From The Wall Street Journal:
‘Naked power has an expiry date,” writes Frank [Dikötter]. This is no doubt true. But lest you find the observation overly reassuring, remember that Joseph Stalin stayed in power for 31 years, Mao Zedong for 27, Benito Mussolini for 23, and Adolf Hitler for a hideous 12. So for all the apparent precariousness that can beset a strong[man who seizes control of a state by thuggery or violence, the absence of genuine popular support doesn’t always result in his imminent toppling.
In fact, writes Mr. Dikötter in “How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century,” by relying on “military forces, a secret police, a praetorian guard, spies, informants, interrogators, [and] torturers,” a tyrant can remain at the helm for decades. Yet oppression alone is seldom sufficient. There is, he explains, another ingredient to despotic longevity: “A dictator must instil fear in his people, but if he can compel them to acclaim him he will probably survive longer.”
The paradox of the modern dictator is that he must “create the illusion of popular support,” and the autocrats featured in this book all strove to do so in varying degrees. Mussolini, for example, “fostered the idea that he was a man of the people, accessible to all.” At the height of his fascist glory, he received up to 1,500 letters a day. As Mussolini told his ministers in March 1929: “Every time that individual citizens, even from the most remote villages, have applied to me, they have received a reply.” Il Duce boasted that he had responded to 1,887,112 individual cases. (Imagine what he could have done with Twitter!)
Mr. Dikötter, a professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, has been a peerless chronicler of the destructiveness and delusions of Maoist China.
. . . .
There were, Mr. Dikötter writes, “many strategies for a dictator to claw his way to power.” These included such obvious ploys as purges, manipulation of information, and a dividing of potential rivals to rule them better. But in the long run, “the cult of personality was the most efficient.” It was not enough, for instance, that Hitler be in undisputed control of Germany. He also had to be seen as a paragon. In this effort, the state republished an old Nazi Party photography book titled “The Hitler Nobody Knows,” in which he is, Mr. Dikötter writes, depicted as a man who “cultivated simple, spartan habits and worked ceaselessly towards the greater good.” Germans were told that their leader read voraciously, boasting a library of 6,000 books—“all of which he has,” a caption in this book of hagio-photography said, “not just perused, but also read.”
The cult of personality was soul-destroying. It “debased allies and rivals alike, forcing them to collaborate through common subordination.” By compelling them to acclaim him in public, says Mr. Dikötter, “a dictator turned everyone into a liar. When everyone lied, no one knew who was lying, making it more difficult to find accomplices and organise a coup.”
Stalin was the high priest of this method; and Mr. Dikötter tells us that the phrase “cult of personality” is the English translation of the Russian “cult of the individual,” the literal words that Nikita Khrushchev used in 1956 when he denounced Stalin’s reign of terror in a speech to the party congress.
Stalin had died in 1953. His body was found lying on the floor of his bedroom, “soaked in his own urine.” Medical help, Mr. Dikötter tells us, was delayed “as the leader’s entourage was petrified of making the wrong call.” The tyrant, one might say, was killed by his own climate of fear.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you hit a paywall)