How to become a dictator is just one of the many lessons to be learned at JLF Adelaide this weekend in South Australia.
Authors include Festival Co-director William Dalrymple, Indian parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor and historian Frank Dikötter, whose new book How to Be a Dictator looks at the cult of personality in the 20th century.
Dikötter will discuss his book on Sunday afternoon at the Banquet Room of the Adelaide Festival Centre.
Based in Hong Kong, Dikötter is best known for his history of China under Mao Zedong, called the People’s Triology. His new book also includes Mao and seven other infamous dictators.
Dikötter said he looked at the eight dictators — from Stalin and Hitler to Kim Il-sung and Ceausescu — to illustrate the broad range of skills that dictators deploy and the luck they have in quite unique circumstances to gain power and hold it.
“Now we like to see dictators everywhere, but one of the purposes of the book is to show that we have travelled quite a long way,” Dikötter said.
“We’re [no longer] talking about millions being incarcerated under Stalin or tens of millions being hounded to their deaths under Chairman Mao and the People’s Republic of China.
“So the world is a better place than it was 30 years ago, and 30 years ago is probably better than 60 years ago, but eternal vigilance is the price of democracy. So we must learn how to spot future dictators. And that’s what the book does.”
Dikötter said dictators were a modern construct because their entire system relied on democracy.
“A king can’t be a dictator, an emperor can’t be a dictator,” he said.
“The whole point about being a dictator is that you operate in the age of democracy.”
According to Dikötter, 20th century dictators all wished to appear to be democratic.
“They coerce the population in producing the illusion of popular support by adoring their leader in public,” he said.
This “cult of personality” has the public hailing their leader as a great genius.
“Dictators pretend they represent the majority of the people without ever having to go to the ballot box,” Dikötter said.
Other themes being discussed at JLF Adelaide include the aftermath of colonialism, immigrant life and sessions with prominent fiction writers from different cultures that draw on folklore, myth and fantasy.
JLF Adelaide runs from November 1–3 between 10am and 6pm at the Adelaide Festival Theatre as part of the OzAsia Festival.