I read about Dictators by Frank Dikotter in a newspaper review which recommended it as an insight into how dictators of the twentieth century, and there were certainly plenty to choose from, have used their own personality to drive what the author describes as a cult. His argument is that it is the personality of the leader and not particularly their ideology that attracts followers who then become involved in a movement which is based around the leader and which often ceases when they die.
The premise is interesting and the author uses eight dictators to try and prove his point. Apart from Mao, Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini who are probably the usual suspects he also includes Papa Doc Duvalier, Mengistu of Ethiopia, Ceausascu and Kim Il Sung. Each dictator gets a brief history which centres on how he used personality to create and keep his following. This was interesting to me because I knew very little about some of these men and the format of the book allowed me to learn more.
The book isn’t particularly long so each dictator doesn’t get a huge amount of space. The problem is that they often had long and complicated lives and careers and the narrative felt a bit rushed. Too much of it was taken up in just describing what happened and not enough in actually talking about the cult of personality. I found this frustrating because I needed the information about their lives and careers but I kept feeling that I wanted more exposition.
I had expected the author to start by explaining some themes and then developing them over the course of the book. Unfortunately that didn’t happen and each chapter was more or less self-contained. I connected some points myself but I had hoped that the author would point out similarities and differences as the book progressed. Apart from a general introduction and conclusion there was no real exploration of the premise using examples from the lives of the men featured. In that respect I found the book disappointing in that it presented ideas and made me think but I didn’t feel that I got a fully developed exploration of how the cult of personality was important and how there were similarities and differences in the way that the eight chosen men exploited it to attain their goals.
This was a good idea and I liked the premise. Unfortunately, although the book was informative, it didn’t live up to my expectations.