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.