How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century by Frank Dikötter - review by Christian Goeschel

Christian Goeschel

Portraits in Tyranny

How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century


Bloomsbury 274pp £25 order from our bookshop

In December 1949, the Soviet regime celebrated Joseph Stalin’s seventieth birthday with great fanfare. Among the visitors who came to Moscow were fellow communist leaders, including those of two recently established dictatorships: Walter Ulbricht, the bespectacled chairman of the East German Socialist Unity Party, and Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. Mao was apparently unhappy with his treatment in Moscow by Stalin and his underlings. After the official celebrations, he was made to wait weeks for a formal meeting with the Soviet dictator. The Chinese leader, used to being the centre of attention, complained that the purpose of his trip to the Soviet Union was ‘more than “eat and shit”’.

Becoming a dictator in the 20th century and maintaining one’s power required a strong personality cult disseminated by state-controlled media. A repressive apparatus that instilled fear in the people was essential, but terror alone was not enough to keep dictators in power. Leaders also had to create the illusion

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