How do dictators consolidate their power

They all need the enthusiasm of the masses : To power with voodoo

The American scientist Harold Courlander was amazed when he entered the study of the Haitian presidential palace in 1958. Because François Duvalier, who had only risen to head the island state this year, did not receive his former colleague from the ethnological institute in Haiti in an ordinary representative room. Duvalier had the windows of his study covered with black curtains. On the huge desk in front of him were black wax candles, behind him were minions in black suits. The room around Courlander was deeply dark. Only on Duvalier's face did the flames cast an eerie light.

Heart of the enemy

François Duvalier, Haiti's dictator until 1971, loved such performances. In public, the self-proclaimed voodoo ghost muttered incomprehensible incantations to himself. Like a Haitian voodoo clergyman, he carried a magic wand. And once Duvalier even had the corpse of a competitor kidnapped - rumored to be in order to enchant his heart and thus strengthen his power. Duvalier himself believed in his superhuman powers.

But the wild stories about his person also had a very practical purpose: The Haitians, Frank Dikötter believes, shouldn't even try the power of their almighty dictator. Fear and adoration - for the historian, successful dictators like Duvalier combined both.

A mixed bag

In his book “Becoming a dictator. Populism, personality cult and the path to power ”, Dikötter portrays the rule of eight exemplary dictators of the 20th century. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Mao are joined by Duvalier, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Mengistu Haile Mariam from Ethiopia and Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Eight very different characters that show one thing: Becoming a dictator is not that easy. Unlike elected statesmen and women, dictators cannot invoke the legitimacy of a supra-personal political system. Their power has been won, not surrendered, which is why they always and everywhere have to fear that they will be ousted by an even more skilful, savvy or simply happier competitor. They have to consolidate their power, otherwise they face deposition - or worse.

Here Dikötter brings the eponymous personality cult into play. As he shows, a dictatorship will soon focus on the dictator himself. Duvalier was celebrated as the "greatest patriot of all time" and "liberator of the masses". Whenever Mussolini passed a large group of people on his train, the dictator slowed down so that people could cheer him. Hitler, Mengistu or Kim - all of them could be celebrated, venerated, finally adored: a real “cult of the individual”, as Khrushchev scolded the adulation of his predecessor Stalin.

And it worked, says Dikötter. Because the personality cult humiliated friend and foe - and made the lie normal: "But if everyone lied, nobody knew who was actually lying, which made it more difficult to find accomplices and organize a coup." An exciting thought. But Dikötter does not succeed in fixing the “dictatorship of lies” to his empirical material: After the introduction it no longer appears as a serious argument. What exactly Dikötter understands by “personality cult” remains unclear. Because the historian does not give a definition.

Freedom of speech? Of course not

The “populism” announced in the subtitle does not even appear in Dikötter's text. And the examination of the historiographical state of affairs withered into a curious sweeping side note: The approach of the renowned Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw to put the perception of Hitler in the foreground is simply pointless, as "freedom of expression is always the first victim a dictatorship ”. Now nobody claims - last Kershaw - that under Hitler or Mao one could express one's opinion without concern. Nevertheless, even under the sharpest regimes of opinion there are always gradations and shades: Even Dikötter would probably not go that far, a compliment in the "GröFaZ", the "Greatest General of All Time", as parts of the Wehrmacht generals ridiculed Hitler at the latest after the defeat in Stalingrad to see.

Joy at the provocative tip

Hardly any research discussion, vague terms, neglected theses: From a scientific point of view, Dikötter's dictator comparison remains pale. It does not provide any new knowledge. That does not mean, however, that "Become a dictator" cannot be read at a profit. Because Dikötter writes vividly and clearly. He sets his scenes with dramaturgical skill and is clearly delighted at the provocative tip. “Becoming a dictator” provides a concise and factual overview of the rise and mostly the fall of eight very different dictators.

Frank Dikötter: Become a dictator. Populism, the cult of personality and the path to power. Translated from the English by Heike Schlatterer and Henning Dedekind. Klett-Cotta Verlag, Stuttgart 2020. 368 pp., € 26.

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