The best books about dictators

3 authors have picked their favorite books about dictators and why they recommend each book.

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How to Be a Dictator

By Frank Dikötter,

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

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.


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.

Dictator Style

By Peter York,

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

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.

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.

Don't Cross the Line!

By Isabel Minhos Martins, Bernardo Carvalho (illustrator),

Book cover of Don't Cross the Line!

This is one of those books, where not only the words and illustrations make the story, but also the pages and book format are part of the plot, where the book´s gutter is one of the main characters. A book to have on paper! A story about community and peaceful revolutions, and how things can be changed with dialogue and working together. 


Who am I?

I live in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and I'm the head behind DGPH illustration and design studio. I'm also an illustration professor of the illustrator major at Palermo University (UP). My passion for kids books and illustration turned me into a full time illustrator combining both passions, illustration, and design. And with time, I started writing my own stories too.


I wrote...

Dino

By Diego Vaisberg,

Book cover of Dino

What is my book about?

A heart-warming story about the complications of having a dinosaur as a pet.

The book follows an "average" day with a t-rex as a family member. It's actually based on my experience with my first son Simon, and how it was our first year as a family. The book was made using a Risograph printing technique, illustrated with just 2 colors mixing photographs, collage, and digital illustration.

The Great Successor

By Anna Fifield,

Book cover of The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un

Ana Fifield is a top-flight journalist, and this is the most detailed biography of Kim Jong Un to date. Fifield has interviewed everyone who could possibly be interviewed, going back to teachers in a Swiss boarding school for insights into Kim Jong Un’s psyche. But why would such a book get mentioned in a list on the Korean economy? Because North Korea is best understood as a monarchy, and the court economy is non-trivial. Among many other details, Fifield provides insight into the lavish lifestyles of the family and the small circle of insiders that are at the core of the regime. Needless to say, the contrast with the lives of everyday North Koreans could not be more stark. An added benefit: the book contains a funny story involving Noland, President Barack Obama, and NBA coach Steve Kerr. 


Who are we?

We teamed up about fifteen years ago around a common interest in the political economy of North Korea; Haggard is a political scientist, Noland an economist. Both of us had spent our careers focused on Asia but looking largely at the capitalist successes: Japan and the newly industrializing countries of Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. But what about the anomalous cases in the region that did not get on the growth train? The “Asian miracle” was hardly ubiquitous…what had gone wrong? North Korea was clearly the biggest puzzle, and we ended up researching and writing on the famine, refugees, and the complexities of international sanctions. 


We wrote...

Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights Into North Korea

By Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland,

Book cover of Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights Into North Korea

What is our book about?

The North Korean famine was a train wreck of unbelievable proportions, resulting not only in starvation and death but a massive refugee outflow and heartbreaking human rights abuses. But refugees were also fonts of information, as a flood of memoirs demonstrated. Our approach was to survey refugees in a more systematic fashion, in effect polling them on everything from their views of the regime and interactions with the security apparatus to household finances and aspirations beyond North Korea. We show that in the aftermath of the famine, households engaged in entrepreneurial activity, moved around the country, and even engaged in trade with China. Although the future of North Korea does not look bright at the moment, much more is going on below the surface than you might think including a thriving market economy. 

The Walking Dead

By Robert Kirkman, Jay Bonansinga,

Book cover of The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor

Full disclosure, I consider author Jay Bonansinga a friend and one of the nicest people I have met, although I had read the book prior to meeting him. I am a fan of The Walking Dead (TWD) graphic novel series as well as the original television series. While The Governor is represented very differently in print than on screen, both are complex characters who are capable of both caring and cruelty. The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor and additional TWD Woodbury prequel books provide context to a memorable villain.  


Who am I?

I have been fascinated by the zombie genre since I was a child. No other genre has influenced and inspired me as much. I am also a very critical consumer of zombie content, as I have great respect for the genre. I began writing my own stories to fill in gaps that I felt had not yet been addressed by previous works.  Since the release of my first novel, I have enjoyed meeting with zombie genre fans, writers, crafters, and creators at horror cons, zombie cons, comic cons and have participated in many panels and podcasts. It is a subject that I will never grow tired of discussing. The zombie genre is truly undying. 


I wrote...

Exit Zero

By Neil A. Cohen,

Book cover of Exit Zero

What is my book about?

The Exit Zero Zombie trilogy, because you always knew the zombie apocalypse would begin in New Jersey. The book series, Exit Zero, followed by Nuke Jersey and ending with Zombie Democracy, take the zombie genre in an entirely new direction, the Garden State Parkway south. 

Author Neil A. Cohen blends horror and humor to create a fast-moving story and relatable characters. He also created an apocalypse with a complete backstory, explaining the how and why the virus was created as well as why the infected, or as he describes them, addicted, look and behave the way they do. 

Strongmen

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat,

Book cover of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present

Strongmen reads like a Wanted: For Demagoguery all-points bulletin, so we can identify the qualities that are present in totalitarian rulers. There are specific traits that these men—and they are all men—share, like corruption, deceit, propaganda, violence, exaggerated machismo, and misogyny. Their road to power is launched by apparent idealism in reclaiming the lost power of both the country and their followers. She writes, “The strong man’s trick is to seem exceptional and yet to embody the everyman, with all his endearing flaws.” Subjects range from Mussolini and Franco to the authoritarians of today: Putin, Trump, and Erdogan. The author reveals the shockingly similar playbooks of these self-proclaimed saviors of their nation, with a goal of enabling us to see who these men are and what to do when we find that they have crept into our home.


Who am I?

I’m President of the Writers Guild Initiative, with a mission of giving a voice to populations not being heard (LGBT asylum seekers, exonerated death row prisoners, Dreamers, etc.). In our writing workshops I see how marginalized communities are deprived of their rights and how insidiously minority rule is seizing power. Fascism depends on demonizing the Other, which was weaponized during the Trump years and is exploding on the right. This issue animates my life and work as a writer, mentor, speaker, and teacher. In the USA, democracy is hanging by a thread. My book takes a deep dive into what this means for an American family over the next fifteen years.


I wrote...

It Happened Here

By Richard Dresser,

Book cover of It Happened Here

What is my book about?

In 2035, fourteen-year-old Louise is interviewing her family members to find out what went wrong—for the family and the nation. It seems both started falling apart around 2019. Then the 2020 elections were canceled, and the president remained in power for sixteen years. This is the story of one family divided by ideology, and of undying hope in the direst of circumstances.

In 1935, Sinclair Lewis challenged readers to imagine an America hijacked by a totalitarian president whose message was fueled by fear, division, and “patriotism.” Richard Dresser’s It Happened Here delivers a modern vision of just such an America. Told through the interwoven voices of eight different characters, it reveals how the Weeks family navigates the slow death of democracy in the country they all love.

It Can't Happen Here

By Sinclair Lewis,

Book cover of It Can't Happen Here

Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel was inspired by European fascism and serves as a bridge between Hitler/Mussolini and the blustery, bloviating, red-faced American version, Huey Long and Donald Trump. After winning the Presidency on a populist platform, Lewis’s demagogue, Buzz Windrip, outlaws the opposition, puts his political enemies in concentration camps, sets up The Minute Men, a personal paramilitary force, eliminates the power of Congress, and restricts rights for women and minorities. A huge number of American voters back these fascist measures as necessary to make the country great again. Sound familiar?

Full disclosure: this book was an inspiration for my own novel, which tells the story of an American family from 2020-2035 as the country careens off the rails into fascism.


Who am I?

I’m President of the Writers Guild Initiative, with a mission of giving a voice to populations not being heard (LGBT asylum seekers, exonerated death row prisoners, Dreamers, etc.). In our writing workshops I see how marginalized communities are deprived of their rights and how insidiously minority rule is seizing power. Fascism depends on demonizing the Other, which was weaponized during the Trump years and is exploding on the right. This issue animates my life and work as a writer, mentor, speaker, and teacher. In the USA, democracy is hanging by a thread. My book takes a deep dive into what this means for an American family over the next fifteen years.


I wrote...

It Happened Here

By Richard Dresser,

Book cover of It Happened Here

What is my book about?

In 2035, fourteen-year-old Louise is interviewing her family members to find out what went wrong—for the family and the nation. It seems both started falling apart around 2019. Then the 2020 elections were canceled, and the president remained in power for sixteen years. This is the story of one family divided by ideology, and of undying hope in the direst of circumstances.

In 1935, Sinclair Lewis challenged readers to imagine an America hijacked by a totalitarian president whose message was fueled by fear, division, and “patriotism.” Richard Dresser’s It Happened Here delivers a modern vision of just such an America. Told through the interwoven voices of eight different characters, it reveals how the Weeks family navigates the slow death of democracy in the country they all love.

How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball

By David Shannon,

Book cover of How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball

In Georgie Radbourn’s America, baseball (even the mention of it) is illegal, Winter is eternal and everyone over the age of eight must work in factories. All this because of dictator and embittered former baseball player Boss Swaggart. The people fear Swaggart and his Factory Police too much to resist. Georgie is born into this world, so he knows nothing else. Still, something in him rebels.

Shannon’s Orwellian tale is about baseball, yes, but it’s more than it appears (as is true of the best books). It’s about how we often don’t grasp how much we love something until it’s taken away. It’s about how, without the things that give us hope, spring never comes. It’s about how one brave person can triumph and inspire courage in others.


Who am I?

I am a former children’s librarian who writes books for children and young adults. I love history, especially black history. We didn’t get much in school when I was a child, so I’ve been catching up on some of what I missed. I am particularly drawn to under-told stories about people who deserve more recognition for their contributions. I’m proud that some of those people are members of my own family.


I wrote...

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem's Greatest Bookstore

By Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, R. Gregory Christie (illustrator),

Book cover of The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem's Greatest Bookstore

What is my book about?

In the 1930s, my great uncle Lewis Michaux had an itch he needed to scratch — a book itch.  He started the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem. Lewis told his son Lewis Jr. to think for himself and never stop asking questions. Lewis believed knowledge is power and a pathway to freedom for all, especially the black community. One way to gain knowledge and become an independent thinker is through reading, which is why Lewis created his bookstore. I believe freedom, at its core, is all about thinking. You can learn more about Lewis in my book for older readers, No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller.

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