How to Be a Dictator

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 05 Sep 2019

Member Reviews

Rather slight, just basic factual discriptions of the lives of dictator. Didn't draw any lessons or other touch points between the people discribed.
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In my bid to increase the number of non-fiction titles that I pick up in any given year, I had seen this and found myself interested. I started reading this last year, and it took a painfully long time for me to read. This is not the book's fault since the author has maintained a steady but engrossing narrative about how the dictators rose and maintained their cults. It is more to do with the content itself (and not how it was presented) that made me slow down. 

The author targets a few of the known (and a couple I did not know) dictators and traces their ascent and most chapters show how (some of) their paths crossed amongst them. It is a hard subject to read leisurely because of how drastically and quickly things changed for people. I actually appreciated the book more when I read the end. The author clarifies the title of the book and juxtaposes that against the current worldwide situation.

I would recommend it to people who are interested in history, especially the hard and brutal part. This book will start many a discussion since it deals with how people were affected and how the cult grew around these names. Although, the more avid readers of historical books might know it since there were more facts here which might be more common knowledge than I would know. 

I received an ARC thanks to NetGalley and the publishers, but the review is entirely based on my own reading experience.
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In How to be a Dictator, Frank Dikötter presents a thorough and comprehensive look into the biographies of eight of the twentieth century's most notorious dictators - Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Ceausescu, Mengistu of Ethiopia and Duvalier of Haiti - but, despite the promises of the title and the blurb, it never actually pinpoints any sort of reason for the cult of personality that built up around them. 
Why these men? How were they similar? Different?
What was it about them that made them able to inflict so much pain?
After reading this book, I do not know. And I very much doubt that Dikötter does either.
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Read to Kim/North Korea.

While I found this rather interesting, it really did just feel like a book of repeating facts on each historical figure. No commentary, opinion or insight was offered. Bare facts of each dictatorial system (though the parallels were frightening and obvious) were given.

It was a rather dry read and on coming to the final three, none of whom I know anything about, I couldn’t make myself continue. 

Glad I now know more about the first few ‘world leaders’, but it wasn’t an easy read, took weeks instead of days to get that far for me, the style just didn’t sit well with me, even though the content and facts themselves were (and should be) fascinating and widely-studied.

With thanks to Netgalley for the sample reading copy.
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How to Be a Dictator is a comprehensive look at what it goes into the development of dictatorships, and the various personality types that are more likely to become these types of leaders. As we see, there's a lot of differing variables that lead to dictators seizing power, and the methods they use to gain and keep it.

This was fascinating in the sense that it explores different dictators through recent history, and shows the deliberate contrasts between them. It was scary in that there are so many different ways that these types of individuals can take power and use it in such violent and destructive ways without the populace really understanding or being able to control the outcomes. The overall feeling is that this violence, when used, can only sustain a dictatorship for so long before falling back into violence and dissolution without the concept of the 'cult' to uphold the leader. I enjoyed the look at these differing 'cults', and the methods employed to keep the people enthralled to their leader, whether it be worship, propaganda or fear. 

I did find the writing very 'dry' at times, and not overly accessible to the layman such as myself. It's quite academic in style, and hard to push through to see the bigger picture. By splitting the chapters into eight specific leaders this was easy to put down and go back to, but I often found myself struggling to want to. It requires a lot of concentration and information processing.
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Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Ceausescu. You have heard the names. Do you know the stories?

Most of us know the infamous faces behind the names, and many of us realize the magnitude of disaster that hides behind the most notorious dictators in the world. But what was in their mind? How did they rise to power, and, most importantly, how did they maintain it? And, as the fall comes inevitably at some point, how did theirs come to be?

In this fascinating book, Frank Dikötter introduces the reader to eight of the most notorious political figures in the world. Dikötter takes our hand and opens the closed doors behind which Mussolini practiced his charm, Hitler based his model of power on his admiration of Mussolini, Stalin pretended to be the devoted student of Lenin, and Duvalier created a Voodoo persona to dazzle the crowds. And that is only the surface.

How to Be a Dictator is one of the best non-fiction books of 2019, and an absolute must-read. Delving into the lives and actions of these Dictators, the author shows us inevitably not only who these people were and how they acted, but also the magnitude of danger that lurks behind dangerous personas such as theirs. And, you know what they say: if you don't learn from history, it is bound to repeat itself. Which makes How to Be a Dictator all the more valuable.

An absolute must-have book for everyone interested in history, politics, or even the human psyche. If you read one non-fiction book this year, this should be it.
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I want to begin by saying I am going to struggle to get across just how much I loved reading this timely, well-researched book as not only is it informative but it is absolutely fascinating too; it's not that often I have trouble putting a non-fiction book down, but I simply couldn't stop reading and thinking about the topics Dikötter broaches. Each of the eight chosen dictators is covered extensively with much of the information deeper than most people would know. Keeping people subservient has been rampant across the world for centuries, and I fear we are doomed to repeat history if we don't wake up soon.

Sometimes these type of books are very wordy, which I myself enjoy, but this narrative style allows it to be accessible and eminently readable to everyone who has an interest in tyranny and oppression. This book addresses both the state the world is now in by looking at the tyrant's backgrounds and formative years as many of those who go on to be dictators come from "bad backgrounds", however, this is no way diminishes what they have done or are doing currently. Moving past their biographies we learn about the tactics and strategies carried out in order to attain power and then stay in power.

It's packed full of really intriguing information and will provide anyone who picks it up with plenty of food for thought. Despite the heavy topic, this is an easy and quick read of just over 300 pages in length. Everything is laid out clearly and the narrative flows beautifully from one page to the next. This is the perfect introduction to some of the twentieth centuries most infamous dictators and shows how they gained a cult-like following and how they maintained that grip over said followers. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for an ARC.
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Frank Dikötter throws a very special spotlight on eight cruel dictators who ruled in the 20th century. He presents not only biographical overviews on the lives and terror regimes of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, "Papa Doc" Duvalier, Kim Il-sung, Ceausescu and Mengistu of Ethiopia: He mainly focuses on the cult surrounding these dictators, making this book a collection of personality-cult-based PR for dictators and wannabes.

Needless to say, the eight men who are this book's topics were terrible, barbaric rulers who terrorized, murdered and massacred many, many human beings. They started wars and sought for their very own twisted version of glory. They trusted only very few people (or none) besides themselves. And, more common ground: They all started a cult around themselves. And their people had to follow to survive.

Dikötter is talking about real personality-cult here, which can barely be compared to what we're looking at these days. He's talking naming places and buildings after the leader; of putting his picture on every book, stamp, record, poster, flag; of his speeches beings required reading from elementary school onwards; of songs beings composed and sung to his eternal glory, of mass gatherings with people crying happy tears whenever he walks by (if you can't cry on demand, you'll barely make it...), of tons, tons, TONS of presents being send to honour him whenever possible and what not.

The cult serves two purposes. First and foremost, it settled the grounds at home - people live in constant fear of not worshipping properly enough. Secondly, it's a great way to boast something to your fellow dictators. And that's another interesting touch of Dikötter's book that makes it more than "just" a collection of eight essays: It shows the inner connections of this club of horror. How Mussolini and Hitler tried to outdo one another in terms of gaudiness, how Stalin set the bar for his fellow communist dictators, how Ceausescu and Mengistu were so impressed by what Kim Il-sung had created that the north korean system became their role model.

Overall, an interesting and of course super scary read. And surely a hard work to get finished - the "selected" bibliography is most impressive.
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In the current times of populist politics, it is a perfect time to look at yestercentury's main character dictators. Concentrating on the personality, ego, and self-created omnipotence, Mr Dikötter certainly has something new to offer. 

I was aware of quotes and even misquotes that could be attributed to the subjects such as at least Mussolini got the trains to run on time, it was a brilliant insight into the power plays that were successful and then the ending of such tyrants. 

It's scary to see how many of these methods and tactics can be seen in modern politics. Manipulation of the press, vague manifestos, and downright extreme views. Scarier still is what could happen. 


Thank you so much the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary electronic copy in return for an honest review.
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This is an interesting look at eight dictator’s from the twentieth century.   Author  Frank Dikötter admits that he could have chosen other names and it is more than a little worrying, when you think about how many contenders there could be.   The dictators covered in this book are: Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Sedong, Kim Il-sung, Duvalier, Ceausescu and Mengistu.   

I have read biographies of Hitler and books about Mussolini and Stalin, but knew less about the others mentioned in this volume.   In a sense this book consists of potted biographies of each dictator and the author tries to link their stories in interesting ways.  For example, Mao follows Stalin and we learn of how he attracted Stalin’s attention, but was side-lined, and ignored, when he finally visited Russia.   

As you would expect from reading of dictator’s, these lives were extreme and – a lesson to be learned – such attempts at domination rarely end well.   Even if not killed, these are stories of paranoia and obsession.   Amongst the disturbing stories, we read of Mengistu burying Haile Sesassie beneath his office, so his desk was directly above the man he replaced.   The more you read, the more you sense that power certainly comes with a price – both for the people and for the dictator themselves.

This is an interesting account of some extreme lives.  I found reading about those men I knew less about the most fascinating, but overall, this is a good introduction, which will make you want to read on, in more depth, about those covered in this volume.  I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.
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A timely and detailed introductory short history of infamous dictators of 20th century.  How to Be a Dictator covers a number of countries across the world which is something I appreciated since other books of this kind tend to stop at Hitler and Stalin.  

What really stood out for me about this book was the focus on how the cult of personality was maintained by each leader and the overlaps in their methodology despite conflicting their ideologies.  The author's tone and overall structure of the book made it easy to read despite the dark content. 

Highly recommended.

With thanks to Netgalley and Bloomsbury for the arc.
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I’ve always found dictators to be a fascinating topic. This book focusses on eight of them: Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Kim, Duvalier (“Papa Doc), Ceausescu and Mengistu. I suspect that, like me, most readers will be more familiar with some of the names on that list than others. It was interesting both to get more info on the really notorious ones and to learn about some of their relatively obscure comparators. There’s also a good geographical range there, and it covers most of the twentieth century, making for a nice bit of variety, though as the author acknowledges, there are plenty more names that could have made the cut. 

The central idea of the book is that “the cult of personality …belongs at the very heart of tyranny” (as opposed to being a sideshow). Each chapter gives some of the political and historical background to the relevant country and regime and touches on each dictator’s ideological views, political actions and evil deeds. However, the big focus is on their respective personality cults – the posters, parades, personal militias and myths, as well as the ways in which the population was requires to show proper adoration and punished for failure to do so. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in here. It’s a relatively easy read for such a dark and heavy topic, and I found myself reading out all sorts of random facts to my husband (eg. so many badges with Mao’s face were produced that it affected China’s ability to produce aircraft!)

On the one hand, it was fascinating to see the parallels in approaches between what were, on the face of it, very different dictators, politically and personality-wise. There are themes that come up again and again, like the populace blaming everyone else but the dictator for their troubles and swearing he’d stop examples of smallscale, localised corruption and brutality, if only he knew about it. At the same time, it’s interesting to see the way each dictators framed their message to work in their cultural context, whether that’s Mussolini bringing in Catholic aspects or Duvalier doing the same with Voodoo. That said, towards the end, my interest did start to wane slightly, as there were a lot of overlaps, plus the arguably more interesting (or at least, better known and bigger scale) characters were covered off earlier. 

Overall though, I’d definitely recommend this to anyone with an interest in 20th century history, particularly those who are interested in the big players or cultural aspects. It was a nice combination of serious history/politics/biography, combined with readability and plenty of “share outloud” facts
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Liberal democracies with all their checks and balances may have their limitations and shortcomings but seriously are the alternatives on offer any better? An extreme alternative is the model of a dictatorship where the "Strong Man" or "Great Leader" can impose his will on the populace to put right the perceived wrongs and grievances. 

The cult of personality and how these men (never women) got into their absolute positions of power and the results of their actions (for their people an unmitigated disaster) is explored here in Frank Dikötter's potted history of eight such characters. Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Ceausescu, Mengistu of Ethiopia and Duvalier of Haiti are covered and where some are so familiar to us they hardly need reprising others such as Mengistu and Duvalier are less so.

Whether their ideology was from the left or right or indeed there was none all of the subjects possessed the same characteristics of narcissism, self will, paranoia, ruthlessness, delusion and cunning. This book I believe will appeal to both the general reader and perhaps the young adult interested in history and politics. It will hopefully inspire some readers to seek out further in-depth studies of some of those covered. 

One thing for sure is that hopefully the  book will make the intelligent citizen of a functioning democracy both grateful for where they live and to make them alert and ever vigilant to those who seek to undermine it.
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This is a good, fairly short and easy introduction to some of the worst dictators of the twentieth century with a particular emphasis placed on how they built and maintained their own personality cults. From Mussolini to Mengistu, Diköter charts their rise to power, reigns of terror and ultimate falls (Mussolini, Hitler, Ceausecu, Mengistu) or continuation of the regime after their deaths (Stalin, Mao, Papa Doc Duvalier, Kim Il Sun). As the subtitle states, the book deals with the twentieth century dictators but in the afterword, Diköter does mention some of the contemporary dictators or rulers leaning towards personal dictatorships. 

Diköter is very good on documenting the lives of each dictator, especially when it comes to dismantling opposition. I thought him excellent on detailing the ways in which each dictator sought ways to self-publicise. Fascinating to learn that both Ceausescu and Mengistu were so impressed with Kim Il Sun’s rebuilding of Pyongyang and sought to emulate him on return to Romania and Ethiopia. Ceausescu didn’t believe his own ambassador to North Korea that shops full of goods were only for show when foreign dignitaries visited. Same thing happened in Berlin during the 1936 Olympics (although Diköter doesn’t mention this) – the Nazis toned down anti-Semitism for the duration of the games, posters were removed but immediately put back up after the athletes left. 

While I thought How to be a Dictator a good book, I did find it somewhat lacking in comparisons, common threads, analysis and conclusions. All of the dictators Diköter wrote about started off on the political fringes, some had very flimsy ideology (Hitler, Papa Doc, Mengistu, Mussolini), most lacked legitimacy and popular support. It would have been a better book, I think, if it had a final chapter or a conclusion detailing some of these common traits and, this would also have allowed Diköter to briefly bring in some of the other dictators he mentions in the preface, e.g. Assad father, Tito, Hoxha. But overall, it is a good introductory history. 

My thanks to Bloomsbury and Netgalley for the opportunity to read and review How to be a Dictator.
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A well written and fascinating historical excursus on dictators in history.
It's well researched, well written, an easy and fast read.
I liked the style of writing and the clear explanations.
Highly recommended!
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine.
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The blurb for this book asks:

“At a time when democracy is in retreat, are we seeing a revival of the same techniques among some of today’s world leaders?” Accordingly, I was excited to read this book in the hope of obtaining some insight into how we have ended up with the world leaders we see before us today.

Actually, the book goes down the opposite path to that in the blurb’s quote above, declaring: “Even a modicum of historical perspectiveIndicates that today dictatorship is on the decline.” I was then confused: how can there be a decline in democracy without a rise in autocracy (or dictatorship)? 

The book goes through historical dictatorships in detail, following the rise of the relevant leader’s cult following. What I would then have liked is a link into world leaders’ tactics today and what we can learn from the nefarious methods used. In short, I felt the book could have gone further and more bravely into reviewing into today’s leaders in accordance with the Cult of Personality principles, particularly in light of the blurb.

This is a well-researched book on historical dictatorships and is an easy read. It’s also a quick read, as the final 20 percent of the novel is a detailed bibliography. 

Many thanks to NetGalley, Bloomsbury Publishing and Frank Dikötter for an ARC of this book.
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