Every dictator’s best friend is an efficient and ruthless secret police.

by Geoffrey Churchman

In January last year I wrote this review of the book How to be a Dictator by Frank Dikotter. The new series by Netflix takes the same subject and gives it visual treatment with a mix of archive footage and animation (undoubtedly cheaper than dramatic reenactments).

The case studies chosen for analysis in this series are: Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Stalin, Gaddafi, and the Dear Leaders a.k.a. the Kim Dynasty of North Korea. The book covered Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung of North Korea, Ceausescu of Romania, Mengistu of Ethiopia and Duvalier of Haiti.

The Netflix series thus deals with the best-known names likely to be elicited when the question ‘who was a tyrant?’ is asked, although some of the others are mentioned. There could be a second series planned with more examples.

There is a difference between being a dictator and a tyrant, of course: the latter requires an elevated level of ruthlessness and repression, not just of the population, but of rivals within the upper levels of the regime.

According to an article by Jim Deuvall: “In a totalitarian society, there are two classes: the rulers and the ruled, and both groups undergo a pathological transformation. Rulers are raised to a god-like status where they can do no wrong — a view that easily leads to corruption and unethical behavior — while the ruled are transformed into dependent subjects, which leads to psychological regression.”

Not all dictators are malignant and some can be benign; a lot depends on how much freedom of choice the people are allowed. Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled Singapore from 1959 to 1990, is an example of a benign dictator. Modern day Chinese president Xi Jinping is another: as long as you don’t criticize the government, you are largely left to do your own thing, especially economically.

But this series deals with examples of the worst dictators and why they were the worst. It’s presented as a series of ‘how to do it’ instructions for the ambitious keen to give it a go. There’s no shortage of tinpot wannabe despots in the Third World. Some see the Dear Leader of Aotearoa, oops, New Zealand, relishing the idea of being a tyrant, but while she is certainly no fan of Democracy, that is being somewhat extravagant. Nevertheless, there are items in the below list of topics for each episode that she is well aware of and implements what she can.

Recommended viewing for Netflix subscribers!

Episode contents in order:

Seize Power  Interested in becoming a tyrant? There are rules, and the playbook for a rise to dictatorship starts with one of history’s most brutal: Adolf Hitler. 

Crush Your Rivals  You’ve secured your place at the top, but maintaining power means watching your back. Nobody did that better or more ruthlessly than Saddam Hussein. 

Reign Through Terror  When keeping your population under control, is it better to be loved or feared? Idi Amin certainly thought he knew the right answer to that question. 

Control the Truth  Through public relations spin, revisionist history and censorship. Soviet autocrat Joseph Stalin found a certain flexibility with the truth useful. 

Create a New Society  Free speech? Right to assembly? Rebel-turned-dictator Muammar Gaddafi realized that civil liberties had to go when reshaping society. But he got soft. 

Rule Forever  Seizing power is hard, but keeping it is harder. In North Korea, the Kim dynasty unlocked the secret to ruling forever: They declared themselves gods.

Each episode is about 23 minutes.