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


The Living Force
FOTCM Member
This book is not so much about "How to be" rather it is similarity in methods some 8 dictators (in the 20th century) used. Strikinlgy similar to current COVID hysteria. There all types of "dictators" whether it is real or propaganda. This book is more about "Cult of personality" for dictatorial purposes used by some of them. Interestingly, author used Putin's name in Amazon platform's desciption, but there is no text related to Putin in the book.

Little background:
To take a little break from Romance novels and some other personal reasons, I read the book mentioned in a recent Mindmatters show.- Mao's Great Famine. It was a horror story in which HELL is a mild word. 45 million dead in a little over 3 years because Mao wants to compete with Krutschoff in showing off in the world communist leaders meeting. Krutschoff wants to beat US in 15 years in some industries, so Mao has to make up something on the fly to say China will beat the UK in 15 years. The author was very descriptive of in writing impacts on categories of people. At the end, Mao's got away with it minor scratches and to support his grandiose ego and seat, he has to unleash a cultural revolution that will kill more millions. Mao used all types of methods,to convince his leaders, his cult personality to pit one against another (politicians vs politicians, people vs people, and so on). Author has couple of other books that go into detail about his purgings immediately after he became Chairman and during the cultural revolution.
When Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union would catch up with the United States in per capita production of meat, milk and butter, Mao took up the challenge and proclaimed that China would outstrip Britain – then still considered a major industrial power – in steel production within fifteen years. Mao was determined to outclass Khrushchev, pushing for a Great Leap Forward into communism that would upstage the Soviet Union.

The Great Leap Forward was the Chairman’s first attempt to steal the Soviet Union’s thunder, as people in the countryside were herded into giant collectives called people’s communes. By turning every man and woman in the countryside into a foot soldier in one giant army, to be deployed day and night to transform the economy, he thought that he could catapult his country past the Soviet Union. Mao was convinced that he had found the golden bridge to communism, making him the messiah leading humanity to a world of plenty for all.

The author Frank Dikötter also have another book called 'How to Become the Dictator: The cult of personality during twentieth centrury'. It is about 8 dictators of 20th century (Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, North Korea's Kim Il-sung, Romania's Ceauşescu, Haiti's Duvaliar(papadoc) and Ethiopia's Mengistu). I enjoyed reading this book.

This reading constantly reminded me of current COVID hysteria in mythicisizing the threat, using fear as the weapon to create the cult of believers, pitting people against each other (believers and non-believers) to enforce for their utopian New world order to force the people to take . The More the resistance, more lockdown and more witchhunting with wide range of labels. Each dictator has their grandoise vision of themselves.

In the covid world, it is not a person, it is a virus/Vaccine. Methods used are the same "fear", propaganda, cooersion with Vaccine being the savior. I guess, PTB tried Gates as the person, after looking at how many people supported Gates against the real evidence in the initial stages. But, it didn't work that well, mainly due to Trump's ambivalent approach to nuetralize Gates/Fauci/CDC/UN agencies and their PTB backers.

He concludes the book with the following:
There is no cult without fear. At the height of the twentieth century, hundreds of millions of people across the globe had no choice but to acquiesce in the glorification of their leaders, who backed up their rule with the threat of violence. Under Mao or Kim, mocking the leader’s name was enough to warrant assignment to a labour camp. Failure to cry, cheer or shout on command carried a heavy penalty. Under Mussolini or Ceauşescu, editors received daily instructions on what should be mentioned and what was proscribed. Writers, poets and painters, under Stalin, trembled at the thought that their praise might not appear sufficiently sincere.
In the first stage of a cult, a leader needs to have enough clout to abase his opponents and force them to salute him in public. But with a fully developed cult of personality no one can any longer be quite certain any more who supports and who opposes the dictator.
Fear goes hand in hand with praise, as even mocking the Chairman(current chairman Xi) of Everything in a private message online can be treated as a heinous crime punishable by two years in prison.
Nonetheless, dictators today, with the exception of Kim Jong-un, are a long way from instilling the fear their predecessors inflicted on their populations at the height of the twentieth century. Yet hardly a month goes by without a new book announcing ‘The Death of Democracy’ or ‘The End of Liberalism’. Undeniably, for more than a decade democracy has been degraded in many places around the world, while levels of freedom have receded even in some of the most entrenched parliamentary democracies. Eternal vigilance, as the saying goes, is the price of liberty, as power can easily be stolen.

Vigilance, however, is not the same as gloom. Even a modicum of historical perspective indicates that today dictatorship is on the decline when compared to the twentieth century. Most of all, dictators who surround themselves with a cult of personality tend to drift off into a world of their own, confirmed in their delusions by the followers who surround them. They end up making all major decisions on their own. They see enemies everywhere, at home and abroad. As hubris and paranoia take over, they seek more power to protect the power they already have. But since so much hinges on the judgements they make, even a minor miscalculation can cause the regime to falter, with devastating consequences. In the end, the biggest threat to dictators comes not just from the people, but from themselves.
Normally, we associate these figures with some ideology or ism. But, these dictators are using these changing formats of some idelogy all the time for the benefit of their grandoise role in the history. This is nothing new, every politician irrespective of democracy or one party system uses it, but the main difference is the extent of terror, destruction of human life/culture/knowledge and propaganda used to do force the people comply to their whims.

Now a days, digital dicatorship is talked about, and few companies ( google, twitter, facebook etc.) with their muscle of technology hoping to repeat the same. If they are capable of doing it, they should have brought few heads to Biden's meetings. I guess it doesn't work either.

In the twists and turns of current-day media propaganda, there is lot of association based maligning of leaders. I thought Knowing history may be useful. I will post what I thought interesting from the book.


The Living Force
FOTCM Member
I will post what I thought interesting from the book.
Looking back after almost a century of events, reading the real events of these mythicized leaders is very interesting. I will try my best to categorize it.
1. Not the first choice: Fascists Mussolini or Hitler , little stalins like Mao, Kim-ll Sung or even Stalin are not the first choice of the powerful leaders of the time.

Mussolini: Mussolini's rise to power through March on Rome is only a show.
The quadrumvirs leading the Fascist Party, General Emilio De Bono, Italo Balbo (one of the most famous ras), Michele Bianchi and Cesare Maria de Vecchi, organized the March, while the Duce was waiting in Milan. He did not participate in the march, though he allowed pictures to be taken of him marching along with the Fascist marchers, and he comfortably went to Rome the next day.[5] Generals Gustavo Fara and Sante Ceccherini assisted to the preparations of the March of 18 October. Other organizers of the march included the Marquis Dino Perrone Compagni and Ulisse Igliori.[citation needed]

On 24 October 1922, Mussolini declared before 60,000 people at the Fascist Congress in Naples: "Our program is simple: we want to rule Italy."[6] Meanwhile, the Blackshirts, who had occupied the Po plain, took all strategic points of the country.
The march itself was composed of fewer than 30,000 men, but the King in part feared a civil war since the squadristi had already taken control of the Po plain and most of the country, while Fascism was no longer seen as a threat to the establishment. Mussolini was asked to form his cabinet on 29 October 1922
Imagine if the BLM guys were asked to form the govt. because they can burn and occupy some buildings.

It looks, fascism (change by force) seems to be acceptable norm across the world between WW I and WW II as a alternative to ever bickering democratic politics. Probably, it is due to poor economic situation after WW I. Even in Indian freedom movement during that era, there are some sympathic voices to fascism saying 'they don't what is what yet'. Mussolini called himself a finest actor.
Mussolini saw himself as Italy’s finest actor. In an unguarded moment Hitler, too, called himself Europe’s greatest performer. But in a dictatorship many ordinary people also learned how to act. They had to smile on command, parrot the party line, shout the slogans and salute their leader. In short, they were required to create the illusion of consent. Those who failed to play along were fined, imprisoned, occasionally shot. The point was not so much that few subjects adored their dictators, but that no one knew quite who believed what. The purpose of the cult was not to convince or persuade, but to sow confusion, to destroy common sense, to enforce obedience, to isolate individuals and crush their dignity. People had to self-censor, and in turn they monitored others, denouncing those who failed to appear sufficiently sincere in their professions of devotion to the leader. Underneath the appearance of widespread uniformity, there was a broad spectrum, ranging from those who genuinely idealised their leader – true believers, opportunists, thugs – to those who were indifferent, apathetic or even hostile.

By one account, Mussolini spent more than half of his time curating his own image. He was the ultimate master of propaganda, at once actor, stage manager, orator and brilliant self-publicist. Few could have predicted his rise to power. The young Mussolini tried his luck at journalism for the Italian Socialist Party, but fell out of favour with his comrades for advocating Italy’s entry into the First World War. He was drafted into the army and wounded when a mortar bomb accidentally exploded in 1917.

Hitler: Hitler's situation is not so much different in 1933.
An election poster pithily titled ‘Hitler’ made him instantly recognisable, with his face appearing to float free in space, lightened by a dark background. But all the propaganda failed to win Hitler sufficient support to prevail in his presidential bid. Hindenburg won overwhelmingly to become President of the Reich, or head of state, in April. National elections were held a few months later. Hitler kept up the same relentless schedule. His exhausting flying tours finally paid off, as the NSDAP became the most important political party in July 1932, with 37.3 per cent of the electorate. Hindenburg nonetheless refused to name Hitler Chancellor of Germany, the equivalent of head of government. Rather than compromise, Hitler fumed, declining to join the governing cabinet. He toured the country to denounce the ‘reactionary clique’ in power in Berlin. Instead of embracing him, in what looked like a decline into oblivion, a more discriminating electorate gave the party less than a third of all votes in new elections held in November 1932. ‘The aura is gone … the magic has failed’, one newspaper observed. ‘A falling comet in the November fog’, another commented. Party members became disillusioned, leaving the ranks in the tens of thousands.

On 30 January 1933 Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. It was the result not so much of an electoral process as of a series of sordid backstage political transactions in which Hindenburg played the leading role. The ageing president did not trust Hitler, but detested his rival even more. When Kurt von Schleicher, last chancellor of the Weimar Republic, proposed to rule as de facto dictator to break parliamentary stalemate, Hindenburg appointed Hitler instead.

Stalin: Stalin is Lenin's thug in handling his detractors. Before Lenin died he seems to have wrote to get rid of Stalin, that became a advantage for the Trotsky. Stalin used sympathy politics after getting hold of Lenin's dead body to get control of the party and slowly get rid of Trotsky.
Even before Lenin died his comrades had begun glorifying him. In August 1918 a disillusioned revolutionary called Fanny Kaplan approached Lenin as he was leaving the Hammer and Sickle Factory in Moscow. She fired several shots. One bullet lodged in his neck; another went through his left shoulder. Against all odds, he survived. ‘Only those marked by destiny can escape death from such a wound,’ his physician remarked. Eulogies to the great leader followed, printed and distributed in hundreds of thousands of copies.

Leon Trotsky, founder and commander of the Red Army, praised him as a ‘masterpiece created by nature’ for a ‘new era in human history’, the ‘embodiment of revolutionary thinking’. Nikolai Bukharin, editor of the party newspaper Pravda, wrote about ‘the genius leader of the world revolution’, the man with an ‘almost prophetic ability to predict’.

Lenin recovered and put a halt to the outpouring, but when poor health finally forced him to withdraw from public appearances in 1922 the cult took on new life. The Bolsheviks, like the fascists and the Nazis, were a party held together not so much by a programme or platform but by a chosen leader. It was Lenin’s will, vision and, most of all, intuition that had guided the revolution, rather than the communist principles proposed by Marx half a century earlier. Lenin was the embodiment of the revolution. If he could no longer lead in person, then his followers had to invoke his name or claim direct inspiration from his revolutionary spirit.

The deification of Lenin also served as a substitute for a popular mandate. Even at the height of their popularity in November 1917 the Bolsheviks won less than a quarter of the vote. They used violence to seize power, and the more power they acquired the fiercer the violence became. Fanny Kaplan’s assassination attempt was followed by a Red Terror, as the regime systematically targeted whole groups of people, from striking factory workers to peasants who deserted the Red Army. Thousands of priests and nuns, declared class enemies after the revolution, were killed, some crucified, castrated, buried alive or thrown into cauldrons of boiling tar. The entire imperial family was shot or stabbed to death, their bodies mutilated, burned and dumped in a pit. If violence alienated many ordinary people, neither the abstract language of ‘class struggle’ nor the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, foreign words that villagers in a largely illiterate countryside could barely pronounce, won them over. Appeals to the leader as a holy figure, on the other hand, were far more successful in creating at least the illusion of some sort of bond between the state and its seventy million subjects.

Lenin did not name a successor, but in 1922 he hand-picked Stalin for the new post of General Secretary as a means of reining in Trotsky, who opposed the New Economic Policy spearheaded by Lenin.
The policy effectively reversed the forced collectivisation introduced after the revolution, when factory workers had been ordered to produce by decree, their goods confiscated by the state. Christened war communism, this system had left the economy in ruins.
As Lenin convalesced, Stalin became his intermediary, using his new powers to draw closer to the leader. But the relationship was tempestuous, and in 1923 the two fell out. The ailing leader dictated a series of notes that became known as Lenin’s Testament, a document suggesting that Stalin had a crude temperament and should be removed from the post of General Secretary.

Alive Lenin was a threat, dead an asset. The moment Lenin passed away on 21 January 1924 Stalin became determined to pose as his most faithful pupil. He was the first among the inner circle to enter his master’s bedroom, theatrically taking the dead man’s head in both hands to bring it close to his chest, kissing him firmly on the cheeks and on the lips. For several weeks Lenin’s embalmed corpse was displayed in a glass catafalque on Red Square, where the winter cold kept his body intact.

Mao: Though Communists and Stalin supported Mao from the day 1, Stalin always snubbed Mao at every oppurtunity, always pushed him to work with Nationalist Govt. It is Japanese invasion of China and routing of Nationalist Govt. made Mao the indisputable leader. Here is a short Account of this politics and propaganda of the time until Mao's became undisputed leader.
For the previous twenty-eight years the Chinese Communist Party had depended on Moscow for financial support. Mao, a tall, lean and handsome young man aged twenty-seven, had been handed his first cash payment of 200 yuan by a Comintern agent in 1921 to cover the cost of travelling to the founding meeting of the party in Shanghai. But the money came with strings attached. Lenin realised that the principles of Bolshevism had little popular appeal beyond the shores of Europe, and demanded that communist parties join their nationalist counterparts in a united front that would overthrow foreign powers. He had a point. After several years membership of the party lingered in the low hundreds in a country of more than 480 million people.

In 1924 the Chinese Communist Party joined the Nationalist Party, which also received military aid from Moscow. It was an uneasy alliance, but two years later the nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek launched a military campaign from their base in the south, attempting to seize power from local warlords and unify the country. In Mao’s home province of Hunan they followed instructions from Russian advisers and funded peasant associations in the hope of fomenting a revolution. Social order unravelled in the countryside, as poor villagers used the opportunity to turn the world upside down. They became the masters, assaulting the wealthy and powerful, creating a reign of terror. Some victims were stabbed with knives, a few even decapitated. Local pastors were paraded through the streets as ‘running dogs of imperialism’, their hands bound behind their backs with a rope around their necks. Churches were looted.

It was a revelation for Mao, who was enthralled by the violence. ‘They strike the gentry to the ground,’ he wrote admiringly in his report on the peasant movement. He made a bold prediction, foreseeing how ‘Several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm … They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves.’
Months earlier{1934} Moscow had shifted its foreign policy, increasingly apprehensive of an attack from either Germany or Japan. In 1931 Japan had invaded Manchuria, a vast region rich in natural resources that stretched from the Great Wall north of Beijing all the way to Siberia. There were endless border disputes with the Soviet Union, including air intrusions. By July 1935 the Comintern openly referred to Tokyo as a ‘fascist enemy’.

Stalin, like his master Lenin more than a decade earlier, now encouraged communists abroad to seek a united front with those in power instead of trying to overthrow them. But this strategy demanded that the authority of communist party leaders be elevated. A full-blown campaign to exalt Mao began. The Comintern acclaimed him as one of the ‘standard-bearers’ of the world communist movement. Later that year Pravda published a long tribute entitled ‘Mao Zedong: Leader of the Chinese Working People’, followed by a pamphlet entitled ‘Leaders and Heroes of the Chinese People’. Mao was the vozhd, great leader, a title reserved for Lenin and Stalin alone.

Mao took the cue. A few months later, after careful vetting, he invited Edgar Snow, a young, idealistic reporter from Missouri, to come to Yan’an. Every detail about how the journalist should be handled was dictated: ‘Security, secrecy, warmth and red carpet.’ Snow spent several months at the communist base, as Mao offered a mythical version of his own life, speaking about his childhood, youth and career as a revolutionary. Mao checked and amended every detail of what Snow wrote.

Red Star over China, published in 1937, was an instant success. It introduced the mysterious leader of the Chinese Communist Party to the rest of the world, describing him as ‘an accomplished scholar of classical Chinese, an omnivorous reader, a deep student of philosophy and history, a good speaker, a man with an unusual memory and extraordinary powers of concentration, an able writer, careless in his personal habits and appearance but astonishingly meticulous about details of duty, a man of tireless energy and a military and political strategist of considerable genius’.

Mao was the poor child of the soil who had pulled himself up through sheer willpower and pride, determined to fight for his humiliated compatriots. He was a man of simple habits, living in a loess cave, growing his own tobacco leaves. He was down to earth, a rebel with a lively, rustic sense of humour. He worked tirelessly. He was a poet. He was a philosopher. He was a great strategist. But most of all, he was a man of destiny, called upon by deep historical forces to regenerate his country. ‘He might very well,’ Edgar Snow announced, ‘become a very great man.’

Red Star over China was a sensation, selling 12,000 copies in the United States within a month of publication. It was immediately translated into Chinese, turning Mao into a household name. The photograph on the cover of the book, showing Mao wearing a military cap with a single red star, became an iconic image.

Stalin had asked for an alliance between the communists and the nationalists. Mao knew full well that Chiang Kai-shek had no intention of collaborating with him, and promptly declared his willingness to form a ‘broad revolutionary national united front’ against Japan. He also asked Stalin for an extra two million roubles in military aid.

Mao’s offer made him look like the leader most concerned about the fate of the nation, as the threat of war with Japan loomed ever larger. On 12 December 1936 Chiang was kidnapped by members of his own alliance and forced to cease all hostilities against the communists. The truce was a blessing, giving Mao the time to build up his strength under a new united front.

More good fortune came in July 1937, when Japan crossed the border from Manchuria, capturing Beijing within weeks. Over the next few years the Japanese army would do what the communists would never have been able to achieve, namely attack, destroy or displace the nationalist troops from all major cities along the coast. One gruesome battle followed another, with the best of Chiang’s divisions in Shanghai sustaining a three-month assault by enemy tanks, naval gunfire and aircraft. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the Battle of Shanghai. The fate of Nanjing was even worse, as the Japanese systematically murdered and raped civilians in the nationalist capital during the winter of 1937–8.

All along, the communists remained safely ensconced in the hinterland. By January 1940, according to a report from Zhou Enlai himself, more than a million soldiers had been killed or wounded, although this figure included no more than 31,000 casualties from the Red Army. Chiang Kai-shek and his government were forced to retreat to the provisional capital of Chongqing in Sichuan. Some 3,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on the city in hundreds of air raids until the United States entered the war after Pearl Harbor.

Not a single bullet was ever fired at Yan’an. Mao’s strategy of guerrilla warfare far behind enemy lines had some outspoken critics, but Stalin stood by Mao. In the summer of 1938 Moscow demanded that party members unite behind their leader, crushing those who had hoped to prevail against him. A few months later the Kremlin described Mao as a ‘wise tactician’ and ‘brilliant theorist’. An abridged version of Red Star over China was rushed into print.

For the very first time Mao was without a serious rival. He used the opportunity to rewrite the past. At a plenum held in the autumn of 1938 the first item on the agenda was his report on the history of the party since its foundation seventeen years earlier. At 150 pages, it lasted three days. Mao ticked off everyone who had crossed him in the past, describing them as ‘right opportunists’ or ‘left opportunists’. A few were accused of being Trotskyists. It was the first canonical version of the party’s history, one in which a long series of errors against the correct party line had been committed until Mao Zedong had finally triumphed, leading the Red Army to
Yan’an with the Long March.

Mao’s next step was to establish himself as a theoretician. In this task he was helped by Chen Boda, a bookish but ambitious young man trained in Moscow who would become his ghost writer. Together they penned On New Democracy, a pamphlet published in January 1940 that portrayed the communist party as a broad front striving to unite all ‘revolutionary classes’, including the national bourgeoisie. Mao promised a multi-party system, democratic freedoms and protection of private property. It was an entirely fictitious programme, but one that held broad popular appeal.

Many thousands of students, teachers, artists, writers and journalists poured into Yan’an in the following years, attracted by the promise of a more democratic future. But Mao was suspicious of these free-thinkers and demanded absolute loyalty instead. In 1942 he launched a Rectification Campaign. In the words of historian Gao Hua, the aim was ‘to intimidate the whole party with violence and terror, to uproot any individual independent thought, to make the whole party subject to the single utmost authority of Mao’.

Mao orchestrated the entire campaign, supervising everything down to the last detail, but he allowed his henchman Kang Sheng to take centre stage. A sinister man with a pencil moustache and thick spectacles, always dressed in black, Kang had been trained in Moscow, where he had helped the secret police eliminate hundreds of students from China during the Great Terror.

Under his supervision endless witch-hunts were carried out in Yan’an, as people were forced to denounce each other. Thousands of suspects were locked up, investigated, tortured, purged and occasionally executed. The spine-chilling howls of people imprisoned in caves could be heard at night.

When the campaign came to an end, more than 15,000 alleged enemy agents and spies had been unmasked. Mao had allowed the terror to run amok, assuming the role of a self-effacing, distant yet benevolent leader. Then he stepped in to curb the violence, letting Kang Sheng take the fall. Those who had managed to survive the horror turned to Mao as a saviour.
Leading members who had crossed Mao in the past were humiliated, forced to write confessions and apologise publicly for their mistakes.
With the cult of personality came a harsh regime modelled on the Soviet Union. ‘The Soviet Union’s Today is our Tomorrow’ was the slogan of the day. Mao emulated Stalin, seeing the key to wealth and power in the collectivisation of agriculture, the elimination of private property, allpervasive control of the lives of ordinary people and huge expenditures on national defence.

The promises made in On New Democracy were broken one by one. The regime’s first act was to overthrow the old order in the countryside. This was done in the guise of land reform, as villagers were forced to beat and dispossess their own leaders in collective denunciation meetings, accusing them of being ‘landlords’, ‘tyrants’ and ‘traitors’. Some did so with relish, but many had no choice as they risked being targeted themselves. Close to two million people were physically liquidated, many more stigmatised as ‘exploiters’ and ‘class enemies’. Their assets were distributed to the perpetrators, creating a pact sealed in blood between the poor and the party.

In the cities every individual was given a class label (chengfen) based on their loyalty to the revolution: there were ‘good’, ‘wavering’ and ‘hostile’ people. A class label determined a person’s access to food, education, health
care and employment. Those marked as ‘hostile’ were stigmatised for life and beyond, since the label was passed on to children.

Kim-ll Sung: Kim was a guerilla leader with Soviet's backing, who was made famous by Japan which occupied Korea by branding him as most wanted rebel in Manchuria. When the time came to choose the leader after WWII, he was not the first choice.
By 1940 Kim was the most wanted rebel in Manchuria, forced to cross into the Soviet Union. There he and his followers were sheltered, trained and indoctrinated by the Red Army. In 1942 he was promoted to captain, but three years later he was denied the chance to enhance his reputation further by marching victoriously into Pyongyang.
In Pyongyang he spent time mingling with Soviet officers, plying them with food and women, using his connections to place his followers in key positions across the public security organs. The Russians needed a figurehead for their provisional government, but they picked Cho Man-sik instead. Known as the ‘Gandhi of Korea’, Cho was a Christian nationalist who for decades had promoted a non-violent path to independence. He was highly respected, but it soon became clear that he would only collaborate with the Soviets on his own terms. When he refused a trusteeship of five years under the control of the Soviet Union, it was the last straw. Cho was placed under house arrest in January 1946. Kim came to the fore instead, as Stalin ticked his name on a shortlist of potential candidates. The only other contender was Pak Hon-yong, an independence activist who had set up the Korean Communist Party in the south after liberation.

Kim had made a poor impression in October 1945, but the Soviets helped him prop up his image. Pyongyang was festooned with portraits of Kim hanging alongside those of Stalin. His youth was praised, his mythical past was extolled. Kim worked on his smile, appearing kind and cheerful. He became modesty itself, telling people, ‘I am not a general, but your friend.’ One interviewer reported being struck by ‘the light of genius’ glittering in his eyes. A key moment came in August 1946, as Kim was acclaimed as ‘the great leader’, ‘hero of the nation’ and ‘leader of all the Korean people’ at the founding congress of the North Korean Workers’ Party.

The novelist Han Sorya, who would soon become the chief engineer of Kim’s cult of personality, referred to him as ‘our sun’, unlike the Japanese sun towards which the colonial subjects had been forced to bow in the past. The moment Kim was approved by Moscow, the Soviet model was imposed at all levels of society.


The Living Force
Thank you for the book recommendation and the detailed take on it including excerpts, @seek10. Added to the list.

Approaching Infinity

FOTCM Member
Interestingly, author used Putin's name in Amazon platform's desciption, but there is no text related to Putin in the book.
I noticed the same thing about Gary Lachman's book on "Holy Russia." He does say a few things about Putin in the book (nothing too terrible), but judging from some of the promotional material and blurbs, I thought there would be more. It's usually the publisher who chooses promotional copy, so I guess they all think that anti-Putin messages sell.

Anyways, thanks for the description! I read Dikotter's book on the Great Famine, and it was harrowing. As said in the MindMatters program, it is as if you got together all the stupidest people in the entire country, put them in charge of everything, and then made all the evilest SOBs their henchmen, charged with implementing their impossible policies. Every "genius idea" they (i.e. Mao) had was disastrous. It really is mind boggling how much a gang of village idiots can wreck an entire country.
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The Living Force
FOTCM Member
2. Loyalty, Faith in Ideology, and Expediency: The book started with a pretty good summary of the content.
Dictators were popular at home, but also admired by foreigners, including distinguished intellectuals and eminent politicians. {At some point in the past, Churchill, Gandhi, Hitler and many others praised Mussolini, before tyranny is exposed}. Some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century were willing to ignore or even justify tyranny in the name of the greater good, and helped to shore up the credentials of their favourite dictators.

Since a cult had to appear genuinely popular, welling up from the hearts of the people, it was invariably tinged with superstition and magic. In some countries the religious overtones were so striking that one might be tempted to see it as a peculiar form of secular worship. But in every case this impression was deliberately cultivated from above. Hitler presented himself as a messiah united with the masses in a mystical, quasi-religious bond. François Duvalier went to great lengths to assume the air of a Voodoo priest, encouraging rumours about his otherworldly powers.

In communist regimes in particular there was an added need for some sort of traditional resonance. The reason for this was simple: few people in predominantly rural countries like Russia, China, Korea or Ethiopia understood Marxism-Leninism. Appeals to the leader as some sort of holy figure were more successful than the abstract political philosophy of dialectical materialism that a largely illiterate population in the countryside found hard to comprehend.

Loyalty to one person mattered most in a dictatorship, more so than loyalty to one creed. Ideology, after all, can be divisive. A body of work can be interpreted in different ways, potentially leading to different factions. The greatest enemies of the Bolsheviks were the Mensheviks, and they both swore by Marx. Mussolini spurned ideology and kept fascism deliberately vague. He was not one to be hemmed in by a rigid set of ideas. He prided himself on being intuitive, following his instinct rather than espousing a consistent worldview. Hitler, like Mussolini, had little to offer except himself, beyond an appeal to nationalism and anti-Semitism.

The issue is more complicated in the case of communist regimes, since they were supposed to be Marxist. Yet here too it would have been imprudent for ordinary people and party members alike to spend too much time dwelling on the writings of Karl Marx. One was a Stalinist under Stalin, a Maoist under Mao, a Kimist under Kim.

In the case of Mengistu, commitment to the tenets of socialism, beyond the obligatory red stars and flags, was shallow. Across Ethiopia there were posters of the holy trinity, namely Marx, Engels and Lenin. But it was Lenin, not Marx, who appealed to Mengistu. Marx had offered a vision of equality, but Lenin came up with a tool to seize power: the revolutionary vanguard. Instead of waiting for the workers to gain class consciousness and overthrow capitalism, as Marx had suggested, a group of professional revolutionaries, organised along strict military lines, would lead the revolution and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat to engineer the transition from capitalism to communism from above, ruthlessly eliminating all enemies of progress. For Mengistu the collectivisation of the countryside may have been Marxist, but most of all it was a means to extract more grain from the countryside, allowing him to build up his troops.

Communist dictators transformed Marxism beyond recognition. Marx had proposed that the workers of the world should unite in a proletarian revolution, but Stalin instead advanced the notion of ‘socialism in one country’, holding that the Soviet Union should strengthen itself before exporting revolution abroad. Mao read Marx, but turned him on his head by making peasants rather than workers the spearhead of the revolution. Instead of maintaining that material conditions were the primary force of historical change, Kim Il-sung proposed the exact opposite, claiming that people could achieve true socialism by relying on the spirit of self-reliance. In 1972 the Great Leader’s thought was enshrined in the constitution, as Marxism vanished altogether from North Korea. Yet in all these cases the Leninist concept of the revolutionary vanguard remained virtually unchanged.

More often than not ideology was an act of faith, a test of loyalty. This is not to suggest that dictators lacked any worldview, or a set of beliefs. Mussolini believed in economic self-sufficiency and invoked it like a mantra.

Mengistu was fixated on Eritrea as a rebel province and was certain that relentless war was the only solution. But ultimately ideology was what the dictator said it was, and what the dictator decreed could change over time. He personalised power, making his word the law.

Dictators lied to their people, but they also lied to themselves. A few became wrapped up in their own world, convinced of their own genius. Others developed a pathological distrust of their own entourage. All were surrounded by sycophants. They teetered between hubris and paranoia, and as a result took major decisions on their own, with devastating consequences that cost the lives of millions of people. A few became unmoored from reality altogether, as with Hitler in his final years, not to mention Ceauşescu. But many prevailed. Stalin and Mao died of natural causes, having made themselves the objects of adoration for many decades. Duvalier managed to pass on power to his son, prolonging his cult by twelve years. And in the case of the most extravagant cult ever seen, the Kim clan in North Korea has now reached generation three.

Dictators who survived often relied on two instruments of power: the cult and terror. Yet all too often the cult has been treated as a mere aberration, a repellent but marginal phenomenon. This book places the cult of personality where it belongs, at the very heart of tyranny.

He prided himself that he relied on intuition, instinct and pure willpower rather than on mere intellect, and repeatedly scorned the idea of an ideologically consistent worldview. ‘We do not believe in dogmatic programmes, in rigid schemes that should contain and defy the changing, uncertain and complex reality.’ In his own career he had not hesitated to change course when circumstances required it. He was unable to develop a political philosophy, and in any event unwilling to be hemmed in by any principle, moral, ideological or otherwise. ‘Action, action, action – this summed up his whole creed’, noted one of his biographers.

Politics became the mass celebration of an individual. ‘Mussolini is Always Right’ was the regime’s motto. Mussolini was not merely sent by providence, but the very incarnation of providence. Blind obedience was now expected of every Italian. The words ‘Believe, Obey, Fight’ were painted in long, black letters on buildings, stencilled on walls, emblazoned across the nation.
Stalin: Stalin started opposing collectivization while fighting with Trotsky after Lenin's death. But once Trotsky's threat passed, he himself started collectivization. After Krutschoff denounced Stalin, suddenly Mao came under the gun for promoting himself as 'China's Stalin'. But after the speech at the Moscow communist conference of surpassing UK, he came back to collectivization. The same with Ceauşescu.

If we look a the changing dynamics ( loyalties of personalities, ideologies, competing political figures, uncontrollable outcomes etc.), it is simply expediency, but branded as some -ism.

3. Myth propagation: Terror has to precede before propaganda of an omnipresent leader has an impact. Mussolini used his Blackshirts that inspired Hitler's Brownshirts to use as their personal army to knock off the opponents before they themselves were disbanded. For communist dictators, they have a lot of examples from Lenin and Stalin. If the party factions fought, it is the leader who gives cohesion. If something goes wrong(which happens all the time in this world), it is party factions are responsible, they are either eliminated or humiliated in public to discredit them and the credit is passed to the cult leader. The result is the popular notion of ‘If only the Duce knew’, ‘If only Hitler knew’ ‘If only the Ceauşescu knew’. Now, you can add "If only we had Vaccine and everybody followed what is being told' in Covid era.
‘If only Ceauşescu knew about the situation, he would attack the shopkeepers with an iron broom’, people whispered during food shortages.
Myth propaganda takes many forms - badges, books ( Mao's little red book, Kim's and so on), promoting the leader as nearer to the people with propaganda material, deifying dictators family (Mussolini's mother is Virgin Mary, father as a hero of revolution ), renaming the cities, roads ( stalingrad etc. ), creating huge structures to commemorate their greatness and make it mandatory everybody to visit and pay their tributes. The amount of resources goes into is mind-boggling. Mussolini wants Esposizione Universale Roma that rivals ancient Rome, Hitler wants his Germania that lasts 1000 years, Roman dictator wants people's parliament that consumed one-third of the national budget, Kim constructed his grandiose one's.
The axis was part of a grandiose plan to transform Berlin into the capital of a thousand-year Reich, a gleaming city called Germania that would rival Egypt, Babylon and ancient Rome. The plan, based on original sketches provided by the Führer himself, included a gigantic Grand Hall designed to host 180,000 people. The Arch of Triumph, meanwhile, would reach an enormous 117 metres. As Speer later put it, Hitler demanded ‘the biggest of everything to glorify his works and magnify his pride’.

The Palace of the People, located in what was once a thriving residential area of Bucharest, is the largest administrative building in the world. In terms of volume it eclipses the Great Pyramid of Giza. Its kitsch, the neoclassical structure contains more than a thousand rooms, filled with marble columns, ornate staircases and crystal chandeliers. Nicolae Ceauşescu, who laid the cornerstone in June 1985, announced that the project was a fitting tribute to the greatness of his time, officially known as ‘the Ceauşescu Era’.

In reality, it was a monument to himself. Ten square kilometers of housing were bulldozed to clear the ground, including twenty churches and six synagogues. Thousands of workers labored around the clock. The project consumed a third of the national budget. Ceauşescu supervised every detail, making impromptu visits to give orders. An energetic but short man who was touchy about his height, he had the staircases rebuilt twice to match his step. Although he never saw the finished project, work resumed a few years after he was shot on Christmas Day 1989. It remains a work in progress.
Well, one can argue that these monuments can be promoted as tourist places that stir the economy, build national pride/morale to be competitive in the business world etc. but it rarely seems to work that way. Mussolini got installed mikes in every remote village to promote his message at a great cost. What about the badges, red little books that Mao propped up during the cultural revolution after disastrous 'Great Leap Forward'? It is mind-boggling.
At the end of the first rally on 18 September, Lin Biao made a lengthy speech, appealing to the excited youngsters to destroy ‘all the old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits of the exploiting classes’. This they did with gusto, as they burned books, overturned tombstones in cemeteries, tore down temples, vandalised churches, and more generally attacked all signs of the past, including street names and shop signs. They also carried out house raids. In Shanghai alone, a quarter of a million homes were visited, as all remnants of the past were seized, whether ordinary books, family photographs, antique bronzes or rare scrolls.

As the old world came under attack, a new proletarian culture, Mao proclaimed, would be forged. All understood that the only acceptable alternative was the cult of Chairman Mao. The most visible aspect of this cult was a rash of slogans. They went up everywhere. As one close observer noted: ‘There have always been plenty of them in the past but all previous records have now been broken. Every stretch of clean wall must have its carefully inscribed quotation or tribute to Mao.’ Some of the favourite slogans were ‘Our Great Teacher, Great Leader, Great Commander, Great Helmsman’ or ‘Long Live Chairman Mao!’ Shops, factories and schools were plastered with them, a few stretching across the top of entire buildings. Quotations were painted on the outside of buses, lorries, cars and vans.

In this new world drenched in red, all the senses were bombarded. Red Guards on temporary platforms called upon the people in shrill voices to join the revolution. Bystanders were harangued in fiery rhetoric peppered with quotations from the Chairman. High up in the skies, air hostesses on internal flights treated passengers to regular readings from the Little Red Book. But the most fearful weapon was the loudspeaker. Loudspeakers had long been used in propaganda campaigns, but now they were switched on permanently, spewing out the same quotations – always at full volume. Red Guards read from the Little Red Book in police boxes, connected to loudspeakers on the streets. Gangs of revolutionary youths paraded through the cities, belting out revolutionary songs praising the Chairman and his thought. The same songs were broadcast on radio, which in turn was connected to loudspeakers in courtyards, schools, factories and government offices. One favourite was ‘When Sailing the Seas, We Depend on the Helmsman’, another ‘The Thought of Mao Zedong Glitters with Golden Light’.

Nobody wanted to fall behind in the cult of the leader. As the range of objects condemned as ‘feudal’ or ‘bourgeois’ expanded, ordinary people increasingly turned to the only politically safe commodities available. Mao photos, badges, posters and books became all the rage, as entire branches of industry were converted to produce cult objects. In Shanghai alone seven new factories were built with a total surface of 16,400 square metres, the size of about three football fields, to keep up with demand for photos, portraits, posters and books. In Jiangsu province industrial plants were refitted to print the Little Red Book. Factories producing red ink worked around the clock but still ran dry.

The books needed covers – shiny, bright and red. The quantity of plastic needed for the Little Red Book alone reached 4,000 tonnes by 1968. As early as August 1966 the Ministry of Trade curbed the production of plastic shoes, plastic slippers and plastic toys as factories around the country geared up to contribute to Mao Zedong Thought.

The planned economy struggled to keep up with popular demand. When it came to Mao badges, for instance, the national output stood at more than fifty million badges per month in 1968, but it was not enough. A thriving blackmarket emerged to compete with the state. Some government organisations produced badges for their own members, but also expanded their operations into a legal twilight zone, lured by the profit motive. Underground factories appeared, entirely devoted to feeding the black market. They competed with state enterprises for rare resources, stealing aluminium buckets, kettles, pots and pans. Such was the demand that in some factories even the protective layer of aluminium on expensive machinery was ripped away to feed the badge frenzy.

There were thousands of different badges, a few fashioned crudely from acrylic glass, plastic or even bamboo, some carefully crafted with handcoloured porcelain, the majority with an aluminium base and a profile image of Mao in gold or silver, invariably looking to the left. Like the Little Red Book, the badge became a symbol of loyalty to the Chairman, and was worn just above the heart. Badges were the most hotly traded pieces of private property during the first years of the Cultural Revolution, open to every form of capitalist speculation. The amount of aluminium diverted away from other industrial activities was so enormous that, in 1969, Mao ordered a halt: ‘Give me back my aeroplanes.’ The fad declined rapidly, and largely ceased after the death of Lin Biao in 1971.

The first phase of the Cultural Revolution was marked by vicious factional fighting, as ordinary people, party cadres and military leaders were divided over the true aims of the Cultural Revolution. As different factions opposed each other, all of them equally certain that they represented the true voice of Mao Zedong, the country slid into civil war. Soon people were fighting each other in the streets with machine guns and anti-aircraft artillery. Still the Chairman prevailed. He improvised, destroying millions of lives along the way.

Periodically he stepped in to rescue a loyal follower or throw a close colleague to the wolves. A mere utterance of his decided the fates of countless people, as he declared one or another faction to be ‘counterrevolutionary’. His verdict could change overnight, feeding a seemingly endless cycle of violence in which people scrambled to prove their loyalty to the Chairman.

As the violence spiralled out of control over the summer of 1967 the Chairman intervened. He toured the country, calling for a Great Alliance. On 1 October, in a great show of coordinated unity, half a million soldiers marched across Tiananmen Square, led by an enormous silver-coloured, plastic figure of Mao pointing the way forward. They were followed by hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, forced to march together, many in contingents with members from opposed factions.
It is like the entire population went into mass psychosis once the populace didn't have an alternative leader. The country suffered a lot from imperial powers, chaos from local warlords, and from Japanese invasion in the first part of the 20th century. There lot of similar content from other dictators, I will skip.


The Living Force
FOTCM Member
4. How much of the Cult of Personality work once dictator dies? Some interesting quotes when the end time came for these dictators.
In a January 1945 interview with Madeleine Mollier, wife of the press attaché at the German Embassy, Mussolini seemed resigned to his fate, describing himself as ‘little more than a corpse’. ‘Yes, madam, I am finished. My star has fallen,’ he continued. ‘I await the end of the tragedy and – strangely detached from everything – I do not feel any more an actor. I feel I am the last of the spectators.’ The end came a few months later, when he was captured by anti-fascist partisans. He and several of his followers, including his mistress Clara Petacci, were summarily shot, their bodies piled into a van and taken to Milan. They were hung upside down from a girder. Achille Starace, arrested shortly afterwards, was taken to see the remains of his leader, then executed and strung up next to the man he had acclaimed as a god.

In the months that followed people sang the fascist hymn with unveiled sarcasm, chiselling away at the symbols of the past dictatorship on buildings and monuments across the country, smashing the statues of their former leader. They blamed only Mussolini, a view made credible, rather paradoxically, by the cult of personality itself. ‘One man, and one man alone,’ Churchill had famously said in December 1940, absolving all fascists of any responsibility.
But the Führer’s death prompted no spontaneous displays of public grief , no outpouring of sorrow by distraught believers . ‘ Strange , ’ one woman reported from Hamburg after the radio announced Hitler’s death , ‘ nobody wept or even looked sad . ’ A young man who had long wondered how his countrymen would react to the death of their leader was astonished by the ‘ monumental , yawning indifference ’ that followed the radio announcement . The Third Reich , Victor Klemperer observed , was gone overnight , almost as good as forgotten
During his final years in court the Chairman continued to play one faction against the other. When Zhou Enlai was diagnosed with cancer Mao refused to approve his treatment, allowing him to die in early 1976. His own death came a few minutes past midnight on 9 September 1976. In schools, factories and offices people were assembled to listen to the official announcement. Those who felt relief had to hide their feelings. This was the case with Chang Jung, a student from Sichuan who for a moment was numbed with sheer euphoria. All around her people wept. She had to display the correct emotion or risk being singled out, and buried her head in the shoulder of the woman in front of her, heaving and snivelling.

She was hardly alone in putting on a performance. Traditionally, in China, weeping for dead relatives and even throwing oneself on the ground in front of the coffin was a required demonstration of filial piety. Absence of tears was a disgrace to the family. Sometimes actors were hired to wail loudly at the funerals of important dignitaries, thus encouraging other mourners to join in without feeling embarrassed. And much as people had mastered the art of effortlessly producing proletarian anger at denunciation meetings, many knew how to cry on demand.

People showed less contrition in private. In Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, liquor sold out overnight. One young woman remembers how her father invited his best friend to their home, locked the door and opened the only bottle of wine they had. The following day they went to a public memorial service where people cried as if they were heartbroken. ‘As a little girl, I was confused by the adults’ expressions – everybody looked so sad in public, while my father was so happy the night before.’

Some people felt genuine grief, especially those who had benefited from the Cultural Revolution. And plenty of true believers remained, especially among young people. Ai Xiaoming, a twenty-two-year-old girl eager to enter the party and contribute to socialism, was so heartbroken that she wept almost to the point of fainting.

In the countryside, however, apparently few people sobbed. As one poor villager in Anhui recalled, ‘not a single person wept at the time’.

Mao entered a mausoleum, like Stalin. Unlike Stalin, he remained there. His portrait still hangs high in Beijing, while his face beams from every banknote in the People’s Republic. Mao used the cult to turn others into adulators who enforced his every whim. He made party leaders accomplices to his crimes. And by becoming complicit they and their successors turned themselves into the custodians of his image, determined not to repeat the mistake Khrushchev had made in his secret speech.


The Living Force
FOTCM Member
Thank you so much. These books about tyrans are so important to understand History, and to understand what we are living now. They give light not only about the past but specially about our present. Fascinating subject when you think about it. My stack of books or column of books is becoming too high. :lol: :lkj:


FOTCM Member
Thank you for these reminders of the @seek10 story, and the juxtapositions that are revealing. Big work to clear up our time where karma seems to roll its hump!

Merci pour ces rappels de l'histoire @seek10 , et des juxtapositions qui sont révélatrices. Gros travail pour éclaircir notre temps ou le karma semble rouler sa bosse !
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