How to be a Dictator

Being a dictator is the hardest job in the world. From the moment he assumes absolute power, the dictator lives in perpetual paranoia. To maintain power, he must use brutal force first and foremost against his closest friends. In his conversation with Die Weltwoche, Professor Frank Dikötter examines the magic of perfectly orchestrated cults of personality, of symbols like Hitler’s peculiar moustache or Stalin’s signature pipe, and he explains why there have been very few dictators of the female persuasion.

The twentieth century offered a rich variety of dictators: an impoverished shepherd boy (Saddam Hussein); a poorly trained shoemaker (Nicolae Ceaușescu); a cold-blooded bank robber (Josef Stalin); even a rumored cannibal (Idi Amin). Each of these men skillfully seized power and tyranized hundreds of millions.

Disparate as they are, they have one thing in common: “Dictators are all highly talented people,” says Frank Dikötter. “And they are extremely hard working.” The native Dutchman, who grew up in Geneva, has been teaching at the University of Hong Kong since 2002. Trained in close observation of the Chinese example, he dedicates his latest book, “How to Be a Dictator,” to the mystery and mechanics of absolute power.

Although it is associated with widely loathed calumnies, the dictator’s profession is, regrettably, far from obsolete. Democracies view dictators with contempt, but still eagerly conduct business with them. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un gets the red carpet treatment. Chinese President Xi Jinping is feted in Trump’s Palm Beach tropical castle. In Russia, Turkey, and China, dictators revel in their absolute power cementing their rule for generations. Even in London, where we meet Dikötter in the rooms of the renowned Bloomsbury publishing house, a blond “dictator” has allegedly taken over the fortunes of the kingdom.


Professor Dikötter, let’s suppose I suddenly feel this overwhelming urge to become a dictator. How would you advise me to proceed?

First, think very carefully what you are wishing for. Being a dictator is a job that demands extraordinary skills, but it doesn't come with a retirement plan. You can't just hand in your resignation and say, “I want to go back to my old life. I want to go back fishing with my friends.” The moment you seize power, you will live in fear of a coup against you by either an ally or an opponent which means that you will become very paranoid about the people around you. You must be absolutely ruthless and willing to crush not only your rivals. You must be prepared to eliminate your friends, as well, particularly those who helped you. If you ever had a mentor, you have to kill him. You have to kill an uncountable amount of people. If that keeps you up at night, if you have a feeling of guilt and empathy, then maybe this job is not made for you.

What are the first steps to take?

There is no list of 12 steps that you should follow. What is so remarkable about dictators is that they're truly unique individuals operating in extraordinary, unique conditions that vary enormously from Nazi Germany to a very impoverished place like Haiti in the 1950’s. What dictators do, since they realize there is no list of steps to take, they become students of power. That would be my advice: Become a student of power.

Hitler praises Mussolini as “one of the Ceasars,” and he admits, “the brownshirts would probably not have existed without the blackshirts.” Do dictators learn from each other?

Dictators all study each other, and they all want answers to the same question. How do you seize power? How do you keep it? How do you eliminate your enemies? How do you age as a dictator? Mussolini is a fan of Lenin. Hitler is a fan of Lenin. They both understand from Lenin that you can seize power by having a revolutionary vanguard. Josef Stalin goes out of his way to speak rarely, to use the weight of silence to impress in contradiction of the ravings of Adolf Hitler or the lively style of Benito Mussolini. He will smoke a pipe. He’s Uncle Joe. He is the one who listens. The fascists are the ones who do all the talking. It’s all done in context. They study each other.

If we study the early lives of dictators, we come across some pretty unremarkable biographies. Nicolae Ceaușescu, for example, was of rather poor intellect. He left home at the age of eleven to work as an apprentice for a shoemaker. Are there signs that help detect future dictators at an early stage?

No. This is the problem. There is no list of 12 steps to take in order to become dictator. And there is no list of the six distinguishing features of future dictators, either. There is no lesion on the frontal lobe. There’s no particular characteristic that really stands out. It’s a little bit like trying to find out who is a psychopath before they execute a mass killing. It’s simply not possible. In many cases, they actually turned out to be compromised candidates.

Nicolae Ceaușescu was a very good example. The two most prominent leading candidates after the death of leader Gheorghiu-Dej actually were too divisive, and they opted for Nicolae Ceaușescu not only as a compromise, but also as a candidate they might be able to control. Of course, within a couple of years, Ceaușescu outmaneuvers all of them and purges every single one of the old leadership.

It is the same with Duvalier, for instance. Papa Doc was a man who couldn’t even afford to buy his own house. An unassuming non-threatening individual. There really are no great telling signs. You could say the same thing about Stalin. He appeared very unassuming. Many, many people in the Bolshevik Party thought that Trotsky would be the one to take over after Lenin. He maneuvered very cleverly. He had an extraordinary capacity for hard work, great organizational skills. He had maneuvered Trotsky within a few years.

Once dictators are in power, we can observe a personality cult which also manifests itself in a cult of dress. Mao's jacket, Mobutu Sese Seko's leotard hat, for example, or Hitler's mustache. We learn from your book that Hitler thought about this mustache very carefully. He rejected advice to clip it and even said, “I am setting a fashion.” How important are those symbols?

They spent a great deal of time studying their own image. There are two main instruments to establish a dictatorship. There is terror on the one hand and image on the other. The terror comes in the shape of the secret police, the military, gulags, prisons, the knock on the door in the middle of the night. The other one is how dictators present themselves and how, of course, they turn themselves into objects of adoration by ordinary people. They must instill fear into people. If they can manage to at least coerce people to acclaim them in public, to coerce people to create the illusion of popular support, then they will last much longer.

When you look at Adolf Hitler, he hires a photographer called Heinrich Hoffmann, and he literary rehearses in front of the camera his gestures where he presents himself.

Mussolini does the same in front of the mirror.

Yes indeed. Mussolini spends pretty much half of his time, by one account, projecting his own image as an omniscient, omnipotent dictator in Italy. He sits in a projection room in his Villa Torlonia, a sprawling estate that he acquires in the middle of the 1920’s, and looks at footage of himself rehearsing all of his gestures. The very famous chin jutted forward, the rolling eyes — everything is calculated there. You might say that Stalin is almost the opposite. He appears as a very remote image. He is always standing as a distant figure on the rostrum in Red Square. Adopting a very calm, almost stolid pose with his great uniform and peak cap. That, too, is done on purpose as he towers far above his potential enemies and allies, alike. He uses silence in opposition to other dictators like Hitler and Mussolini. All of this is very carefully calculated and demands a great deal of work.

Is the personality cult more important than the ideology that the dictator is representing?

Yes. The loyalty to the leader matters most rather than loyalty to a creed. All of these dictators realize that ideology can have very divisive roles, different ways of interpreting an ideology. In the case of Marxism, already before 1917, Lenin realized that there are Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, and that they're opponents. Which is already a division within those who claim Marx as their guiding ideologue. What matters most is loyalty to a person. Under Stalin, one is a Stalinist. Under Mao, one is a Maoist. Under Kim, one is a Kimist. Under Duvalier, one is a Duvalierist.

There is film footage of Ceaușescu on a bear hunt. Bears were driven past his cabin. Heonly had to pull the trigger. He then paraded with the killed bears while his entourage applauded him euphorically. With every dictator there is a crowd of claqueurs. None of them dares to criticize the dictator, or even give him advice, if he makes an obvious mistake. Is the tyranny of fear that rules out even constructive criticism the beginning of the end of all dictatorships?

Yes. The problem with dictators is that they seize power, and power seized through violence must be maintained through violence. They become very paranoid because, of course, the people they purge, or sack, or execute, have family members or allies who might take revenge in turn. They live in perpetual paranoia. All they do is keep tabs on the people around them. Inherently, once a dictator takes power, he must accumulate more power in order to protect the power he already has. As a result, of course, all decisions are taken by the dictators, themselves.

They become control freaks.

They are surrounded by sycophants, liars. They can’t trust anyone. Whether it is Stalin, or Hitler, or Mussolini, or Chairman Mao, in the end, they will make all major decisions on their own. So, frequently they make the wrong decision. They veer off into a world of their own. A few of them start truly believing in their own genius. Ceaușescu is a very good example. Others move from reality altogether. One example being Hitler who interferes with every military decision during the last years of the war and, of course, causes his own downfall and also the ruin of his own country and Europe.

All dictators that you describe in your book are men. Are there any female dictators?

Yes. I’ve looked into this question. The only one name that comes up is Eva Perón. Well, with all due respect, I do not think she was anywhere in the top 100.

Aren't women suited to become dictators?

The truth is that the 20th century – and the time before - was very much a man’s world. Now, given equal opportunities, I think probably there would be a woman or two who would be able and willing to do just as horrific a job. But we are not in a world of equal opportunities, yet.

You have studied prominent dictators of the last century. Looking at contemporary leaders, do you observe some dictatorial behavior?

You don't have to look very far. Of course, there are those who, for instance in Britain, talk about Boris Johnson as a potential dictator who is carrying out a coup. Of course, there are those who talk about Donald Trump as a potential dictator. The truth is that these countries have been separating out powers for centuries. There’s a long tradition of trying to come up with checks and balances, of establishing an independent judiciary, of relying on the rule of law, of compelling government to actually obey court orders. These are very long traditions, and they’re not so easily broken.

When you walk past Westminster, these days, one gets a different impression. Protesters holding up signs with Boris Johnson’s image, saying, “Dictators have no place in my country.”

Ultimately, what you see in Westminster, and what you see in Washington, is democracy in action. Of course, it doesn’t mean one ought not to be vigilant. Vigilance is the price of democracy. But to start using terms like “dictatorship,” or “terror,” or “coup” about these people is really trivializing what happened to hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century who had to go through these atrocious regimes.

In recent years, we have observed leaders concentrating ever more power in their own hands. We have seen this in Russia with Putin, or in Turkey with Erdogan. Are we witnessing new dictatorships in the making?

Yes, they are concentrating power in their hands. But both are somehow still not quite the full-fledged dictator who concentrate all power in his own hands. Take, for instance, Putin. Only a few weeks ago, he managed to pass a law that outlaws slandering his person. What kind of dictator is that? Any good dictator would have passed a law like that within year one.

When we move further east to China, we’ve seen the propaganda machine has consistently idolized Xi. Last year, his power was prolonged to infinity by the People’s Congress. Not since Mao have we seen in China a leader with so much power. Would you call China a dictatorship?

Well, of course, it is. It has always been since 1949. These are the same institutions. These are very much the same families who are in power since 1949. It is a classic dictatorship. It’s a classic one party state which refuses to separate out powers, refuses to envisage judicial independence, and has no independent rule of law. This is what we shouldn’t forget. On the one hand, there are great advances in democracy worldwide. Yet, on the other hand, we still have to deal with some of these very retrograde dictatorships.

Is there a kind of a dictatorship test?

In fact, the test is very simple. If you wonder whether you are dealing with a dictator or not, the test is very simple. Get on a plane. Go to that country. Try to find if there are people who are willing to criticize their leader publicly. Well, if you go to Shenyang or to Beijing, it’ll be very difficult for you to find anyone who’s prepared to speak publicly in a critical manner of the man in charge.

As western countries that are based on freedom of speech and free markets, how do we best deal with China?

The tragedy is that when we look towards the East, towards North Korea, and China in particular, we tend to focus on culture rather than politics. Ultimately, if you look at politics, then obviously both North Korea and the People’s Republic of China have been established on straightforward Marxist-Leninist principles. These are countries that modeled themselves on the Soviet Union. To this day, underneath that shimmering surface in the People’s Republic of China, all the iron underpinnings of the one party state can be detected. The knowledge is there. It’s simply that we forgot what we’re dealing with.

The leaders of Iran or China are asking for respect for their long and rich culture. What you suggest is: Don’t buy in too much into this culture propaganda. Instead take it for what it really is, a dictatorship.

Exactly. When Hitler talks about German culture, you should bear in mind his effort for the elimination of everything outside of the organization of the National Socialist Party. When in China, there’s talk about Chinese culture, we should forget all about that. When you deal with them bear in mind that the Communist Party has its hand everywhere, both in politics and, of course, in the economy.

Is there a chance that dictatorships can be established in a functioning democracy? Or is that a contradiction in itself?

It is very unlikely except if some major catastrophe occurs. The Wall Street crash in 1929 would be one example, and even then Adolph Hitler had great luck to gain power.

The word “dictatorial” is often used as a synonym of “populist” in the media. Is a populist somehow related to a dictator? Or would you make a clear distinction between the two?

I'm not entirely sure what populism is. Every politician attempts to get a majority vote in a democracy. Populism sometimes seems to me to be a term used by people who believe that the population voted for the wrong person.

From reading your book it seems that dictatorships go nowhere. But when we look at North Korea and China it appears that these dictatorships have found a way to survive for a very long time. Would you say that even in North Korea or China the dictatorship is going nowhere?

Dictatorship is a dead end. It might help you through economic crisis. It might help you organize resources in a manner that is more convenient for the state. But, ultimately, dictatorships go nowhere. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, it seemed that the Soviet Union would never disappear. It seemed that the Soviet Union would take over the rest of the world. Some people resigned themselves to the fact that the Soviet Union ultimately would prevail because it had found a better mode of government and no democracy could possibly compete with them. In the end, it lasted just over 70 years. Well, the People’s Republic is barely there, yet.

Is there a chance that a dictatorship can turn slowly into a democracy?

It is possible, but unlikely. Of course, it happened in the case of a number of countries in Eastern Europe. But that only happened because Gorbachev allowed it to happen.

A last word about the end of dictators. We’ve just witnessed the death of a notorious dictator from Africa, Robert Mugabe. He died alone in exile of old age. How do dictators tend to end?

Well, those who are most successful at turning themselves into objects of adoration, like Stalin and Mao, tend to die of natural death in their own bed, or in office. There are those who manage to somehow pass on power to a family member, like in the case of North Korea. Dictators must fear their people. Dictators must fear their entourage. But dictators should also fear themselves because they make such huge decisions with devastating consequences, not only for the populations, but, of course, also for themselves.

Many of the dictators, isolated in their cocoon of absolute power, don’t seem to understand the sign of times — like Ceaușescu who was killed by the same people who, only a few days before, had applauded him.

Ceaușescu was used to being applauded by audiences who had been selected by the party, with party activists chanting the slogans, cheering their leader. Yet on the 21st of December, 1989, these people started booing him, and he couldn't quite believe what was happening. His voice started to falter, and he began making promises of change to come. But that very moment, of course, the fear evaporated, and people realized that this man was very frail. This was a speech from the headquarters in Bucharest that was televised to the nation, and the moment the screen goes blank, people across Romania understand that a revolution is underway against Ceaușescu. A few days later, on Christmas Eve, he and his wife are shot against the toilet block. Even within the last seconds of their lives, they didn’t understand what’s going on.

What were her famous last words?

“Fuck you.”


Frank Dikötter, 58, was born in the Netherlands. In his youth, he moved to Geneva, Switzerland where he studied history and Russian language. Since 2002, Professor Dikötter has taught at the University of Hong Kong. He has published various books on modern China. For “Mao’s Great Famine,” Dikötter was awarded with the Samuel Johnson Prize. His latest book is called, “How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century.”



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