Back Home > Books > Cults of Fear
November 2019   |   Volume 21 No. 1

Cults of Fear

Frank Dikötter’s new book documents how dictators of the 20th century used the cult of personality to solidify their power.

When Mao Zedong died in 1976, there were outpourings of grief on the streets. But behind closed doors, the reaction was quite different. “There are plenty of oral interviews and memoirs of people who cried in public, then went back home and opened their very best bottle of wine,” said Professor Frank Dikötter.

The discordance between those reactions finds an explanation in his new book, How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century, which follows on from his three acclaimed volumes on China under Communist Party rule.

The new book was inspired by Mao’s cult of personality during the Cultural Revolution and the parallels Professor Dikötter sees with other notorious 20th-century dictators, including the first cult-builder, Benito Mussolini of Italy, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Kim Il-sung of North Korea, François (Papa Doc) Duvalier of Haiti, Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, and Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia.

Although each emerged under different circumstances, they share some similar features. “Dictators paradoxically are rather weak. If they decide to grab power, others can do the same thing. How do you prevent someone else from organising a coup against you? How do you avoid the stab in the back?

“The cult of personality allows the dictator to tower far above allies and rivals alike, as all are made to collaborate through common subordination. When they praise their leader in front of all the others, they become liars, and when everybody lies it becomes difficult to find out what others think about their leader. The cult of personality is not so much about admiration but about fear,” he said.

How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century
Author: Frank Dikötter
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Year of Publication: 2019

Claims of ‘popular support’

Dictators cultivate that fear by purging both friends and foes. Mao had most leading members of the Chinese Communist Party denounced at one point or another, including Lin Biao who ironically helped implement his personality cult during the Cultural Revolution. Stalin purged or executed more than one million people from 1934 to 1939, accompanied by a propaganda machine that made him the focal point of the revolution.

“By 1939, every aspect of propaganda was about Stalin. It would not have been uncommon for factory workers to compose a letter to Stalin during a meeting in the Stalin House of Culture of the Stalin Factory on Stalin Square in the city of Stalinsk,” he said. “A good dictator wants people to acclaim him even as he purges them.”

The illusion of popular support was one key reason why modern dictators needed a cult of personality. In the past, kings and emperors drew their power from a divine mandate. “With the French Revolution in 1789, sovereign power, for the first time, was vested in the people, not in God. This gradually unfolded into an age of democracy over the following two centuries,” Professor Dikötter said.

The dictator subverts that democracy by seizing power, rather than being elected. Yet he still needs to convince insiders and outsiders that the people support him. “This is why Adolf Hitler liked plebiscites. There are many from 1933 onwards. At the same time, brown shirts knock on your door, give you a poster of Hitler, tell you where to hang it, and check back to see if you have displayed it. If not, you spend some time in prison. They also tell you how to vote. So Hitler gets a 99.4 per cent approval rate from the population.”

Devastating consequences

Fascists and communists had a lot in common but differed when it came to justifying the cult of personality.

“Mussolini and Hitler had little to offer but themselves. They portrayed themselves as messiahs chosen by destiny to lead their people to greatness. But communist dictatorships were supposed to be the dictatorship of the proletariat, not the dictatorship of an individual. Stalin got around this by making sure the cult was presented as a spontaneous expression of the people, who demanded to see him and glorify him,” Professor Dikötter said.

Since dictators end up being surrounded by liars and sycophants, they tend not to trust anyone ultimately. “The biggest threat to dictators could very well come from the dictators themselves. They lose touch with reality, teetering between hubris and paranoia, and make all major decisions on their own,” often with devastating consequences.

Mao pressed ahead with the Great Leap Forward that led to the deaths of tens of millions of people; Hitler insisted on invading Russia; Stalin signed a pact with Germany and refused to believe his generals when informed German troops were about to invade in 1941. “The sheer vanity of these dictators is extraordinary,” he said.

While it may be tempting to compare present-day ego-driven leaders to the monstrous dictators of the 20th century, Professor Dikötter cautions strongly against that. “There’s a danger of trivialising what happened to hundreds of millions of people across the globe who were compelled to cheer their leaders, even as they were herded down the road to serfdom. That is not to deny there haven’t been setbacks over the last 10 years or so, but the book should give us a much-needed sense of perspective,” he said.

A good dictator wants people to acclaim him even as he purges them.