by Geoffrey Churchman
In an article on here in May last year, Carol Sawyer observed that PM Jacinda behaves like an apprentice dictator — which led to intriguing if disconcerting contemplation of what things would be like if she were a full-fledged dictator.
But one has to get there first and just as importantly, maintain that status, not least against opposition within your own support base.
In his introduction to the book, Frank Dikotter provides a concise summary of what is required: “A dictator must reply on military forces, a secret police, a praetorian guard, spies, informants, interrogators, torturers; but it is best to pretend that coercion is actually consent. A dictator must instil fear in his people, but if he can compel them to acclaim him he will probably survive longer. The paradox of the modern dictator, in short, is that he must maintain the illusion of popular support.”
Accordingly, the first things that must go in a dictatorship are free speech and freedom of the media, followed swiftly by the state apparatus mentioned above. The version you get from media of what is going on is the government version, only. That, of course, used to be a lot easier before the Internet, it’s more difficult now, despite the massive censorship that goes on by the IT companies like Google and Facebook, usually at the behest of governments (including Jacinda’s) and powerful non-government vested interests. Unsuitable literature has to be eradicated.
The book contains 8 case studies: Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung of North Korea, Ceausescu of Romania, Mengistu of Ethiopia and Duvalier of Haiti. The first six of these are well-known, the latter two less so and many will wonder, why not also talk about despots like Franco, Gaddafi, Pol Pot, Castro, Saddam Hussein, Khomeini of Iran and Mugabe of Zimbabwe?
The obvious answer is that it would be a substantial tome if they and a hundred or so others justifying study were included, and the publisher needs to produce an affordable book. The ones chosen have sufficient variety to compare and contrast methods and results, although an Islamic example (Khomeini) would have been useful.
While the Fascists developed the principle of the Cult of Personality in the 1920s and 1930s, the Communists took it to extremes. The ‘Great Leader’ was not just the rightful ruler like a King in earlier times, he also had super-human qualities: immense wisdom, intellect, insight and so on: in short the best person there could possibly be for the position; a person to be worshipped and adored. Anyone who challenged the Dictator had to be silenced, either by imprisonment, or simply a bullet.
The Dictator has to be omnipresent: if not in person, then in the form of portraits on photographs, posters, life-size cutouts, billboards, postage stamps, banknotes and coins. Giant statues and street names are part of that, although Hitler eschewed the former, he considered statues should be of historical figures only.
Hitler also differed in the way political opponents were treated: he and his followers considered German communists to be potentially useful to them, they just needed ‘re-educating’ and while over 50,000 were arrested in the early days, nearly all were subsequently released. By mid-1934 the first concentration camp, Dachau, had only 4,000 inmates. The number incarcerated there and elsewhere gradually grew to reach 21,000 in 1939. Jews and other undesirables were ‘encouraged’ to emigrate and many did.
The best circumstances for an aspiring dictator to become one are political turmoil with warring factions and economic depression — people will want a return to order and if not prosperity, then at least an absence of severe privation.
That makes things difficult for an aspiring dictator in an environment like NZ which is relatively prosperous and peaceful; trying to manufacture a crisis, like Jacinda/Andrew Little/Stuart Nash did after last March, is a big ask when there isn’t one.
An interesting question, which the book deals with, is how closely did the dictators follow their core ideology once in power? The fascists generally did, the communists tended not to; the practical problems they discovered about how things work in reality required some ‘modifications’ promulgated in book form by the leaders, and in communist North Korea, eventually Marx’s writings were added to the banned list.
There are some minor historical points in the book which one can quibble with, but generally it is a good concise guide for politicians of all persuasions who have ambitions of being a dictator!
Published by Bloomsbury, 274 pages including b/w illustrations, hardback.