The Best Books About Dictators

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Frank Dikötter

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

Why this book?

Don’t be fooled by the title: this is no how-to guide for budding sociopaths who want to force the masses to bend to their every whim. Rather, it is a study of eight dictators with a special emphasis on how each one used his personality cult “to claw his way to power and get rid of his rivals”. Dikotter fits an impressive amount of information into this concise book and does a great job of comparing and contrasting such tyrants as Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Mussolini. But what I especially appreciate are the “deep cuts” — Dikotter includes chapters on dictators you don’t often hear about these days, such the Ethiopian tyrant, Mengistu Haile Mariam and Haiti’s Voodoo-obsessed Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who declared himself the “personification of God” and liked to strut around in top hat and tails.


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Stalin: A Biography

By Robert Service

Stalin: A Biography

Why this book?

If How to be a Dictator gives you an overview of the great tyrants of the 20th century, then Service’s biography of Joseph Stalin provides a close analysis of one of the great monsters of the 20th century. Everybody knows about Hitler’s terrible crimes, but Stalin’s are less familiar, due to a mystifying reluctance on the part of several generations of educators to teach “the youth” about the USSR. What I especially admire about Service’s book is that he really engaged with Stalin’s own writings (which are awful) and so he provides a lot of insight into the ideas that drove this ex-seminarian as he transformed himself into the supreme leader of the largest country in the world. The Stalin that ultimately emerges from this portrait is no raving lunatic but rather a highly intelligent and profoundly evil man who is completely in control of himself. Chilling.


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The Miracles of Chairman Mao

By George Urban

The Miracles of Chairman Mao

Why this book?

This is a collection of primary sources from Mao Zedong’s China, and a very curious type of source at that — newspaper stories about people who experienced miracles after reading Mao’s works. Unlike Jesus, who performed his miracles in person, Mao did not even need to be in the vicinity to make wondrous things happen to his followers. The mere act of reciting his words and believing them was enough to cure cancer, save you from drowning or even emerge victorious in in international ping-pong championships. The full extent of the madness that gripped China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution is little understood in the West, so reading Urban’s collection is like opening a portal into another, bizarre world. Urban’s book takes us to the outer limits of propaganda.


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The Body Of Il Duce: Mussolini's Corpse And The Fortunes Of Italy

By Sergio Luzzatto

The Body Of Il Duce: Mussolini's Corpse And The Fortunes Of Italy

Why this book?

Once a dictator dies, his statues might come down and his books might disappear from school curriculums, but his legacy can endure for generations. Mussolini was the man for whom the term “totalitarian” was coined, and he pioneered many of the techniques of domination that other dictators deployed later in the century. When it was all new, a lot of people thought he might be onto something and “Il Duce” even enjoyed the support of such famous figures such as Churchill and Gandhi. The sight of his bullet ridden corpse strung upside down outside an Esso gas station in Milan must have seemed like the ultimate fall from grace, an indelible image of his regime’s failure. But that was not the end of the story, and in this remarkable book, Luzzato explores what happened next — both to Mussolini’s corpse, and to his ideas, as they continued to linger on in Italy for decades after his death.


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Dictator Style: Lifestyles of the World's Most Colorful Despots

By Peter York

Dictator Style: Lifestyles of the World's Most Colorful Despots

Why this book?

Most books about dictators are written by scholars and academics, but Peter York has a different background — he is a style guru and cultural commentator who writes about trends for magazines and newspapers in the UK. His approach, therefore, is very different from the other books on this list and in Dictator Style he casts a witty, acerbic eye over the interior design choices of some of the world’s most evil men. Multiple photographs are provided to document their crimes against taste, and York skewers everything from the leopard skin rug of Romania’s Nicolae Ceacescu to the soft porn sci-fi fantasy paintings collected by Saddam Hussein. Whereas most authors focus on the depths of evil contained in each dictator’s soul, Yorke shines a spotlight on their shallows, revealing in the process that they are also frequently banal and vulgar in their tastes, and easily seduced by shiny baubles.


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