dikötter is a top-notch historian. He has done an excellent job of describing the 8 rulers of the 20th century in such rich nitty-gritty, yet keeping the book confined to 250 pages.

4 stars from my side out of 5