There is an astonishing scene in the 1994 Russian film Burnt by the Sun. A giant celebratory hot-air balloon bearing a portrait of Stalin is released at the same time, in June 1936 during the great purges, that the Soviet secret police arrest a legendary Red Army hero and “old Bolshevik”. This moment juxtaposes the two elements that sustained Stalin’s Russia: public worship and political terror. They lie at the core of Frank Dikotter’s impressive and authoritative new book. Dictatorships employ violence to seize power and eliminate opposition. But to entrench themselves and survive, they also need popular consent, created and sustained through personality cults.
In clear and accessible prose, Dikotter examines how the cult of personality, a term coined by Khrushchev in 1956 when denouncing Stalin, was manufactured in eight countries across the 20th century. His dictators are the obvious (Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao), the deranged (Francois Duvalier), the self-delusional (Nicolae Ceausescu), the nepotistic (Kim Il-sung), and the pseudo-revolutionary (the Ozymandias-like Mengistu Haile Mariam).
As the architects of their own myths, Dikotter argues, they lied to themselves. The myth of a quasi-religious mystical bond between the people and their saviour was enabled by highly effective propaganda machines that assumed industrial proportions. Leaders were glorified by the ubiquitous presence of portraits and images in schools, offices, factories and billboards; the construction of self-aggrandising monuments and palaces; rewriting the past and controlling the present with a monopoly of their own writings masquerading as ideology; invoking the country’s ancient past and folkloric traditions; producing cult objects on a vast scale; and harnessing all organs of the state to instil fear or devotion.
The result was that entire populations were mobilised, or forced, to acclaim their leader and demonstrate their loyalty, “nations of prisoners condemned to enthusiasm”. When no one was certain who supported and who opposed the dictator, the cult reached its apotheosis. People were fearful, obsequious, acquiescent or silent. The alternative was the fate of political opponents of the regime: exile, imprisonment or execution.
Notwithstanding such widespread compliance, Dikotter tends to underplay the degree of genuine adulation, even love, that a great many citizens felt at particular historical moments, especially for that quartet of supreme rulers: Il Duce, der Fuehrer, Stalin (Batiushka or “Little Father”) and Chairman Mao. World leaders were also seduced. Churchill, for example, considered Mussolini “the Roman genius”, and of Stalin, who had no shortage of international devotees, he said “I like him the more I see him”. A more telling tribute to Stalin’s cult, not in this book, were inmates of the Gulag weeping when Stalin died. Similarly, shouting “Heil Hitler” while being shot was not uncommon. One reason the cult was so effective was that it provided the leader with protection. When things went wrong, blame was transferred to underlings; “if only he knew”, victims often implored.
A common theme running through Dikotter’s eight portraits of tyranny is that toxic mixture of psychopathic insecurity and its flipside, narcissistic authoritarianism. There are elements of both, especially the latter, in world leaders today – one thinks of Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, and Trump – but their dangerous egotism and right-wing populism are no match for the staggering scale of brutalities and atrocities committed by Dikotter’s dictators.
In his earlier magisterial study, Mao’s Great Famine, Dikotter calculated that Mao was responsible for a minimum of 45 million deaths during the Great Leap Forward. He can claim credit, more than Stalin or Hitler, for the biggest pyramid of corpses. How To Be A Dictator also documents mass murder, such as in Ethiopia, where almost 1 million died at the hands of Mussolini using mustard gas warfare in the 1930s and then Mengistu, responsible for “Red Terror”, civil war and famine in the 1980s. Killing is the corollary of the cult. As Dikotter comments, “the greater the misery, the louder the propaganda”.
In developing their cults, many of our dictators learnt from each other. It is well-known that Hitler admired and emulated Mussolini’s ruthless acquisition of power and vainglorious displays before he realised he was simply a sawdust Caesar. And just as Hitler was deeply impressed by Stalin’s Great Terror, Stalin was influenced by the Night of the Long Knives, exclaiming, “Hitler, what a great fellow!” Mao adopted Stalin’s model of liquidating kulaks (supposedly wealthy peasants), and labelling opponents “enemies of the people”. Ceausescu and Mengistu regularly looked to (and visited) Kim Il-sung and his North Korean hermit kingdom for inspiration when planning grandiose celebrations, choreographed parades and pharaonic-like palaces.
The book is littered with snippets of obscure but fascinating details. At his first public speech, a hesitant Kim Il-sung “looked like a delivery boy”. Patriotic butchers in Nazi Germany sold sausages in the shape of the swastika. The bizarre “Papa Doc” Duvalier projected himself as both the personification of God and the incarnation of a Voodoo spirit. In 1968, more than 50 million Mao badges were produced per month, but these were insufficient: underground factories feeding a thriving black market competed with the state. Elena Ceausescu’s dazzling array of titles and honours did not shield her in 1989 from an erstwhile sycophant, now her executioner, to whom she screamed “F— you!”
This is a chilling book. Let us hope that none of today’s world leaders, who are currently employing similar techniques of image-making and suppression of dissent or who are pushing democracy on the defensive, read it. But for those seeking an understanding of the methods dictators use to build and consolidate their regimes, it is essential reading.
Phillip Deery is emeritus professor of history at Victoria University.