Dikötter’s relentless cataloguing of the sort of banality that warps everyday reality under dictatorship sharpens the horrors we already know about. His subject is not the huge, senseless waves of unpredictable terror, torture, purges, famines and wars. Rather, he shows us the nuts and bolts, the small processes by which communities are torn apart and individual humanity is systematically dismantled by the destruction of truth and logic, followed by the sowing of confusion and terror to produce docile, atomized individuals whose ecstatic praise of the regime, prompted by fear, transforms all sections of society into liars ... This is a wonderfully moving and perceptive book, written by a very brave man. Dikötter lives in Hong Kong, where he is chair professor of humanities at the university. His books are banned in China. He is not afraid to describe Xi Jinping as recreating a dictatorship on the Leninist model.
The structure of the book is clean and attractive. Each dictator gets his own stand-alone chapter of about 30 pages. These are superb mini-biographies, rich in dramatic detail and analysis, and are unspooled in a historical sequence ... And while the book is erudite, its prose lives up to the promise of a lively narrative made by its crowd-pleasing title ... Many readers will regret Mr. Dikötter’s decision to limit his book to eight dictators, and some may question his particular choices for inclusion and exclusion. The absence of a caudillo from the Spanish-speaking world is notable, and whereas Fidel Castro may have been one communist too many for this book, the exclusion of Francisco Franco of Spain or Augusto Pinochet of Chile is a pity ... [Dikötter] had to choose, and he has mostly chosen well, giving us a book of rare insight and expertise, written with humanity, verve and unexpected flashes of humor.
Each dictator’s life is offered with neat, mordant compression. Dikötter’s originality is that he counts crimes against civilization alongside crimes against humanity ... His most interesting chapters, in some ways, are on the 'tin-pot' dictators—like Duvalier, in Haiti, and Mengistu, in Ethiopia—who, ravaging poverty-stricken countries, still conform to the terrible type ... The elements come together in almost every case to make one standard biography ... Still, Dikötter’s portrait of his dictators perhaps underemphasizes a key point about such men: that, horribly grotesque in most areas, they tend to be good in one, and their skill at the one thing makes their frightened followers overrate their skill at all things ... Where does the double tour of dictator style leave us? Dikötter, in How to Be a Dictator, seems uncertain whether he is writing an epitaph or a prologue to a new edition ... Perhaps the most depressing reflection sparked...is on the supine nature of otherwise intelligent observers in the face of the coarse brutalities of dictatorships.
For me, the most entertaining chapters of this book were about the dictators I was least familiar with ... we learn little about whom the dictators modelled themselves on (or against) and how they reacted to each other. Yet surely Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin kept an interested eye on each other’s PR practices and on occasion quietly imitated them; and Mao was scarcely indifferent to Stalin’s example. Questions of chronology, sequence and influence are not much discussed here. The mid 20th century is generally considered the heyday of dictators of the right and the left, but Dikötter does not explore why this might have been so, and even obscures the issue by including chronological outliers such as Mengistu. It is important to study dictators, he suggests, because they are an eternal threat to democracy and freedom – but not, it seems an acute current threat.
In How To Be A Dictator, historian Frank Dikötter provides a timely reminder of just how destructive toxic insecurity, and its corollary, pathological narcissism, can become ... Nothing in the sorry sagas of Trump and Brexit compares remotely with the atrocities committed by the dictators in Dikötter’s new book. But in terms of the dynamics of narcissistic authoritarianism, there is much in How To Be A Dictator that is of critical contemporary relevance ... History only makes sense if we understand the psychological pathology that underlies it, and our own propensity for partaking in such pathology. We need a clear-eyed understanding of history as a recurring series of monumental follies, led by cretins who duped or forced millions of us into humiliating childish submission. Only then can we hope to avoid the repetition. Dikötter, in his previous outstanding books on Mao, and again here in How To Be a Dictator, is in the vanguard of historians opening our eyes to this fundamental truth.
How to be a dictator? Ruthlessness matters a lot more than talent, but luck most of all. That is the upshot of Frank Dikötter’s elegant and readable study of the cult of personality in the 20th century. It deals with eight dictators ... The author’s penmanship and eye for anecdote brings them all to life ... To say that the author paints these portraits 'warts and all' — in the words of our only homegrown dictator, Oliver Cromwell — would be an understatement. None of the eight seems to have had any redeeming features ... The chief difficulty in this sort of book is balancing the subjects’ similarities and differences. Overemphasising the parallels...between these horrible men quickly becomes tiresome. The disparities are interesting, but raise the question of why exactly these eight, out of the hundred-odd available from the 20th century, are being presented in one book ... Dikötter’s final point is his best. Dictators cut themselves off from the advice and information they need to run their countries. The biggest threat to their rule is not their people, but themselves.
Frank Dikötter has written a very lively and concise analysis of the techniques and personalities of eight 20th-century dictators ... As a comparative study of those individuals, it is enlightening and a good read. The title and parts of the foreword indicate that it aspires to be a guidebook of tactics for those aspiring to be dictators and to retain their status as such. There are some weaknesses in this broader ambition ... The best parts of this book are vignettes that will enlighten even those familiar with the lives of most of these men ... This is an unambiguously good book, even if there may be some over-simplification in the assimilation of these people to each other.
...[a] shrewd, fast-paced survey ... Each chapter offers a potted history of its subject’s career, and adds value by concentrating on a feature that was common to all of them — the cult of personality ... Dikötter is especially interesting on the attitudes to dictators of ordinary hard-pressed citizens and gullible foreigners. The masses learn to put on an act and fake consent, he says ... Dikötter slips up, however when he lists inflation in Germany in the early 1930s as one cause of Hitler’s rise to power. The real problem was economic depression and deflation. Still, How to Be a Dictator is a timely book and enjoyable to read. It is strangely comforting to be reminded that many of the dictators in Dikötter’s book came to an ignominious end. But that is no excuse for underestimating the need to protect democracy today.
The chapters overflow with detail. Dikötter has an eye for the absurd in and around the lives of men so obsessed with image and power that they would, for instance, have their portraits put on bars of soap (Mussolini) leavens otherwise very dark stories of oppression and terror ... is serious yet optimistic book, to the extent that a work of history can be optimistic. If nothing else, it will provide some historical perspective for readers as they take to the internet to call out the latest world leader who has taken another worrying step towards dictatorship.
Dikötter’s capsule biographies are vivid and pithy, revealing similar megalomania across regimes (these men learned from each other) but also commonalities in how they were enabled by opportunistic aides, gullible journalists, duped foreign leaders, and cowed rivals. And if there’s something unavoidably grim in the pattern that emerges, there’s also the observation that most dictators, in the end, become victims of their own hubris.
Dikötter...writes with academic rigor and awareness ... While Dikötter focuses broadly on the biographies of each dictator (and their crucial sycophant enablers), each chapter establishes a firm sense of time and place, capturing the palpable dread these figures established within their societies. An approachable discussion of a brand of political menace that seems both faded into history and oddly relevant.
... richly detailed yet disappointing ... [Dikötte] fails to sufficiently analyze the mechanisms of fear and how they fit with the careful cultivation of these leaders’ public images. Such oversights mar what might have been a fascinating work.