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Hoover Institution Workshop on Authoritarian Regimes

Calendar of Events, July 17 to 29, 2016

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Frank Dikötter: The Making of the Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century

12pm - 1pm, Wed, 20 Jul '16
Location: Lou Henry Hoover 101

Image and power have always been closely related, but in the twentieth century a new phenomenon appeared that went well beyond the public veneration of influential individuals, namely the cult of personality. In an age of democracy, when power was no longer seen to be a divine attribute but was vested in the people instead, the cult of personality was used by one-party states to achieve the illusion of popular approval without ever having to resort to elections. By closely studying the cult of personality built around nine leaders, the project adopts a comparative approach: dictators did not exist in a vacuum, they learned from each other. Mao was a keen student of Stalin, while Hitler closely observed Mussolini. Dictators visited each other, spoke to each other, corresponded with each other, and often sent large delegations to study all aspects of government, including the cult of personality and propaganda more generally. Personality cults, of course, changed over time, and not only as a result of new technologies such as radio and television. Some of the most momentous changes in international politics are related to the cult of personality, in particular Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956, which set off a chain reaction among allies in the socialist camp. Paradoxically, the Sino-Soviet rift encouraged the spread of personality cults in China and North Korea. As the initiative shifted to Asia, leaders such as Ceausescu and Mengistu visited Pyongyang instead of Moscow to learn the ropes.