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What makes a dictator?

What makes a dictator?

Are dictators born, or are they made? Nat Geo’s Making A Dictator uncovers their paths to power – from Adolf Hitler to Saddam Hussein

“What history teaches us is that we do not learn from the past,” says Argentine author and journalist Diego Fonseca in the first episode of Making A Dictator. Well, there’s no time like the present…

Wednesday 5 December, 10pm, National Geographic/HD (CH 266/268). Also available for 30 days in Catch Up > Channels > National Geographic

Through expert interviews and illuminating footage, National Geographic’s three-part series Making A Dictator explains that while different tyrants take control in different ways, they all share similar journeys and characteristics.


In episode 1, “Rising Tide”, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Augusto Pinochet, Fidel Castro and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire are used as case studies to illustrate the power trips that shook the world. What sent these men down these paths? Well, there’s a very unsettling blueprint that’s shared by all these dictators…

First, there needs to be an economic crisis

A security crisis, like war or terrorism, is also enough to incite change, but this is generally because it is a precursor to an economic one. When the people can’t meet their basic needs, including access to food, shelter and the ability to look after their children, they are in a vulnerable position, and they start listening to whoever says they can improve their situation. Enter the opportunistic dictator-to-be.


A strong leader may seems to be the perfect solution for people desperate to see some kind of change, even if it’s just a smidgen of an improvement. When someone bounds in to take advantage of the situation, promising everyone everything they want, it’s difficult to resist even if it sounds too good to be true – which, of course, it is…


Fulgencio Batista

They’re the right person at the right time

“A dictator thinks that he is a god and there is nothing beyond his own will,” says Fonseca. Mix this narcissism with paranoid personality traits, along with being a charismatic speaker, and you’ve got the kind of leader that people have flocked to throughout history. Other nations will also inflate a dictator’s worth and prop up his reign if his policies help to advance their agenda, as happened with Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista (pictured above) in the 1950s, with the US keen to secure the volatile island lying just 90 miles from Florida.


Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, says, “What they think is ‘I’m serving a special mission’ or ‘I’m irreplaceable’ or ‘if I’m not here, the whole situation falls apart’. It requires someone who thinks he’s indispensable.”

They’ve typically had a difficult upbringing

Coming from a poor background allows the individual to identify with the masses, as well as market themselves as being from the masses. Saddam, for example, grew up in dire poverty. Hitler had early memories of helplessness with a brutal father as well as a doting mother who filled his head with delusions of grandeur. When a potential dictator’s expectations for their life results in more failures than successes, they turn to other methods to gain self-esteem.   


They also try to explain away failures by blaming a scapegoat and absolving themselves of responsibility. Hitler wanted to be an artist when he was younger – and perhaps if he’d been accepted to the art school he applied to in Vienna, history might have painted a very different picture.

They usually have a military background

Most dictators have served in the military, which helps them when it comes time to exercise power over security and military forces. It follows the format that orders must be followed, and if they’re not, people die. The manipulation of fear is crucial to a dictator’s reign of terror, which often means imprisoning, torturing or murdering dissidents frequently. Even if they are not, they at least need to create the illusion that they are in order to instil that fear.

Many have been in jail 

Spending time in prison is usually a meaningful experience for dictators. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), the Nazi manifesto, in Landsberg Prison after being convicted of treason when he attempted to seize power in Bavaria in November 1923 in what became known as the Beer Hall Putsch.


Before his rise to power in Cuba, Fidel Castro was sentenced to 15 years’ incarceration when he and 150 others attempted to overthrow the Batista regime in 1953. He was released two years later. Castro’s time in prison allowed him to fully formulate his ideas, so he was ready to deliver them to the people upon his release. The experience cements the dictator as a victim in the eyes of the people, with the underprivileged aligning themselves with him.

Dictators will sacrifice everything for power

A dictator believes they are a hero and a victim who hasn’t been given the respect they’re due. They see the world as threatening and anyone that disagrees with them as a threat, so their solution is to disregard any other opinion that doesn’t match their worldview. That means being prepared to sacrifice everything, including their family and anyone else who gets in their way.


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