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Dictators often accused of ruling totalitarian regimes, from left to right and top to bottom in picture, include Joseph Stalin, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; Adolf Hitler, former Führer of Germany; Mao Zedong, former Chairman of the Communist Party of China; Benito Mussolini, former Duce of Italy; and Kim Il-sung, the Eternal President of North Korea

A dictator is a political leader who possesses absolute power. A dictatorship is a state ruled by one dictator or by a small clique.[1] The word originated as the title of a magistrate in the Roman Republic appointed by the Senate to rule the republic in times of emergency (see Roman dictator and justitium).[2]

Like the term "tyrant" (which was originally a non-pejorative Ancient Greek title), and to a lesser degree "autocrat", "dictator" came to be used almost exclusively as a non-titular term for oppressive rule. In modern usage the term "dictator" is generally used to describe a leader who holds or abuses an extraordinary amount of personal power. Dictatorships are often characterised by some of the following: suspension of elections and civil liberties; proclamation of a state of emergency; rule by decree; repression of political opponents; not abiding by the rule of law procedures, and cult of personality. Dictatorships are often one-party or dominant-party states.[3][4]

A wide variety of leaders coming to power in different kinds of regimes, such as military juntas, one-party states, dominant-party states, and civilian governments under a personal rule, have been described as dictators. They may hold left or right-wing views.


Julius Caesar, outmaneuvered his opponents of ancient Rome to install himself dictator for life.

Originally an emergency legal appointment in the Roman Republic and the Etruscan culture, the term "Dictator" did not have the negative meaning it has now.[5] A Dictator was a magistrate given sole power for a limited duration. At the end of the term, the Dictator's power was returned to normal Consular rule whereupon a dictator provided accountability, though not all dictators accepted a return to power sharing.

The term started to get its modern negative meaning with Cornelius Sulla's ascension to the dictatorship following Sulla's second civil war, making himself the first Dictator in Rome in more than a century (during which the office was ostensibly abolished) as well as de facto eliminating the time limit and need of senatorial acclamation. He avoided a major constitutional crisis by resigning the office after about one year, dying a few years later. Julius Caesar followed Sulla's example in 49 BC and in February 44 BC was proclaimed Dictator perpetuo, "Dictator in perpetuity", officially doing away with any limitations on his power, which he kept until his assassination the following month.

Following Julius' assassination, his heir Augustus was offered the title of dictator, but he declined it. Later successors also declined the title of dictator, and usage of the title soon diminished among Roman rulers.

Modern era

Country ratings from Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2017 survey concerning the state of world freedom in 2016[6]
2017 Democracy Index by The Economist in which countries marked in different shades of red of are considered undemocratic, with many being dictatorships.[7]

As late as the second half of the 19th century, the term dictator had occasional positive implications. For example, during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, the national leader Lajos Kossuth was often referred to as dictator, without any negative connotations, by his supporters and detractors alike, although his official title was that of regent-president.[8] When creating a provisional executive in Sicily during the Expedition of the Thousand in 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi officially assumed the title of "Dictator" (see Dictatorship of Garibaldi). Shortly afterwards, during the 1863 January Uprising in Poland, "Dictator" was also the official title of four leaders, the first being Ludwik Mieros?awski.

Past that time, however, the term dictator assumed an invariably negative connotation. In popular usage, a dictatorship is often associated with brutality and oppression. As a result, it is often also used as a term of abuse against political opponents. The term has also come to be associated with megalomania. Many dictators create a cult of personality around themselves and they have also come to grant themselves increasingly grandiloquent titles and honours. For instance, Idi Amin Dada, who had been a British army lieutenant prior to Uganda's independence from Britain in October 1962, subsequently styled himself "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor[A] Idi Amin Dada, VC,[B] DSO, MC, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular".[9] In the movie The Great Dictator (1940), Charlie Chaplin satirized not only Adolf Hitler but the institution of dictatorship itself.

Benevolent dictatorship

A benevolent dictatorship refers to a government in which an authoritarian leader exercises absolute political power over the state but is perceived to do so with the regard for benefit of the population as a whole, standing in contrast to the decidedly malevolent stereotype of a dictator. A benevolent dictator may allow for some economic liberalization or democratic decision-making to exist, such as through public referenda or elected representatives with limited power, and often makes preparations for a transition to genuine democracy during or after their term. It might be seen as a republic a form of enlightened despotism. The label has been applied to leaders such as Ioannis Metaxas of Greece (1936-41), Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia (1953-80),[10] and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore (1959-90).[11]

Military roles

The association between a dictator and the military is a common one; many dictators take great pains to emphasize their connections with the military and they often wear military uniforms. In some cases, this is perfectly legitimate; Francisco Franco was a lieutenant general in the Spanish Army before he became Chief of State of Spain;[12] Manuel Noriega was officially commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces. In other cases, the association is mere pretense.

Crowd manipulation

Some dictators have been masters of crowd manipulation, such as Mussolini and Hitler.[] Others were more prosaic speakers, such as Stalin and Franco. Typically the dictator's people seize control of all media, censor or destroy the opposition, and give strong doses of propaganda daily, often built around a cult of personality.[13]

Mussolini and Hitler used similar, modest titles referring to them as "the Leader". Mussolini used "Il Duce" and Hitler was generally referred to as "der Führer". Franco used a similar title "El Caudillo" ("the Head")[14] and for Stalin his adopted name became synonyms with his role as the absolute leader. For Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco, the use of modest, non-traditional titles displayed their absolute power even stronger as they did not need any, not even a historic legitimacy either.


The usage of the term "dictator" in western media has been criticized as "Code for Government We Don't Like". Leaders that would generally be considered authoritarian but are allied with the USA such as Paul Biya or Nursultan Nazarbayev are rarely referred to as "dictators", while leaders of countries opposed to US policy such as Nicolas Maduro or Bashar Al-Assad have the term applied much more liberally.[15]

Modern usage in formal titles

Giuseppe Garibaldi proclaimed himself dictator of Sicily in 1860.

Because of its negative and pejorative connotations, modern authoritarian leaders very rarely (if ever) use the term dictator in their formal titles, instead they most often simply have title of president. In the 19th century, however, its official usage was more common:

Human rights abuses

Over time, dictators have been known to use tactics that violate human rights. For example, under the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, government policy was enforced by secret police and the Gulag system of prison labour camps. Most Gulag inmates were not political prisoners, although significant numbers of political prisoners could be found in the camps at any one time. Data collected from Soviet archives gives the death toll from Gulags at 1,053,829.[17] Other human rights abuses by the Soviet state included human experimentation, the use of psychiatry as a political weapon and the denial of freedom of religion, assembly, speech and association. Similar crimes were committed during Mao Zedong's rule over the People's Republic of China during China's Cultural Revolution, where Mao set out to purge dissidents, primarily through the use of youth groups strongly committed to his cult of personality.[18]

Some dictators have been associated with genocide on certain races or groups; the most notable and wide-reaching example is the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler's genocide of eleven million people, six million of which were Jews.[19] Later on in Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot and his policies killed an estimated 1.7 million people (out of a population of 7 million) during his four-year dictatorship.[20] As a result, Pol Pot is sometimes described as "the Hitler of Cambodia" and "a genocidal tyrant".[21]

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's military dictator Omar al-Bashir over alleged war crimes in Darfur.[22]

See also




  1. ^ "Dictatorship" at Merriam Webster (2019)
  2. ^ "dictator - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary". Merriam-Webster. Archived from the original on 16 May 2008. Retrieved 2008.
  3. ^ Papaioannou, Kostadis; vanZanden, Jan Luiten (2015). "The Dictator Effect: How long years in office affect economic development". Journal of Institutional Economics. 11 (1): 111-139. doi:10.1017/S1744137414000356.
  4. ^ Olson, Mancur (1993). "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development". American Political Science Review. 87 (3): 567-576. doi:10.2307/2938736. JSTOR 2938736.
  5. ^ Le Glay, Marcel. (2009). A history of Rome. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-8327-7. OCLC 760889060.
  6. ^ Freedom in The World 2017 - Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy Archived 2017-07-27 at the Wayback Machine by Freedom House, January 31, 2017
  7. ^ "Democracy Index 2017 - Economist Intelligence Unit" (PDF). EIU.com. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 February 2018. Retrieved 2018.
  8. ^ Macartney, Carlile Aylmer (September 15, 2020). Lajos Kossuth. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020.
  9. ^ Keatley, Patrick (18 August 2003). "Obituary: Idi Amin". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 2013-12-05. Retrieved .
  10. ^ Shapiro, Susan; Shapiro, Ronald (2004). The Curtain Rises: Oral Histories of the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-1672-1.
    "...All Yugoslavs had educational opportunities, jobs, food, and housing regardless of nationality. Tito, seen by most as a benevolent dictator, brought peaceful co-existence to the Balkan region, a region historically synonymous with factionalism."
  11. ^ Miller, Matt (2012-05-02). "What Singapore can teach us". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Archived from the original on 2016-03-11. Retrieved .
  12. ^ Thomas, Hugh (1977). The Spanish Civil War. pp. 421-424. ISBN 978-0-06-014278-0.
  13. ^ Morstein, Marx Fritz; et al. (March 2007). Propaganda and Dictatorship. Princeton UP. ISBN 978-1-4067-4724-9.
  14. ^ Hamil, Hugh M., ed. (1992). "Introduction". Caudillos: Dictators in Spanish America. University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 5-6. ISBN 978-0-8061-2428-5.
  15. ^ "Dictator: Media Code for 'Government We Don't Like'". FAIR. 2019-04-11. Retrieved .
  16. ^ "The First Philippine Republic". National Historical Commission. 7 September 2012. Retrieved 2018. On June 20, Aguinaldo issued a decree organizing the judiciary, and on June 23, again upon Mabini's advice, major changes were promulgated and implemented: change of government from Dictatorial to Revolutionary; change of the Executive title from Dictator to President
  17. ^ "Gulag Prisoner Population Statistics from 1934 to 1953." Wasatch.edu. Wasatch, n.d. Web. 16 July 2016: "According to a 1993 study of Soviet archival data, a total of 1,053,829 people died in the Gulag from 1934 to 1953. However, taking into account that it was common practice to release prisoners who were either suffering from incurable diseases or on the point of death, the actual Gulag death toll was somewhat higher, amounting to 1,258,537 in 1934-53, or 1.6 million deaths during the whole period from 1929 to 1953.."
  18. ^ "Remembering the dark days of China's Cultural Revolution". South China Morning Post. 18 August 2012. Retrieved .
  19. ^ "The Holocaust". The National WWII Museum | New Orleans. Retrieved .
  20. ^ ""Top 15 Toppled Dictators". Time. 20 October 2011. Archived from the original on 2013-08-24. Retrieved 2017.
  21. ^ William Branigin, Architect of Genocide Was Unrepentant to the End Archived 2013-05-09 at the Wayback Machine The Washington Post, April 17, 1998
  22. ^ "Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir faces war crimes charges Archived 2018-05-16 at the Wayback Machine". The Daily Telegraph. July 14, 2008.
  23. ^ "Idi Amin: a byword for brutality". News24. 2003-07-21. Archived from the original on 2008-06-05. Retrieved .
  24. ^ Lloyd, Lorna (2007) p.239

Further reading

  • Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (2009), scholarly approach to comparative political economy excerpt
  • Armillas-Tiseyra, Magalí. The Dictator Novel: Writers and Politics in the Global South (2019) excerpt
  • Baehr, Peter and Melvin Richter. Dictatorship in History and Theory (2004) scholarly focus on 19c Europe.
  • Ben-Ghiat, Ruth. Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2020) scholarly analysis of 13 major dictators; excerpt
  • Brooker, Paul. Defiant Dictatorships: Communist and Middle-Eastern Dictatorships in a Democratic Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 1997). excerpt
  • Costa Pinto, António. Latin American Dictatorships in the Era of Fascism: The Corporatist Wave (Routledge, 2019) excerpt
  • Crowson, Nick. Facing Fascism: The Conservative Party and the European Dictators 1935-40 (Routledge, 1997), how the Conservative government in Britain dealt with them.
  • Dávila, Jerry. Dictatorship in South America (2013), covers Brazil, Argentina, and Chile since 1945. excerpt
  • Galván, Javier A. Latin American Dictators of the 20th Century: The Lives and Regimes of 15 Rulers (2012), brief scholarly summaries; excerpt
  • Hamill, Hugh M. Caudillos: dictators in Spanish America (U of Oklahoma Press, 1995).
  • Harford Vargas, Jennifer. Forms of Dictatorship: Power, Narrative, and Authoritarianism in the Latina/o Novel (Oxford UP, 2017).
  • Kim, Michael et al. eds. Mass Dictatorship and Modernity (2013) excerpt
  • Lim, J. and K. Petrone, eds. Gender Politics and Mass Dictatorship: Global Perspectives (2010) excerpt
  • Lüdtke, Alf. Everyday Life in Mass Dictatorship: Collusion and Evasion (2015) excerpt
  • Mainwaring, Scott, and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, eds. Democracies and Dictatorships in Latin America: Emergence, Survival, and Fall (2014) excerpt
  • Moore Jr, Barrington. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (1966) online
  • Peake, Lesley. Guide To History's Worst Dictators: From Emperor Nero To Vlad the Impaler And More: Nero Accomplishments(2021) excerpt, popular
  • Rank, Michael. History's Worst Dictators: A Short Guide to the Most Brutal Rulers, From Emperor Nero to Ivan the Terrible (2013), popular.
  • Spencer, Robert. Dictators, Dictatorship and the African Novel (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).
  • Weyland, Kurt. Revolution and Reaction: The Diffusion of Authoritarianism in Latin America (2019) excerpt

External links

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