For Frank Dikötter, the main point that unites current and 20th century dictators is the argument that the will of the majority can only be achieved when power is in the hands of a single person. This, by the way, would be the hook between leaders like Adolf Hitler, the Chinese Xi Jinping and the North Korean Kim Jong-un.
“While they call themselves democratic, they question Western democracy and say that it is false,” says the Dutch historian.
Late last year, for example, Beijing released a 23-page report outlining aspects of so-called “socialist democracy”. Titled “China: Democracy That Works”, the text says that the people should be responsible for judging whether a country is democratic and that the meaning of the political system “should not be dictated by a handful of outsiders”.
Similar arguments have been used by Belarus dictator Aleksandr Lukachenko and Russian and Hungarian leaders Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán – all of whom are accused of attacking the judiciary and the independent press, as well as persecuting opponents. The last two countries are examples, according to experts, of illiberal democracies; when the people, despite participating in fair elections, do not have civil liberties.
But China, according to Dikötter, should be considered a dictatorship. “There is no separation of powers there. Furthermore, the Chinese Constitution itself calls the adopted political system a dictatorship of the proletariat,” he says. A professor of the humanities at the University of Hong Kong, he is the author of People’s Trilogy, a series of books documenting the impact of communism on the lives of Chinese citizens.
At the end of August, the historian launched in Brazil the book “How to be a dictator: the cult of personality in the 20th century” (Intrinsic). The book explores the stories and strategies of eight dictators: Benito Mussolini (Italy), Adolf Hitler (Germany), Mao Tse-tung (China), Kim Il-sung (North Korea), Papa Doc (Haiti), Nicolae Ceaușescu (Romania). ) and Mengistu Haile Mariam (Ethiopia).
“Modern dictators like [o venezuelano Nicolás] Maduro, Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping, and ancients like Hitler and Lenin have no differences from a historical perspective: they all say it is necessary to absolutely concentrate power to achieve goals that can express the wishes of the majority,” says Dikötter.
But, for the historian, 20th century dictators tended to become objects of cults, which would not happen as often today. “Dictators are individuals who operated in specific circumstances. It is therefore not possible to find a pattern between the ancients and the moderns,” he says.
In his book, Dikötter points, for example, to the skillful rhetoric of Hitler, but highlights that the Nazi did not accept being represented in statues. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, on the other hand, rarely appeared in crowds, despite being depicted in various sculptures around the country.
Another strategy was also inherited by 21st century dictators, points out the Dutch expert: rule through fear. “Let’s talk about China again. What is their biggest fear right now? Covid introduced by foreigners. But not only that. They are also afraid of what they call the imperialist camp, that the Americans will take control of Taiwan and use the Japanese and Koreans to surround and attack them,” he says.
The diffusion of the foreigner as an external enemy to dissipate internal crises was also explored by Mussolini, Hitler, Mao and other dictators highlighted in Dikötter’s work. Close to Brazil, one of the most explicit episodes occurred in the 1970s, in Argentina. At the time, the country’s dictatorship tried to reverse the loss of popularity by starting the Falklands War and appealing to patriotism.
For Dikötter, only information and an attentive look at history can contain the advance of dictatorial narratives in the world. “It always sounds great to say that it is necessary to go out and fight, but look at what happened in Budapest in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in China in 1989. Going to the streets may work in some cases, but not in all. best way is to ensure that your democracy does not become a dictatorship.”
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