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

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

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By Frank Dikoetter

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5 reviews


11 Jul 2019


How to be a Dictator: the cult of personality in the twentieth century, by Frank Dikotter.
No dictator can rule through fear and violence alone. Naked power can be grabbed and held temporarily, but is never enough in the long term. A tyrant who can get his people to acclaim him will undoubtedly survive longer. And so the paradox of the modern dictator is that he must create the illusion of popular support. This books looks in separate chapters at eight modern dictators and how they established and sustained the cult of their personality
Hunstanworth Village Hall Bookgroup review: Seven members read this book. They gave it an overall score of 3/5.
People found this book interesting and informative, but no-one managed to finish it. This is in part because the subject matter is quite heavy, and so it needs to be read and thought about slowly (it’s certainly not a page-turner!), but also because the writing style is very dry. Many members said it reminded them of their school text books.
In many ways people were disappointed in the book, because they felt that it covered a very fascinating and important area of modern life, but that the eight accounts were not told in a way that reflects this ie with passion and enthusiasm.
Most members reflected on how little they actually know about twentieth century history, not least because they weren’t taught about it at school. We also discussed the ways in which dictators around the world continue to seize and hold absolute power, and whether the rise of social media will change this in future, given how important control of the media has always been for dictators in the past.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of each dictator’s rule was the way in which they seemed so easily to be able to turn people against each other, so that ordinary people spied on and reported their neighbours, and everyone was afraid to speak at all about political matters. Divide and rule.
We would have liked a final summary chapter that drew together common themes and issues from all the dictators discussed in the book, and gave a clearer answer to the question posed in the title of how people become dictators.
Overall this was a very interesting and informative book, but because of the writing style it is not one that draws the reader in.
Rating: 7 members read the book. Average score 3 / 5
We received copies of the book via the Bloomsbury Publishing Group, and The Reading Agency (with thanks).

20 Jun 2019

Ciarán K

This book is a reminder why historians are necessary for public discourse.

Much of contemporary rhetoric when looking at the actions of many modern leaders is marked by passion and carelessness. In the conclusion to this book, off the back of eight chapters looking at 20th century dictators, Dikoetter eschews the alarmist tendency and shows how Trump et al are not yet in the same sphere as those written about in the book. He would not say they aren't dangerous but he is careful to treat them as they are and not stray into excitable hyperbole.

I skimmed through some of the chapters of the book but it is readable and contains lots of nuggets of information well put together.

There are a few typos that will need to be sorted out before it goes public.

26 May 2019


Political issues come and go but countries will always need to be governed by someone or a body of people. Frank Dikoetter has written a compendium of eight modern era dictators in an effort to enable us to understand how they came to gain the absolute power of tyrannical rule. This is a well researched and very well written look at these men. It could be well used as a textbook or reference for a socio-political, philosophy or ethics class or seminar. While this was a well written and well presented scholarly book, it was definitely not entertaining nor captivating reading for me.

20 May 2019


In this book, Frank Dikotter selects eight of the most renowned dictators of modern times and gives a potted biography of each, highlighting the methodologies and personality traits which allow them to become a tyrant with absolute power over their people.

I found this book very interesting indeed. It is very readable and the individual biographies are short so you don’t get bogged down in too much detail. My knowledge of current affairs and modern history is shamefully limited, verging on non-existent, and this book was both informative and enlightening. All eight of the dictators on which the author focusses create a “cult of personality” and he argues that this is an essential ingredient to becoming a successful dictator. Thankfully dictators seem to be largely a 20th Century phenomenon, although the author points out some potential emergent ones at the current time.

I don’t think there is anything negative to say about this book. It is what it is, and it does it very well.

I would recommend this book to almost anyone who enjoys well written books that provide information in an accessible way. For more in-depth studies you may ultimately want to look elsewhere, but this would be a good start.

13 May 2019


Frank Dikötter's "How to Be a Dictator" is an account of eight of the world's most ruthlessly successful, modern-day dictators. It includes the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

Referenced and noted in great detail, Dikotter's writing style is readable and interesting, despite the almost unreadable content. One cannot help reflecting on history, hoping against hope it doesn't repeat itself. Whilst the book is about past dictators, there are also some poignant comments about current tyrants such as al-Assad and Kim Jong-un. One of the positives in the book is the author's observation that dictatorships are on the decline. A good thing indeed.

A well written and researched book and a thought-provoking and enlightening read.

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