The best books about dictators

Who am I?

I lived in the former Soviet Union for ten years, primarily in Moscow, the home of many a brutal tyrant. My obsession with dictator literature began after I discovered that Saddam Hussein had written a romance novel, following which I spent many years reading the literary output of all of the 20th century’s most terrible tyrants, from Mussolini to Stalin to the Ayatollah Khomeini. This monumental act of self-torture resulted in my critically acclaimed book The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, And Other Catastrophes of Literacy

I wrote...

The Infernal Library

By Daniel Kalder,

Book cover of The Infernal Library

What is my book about?

Since the days of the Roman Empire dictators have written books, but in the twentieth century the phenomenon went into overdrive, and despots inflicted their soul-killing prose upon (literally) captive audiences. They produced theoretical works, spiritual manifestos, poetry, memoirs, and (as I mentioned above) even the occasional romance novel. What do these books reveal about the dictatorial soul? What function did they serve for so many terrible regimes? Did any of these despots have even a smidgen of literary talent? These questions and many others are answered in The Infernal Library.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Frank Dikötter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How to Be a Dictator as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Brilliant' NEW STATESMAN, BOOKS OF THE YEAR 'Enlightening and a good read' SPECTATOR 'Moving and perceptive' NEW STATESMAN Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Ceausescu, Mengistu of Ethiopia and Duvalier of Haiti. No dictator can rule through fear and violence alone. Naked power can be grabbed and held temporarily, but it never suffices in the long term. A tyrant who can compel his own people to acclaim him will last longer. The paradox of the modern dictator is that he must create the illusion of popular support. Throughout the twentieth century, hundreds of millions of people were condemned to…

Stalin: A Biography

By Robert Service,

Book cover of Stalin: A Biography

Why did I love 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.

By Robert Service,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stalin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Overthrowing the conventional image of Stalin as an uneducated political administrator inexplicably transformed into a pathological killer, Robert Service reveals a more complex and fascinating story behind this notorious twentieth-century figure. Drawing on unexplored archives and personal testimonies gathered from across Russia and Georgia, this is the first full-scale biography of the Soviet dictator in twenty years.

Service describes in unprecedented detail the first half of Stalin's life--his childhood in Georgia as the son of a violent, drunkard father and a devoted mother; his education and religious training; and his political activity as a young revolutionary. No mere messenger for…

Book cover of The Miracles of Chairman Mao

Why did I love 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.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Sergio Luzzatto,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Body Of Il Duce as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A brilliant young historian follows the odyssey of Mussolini's body in an original exploration of the history and legacy of Italian Fascism

Bullet-ridden, spat on, butchered bloody: this was the fate of Il Duce, strung up beside his dead mistress in a Milan square, as reviled in death as he was adored in life. With Italy's defeat in World War II, the cult of Benito Mussolini's physical self was brought to its grotesque denouement by a frenzied, jeering crowd of thousands-one eerily similar to the cheering throngs that had once roared their approval beneath Il Duce's balcony.

In this groundbreaking…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Peter York,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dictator Style as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Welcome to the fabulous lifestyles of the cruel and despotic. Running with the idea that our homes are where we are truly ourselves, Peter York's wildly original and scathingly funny look at the interior decorating tastes of some of history's most alarming dictators proves that absolute power corrupts absolutely, right down to the drapes. Mining rare, jaw-dropping photographs of interiors now mostly (thankfully) destroyed, York's hilarious profiles of 16 inner sanctums of the scary leaves no endangered tiger pelt unturned, from Saddam Hussein's creepy private art collection to General Noriega's Christmas tree to the strange tube and knob contraption in…

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Interested in dictators, Italy, and Joseph Stalin?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about dictators, Italy, and Joseph Stalin.

Dictators Explore 11 books about dictators
Italy Explore 351 books about Italy
Joseph Stalin Explore 30 books about Joseph Stalin