A dictatorship is a form of government in which most or all authority of the country is in the hands of a single individual; the leader. While the term has been used several times throughout history, most common usage of the term is in relation to different types of dictatorships that existed in the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, famous dictators include: Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, Benito Mussolini in Italy, Kim Jung-un in North Korea and Fidel Castro in Cuba. In general, a dictatorship is the opposite of democracy, which is a system of government in which the people hold the power and the ability to choose who represents their government. Essentially, in a democracy the people have the power over the major aspects of government and have the responsibility to elect their leaders. In contrast, a dictatorship is ruled by a single person who generally acts to protect his own position and power over the welfare of the citizens.
To understand the power that a dictator holds, it’s important to first understand how the authority of the government is generally handled in a democracy. For example, in most western democracies, such as the United States, the federal government is divided into three branches, including: Executive Branch, Legislative Branch and Judicial Branch. The purpose of the three branches is that one can always act as a ‘check’ on the power of the others. For example, in the United States, the president is part of the Executive Branch but his or her power is limited because the Legislative Branch and Judicial Branch could potentially stop any unconstitutional policies. Whereas, in a dictatorship there are not three branches and generally, there are little or no checks on the authority of the dictator. In fact, in a dictatorship the leader essentially controls all three branches, and wields total control.
Historians generally refer to dictatorship as a form of authoritarianism or totalitarianism. In general, both authoritarian and totalitarian regimes seek to control their populations and attempt to maintain control for the leader or small group of elite. However, what type of control and what they control differs between the two systems. For example, in authoritarian regimes the leadership primarily seeks to force its authority on the citizens through its political control over the government. The leader obtains their position through means that are not democratic and rules over the people with their control of the government. Government systems that are based on authoritarianism include: oligarchies, monarchies, and military dictatorships (Junta).
On the other hand, a totalitarian regime seeks to control all aspects of society and not just the political realm. A totalitarian regime seeks total control over the society including the political, social and economic life of the citizens. For example, Benito Mussolini, the totalitarian leader of Italy during World War II explained his form of government as “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state and nothing against the state.” Here he is expressing a major difference between totalitarianism and authoritarianism in that while totalitarianism seeks total control over political, social and economic life, authoritarianism focuses on the political control of the leadership in the government.
Beyond authoritarianism and totalitarianism, historians have also identified several different types of dictatorships, and differentiate them based upon their path to power. For example, some dictatorships have emerged by the leader being democratically elected and then using specific means in order to undermine the democratic institutions of the country. For example, this is the path to power that Adolf Hitler followed when he rose to become dictator of Germany in the years before World War II. Hitler rose to power by being democratically elected but then used the crisis of the Reichstag Fire in order to limit the democratic process in Germany and consolidate all of the power in himself. Alternatively, some dictators gain power through organized coup d’états. A coup d’état is a violent overthrow of the government in order to bring about change of leadership. This is how Benito Mussolini rose to power in Italy in the 1920s. He, along with his paramilitary forces, carried out the March on Rome, in which he overthrew the Italian government and placed himself as the sole dictator. Finally, some dictatorships are classified as military dictatorships or a ‘Junta’. This is a form of dictatorship that arises when a military leader assumes control over the government. Under this system, the military controls all key positions in society and uses the military to maintain control over the citizens.
However, just because a dictator controls the mechanisms of government does not mean they have the support of the people, and often dictators need to use different techniques in order to control the will of the people. The following is a list of the techniques used by dictators in their attempt to maintain control over the populations of their countries:
- State Terror and Secret Police
Dictatorships utilize censorship in order to control the information that their citizens have access to. This allows the leadership to eliminate ideas or information that opposes their own view of the world. For example, in North Korea today, the citizens are not allowed unlimited access to the internet or to cell phones that can make phone calls outside of North Korea. This allows the leader, Kim Jong-un, to have control over the information that his citizens have and better allows him to keep out ideas that oppose his form of government and ideology.
Indoctrination involves the dictator using formal means to “educate” the citizens in the ideology and importance of the leader or leaders. It is important because it allows the dictator and his leadership to more easily spread their ideology to the citizens and to help control the ideas and information that the citizenry consumes. For example, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Adolf Hitler developed the Hitler Youth, a youth organization in Germany dedicated to educating young Germans in the ideology and leadership of the Nazi Party.
Propaganda is important as a tool to spread the government’s message and ideology to its citizens in a totalitarian state. For example, the Nazi Party of Germany in the 1930s held a campaign wherein they provided low cost radios to German families so that Adolf Hitler’s speeches and radio addresses could be heard by as many people as possible. As well, dictators often develop a personality cult. In general, a personality cult is a form of propaganda that attempts to display the dictator in a god-like manner. This helps to develop the dictator as an all-powerful figure in the minds of the citizens.
Scapegoating refers to the concept of blaming specific groups of people for the issues facing a country. Historians often refer to this as ‘redirecting popular discontent’ since the dictator or the government in charge use it as a means of controlling the anger of the citizens. For example, in Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler placed a great deal of the country’s economic hardship on Jewish people. Following World War I, Germany was made to agree to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and as a result suffered through a period of intense hyperinflation. In turn, Adolf Hitler and other prominent Nazi officials blamed the economic hardship on Jewish people for having cost Germany the war. For example, in the lead up to the Holocaust, the Nazi regime produced propaganda images that portrayed Jewish people as the reason for Germany’s issues.
Finally, State Terror is often seen in societies with dictators in the form of secret police and state controlled prison camps. This allows the leadership to remove dissident citizens and control the population through fear and repression. For example, Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union famously sent millions of Soviet citizens to Gulags, or prison labor camps, in Siberia. Stalin removed any citizens that challenged his authority or in whom he believed had the ability to challenge his authority, including many high ranking officials within the Soviet Union. The use of violence is sometimes deemed necessary by dictatorships in their pursuit to maintain their leadership.