How to be a Dictator

How to be a Dictator

Frank Dikötter, in conversation with Rajini Vaidyanathan

In his book How To Be A Dictator, author Frank Dikötter discusses powerful dictators of the 20th century like Hitler and Stalin. With the use of archival sources and historical records, it talks about the methods used by dictators to acquire power and curb freedom of expression.

On the last day of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, Frank Dikötter, in conversation with Rajini Vaidyanathan, gave a simple definition of a dictator: “A dictator has monopoly over power.” In other words, a dictator seized power through violence, and maintained power through even more violence; dictatorship entailed curbing freedom of expression by exploiting human rights. He gave the example of detention camps, military and secret police that were used to commit “atrocious crimes against citizens”.

“These people are quite unique and operate in unique circumstances,” explained Dikötter. “My book traces every step that they took to acquire and maintain power.” One of these steps was to indulge in deep study and “learn from each other”. The 20th century dictators observed their contemporaries and incorporated each other’s techniques for a “better grip on power”.

Despite help from photographers and propagandists to maintain his reputation and image, “a dictator was ultimately responsible for building his own cult.” Dikötter mentioned how Mussolini spent more than fifty percent of his time building his cult. He added that dictators rehearsed their broadcasting and acting skills, practising every move.

“People weren’t the only threat to dictators; the dictators were a threat to themselves too.” Dikötter explained this paradox by mentioning how even a minor miscalculation made by dictators would lead to disastrous consequences. “Assuming absolute power, dictators made all major decisions on their own, creating devastation for millions of people.”

According to the author, the system of dictatorship “survived on lies”. Leaders created an illusion of popular consent, while people faked their devotion for the leader. “Thus, nobody knew who believed what.” It was impossible to know who supported whom, thanks to propaganda and spread of fear. Heavy surveillance and censorship enabled dictators to control people and compel them to oblige.

Dikötter maintained that the main aim of dictatorship was “to destroy common sense, isolate individuals and crush their dignity”. It was through this game of divide-and-rule that dictators sustained power over people. But eventually, their efforts “always went in vain,” said the author.

What if history repeats itself? The author assured the audience that there was nothing to worry about, as he hadn’t witnessed any signs of dictatorship in the 21st century. “The knowledge of history will surely help us eliminate dictatorship once and for all.”