How Dictators Work

By: Shanna Freeman

Cuban premier Fidel Castro speaking in Chile, 1972.
Cuban premier Fidel Castro speaking in Chile, 1972.
Romano Cagnoni/Getty Images

Due to the controversial, often violent and long-lasting nature of their regimes, dictators make the news. But recently it seems that they've been in the news more often. Fidel Castro resigned on Feb. 24, 2008, after ruling Cuba for nearly 50 years. Saddam Hussein led Iraq from 1979 to 2003 and was executed in 2006. Kim Jong-il of North Korea ordered his country's first nuclear weapons test in 2006, then pledged to shut down the program entirely the following year. In March 2008, Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, stepped down to the office of prime minister. A decade ago, political commentator Fareed Zacharia stated that dictatorships were "anachronisms in a world of global markets, information and media" [source: Foreign Affairs].

And yet, dictators still rule dozens of countries in the world. But you'll notice that Vladimir Putin's title was president, not dictator. Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein were presidents of their respective countries. Kim Jong-il holds three official titles -- Chairman of the Defense Commission of North Korea, Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army and General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea -- but none include the term dictator.


Many dictators don't usually call themselves dictators (although a few have). They can be presidents, prime ministers, chancellors or even monarchs. These rulers come to be known as dictators by the way that they wield their power. Although their regimes vary widely, most dictators have at least a few things in common. They don't usually come to power through free constitutional elections; they often take control during coups d'etats, revolutions or states of emergency; and they have absolute, sole power over their state.

When it was first used, however, the word "dictator" didn't have such negative connotations. We'll look at the basics of dictators through the ages, starting with ancient Rome.

The History of Dictatorship

A statue of Roman dictator Julius Caesar
A statue of Roman dictator Julius Caesar
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The office of dictator once had a very different meaning from how we think of it today. It was first created by the Roman Senate in 510 B.C. for emergency purposes, such as taking care of rebellions. During the time of the Republic, Rome was ruled by two consuls, and the Senate decided that in some cases it was necessary to have a single person making decisions. Sometimes, one of the consuls became dictator.

Dictators held authority over all other politicians, couldn't be held legally responsible for their actions and couldn't hold the office for longer than six months (although there were two exceptions to this rule). They could also change Roman law and the constitution, but they couldn't use any public money other than what the Senate gave them, and they couldn't leave Italy. Most dictators left office after they completed their tasks, even if their six months hadn't yet elapsed.


Titus Larcius, had been a consul. He was chosen to put down a rebellion staged by several cities that wanted to reinstate the most recent Roman king, Tarquin II. Titus Larcius was a member of the patrician class, the privileged elite. He worked to improve the lives of the plebeians, the middle- and lower-class Romans.

Dictators were appointed off and on as necessary until 202 B.C. More than 100 years later, Lucius Cornelius Sulla was appointed dictator without a term limit and without the restrictions of previous dictators. He ruled for two years in the office and executed thousands of Roman citizens, many of them political opponents. Sulla also became rich by confiscating property. He was succeeded by Julius Caesar, who was named dictator for life and proceeded to begin a civil war. Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., and the office of dictator was abolished due to its corruption.

Modern dictators usually come to power during states of emergency, too. Many historians consider Napoleon Bonaparte to be the first modern dictator. Napoleon was a general during the French Revolution, a period of huge social and political upheaval in the country. Beginning in 1789, France evolved from a monarchy to a republic, and then to an empire. In the midst of executions, coups and confusion, Napoleon became a consul under a new provisional government.

French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in his study
French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in his study
Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Because he was an undefeated military commander, Napoleon enjoyed immense popularity. He created a balan­ced budget, reformed the government and wrote the Civil Code that still forms the basis of French civil law today. Napoleon then abolished the Senate and continued to reform the constitution. He named himself consul for life, and in 1804, crowned himself emperor. He continued his military pursuits, fighting across Europe.

Napoleon controlled every facet of government and had a network of spies. He also controlled the press, ensuring that his propaganda machine continued. But his reign began to falter when his invasion of Russia was a failure. A coalition of European forces, including armies from Great Britain, Prussia, Spain and Portugal, surrounded France.

Generals in the French Army mutinied and Napoleon was forced to abdicate the throne. After a brief return to power, he was exiled for good in 1815.

So from ancient dictators to modern ones, dictators have several different commonalities. Let's look at what makes a dictator a dictator in the next section.

What Makes a Dictator?

Korean dictator Kim Il Sung begins the evacuation of Chinese troops from North Korea.
Korean dictator Kim Il Sung begins the evacuation of Chinese troops from North Korea.
Keystone/Getty Images

Most dictators have several characteristics in common. They usually rule autocracies, governments with a single self-appointed leader and no governing body to check his power. Often, dictators have totalitarian regimes, keeping their power through control of the mass media. Totalitarian dictators also use secret police and spy on the citizens of their state as well as restrict or completely remove their personal freedoms.

Many of these dictators foster cultsof personality, a form of hero worship in which the masses are fed propaganda declaring their leader to be flawless (and in some cases, divine or divinely appointed). The North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung (father of Kim Jong-il) was essentially the sole subject of all forms of art created in the country. Schoolchildren were taught to give thanks to Kim Il-sung, the source of all of their blessings, as part of their training. Critics spoke of him as being megalomaniacal and extremely narcissistic. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was also full of statues, murals, posters and paintings bearing his image.


circa 1944: Adolf Hitler gives the fascist salute at a parade. Visible on the balcony with him are Galeazzo Ciano and Italian Benito Mussolini (far left). Just visible on the right is the hand Hermann Goering holding his Field Marshal's baton.
circa 1944: Adolf Hitler gives the fascist salute at a parade. Visible on the balcony with him are Galeazzo Ciano and Italian Benito Mussolini (far left). Just visible on the right is the hand Hermann Goering holding his Field Marshal's baton.
Keystone/Getty Images

As with ancient Roman dictators and the more recent example of Napoleon Bonaparte, it's often the case that a state of emergency or a coup d'etat results in a dictator coming to power. However, there have been dictators who got there legally. Adolf Hitler, for example, was appointed chancellor, or head of government, by President Paul von Hindenburg in 1933. After Hindenburg died, Hitler made himself Fü­hrer (a combination of president and chancellor).

In addition to being political leaders, dictators often hold the highest military office in their state as well. Many dictators were distinguished military commanders prior to gaining absolute power. Manuel Noriega of Panama was a soldier his entire life. As leader (although never officially president, he was eventually declared chief executive) of the country, he commanded its military and usually appeared in public in military uniform.

Noriega's rule was an example of a military dictatorship that had a civil government with little actual power (some military dictatorships are stratocracies in which the military directly rules the country). Military dictators often take control via a coup d'etat, but some evolve into the role. Saddam Hussein was originally the general of the Iraqi Army and vice president. He gained more power as the president at the time, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, became ill. Hussein officially became president in 1979.

A variation on the military dictatorship can be a junta, which is the typical military dictatorship in Latin America. This comprises a committee of military leaders, who often engage in the same types of behaviors, such as brutality and oppression, as dictatorships of one. The country of Burma has been ruled by a junta, the State Peace and Development Council, since 1988.

Once they're in power, it usually takes a lot for a dictator to step down. We'll look at elections, removals and the death of dictators next.

To End Dictatorships

Burmese opposition leaders U Nu (L), Aung San Suu Kyi (C) and General Tin Oo (R)
Burmese opposition leaders U Nu (L), Aung San Suu Kyi (C) and General Tin Oo (R)
Sandro Tucci//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Sometimes dictators do allow elections, but they don't resemble what we think of as elections in democratic countries. Under extreme pressure from other countries, Saudi Arabian king Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud allowed municipal elections in 2005, the first elections since the 1960s. These elections allowed citizens to choose local councils. They weren't really democratic, however, because Saudi women couldn't vote. Although not expressly forbidden to vote, most women didn't have the necessary photo identification, nor were there enough female poll workers to register them (men couldn't register women to vote). Saudi Arabia as a whole continues to be ruled by an absolute monarchy.

In February 2008, the military junta ruling Burma, called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), announced plans for an election in 2010. A spokesperson stated that "the time has now come to change from military rule to democratic civilian rule" [source: Washington Post]. However, most of Burma's citizens, as well as other governments, don't take the junta seriously. In 1990, Burma had a general election in which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, won. The government refused to acknowledge Kyi's win and has kept her imprisoned for much of the time since the election.


A handout photo of Saddam Hussein after his capture, December 2003
A handout photo of Saddam Hussein after his capture, December 2003
U.S. Army via Getty Images

Dictatorships sometimes come to an end just as chaotically as they began. Adolf Hitler committed suicide after the Allies beat the German Armed Forces. Fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was shot by Communist partisans and his body stoned by civilians. Manuel Noriega was captured after the United States invaded Panama and is serving a 30-year prison sentence in a Florida federal correctional facility. Saddam Hussein was deposed after coalition forces took control of Iraq and pulled from a small muddy foxhole by United States Armed Forces near his birthplace in Tikrit. He was later executed by the provisional government of Iraq.

Just as often, nature takes its course. Many dictatorships end when the dictator becomes too weak or sick to continue on, or dies suddenly. Vladimir Lenin suffered a series of strokes and took lesser roles in government before his death. Josef Stalin also had a stroke and died shortly afterwards. In 2008, Fidel Castro stepped down as leader of Cuba (passing the presidency to his brother Raul) after several years of worsening health.

For the most part, dictators tend to stay in power for a very long time. Or they're deposed only to be replaced by another dictator. It takes a long time to change an entire governmental structure, and often it doesn't happen without the intervention of the United Nations, the United States or other governmental organizations. Currently, more than 70 countries in the world are ruled by dictators. Many of them are guilty of atrocities against their own people.

Non-governmental organizations, such as Human Rights Watch research, report on and publicize human rights violations. They also exert pressure on governments and international organizations to bring about reform in areas of extensive human rights abuses. Perhaps the recent removals and resignations of dictators signal a trend toward elected rulers who allow their citizens the basic freedoms that many of us take for granted today.

For more information on dictators, fascism and all things politics, try the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Beehner, Lionel and Paul Cruickshank. "The post-dictator era." Guardian Unlimited, March 3, 2008.
  • Brzezinski, Friedrich. "Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy." Harvard University Press, 1965.
  • Chirot, Daniel. "Hidden Tyrants." The Free Press, 1994.
  • Cobban, Alfred. "Dictatorship: In History and Theory." Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939.
  • Dictator of the Month
  • "Dissidents Decry Burmese Junta's Election Plans.", Tuesday, February 12, 2008.
  • Martin, Bradley K. "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty." St. Martin's Griffin, 2006.
  • Mesquita, Bueno de, et al. "The Logic of Political Survival." Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003.
  • Plutarch. "The Parallel Lives." Loeb Classical Library, 1916. Public domain.­Plutarch/Lives/Sulla*.html
  • Sobel, Corey. "The Seven Wonders of the Totalitarian World." Esquire, February 2008.
  • Wallechinsky , David. "Who Is the World's Worst Dictator?" Parade, February 11, 2007.
  • Zakaria, Fareed. "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy." Foreign Affairs, December 1997.