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Summary

Bloomsbury presents How to Be a Dictator by Frank Dikötter, read by Jack Bennett.  

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 20th century, hundreds of millions of people were condemned to enthusiasm, obliged to hail their leaders even as they were herded down the road to serfdom.   

In How to Be a Dictator, Frank Dikötter returns to eight of the most chillingly effective personality cults of the 20th century. From carefully choreographed parades to the deliberate cultivation of a shroud of mystery through iron censorship, these dictators ceaselessly worked on their own images and encouraged the population at large to glorify them. At a time when democracy is in retreat, are we seeing a revival of the same techniques among some of today’s world leaders?   

This timely study, told with great narrative verve, examines how a cult takes hold, grows and sustains itself. It places the cult of personality where it belongs: at the very heart of tyranny.

©2019 Frank Dikötter (P)2019 Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

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  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

Gives no practical steps only summary of dictators

I'm no more informed on how to be a dictator than I was before reading.

1 person found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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Really disappointing, basic biogs

This offered so much but delivered so little. I was expecting some comparing & contrasting and some thoughtful analysis of cult of personality, psychological and sociological analysis etc.

Sadly, this book is nothing more than a series of short (1-2hr) basic biographies and simplistic historical run throughs. If you’re interested in history you likely have most of this knowledge already. I really don’t need a 2hr chapter telling me where Hitler grew up and why he started a war. The only real half interesting sections were those of lesser known personalities like Papa Doc and Ceaucescu, but less than an hour on each and no real analysis.

This is really pretty poor, probably useful for a GCSE history student but nothing more.

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  • 21-03-21

Easy-to listen refresher

Similar to other reviews, I would agree that contrary to the title, the content did not provide so much ‘how’ to be a dictator, but rather a concise series of biographies of some of the major 20th Century dictators.

What the author does particularly well is pull a common thread throughout each chapter which links the preceding chapter, as well as highlighting the commonalities of the dictators (cult of personality, rule with an iron fist, paranoia) irrespective of geography or even political ideology.

It is very well written, in a way that is easy to listen and chapter lengths are perfectly suited to an ‘episode’ of approx. 1 hour for each dictator.

Enlightening for someone like myself who knows their history but would like a refresher – indeed, I’d never heard of Duvalier prior to listening to this book. It would be nice to have an even longer book with other contemporary dictators such as Pol Pot, Ferdinand Marcos, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe amongst others – perhaps a sequel is in order?

Regarding another comment on pronunciation of names, I didn’t find it a big deal, certainly not something that degraded the listening experience. Personally I found the pace of reading somewhat slow and listened to the whole book at 1.3x speed. The reader is clear, with plenty of emotion that is abundantly engaging.

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    3 out of 5 stars

Not what I expected.

a well produced and good read but doesn't really tell you "how" but reads as a history of each of the most infamous dictators.

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Poor narrator, great book

Many, many instances of the leaders’ names being mispronounced, which is unforgivable given they are the subjects of this book. However the stories are very well prepared, and Dikotter is one of the few writers of our time who is unafraid to reveal the secrets of tyranny, in all of its forms.

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    4 out of 5 stars

Interesting Material, Substandard Narration

This is a really interesting text, although more a series of biographies of 20th century dictators than a sustained investigation of "the cult of personality". However it is let down by the narration. Mostly the narrator is fine, but their pronunciation of non-English words is very often incorrect. Goethe becomes "girth", Chiang (Kai-Shek) becomes "Chee-yang", Duvalier becomes "Duvaliyer", chagrin becomes "shar grin" Via (Triumphalis) becomes "vie-uh", carabinieri becomes "carabanny-erie", Riefenstahl becomes “Rye-fen-tsal” etc. These grate on the ear and really disrupt what would otherwise be a good listening experience. The narrator has a pleasant enough voice, but should have been provided with much better pronunciation advice and editorial oversight - especially for a text exploring materials from beyond the Anglosphere!

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relaxing, thoroughly interesting and terrifying!

a great thing to listen to when you just want to think, read fantastically and long enough to be worth it whilst short enough to engage constantly.

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Excellent narrator

Easy and interesting listening. I love the chapter structure following each dictator. The narrator is excellent.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 06-12-19

Worth a listen

Excellent. I only wish it provided some normative description of whether such personality cults made the regimes more or less robust. More insight into the Why's and to what ends would have been welcome.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Jessica Sheppard
  • 27-06-20

Great Analysis of the Construction of Dictatorship

Incredible and incisive dissection of the Cult of Personality, how authoritarian rule had to articulate itself differently than the authoritarian regimes of the modern era.