Carl Henrik Knutsen
University of Oslo
Frank Dikötter has researched eight 20th-century dictators – Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il-sung, Duvalier, Ceausescu and Mengistu – and written intriguing accounts of their roads to power and terms in office. Without neglecting other key actors, including what political scientists might call ‘support coalition members’, Dikötter focuses mainly on the leader. The chronologically arranged narratives for each leader concentrate, especially, on what motivates them and how they use different strategies to build ‘personality cults’. The book is filled with memorable anecdotes, from how Mussolini carefully studied and perfected his own gestures and poses, to how Goebbels attempted to frame and communicate Hitler’s ‘human side’, and to how various Communist dictators crafted images as great intellectuals by publishing books. Regarding more general insights, Dikötter argues that, even for Fascist and Communist regimes, the personal character and worship of the leader often mattered relatively more for legitimation than general, coherent political ideologies. Dikötter also discusses other aspects of authoritarian politics, for example the dynamics of repression and purges. These discussions vividly illustrate key theoretical points from the political science literature (e.g., Milan Svolik’s work) on how leaders are only gradually able to consolidate power, undermine constraining institutions, and remove threats. However, Dikötter never explicitly relates his narratives to the extensive political science literature on autocratic politics. Regrettably, only 11 pages are devoted to ‘general lessons’, all in the Preface and Afterword. Dikötter displays an excellent ability to extract lessons about factors shaping autocratic behaviour in the chapters on individual leaders. These insights would have been easier for readers to grasp and critically evaluate had they been thoroughly discussed in a more explicit and systematic manner.