For most of us today, the synonym for “dictator” is primarily the Nazi or Communist overlords of the 20th century. But the fact remains that the box of “authoritative leader” includes hundreds of names, since ancient times. Not everyone entered the history textbooks in the same black letter as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin whose Mao Zedongwhich, however, in no way diminishes the influence they had or still have in their time and country: According to statistics, there are still 57 regular dictatorships in the world even in the 21st century. The perverted mind of the mentioned leaders often caused truly bizarre situations, which already during their mandate raised questions among the lay and professional public about the mental health of those concerned.
Who is the dictator? A number of so-called presidents have an elected parliament behind them and run for their posts in “democratic” elections. Nevertheless, these institutions tend to be just completely empty backdrops, deprived of their real purpose – that is, to express the opinion of the people. In 2012, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko called himself “the last European dictator” and since 2001, he has not made much effort to hide election fraud. In the following text, we use the word “dictator” regardless of the official position of the persons mentioned, only taking into account their authoritarian style of government.
Go over corpses
The term “psychopath” has become a lay synonym for “crazy” in Czech. From a professional point of view, however, it refers to a person suffering from a serious personality disorder, which manifests itself in antisocial behavior, a lack of empathy, an inability to feel guilt and an effort to achieve one’s own goal regardless of the victim. At the same time, psychopaths appear charismatic and self-confident on the outside, they are intelligent, successful and popular. There are about 1% of such people in the population, however, their abilities and lack of inhibitions allow them to easily climb the social ladder. For example, psychologists estimate that up to one fifth of the top management of large companies are psychopaths.
Not every dictator has to be a psychopath, but the mentioned trait definitely helps in the “performance of the function”. The concentration of power in the hands of a single person requires permanent and merciless manipulation of subordinates. But on the one hand, a dictator needs capable people to keep the system running, but they tend to be ambitious and thus threaten his position. The person in question must therefore constantly choose between the disintegration of his own power due to loyal but incompetent subordinates and its reinforcement through capable but dangerous people whose achievements can overshadow him and make them his successors.
The permanent tension described takes a toll on the psyche of authoritarians in the form of paranoia – a morbid belief that someone is threatening them and is secretly planning their downfall. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was undoubtedly paranoid, which resulted in the bloody Great Terror of 1936-1938, which claimed the lives of up to 1.2 million people.
Doppelgangers and armor
Paradoxically, taking the dream position of a leader does not mean any honey, and we could trace the symptoms of paranoia already in leaders at the dawn of history. The longer they stayed at the top, the more their minds became concerned with their own safety. The situation often got so far that they ended up spending most of the day obsessively checking to see if anyone was trying to poison or murder them – and the second option was often not far from the truth: It is reported, for example, that the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro survived 638 assassination attempts during his tenure.
The Iraqi leader has become a “champion” in paranoia Saddam Hussein, who even had body doubles perform for him and never announced in advance where he would be eating that day. The aforementioned North Korean leader Kim Jong Il again, he generally traveled by armored train and never used air transport for fear of assassination. And the Myanmar Generalissimo Than Shwei it is said that on the advice of his astrologer, for security reasons, he temporarily moved the capital to a remote forest where there was no water or electricity.
Paranoia, especially if fueled by drug and stimulant use, can develop into psychosis and personality breakdown. A psychotic cannot correctly distinguish reality from fiction and his own imagination, which is again well illustrated by the example Adolf Hitler: Toward the end of his “career” he received doses of meth in the morning to wake him up and morphine or heroin in the evening to calm him down. And while the Allied armies were approaching the gates of Berlin, the leader was moving imaginary German divisions on the maps that were supposed to turn the tide.
Brain and face
They say power corrupts, and psychological experiments prove it. Our brain is equipped for so-called mirroring: When looking at other people’s emotions or actions, the same centers are involved in it, as if we were in the place of the watched counterparts. However, if the participants in the experiments were divided into groups, one of which wore tracksuits and the other wore jackets or police uniforms – i.e. badges of power – the mirroring ability dropped significantly.
If the brain is exposed to power for a long time, the sensitivity to the experiences of others is lost and an effect similar to psychopathy occurs. In addition, this inner “dullness” can also be read from the face. In a recent study, Canadian psychologists presented 160 volunteers with photographs of various political leaders who had come to power either democratically or by force. Even without prior knowledge of the person in question, most of the participants were able to correctly distinguish which group the statesman belonged to just by looking at the face. The indicators they used to make decisions are not surprising: While “democratic” faces usually share warmer and more attractive features, dictators appear hard and cold, which gives them the appearance of authority.
Cult of personality
Dictators tend to have completely distorted ideas about themselves and see themselves as saviors. Hand in hand with this then goes narcissism, which is manifested by an intense belief in one’s own uniqueness and unhealthy self-love, as a result of which the mentioned people around them create a cult of personality. Kim Jong-il became a prime example: The state media portrays him as a man whose birth was announced by a double star and birds sang in the middle of winter.
Former Haitian President Francois Duvalier he claimed to be a skilled voodoo magician and was convinced that spirits bestowed special powers on the 22nd of each month. In the later years of his mandate, he left the presidential palace only on the specified day.
There is no doubt that the nature of dictators differs significantly from that of the vast majority of the population – which leads one to believe that this is some kind of pathological aberration. However, psychological studies have not concluded that these mass murderers of the past century were united by one specific psychiatric diagnosis. “Hitler displayed many symptoms, from extreme paranoia to dozens of other problems that would fill a psychiatry textbook. However, he apparently did not suffer from real mental illness.” states, for example, a psychiatrist and the leader’s contemporary Fritz Redlich in the book Diagnosis of the destructive prophet. His conclusion is unequivocal: The man whose crimes started the Second World War could not excuse his actions with a mental disorder.
An infantile narcissist
A German-American psychologist also focused more closely on the personality of the Nazi leader Erich Fromm in the publication Anatomy of human destructiveness from 1973, in which he thoroughly examines the roots of aggression. According to him, Hitler was detached from reality – Fromm described him literally as a dreamer – but at the same time a number of contradictory character traits were mixed in him: On the one hand, he was said to be a narcissist and basically a lazy and uneducated man, but on the other hand he was supposed to be infantile and also show tendencies towards sadomasochism. Based on the testimonies of the time, he hardly showed any emotions and treated others with a cold distance.
According to other psychologists, the aloofness described was related to his lifelong asexuality and was among the reasons why he married late in life. Apparently, even for his peers, the topics he often discussed must have been alarming: He was fascinated by death and extinction, he made no secret of his infamous views on “inferior” races, and moreover, he showed an inappropriate interest in various diseases. How could such a person rise to the top of the political pyramid quite easily and quickly? Experts agree on one feature – Hitler was able to masterly lie and win over crowds, while ranking among the best orators in modern history.
What about Putin?
Sentence “What about Putin?” got a parodic touch in Russia. At the end of a series of controversial political debates on television, the moderators play a video in which the Russian president expresses his own opinion and puts an end to any disagreements with the weight of his personality.
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Above all, the invasion of Ukraine raised the question of his mental health, and Western media were filled with analyzes by more or less respected professors of psychiatry. Almost everyone agrees, however, that the isolation into which the authoritarian leader resorted to at the start of the pandemic two years ago had a negative impact on his mental health. At all appearances and meetings, he keeps a physical distance from others and, according to the testimony, he interacts with only a few people. However, we can only speculate about the true state of his mind.
Dictators of the 21st century
In modern history, the concept of dictatorship took on a new meaning when it became synonymous with an authoritarian state arrangement. The first “true” dictatorship is talked about in connection with the rise of fascism in Italy, and it is certainly not the case that the mentioned era ended with the fall of the Eastern Bloc: Even in 2022, there are 57 countries in the world officially classified as dictatorships. In accordance with the definition, this is the vast majority of Asian states – with a handful of exceptions in the form of India, Mongolia or Japan – and more than half of African countries. On the contrary, there is no dictatorship in Europe, if we do not count Russia and Belarus.