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Dictators: the great performers

From Mussolini to Papa Doc Duvalier, how image and theatre give tyrants their power.

The paradox of the modern dictator is that he must create the illusion of mass support while turning the population into a nation of terrorised prisoners endlessly condemned to faking enthusiasm for their oppressor. Frank Dikötter, a brilliant historian with a prize-winning trilogy on Mao’s China behind him, takes eight of the most successful 20th-century dictators: Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Nicolae Ceausescu, Papa Doc Duvalier and Mengistu, and shows with chilling brevity and clarity how this is done.

The road to dictatorship is depressingly predictable. Once power is stolen, the problem is to keep it. Anyone who might develop a separate power base must be struck down. Eradicate rivals, rule through force and fear. Trust no one, particularly family, friends and the army. Keep everyone on their toes with random executions, unpredictable policy changes and imaginative public tortures. So far, so historic. It could be a Shakespeare play. What distinguishes modern tyranny, Dikötter argues, is the cult of personality. Total control of the information space keeps the modern dictator in power.

Each dictator’s story is told one by one. They overlap and learn from each other, but all learn from Mussolini, pioneer of modern political theatre and master of propaganda. Actor, stage manager, orator and self-publicist, Mussolini allowed his ideology to remain vague while spending more than half of his time curating his image. Italy was a newspaper with Mussolini writing the front page every day. He knew that a picture of him taking flying lessons was worth any number of carefully argued editorials. After his first propaganda radio broadcast in 1925, 40,000 free radios were distributed to elementary schools between 1933 and 1938. By the onset of the Second World War, subsidised sets numbered 800,000 and loudspeakers had been installed in town squares. His message was inescapable.

The dictator must establish omnipresence. “Like a god, he observes you from every angle,” wrote a French journalist. There was no escaping the godlike gaze even in the bathroom, where Mussolini’s image was moulded into bars of soap. The lights were kept burning all night in his office. The legend of his all-seeing eyes was intensified by Goth-style eye make-up in posters, newsreels and the publicity shots included with his “personal” replies to 1,887,112 individual petitions. Mussolini considered himself the greatest actor in Italy. His performances were rehearsed endlessly in front of the camera. He was jealous of Greta Garbo.

Hitler too spent hours watching himself in the projection room. He too kept the lights on all night in his office and sold radios below production price. He deployed portable pillar radios to blare out the party message at rallies but otherwise didn’t develop much that was new in terms of saturation propaganda techniques. Like Mussolini, he overstated troop numbers, bussed in crowds, faked news, doctored photographs and inflated supporter numbers. Like Mussolini, he flooded the country with his image. Even after Stalingrad, when everything including paper was rationed and the people starving, four tonnes of paper a month were earmarked for his official photographer, pictures of the Führer being considered “strategically vital”.

If Hitler did things bigger than Mussolini, Mao did things bigger still. Seven factories were built in Shanghai alone, with a total surface area of three football pitches, to print portraits, posters and the Little Red Book, published in 1964. Factories producing red ink worked round the clock, but still ran dry. Plastic production was diverted from necessities like shoe manufacture to producing the shiny cover of the Little Red Book.

The story of badge fever under dictatorship is probably the most ludicrous. It would be funny if it did not make such tragic clowns of whole populations. Under a dictatorship, a badge pinned just above the heart provides visible proof of the obedience of the citizen, who fervently hopes the little disc will prove a magic amulet against his or her random persecution or execution.

Badges proliferated under Stalin and Kim Il-sung, but peaked under Mao. Fifty million were produced per month in 1968 and a thriving black market sprang up. Underground factories emerged, often fed by the same government organisations that were producing the legitimate badges. Spurred by the profit motive, competitive badge production in Communist China became a form of capitalism. As aluminium became ever scarcer, the people were robbed of their everyday necessities, such as buckets, pots and pans. Once they were gone, bigger things disappeared. Factory machines were stripped of their aluminium parts, disabling industry and causing Mao to roar; “Give me back my aeroplanes!”

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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, atomised individuals whose ecstatic praise of the regime, prompted by fear, transforms all sections of society into liars. The resulting insecurity keeps the dictator in place, making a coup almost impossible. In a landscape of fake news where everybody is counterfeiting belief, who can you trust as co-conspirator?

The dictator must never be predictable. This would engender a feeling of security both at home and abroad. In 1940, Mao promised “a multi-party system, democratic freedoms and protection of private property”. Two years later, he smartly reversed the policy with the Rectification Campaign, which uprooted anything privately owned, including independent thought. Witch-hunts, denunciations, inquisitions, executions and purges resulted in the triumphant announcement that the Rectification Campaign had guaranteed ideological and political unanimity in the party. And so finally, in 1945, he got what he wanted: his thoughts were enshrined in the party constitution.

This is the state all dictators aim for. It gives the green light to an unlimited cult of personality. Loyalty has been transferred from the creed that put him in place, to loyalty to the person himself. Mao’s Communist Party, like the Bolsheviks, Mussolini’s Fascists and the Nazis, was held together not so much by a programme or a platform but by a chosen leader.

Once he has reached a degree of security at home, the dictator must establish his reputation as a good egg abroad. Another wearisome pattern emerges. Enter the useful idiot, the foreign influencer who can be fooled by fireside chats and a tour of carefully curated Potemkin countryside populated by merry peasants. Who wants to believe that millions were killed and entire cities starved into submission? Certainly not George Bernard Shaw, the best-known useful idiot. Bamboozled by Stalin on a visit to Russia in 1931, Shaw was thereafter determined to keep the scales on his eyes, dismissing real news as fake and continuing, despite the evidence, to worship nice, sweet “Uncle Joe”, for the next 20 years until he died in 1950, breathing his last beneath a portrait of his hero.

England was Mussolini’s useful idiot. He was hailed by Winston Churchill as “the greatest lawgiver among living men” and greeted at Victoria station by “a screaming mass of humanity, blinded by the flashes of the photographers’ cameras”. Churchill also said some complimentary things about Stalin, but that was during the wartime Yalta Conference, so allowances might be made.

Mao’s useful idiot was an American journalist called Edgar Snow. Mao instructed that “security, secrecy, warmth and the red carpet” be rolled out for Snow. They duly were. Every sentence of Snow’s 1937 book, Red Star Over China, was examined and, if necessary, amended by Mao. It became an international bestseller. Kim Il-sung similarly manipulated the American Harrison Salisbury. Ceausescu’s impressive use of Richard Nixon – “He may be a commie, but he’s our commie!” – and the journalist Michel-Pierre Hamelet resulted in him receiving the Order of the Bath from our own dear Queen. Doc Duvalier used the American Herbert Morrison, who described him as “a dedicated honest individual who is trying to help his people”.

Once credentials are established abroad, and the international tiger is off his back, the dictator is much safer at home. Constantly and inexorably, new purges unfold. The greater the misery the greater the propaganda, and the greater the tyrant’s insecurity. Even as terror increases and millions are displaced and starved, a peculiar pattern emerges: the dictator writes a book. Other people’s books get burned as the vanity project progresses.

Mao composes terrible poems with titles such as “Revolution is Not a Dinner Party”. Papa Doc writes Essential Works and demands that everyone should learn at least three-quarters off by heart when 90 per cent of the population are illiterate. Hitler has already written Mein Kampf by the time he comes to power and rests on his dubious laurels. Stalin knows when he’s beaten and tinkers with poetry while relying mostly on a ghost writer to secure his literary immortality.

Mao has greater success with the Little Red Book, printed in a palm-size format to fit into a soldier’s hand to take to war, just as Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra had been printed for German troops to take to the First World War and The Great Gatsby for American troops in the Second. Presumably, they all served equally well as loo paper.

Dictators are never afraid of lying. The examples in the book are endless. In 1922, Mussolini threatened to send 300,000 blackshirts to Rome, though only 30,000 existed. Duvalier declared, “My government will scrupulously protect the honour and civil rights which constitute the joy of all free peoples,” during his inauguration in 1957. Within weeks his secret police had purged his rivals and were executing 11-year-olds.

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Finally, the dictator takes the place of God. In a post-religious century, faith in a providential leader serves as a substitute for religion. Shrines to Lenin and Stalin sprang up in the traditional Red Corner in Russian houses, where icons used to hang. Mao asked wonderingly, “What is wrong with worship?” But it is Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti who doesn’t just allow himself to be put there. He grabs God’s reins, claiming to be a voodoo spirit and naming his militia the Tonton Macoutes – bogeymen within the iconography of the voodoo religion.

Macoutes carried a gun and dressed like ghost-gangsters, servants of death in shiny suits, dark glasses and homburg hats. Within a year, Duvalier claimed to have a force of 25,000 under his command (they probably never numbered more than 10,000). A macoute was an informer, a neighbourhood boss, a bully, a torturer and a pillar of the political regime. Few were paid and they used their power to extort, intimidate, rape and murder. They reported back to Duvalier, who dressed like Baron Samedi, spirit king of the dead, in top hat, tailcoat and dark glasses. Given to mumbling sinister incantations, the Doc encouraged rumours that he used the hearts of his murdered enemies to strengthen his powers.

He eventually came to believe that he was God, declaring himself “the word made flesh”, invulnerable to bullets and machine guns because “I am already an immaterial being”. That no one tested the statement was Haiti’s tragedy. As was the fact that America under John F Kennedy was well aware of everything that was going on and knew that a small force might easily topple the regime, but backed off after the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, when the CIA tried to overthrow Fidel Castro.

Curiously, Doc Duvalier used Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, Lion of Judah and King of Kings as his useful idiot. Selassie’s blood runs like a thin red thread through these stories. In 1935-36 he was toppled from his throne by Mussolini, thus providing el Duce with a great moment of glory. Restored by the British in 1941, Selassie helped establish the Organisation of African Unity and in 1966, he visited Haiti, where Duvalier was projecting himself as spiritual leader of the black world; “… the Living Sun… who has lighted the revolutionary conscience of the blacks of the American continent and of the universe”. Selassie gave Duvalier some flattering quotes that were substantially bulked out by fake ones.

Returning to his own country, Selassie died in mysterious circumstances aged 83, probably smothered by the final dictator in this book, Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had the emperor’s remains buried underneath his office and ruled Ethiopia from there, placing his desk right above the corpse, a gruesome anecdote but no worse than many in this catalogue of horrors.

What makes a dictator in the first place? Dikötter does not delve about in childhoods. He gives two reasons for this. One: most childhood legends are complete fabrications by the time the tyrant has come to power. Two: to precis, many of us have appalling fathers but we don’t all turn into Hitler. Cautious, he goes so far as to identify one psychological quality – lack of empathy, combined with ruthlessness. Every dictator punishes at random and every dictator takes major decisions on his own.

All the dictators in the book are men. Could a woman become a dictator? Certainly they could, Dikötter assures us, they just haven’t yet had the equal opportunity, and Eva Perón doesn’t quite make the cut.

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.

Robustly, he dismisses anxieties concerning Western institutions today. Dictators are indeed anti-experts who surround themselves with sycophants promoted regardless of experience or knowledge, and this may ring some bells. Trump may lie, Boris Johnson may have said he wanted to be world king, but to mention dictatorship in the same breath is to trivialise. What we are living through is democracy in action. But we’d better not forget that power can easily be stolen. Eternal vigilance, after all, is the price of liberty. 

Sue Prideaux is the author of “I Am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche” (Faber & Faber)

How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century
Frank Dikötter
Bloomsbury, 304pp, £25

This article appears in the 20 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control