What We Can Learn From The 20th Century’s Worst Dictators

What We Can Learn From The 20th Century’s Worst Dictators By  for The Federalist

Frank Dikötter’s new book, ‘How to Be a Dictator,’ takes a sweeping look at some of the most tyrannical men of the last century and finds a surprising number of cautionary commonalities.

What did Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Haiti’s Duvalier, Romania’s Ceausescu, and Ethiopia’s Mengitsu have in common? They were all dictators in the 20th century – and now they make appearances Frank Dikötter’s new book, How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century.

Dikötter is a historian who specializes in modern Chinese history. He resides in Hong Kong and teaches at the University of Hong Kong. His three-volume “People’s Trilogy,” which covers communist China from 1945 to 1976, won him worldwide fame. The trilogy covers the darkest period in China’s long history, a period that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been doing everything in their power to erase from history.

Thanks to Dikötter’s books, he has kept that history alive and exposed. Through his thorough research, Dikötter has informed the rest of the world of the unbelievable miseries the Chinese people suffered under the CCP’s ruinous policies and the evils of the party’s socialist ideology. Writing these books also enabled Dikötter to closely examine Mao, one of the worst dictators and mass murders in the 20th century. Dikötter’s insights into Mao likely inspired him to write How to Be a Dictator.

Different Countries, Same Terrors

The title of the book is a bit misleading. Unlike Machiavelli’s The Prince, Dikötter’s book is not a “how to” guide for whoever aspires to be the next dictator. Instead, through analyzing the rise and fall of dictators, he shows us how one becomes a dictator and the nature of a dictatorship. It’s hoped that next time, the public will be wise enough to stop a would-be dictator before he causes too much harm.

Dikötter presented eight dictators of the 20th century: Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Francois Duvalier, Nicolas Ceausescu, and Mengistu Haile Mariam. Each chapter reads like a mini-biography. They came from different cultures, reached the peak of power in different circumstances, and ended their lives in different ways. However, they all share a number of commonalities.

Their road to power was paved with corpses. Mao began to purge his Communist Party rivals from the late 1920s on through the early 1930s, long before he became a dictator. He used torture, nonstop interrogations, and threats of execution to get false confessions.

Once confessions were obtained, prisoners were nonetheless killed without amnesty for being “counterrevolutionaries,” “despotic landlords,” and “reactionary rich-peasant elements.” It was estimated more than 1,000 CCP members were killed as the result of Mao’s purge. For Mao, this was merely a rehearsal of terror tactics he would rely on again and again to suppress dissent as he climbed to the peak of his power.

Once in power, the killing didn’t stop because, as Dikötter observes, “power seized through violence must be maintained by violence.” All these dictators established armies of police, secret police, informants, spies, interrogators, and torturers to put down any real or imaginary threats, as well as keep the population under control through fear.

Hitler was responsible for the killing of six million Jews during the Holocaust. Millions of Russians were executed or sent to gulags in Siberia due to Stalin’s Great Purge or Great Terror (1936-1938). At the height of the Soviet purge in 1937 and 1938, Dikötter observes “the execution rate was roughly a thousand per day, with people accused of being class enemies, saboteurs, oppositionist or speculators, some denounced by their own neighbors or relatives.”

In 1977, after surviving an assassination attempt, Ethiopia’s dictator Mengistu authorized house-by-house searches in Addis Ababa. “Sometimes cameras and typewriters were treated as evidence of spying activities. Suspects were arrested in the hundreds and executed on the outskirts of the capital. They included children as young as eleven,” Dikötter writes.

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