The most recommended books about dictatorships

Who picked these books? Meet our 16 experts.

16 authors created a book list connected to dictatorships, and here are their favorite dictatorship books.
Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

What type of dictatorship book?

Loading...
Loading...

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

Daniel Kalder Author Of The Infernal Library

From my list on dictators.

Why am I passionate about this?

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

Daniel's book list on dictators

Daniel Kalder Why did Daniel 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…


Book cover of Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa

Irina Filatova Author Of The Hidden Thread. Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era

From my list on to understand what is wrong and right with Africa.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a South African historian of Russian origin, who has studied and taught African history since the late 1960s. For us, the Russians, Africa was then an alluring terra incognita of wild nature, adventure, human suffering, struggles, and tenacity. I have studied how Africa became what it is for 50 years and lived in it for 30. I have learnt a lot about it, but for me it is still a land of human suffering, struggles and tenacity, wild nature, and adventure, and it is still alluring. 

Irina's book list on to understand what is wrong and right with Africa

Irina Filatova Why did Irina love this book?

Rich in interesting and juicy detail, this account of governance in Africa presents a chronicle, rather than an analysis, of what was, and still is, wrong with the continent. Kenyon tells the story of state and power differently, basing it on personalities and circumstances, rather than ages-long continuities. His personalities are the corrupt leaders of seven unhappy countries, who managed to amass enormous power and keep it for decades. With such personalities come passions, greed, and immeasurable cruelty to their compatriots, all presented in intimate detail, as the author saw it all – he was there. But the global context does not go away. None of his “heroes” could have turned into the monsters they became without the interaction with and support, even if indirect, of global actors who needed the resources which their countries possess, natural or human. 

By Paul Kenyon,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A Financial Times Book of the Year

'Jaw-dropping' Daily Express

'Grimly fascinating' Financial Times

'Humane, timely, accessible and well-researched' Irish Times

The dictator who grew so rich on his country's cocoa crop that he built a 35-storey-high basilica in the jungles of the Ivory Coast. The austere, incorruptible leader who has shut Eritrea off from the world in a permanent state of war and conscripted every adult into the armed forces. In Equatorial Guinea, the paranoid despot who thought Hitler was the saviour of Africa and waged a relentless campaign of terror against his own people. The Libyan army officer…


Book cover of The Fountains of Silence

Kerry Chaput Author Of Chasing Eleanor

From Kerry's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author History nerd Introvert Coffee aficionado Adventurer

Kerry's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Kerry Chaput Why did Kerry love this book?

Ruta Sepetys never disappoints. The Fountains of Silence looks at young love under a Spanish dictatorship in 1957. This is such an unusual setting for historical fiction, and I devoured the book in a weekend. Daniel, the son of an oil tycoon, moves to Madrid and sees his privileged world through the lens of his camera.

He uncovers secrets and falls in love with the hotel maid Ana, whose life is affected in every way by the Spanish Civil War. The wealthy young photographer learns life lessons and bravery from the hardships of Ana’s life, with another rich, layered love story that stayed with me for a long time.

By Ruta Sepetys,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Fountains of Silence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

A haunting and romantic novel set in post-war Spain by Ruta Sepetys - winner of the Carnegie Medal 2017.

Madrid, 1957.

Daniel, young, wealthy and unsure of his place in the world, views the city through the lens of his camera.

Ana, a hotel maid whose family is suffering under the fascist dictatorship of General Franco.

Lives and hearts collide as they unite to uncover the hidden darkness within the city.

A darkness that could engulf them all . . .

Master storyteller Ruta Sepetys once again shines light into one of history's darkest corners in this epic, heart-wrenching novel…


Book cover of The Story That Cannot Be Told

Gigi Griffis Author Of The Wicked Unseen

From my list on history for those who find history intimidating.

Why am I passionate about this?

I came to my passion for history later in life—when I realized I could trade in the endless date memorization I remembered from history class for an exploration of fierce lady pirates like Shek Yeung and unwilling empresses like Sisi of Austria. Historical stories that felt like thrillers, adventures, or mystery novels. Comedies. Tragedies. And most of all: books that didn’t require a history PhD to get swept up in the story. These are the books that made me fall in love with history, and they’re the kind of books I now write. I’m the author of three historical novels, all written first and foremost to sweep you away into a damn good story.

Gigi's book list on history for those who find history intimidating

Gigi Griffis Why did Gigi love this book?

Another way to ease yourself into historical fiction is to start with books for young readers—like this gorgeous, compelling read set during the Communist regime’s fall in Romania in 1989. 

Our heroine is a young girl named Ileana who loves stories, even though stories can be dangerous (like the one that got her uncle arrested for criticizing the government). Afraid for her life, her parents send her to live with grandparents she’s never met—and still she gets caught up in the independence. 

I adored this book as an adult reader and—bonus!—it would be the perfect thing to co-read with a middle schooler or young teen if you’ve got one in your life. 

By J. Kasper Kramer,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Story That Cannot Be Told as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

“By turns surprising, poetic, and stark, The Story That Cannot Be Told is one that should most certainly be read.” —Alan Gratz, New York Times bestselling author of Refugee
“A mesmerizing debut.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

A powerful middle grade debut with three starred reviews that weaves together folklore and history to tell the story of a girl finding her voice and the strength to use it during the final months of the Communist regime in Romania in 1989.

Ileana has always collected stories. Some are about the past, before the leader of her country tore down her home to…


Book cover of I Must Betray You

Susan M Soesbe Author Of Bringing Mom Home: How Two Sisters Moved Their Mother Out of Assisted Living to Care For Her Under One Amazingly Large Roof

From Susan's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Bible nerd Fiction book coach Organizer of stuff History buff English language acquisition facilitator

Susan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Susan M Soesbe Why did Susan love this book?

More than anything, this book put me in the shoes of a young person who has no idea how to know the difference between truth and lies. He doesn’t know who to trust. I was fully immersed in this terrifying world.

Šepetys made me feel what it was like to live during a dictatorship leading up to the Romanian Revolution in 1989.

I came away feeling profoundly grateful for my freedom and in awe of those who fought for theirs.

By Ruta Sepetys,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked I Must Betray You as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

A #1 New York Times and National Bestseller!
 
A gut-wrenching, startling historical thriller about communist Romania and the citizen spy network that devastated a nation, from the #1 New York Times bestselling, award-winning author of Salt to the Sea and Between Shades of Gray.

Romania, 1989. Communist regimes are crumbling across Europe. Seventeen-year-old Cristian Florescu dreams of becoming a writer, but Romanians aren’t free to dream; they are bound by rules and force.
 
Amidst the tyrannical dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu in a country governed by isolation and fear, Cristian is blackmailed by the secret police to become an informer. He’s…


Book cover of Shatter Me

Katerina St Clair Author Of The Order: Kingdom of Fallen Ash

From my list on dystopian books that leave a mark.

Why am I passionate about this?

Ever since I could read, I have found myself finding security and escape through the words on the paper. As I grew older, I no longer wanted to just read these realities, I wanted to create them for myself. Writing is the one thing in my mundane existence that has made me feel like more than just a number in the system. I laugh with my characters and love with them. My writing is a part of me that will live long after I am gone. Whether it be a novel, or a simple letter, I want my words to linger with the reader long after the page is turned.

Katerina's book list on dystopian books that leave a mark

Katerina St Clair Why did Katerina love this book?

Shatter Me is one of the most groundbreaking dystopian novels to hit the YA section of any bookstore. She created a world that spoke to my heart, through its originality as well as its diverse character arcs.

Mafi's writing skillfully weaves a gripping tale of dystopia, blending thrilling plotlines, intense romance, and a deep exploration of societal chaos. Juliette's world, painted with Mafi's poetic prose, felt like a refuge where I could truly immerse myself within Julliette’s character.

The unexpected twists left me breathless, creating a connection with the characters that lingered long after I closed the book. The romantic elements, filled with passion and vulnerability, drew me as a reader in, leaving me feeling as if I was in the relationships myself. Mafi's portrayal of a dystopian society made me reflect on power and control in our own world.

Shatter Me isn't just a must-read; it's a personal journey,…

By Tahereh Mafi,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Shatter Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 13, 14, 15, and 16.

What is this book about?

Stranger Things meets Shadow and Bone in this first instalment of an epic and romantic YA fantasy series - perfect for fans of Leigh Bardugo, Sarah J. Maas and Victoria Aveyard. Now a TikTok phenomenon.

A fragile young teenage girl is held captive. Locked in a cell by The Reestablishment - a harsh dictatorship in charge of a crumbling world. This is no ordinary teenager. Juliette is a threat to The Reestablishment's power. A touch from her can kill - one touch is all it takes. But not only is she a threat, she is potentially the most powerful weapon…


Book cover of Dictators and Dictatorships: Understanding Authoritarian Regimes and Their Leaders

Dalia Ghanem Author Of Understanding the Persistence of Competitive Authoritarianism in Algeria

From my list on the North African version of North Korea: Algeria.

Why am I passionate about this?

I hold a doctorate in political science and am an expert on Algeria. I was a senior scholar at Carnegie for ten years before I joined the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), the EU's official think tank. I was born in Algeria, where I grew up. When I was fourteen, between 22-23 September 1997 the massacre of Bentalha took place while I was living in Algeria, and I became obsessed with that massacre. This obsession led me ten years later to write a Ph.D. on that bloody page of Algerian history, political violence, and jihadism. Eventually, my expertise encompassed all of Algeria's political, social, and economic developments. 

Dalia's book list on the North African version of North Korea: Algeria

Dalia Ghanem Why did Dalia love this book?

I like this book because it is based on a qualitative investigation into the politics of authoritarian states. It contends that political outcomes in dictatorships are mostly the result of relations between leaders and elites, and the internal structures that influence the dynamics of these relations. The book analyses the differences between several authoritarian regimes and their political ramifications. Process in personalist, military, one-party, monarchical, and semi-authoritarian regimes are examined. The book explains what dictatorship entails and how authoritarian politics function. 

By Natasha Lindstaedt, Erica Frantz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This title discusses how dictatorships work, looking at leaders, elites, and regime dynamics, synthesizing foundational and cutting-edge research on authoritarian politics, and integrating theory with case studies. "Dictators and Dictatorships" is a qualitative enquiry into the politics of authoritarian regimes. It argues that political outcomes in dictatorships are largely a product of leader-elite relations. Differences in the internal structure of dictatorships affect the dynamics of this relationship. This book shows how dictatorships differ from one another and the implications of these differences for political outcomes. In particular, it examines political processes in personalist, military, single-party, monarchic, and hybrid regimes. The…


Book cover of The Kingdom of Liars

M. J. Kuhn Author Of Among Thieves

From my list on where no one is 'the good guy'.

Why am I passionate about this?

I love a book where the good guys are pure-hearted and the bad guys are evil, but there's something so fascinating about a story where the lines of good and evil blur and bend. I firmly believe that everyone is the hero in their own story… and everyone is the villain in at least one other person’s story. My Tales of Thamorr duology features multiple heists and hijinks, and every member of our crew has plans to betray their fellows. My goal in writing stories where no one is the ‘good guy’ is to create a reading experience where you want to root for everyone and no one at the same time.

M. J.'s book list on where no one is 'the good guy'

M. J. Kuhn Why did M. J. love this book?

The main character in The Kingdom of Liars is the son of a traitor. He lives a life scamming and scraping to get by, and he’s not the most likable of people, on the whole. (I say this with love).

The story is filled with political maneuvering, double dealings, and self-serving characters you’ll find yourself rooting for… even if you also kind of hate them. This book also has one of the cooler magic systems I’ve seen in a while: the price for using magic is memory, so with every bit of magic you wield, you lose a bit more of yourself.

It’s a fascinating tale that is the first book in a trilogy!

By Nick Martell,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Kingdom of Liars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Michael Kingman has been an outsider for as long as he remembers. The court which executed his father also exiled him and his family. They branded him a traitor, and the nobles who had been his friends turned their backs, prepared to let the legendary Kingman family die on Hollow's city streets.

Only they survived.

And it should come as no surprise to Hollow Court, or the King, that they've been searching for the truth ever since.
History is written by the winners, truth buried beneath lies until it's Forgotten. Justice seems impossible in a city where the price of…


Book cover of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Richard Dresser Author Of It Happened Here

From my list on to read when fascism is creeping in the window.

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

Richard's book list on to read when fascism is creeping in the window

Richard Dresser Why did Richard love this book?

This is a short, urgently written handbook for the heart-stopping moments when you hear the sounds of fascism downstairs and realize you forgot to lock the window. “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blazing light.” Fake news, Fox News, alternative facts, the Big Lie, QAnon, the replacement theory, the MAGA movement, evangelical theocracy, and fascism have made their way into our house and are creeping up the stairs and we wait, foolishly believing it will listen to reason.

By Timothy Snyder,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

**NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER**

'A sort of survival book, a sort of symptom-diagnosis manual in terms of losing your democracy and what tyranny and authoritarianism look like up close' Rachel Maddow

'These 128 pages are a brief primer in every important thing we might have learned from the history of the last century, and all that we appear to have forgotten' Observer

History does not repeat, but it does instruct.

In the twentieth century, European democracies collapsed into fascism, Nazism and communism. These were movements in which a leader or a party claimed to give voice to the people, promised…


Book cover of Don't Cross the Line!

Diego Vaisberg Author Of Dino

From my list on album books to unleash your children´s imagination.

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

Diego's book list on album books to unleash your children´s imagination

Diego Vaisberg Why did Diego love this book?

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. 

By Isabel Minhos Martins, Bernardo Carvalho (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Don't Cross the Line! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 5, 6, and 7.

What is this book about?

The guard always follows the general's orders without question. This time, the order is that no one must cross the line! The right-hand page of this book must be kept blank for the general. As the crowd builds up on the border, the guard is under pressure. If no one is allowed onto the next page, what will happen to the story?

And then a ball bounces across the line . . .

This slapstick postmodern tale is also a profound statement about dictatorship and peaceful revolution, from an award-winning author/illustrator team.