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Benito Mussolini (left) and Adolf Hitler. Hitler's policies and orders both directly and indirectly resulted in the deaths of about 50 million people in Europe.[1] Mussolini was a dictator who marked the beginning of "Fascism" in Europe.

A dictatorship is a form of government characterized by a single leader or group of leaders and little or no toleration for political pluralism or independent media.[2] According to other definitions, democracies are a form of government in which "those who govern are selected through contested elections"; therefore, dictatorships are "not democracies".[2]

With the advent of the 19th and 20th centuries, dictatorships and constitutional democracies emerged as the world's two major forms of government, gradually eliminating monarchies, one of the traditional widespread forms of government of the time. Typically, in a dictatorial regime, the leader of the country is identified with the title of dictator; although, their formal title may more closely resemble something similar to leader. A common aspect that characterized dictatorship is taking advantage of their strong personality, usually by suppressing freedom of thought and speech of the masses, in order to maintain complete political and social supremacy and stability. Dictatorships and totalitarian societies generally employ political propaganda to decrease the influence of proponents of alternative governing systems.[3][4]


The word dictator comes from the Latin language word dictātor, agent noun from dictare (dictāt-, past participial stem of dictāre dictate v. + -or -or suffix).[5] In Latin use, a dictator was a judge in the Roman Republic temporarily invested with absolute power.


A dictatorship has been largely defined as a form of government in which absolute power is concentrated in the hands of a leader (commonly identified as a dictator), a "small clique", or a "government organization", and it aims to abolish political pluralism and civilian mobilization.[6] On the other hand, democracy, which is generally compared to the concept of dictatorship, is defined as a form of government in which power belongs to the population and rulers are elected through contested elections.[7][8]

A newer form of government (originating around the early 20th century) commonly linked to the concept of dictatorship is known as totalitarianism. It is characterized by the presence of a single political party and more specifically, by a powerful leader (a real role model) who imposes his personal and political prominence. The two fundamental aspects that contribute to the maintenance of the power are a steadfast collaboration between the government and the police force, and a highly developed ideology. The government has "total control of mass communications and social and economic organizations".[9] According to Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism is a new and extreme form of dictatorship composed of "atomized, isolated individuals".[10] In addition, she affirmed that ideology plays a leading role in defining how the entire society should be organized. According to the political scientist Juan Linz, the distinction between an authoritarian regime and a totalitarian one is that while an authoritarian regime seeks suffocate politics and political mobilization, but totalitarianism seeks to control politics and political mobilization.[11]

However, one of the most recent classification of dictatorships does not identify totalitarianism as a form of dictatorship. Barbara Geddes's study focuses in how elite-leader and elite-mass relations influence authoritarian politics. Her typology identifies the key institutions that structure elite politics in dictatorships (i.e. parties and militaries). The study is based on and directly related to some factors like the simplicity of the categorizations, cross-national applicability, the emphasis on elites and leaders, and the incorporation of institutions (parties and militaries) as central to shaping politics. According to her, a dictatorial government may be classified in five typologies: military dictatorships, single-party dictatorships, personalist dictatorships, monarchies, and hybrid dictatorships.[10]

Military dictatorships[edit]

Military dictatorships are regimes in which a group of officers holds power, determines who will lead the country, and exercises influence over policy. High-level elites and a leader are the members of the military dictatorship. Military dictatorships are characterized by rule by a professionalized military as an institution. In military regimes, elites are referred to as junta members, who are typically senior officers (and often other high-level officers) in the military.[10][12] This type of dictatorship was imposed during the 20th century in countries such as, Chile by Augusto Pinochet, Argentina by Jorge Rafael Videla and other leaders, Uruguay by Juan Maria Bordaberry, Paraguay by Alfredo Stroessner, Bolivia by Hugo Banzer, Brazil by Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco. [13]

Single-party dictatorships[edit]

Xi Jinping, current CCP General Secretary, ruling China.

Single-party dictatorships are regimes in which one party dominates politics. In single-party dictatorships, a single party has access to political posts and control over policy. In single-party dictatorships, party elites are typically members of the ruling body of the party, sometimes called the central committee, politburo, or secretariat. Those groups of individuals controls the selection of party officials and "organizes the distribution of benefits to supporters and mobilizes citizens to vote and show support for party leaders".[10]

Current one-party states include China, Cuba, Eritrea, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam, though North Korea is sometimes also classified as a personalist dictatorship. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which is not recognized by the UN, is also a one-party state but is not considered to be a dictatorship.

Personalist dictatorships[edit]

Personalist dictatorships are regimes in which all power lies in the hands of a single individual. Personalist dictatorships differ from other forms of dictatorships in their access to key political positions, other fruits of office, and depend much more on the discretion of the personalist dictator. Personalist dictators may be members of the military or leaders of a political party. However, neither the military nor the party exercises power independently from the dictator. In personalist dictatorships, the elite corps are usually made up of close friends or family members of the dictator. These individuals are all typically handpicked to serve their posts by the dictator.[10][14]

As such dictators favor loyalty over competence and in general distrust intelligentsia, members of the winning coalition often do not possess professional political careers and are ill-equipped to manage the tasks of the office bestowed on them. Without the dictator’s blessing they would never have acquired a position of power. Once ousted, chances are slim they will maintain their position. The dictator knows this and therefore uses such divide-and-rule tactics to keep their inner circle from coordinating actions (like coups) against them. The result is that such regimes have no internal checks and balances, and are thus unrestrained when exerting repression on their people, making radical shifts in foreign policy, or even starting wars (with other countries.)[15]

According to a 2019 study, personalist dictatorships are more repressive than other forms of dictatorship.[16]

The shift in the power relation between the dictator and its inner circle has severe consequences for the behavior of such regimes as a whole. Many scholars have identified ways in which personalist regimes diverge from other regimes when it comes to their longevity, methods of breakdown, levels of corruption, and proneness to conflicts. The first characteristic that can be identified is their relative longevity. For instance, Mobutu Sese Seko ruled Zaire for 32 years, Rafael Trujillo the Dominican Republic for 31 years and the Somoza family stayed in power in Nicaragua for 42 years.[17] Even when these are extreme examples, personalist regimes, when consolidated, tend to last longer. Barbara Geddes, calculating the lifespans of regimes between 1946 and 2000, found that while military regimes on average stay in power for 8.5 years, personalist regimes survive almost twice as long: on average 15 years. Single-party regimes, on the other hand, used to have a lifespan of nearly 24 years.[18] Monarchies were not included in that research, but a similar study sets their average duration at 25.4 years.[19] This may seem surprising, since usually personalist regimes are considered among the most fragile because they do not possess effective institutions nor a significant support base in society. Studies on the probability of their breakdown found mixed results: Compared to other regime types they are most resistant to internal fragmentation, but more vulnerable to external shocks than single-party or military regimes. The second characteristic is how these regimes behave differently regarding growth rates. With the wrong leadership, some regimes squander their country’s economic resources and bring growth to a virtual halt. Without any checks and balances to their rule, such dictators are domestically unopposed when it come to unleashing repression, or even starting wars.[20]

Monarchic dictatorships[edit]

King Salman of Saudi Arabia[21]

Monarchic dictatorships are in regimes in which "a person of royal descent has inherited the position of head of state in accordance with accepted practice or constitution." Regimes are not considered dictatorships if the monarch's role is largely ceremonial, but absolute monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, can be considered hereditary dictatorships. Real political power must be exercised by the monarch for regimes to be classified as such. Elites in monarchies are typically members of the royal family.[10]

Hybrid dictatorships[edit]

Hybrid dictatorships are regimes that blend qualities of personalist, single-party, and military dictatorships. When regimes share characteristics of all three forms of dictatorships, they are referred to as triple threats. The most common forms of hybrid dictatorships are personalist/single-party hybrids and personalist/military hybrids.[10]

Measuring dictatorships[edit]

Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 2020.[22] Green represents more democratic countries, while yellow and red are considered as hybrid regimes and authoritarian governments, respectively. Most dictatorships are represented as darker shades of red.

One of the tasks in political science is to measure and classify regimes as either dictatorships or democracies. US based Freedom House, Polity IV and Democracy-Dictatorship Index are three of the most used data series by political scientists.[23]

Generally, two research approaches exist: the minimalist approach, which focuses on whether a country has continued elections that are competitive, and the substantive approach, which expands the concept of democracy to include human rights, freedom of the press, and the rule of law. The Democracy-Dictatorship Index is seen as an example of the minimalist approach, whereas the Polity data series, is more substantive.[24][25][26][27]


Between the two world wars, three types of dictatorships have been described: constitutional, counterrevolutionary and fascist. Since World War II, a broader range of dictatorships has been recognized, including Third World dictatorships, theocratic or religious dictatorships and dynastic or family-based dictatorships.[28]

Dictators in the Roman Empire[edit]

During the Republican phase of Ancient Rome, a Roman dictator was the special magistrate who held well defined powers, normally for six months at a time, usually in combination with a consulship. [29] [30] Roman dictators were allocated absolute power during times of emergency. In execution, their power was originally neither arbitrary nor unaccountable, being subject to law and requiring retrospective justification. There were no such dictatorships after the beginning of the 2nd century BC, and later dictators such as Sulla and the Roman emperors exercised power much more personally and arbitrarily. A concept that remained anathema to traditional Roman society, the institution was not carried forward into the Roman Empire.

19th-century Latin American caudillos[edit]

Antonio López de Santa Anna wearing Mexican military uniform

After the collapse of Spanish colonial rule, various dictators came to power in many liberated countries. Often leading a private army, these caudillos or self-appointed political-military leaders, attacked weak national governments once they controlled a region's political and economic powers, with examples such as Antonio López de Santa Anna in Mexico and Juan Manuel de Rosas in Argentina. Such dictatorships have been also referred to as "personalismos".

The wave of military dictatorships in South America in the second half of the twentieth century left a particular mark on Latin American culture. In Latin American literature, the dictator novel challenging dictatorship and caudillismo is a significant genre. There are also many films depicting Latin American military dictatorships.

Fascist dictatorships of the 20th century[edit]

In the first half of the 20th century, fascist dictatorships appeared in a variety of European countries at the same time as the rise of communism, which are distinct from dictatorships in Latin America and postcolonial dictatorships in Africa and Asia. The main examples of fascist dictatorship include:

  • The Nazi Germany of Adolf Hitler.
  • The Empire of Japan which was led by Hideki Tojo and others.
  • The Prathet Thai of Plaek Phibunsongkhram.
  • The Fascist Italy of Benito Mussolini.
  • The Austrofascist Austria of Engelbert Dollfuss and succeeded by Kurt Schuschnigg.
  • The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia of Emil Hácha.
  • The Slovak Republic of Jozef Tiso.
  • The Spain of Francisco Franco.
  • The France of Philippe Pétain. [31]
  • The Romania of Ion Antonescu. [32]
  • The Hungary of Miklós Horthy. [33]
  • The Greece of Ioannis Metaxas.
  • The Croatia under Ustashe and Ante Pavelić. [34]

Latin American dictatorships of the 20th century[edit]

Dictatorships established by Operation Condor[edit]

Henry Kissinger, who was the main thinker of the Operation Condor.[35][36][37]

During the Cold War, several overthrows of socialist governments in South America were financed and supported by the States' Central Intelligence Agency. However, the States had previously made attempts to repress the communists via the "National Security Doctrine" that the States imposed in the 1950s to indoctrinate the soldiers of countries led by them to confront the alleged "communist threat".

Paraguay under Alfredo Stroessner assumed power in the 1954 coup against President Federico Chávez,[13] which then followed by the Brazilian military dictatorship which seized power in 1964 coup and deposed President João Goulart.[38]

In 1973, the Chilean military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet seized power after a coup d'état that ended the three-year presidency and ultimately the life of socialist president Salvador Allende. On the same year the Uruguayan civic-military dictatorship seized power from President Jorge Pacheco Areco. Three years later, the Argentine military junta under Jorge Videla and later Leopoldo Galtieri deposed President Isabel Martínez de Perón.

In 1971, Bolivian general Hugo Banzer deposed socialist president Juan José Torres, who would later be assassinated in Videla's Argentina. Banzer would democratically return to office in 1997. The Peruvian Military Junta in 1968 grabbed power from President Fernando Belaúnde Terry and replaced him with General Juan Velasco Alvarado before he himself was deposed by General Francisco Morales-Bermúdez.[39]

Other dictatorships[edit]

In 1931, a coup was organized against the government of Arturo Araujo, starting the period known as Military Dictatorship of El Salvador from Civic Directory. The government committed several crimes against humanity, such as La Matanza ( The Massacre in english), a peasant uprising in which the military murdered between 10,000 to 40,000 peasants and civilians, the dictatorship ended in 1979.

From 1942 to 1952 Rafael Leonidas Trujillo ruled Dominican Republic, repressing the Communists and their opponents. Trujillo ordered the assassination of Romulo Betancourt, who was the founder of Democratic Action, but before he found out about this ambush, Trujillo's plan ended in failure. In October 1937 the Parsley massacre took place in which the main objective was to assassinate immigrants Hatians residing in Dominican Republic, it is estimated that the dead during the massacre were 12,168 dead, by the president Haitian Élie Lescot, 12,136 dead and 2419 injured by Jean Price-Mars, 17,000 dead by Joaquin Balaguer and 35,000 killed by Bernardo Vega. The Dictatorship ended when Trujillo was assassinated in 1961 in the city of Santo Domingo.

On November 24, 1948 Venezuelan armed forces took power based on a Coup d'état, overthrowing the government of Romulo Gallegos, who was a president of center left. Subsequently, a board composed of 3 generals was organized, one of them was Marcos Perez Jimenez, who later became dictator of Venezuela. The dictatorship repressed the Democratic Action and the Communist Party of Venezuela, both from left. Pedro Estrada led the DSN, which was a military organization Venezuelan that repressed opponents and protesters. Among the cases of crimes against humanity are the death of the Democratic Action politician, Antonio Pinto Salinas who was assassinated while trying to flee from Venezuela. In 1958 an attempt was organized to overthrow Perez Jimenez, faced with political pressure Jimenez had to get rid of many of his allies such as Pedro Estrada. That same year, a movement of civilians and military men joined forces to force Marcos Perez Jimenez and his most loyal ministers to leave the country. The dictatorship ended when Marcos Perez Jimenez was exiled from the country, the civilians were To celebrate in the street, the political prisoners were released and the exiles returned to the country, the Venezuelans once again elected Romulo Betancourt, who had already been president years ago. However, he continued to use the political and economic system of the Jimenez dictatorship.

Although a large part of the Latin American dictatorships were from the political right wing, the Soviet Union supported socialist states in Latin America as well. Cuba under Fidel Castro was a great example of such state. Castro's government was established after the Cuban Revolution, that overthrew the administration of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, turning it into the first Socialist State of the Western Hemisphere. In 2008 Castro left power and was replaced by his brother, Raul.

In 1972, Guillermo Rodriguez Lara established a dictatorial government in Ecuador, and called his government the "Nationalist Revolution"[citation needed]. In 1973, the country entered OPEC. The government also imposed agrarian reforms in practice[citation needed]. Rodriguez Lara's regime was replaced in 1976 by another military junta led by Alfredo Poveda, whose own rule ended in 1979 and was followed by a democratically elected government.

Dictatorships in Africa and Asia after World War II[edit]

Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire's longtime dictator

After World War II, dictators established themselves in the several new states of Africa and Asia, often at the expense or failure of the constitutions inherited from the colonial powers. These constitutions often failed to work without a strong middle class or work against the preexisting autocratic rule. Some elected presidents and prime ministers captured power by suppressing the opposition and installing one-party rule and others established military dictatorships through their armies. Whatever their form, these dictatorships had an adverse impact on economic growth and the quality of political institutions.[40] Dictators who stayed in office for a long period of time found it increasingly difficult to carry out sound economic policies.

The often-cited exploitative dictatorship is the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Zaire from 1965 to 1997, embezzling over $5 billion from his country.[41] Pakistan is another country to have been governed by 3 military dictators for almost 32 years in 7 decades of its existence. Starting with General Muhammad Ayub Khan who ruled from 1958–1969. Next was General Zia-ul-Haq who usurped power in 1977 and held on to power the longest until he died in an air crash in 1988. Ten years after Zia, General Pervez Musharraf got control after defeat against India in the Kargil war. He remained in power for 9 years until 2008.[42] Suharto of Indonesia is another prime example, having embezzled $15-35 billion[43][44] during his 31-year dictatorship known as the New Order. In the Philippines, the conjugal dictatorship[45] of Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Marcos embezzled billions of dollars in public funds,[46][47][48] while the nation's foreign debt skyrocketed from $599 million in 1966 to $26.7 billion in 1986, with debt payment being reachable only by 2025.[49] The Marcos dictatorship has been noted for its anti-Muslim killings,[50][51][52][53] political repression, censorship, and human rights violations,[54] including various methods of torture.[55]

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier succeeded his father François "Papa Doc" Duvalier as the ruler of Haiti after his death in 1971.
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, current president of Turkmenistan


The global dynamics of democratization has been a central question for political scientists.[56][57] The Third Wave Democracy was said to turn some dictatorships into democracies[56] (see also the contrast between the two figures of the Democracy-Dictatorship Index in 1988 and 2008).

One of the rationales that the Bush Administration employed periodically during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq is that deposing Saddam Hussein and installing a democratic government in Iraq would promote democracy in other Middle Eastern countries.[58] However, according to The Huffington Post, "The 45 nations and territories with little or no democratic rule represent more than half of the roughly 80 countries now hosting U.S. bases. ... Research by political scientist Kent Calder confirms what's come to be known as the "dictatorship hypothesis": The United States tends to support dictators [and other undemocratic regimes] in nations where it enjoys basing facilities."[59]

Theories of dictatorship[edit]

Mancur Olson suggests that the emergence of dictatorships can be linked to the concept of "roving bandits", individuals in an atomic system who move from place to place extracting wealth from individuals. These bandits provide a disincentive for investment and production. Olson states that a community of individuals would be served less badly if that bandit were to establish himself as a stationary bandit to monopolize theft in the form of taxes. Except from the community, the bandits themselves will be better served, according to Olson, by transforming themselves into "stationary bandits". By settling down and making themselves the rulers of a territory, they will be able to make more profits through taxes than they used to obtain through plunder. By maintaining order and providing unsollicited protection to the community, the bandits will create an environment in which people can increase their surplus which means a greater taxable base. Thus a potential dictator will have a greater incentive to provide an illusion of security to a given community from which he is extracting taxes and conversely, the unthinking part of the people from whom he extracts the taxes are more likely to produce because they will be unconcerned with potential theft by other bandits. This is the rational that bandits use in order to explain their transformation from "roving bandits" into "stationary bandits".[60]

See also[edit]

  • Absolute monarchy
  • Autocracy
  • Authoritarianism
  • Benevolent dictatorship
  • Civil-military dictatorship
  • Constitutional dictatorship
  • Stalinism
  • Maoism
  • Juche
  • Dictatorship of the bourgeoisie
  • Dictatorship of the proletariat
  • Despotism
  • Elective dictatorship
  • Family dictatorship
  • How Democracies Die
  • Military dictatorship
  • Generalissimo
  • List of titles used by dictators
  • Maximum Leader
  • Mobutism
  • Nazism
  • Fascism
  • People's democratic dictatorship
  • Right-wing dictatorship
  • Selectorate theory
  • Strongman
  • Supreme leader
  • Theocracy


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Further reading[edit]

  • Behrends, Jan C. Dictatorship: Modern Tyranny Between Leviathan and Behemoth, in Docupedia Zeitgeschichte, 14 March 2017
  • Dikötter, Frank. How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century (2019) scholarly analysis of eight despots: Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, as well as Kim Il-sung of North Korea; François Duvalier, or Papa Doc, of Haiti; Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania; and Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia. online review; also excerpt
  • William J. Dobson (2013). The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. Anchor. ISBN 978-0-307-47755-2.
  • Finchelstein, Federico. The ideological origins of the dirty war: Fascism, populism, and dictatorship in twentieth century Argentina (Oxford UP, 2017).
  • Fraenkel, Ernst, and Jens Meierhenrich. The dual state: A contribution to the theory of dictatorship. (Oxford UP, 2018).
  • Friedrich, Carl J.; Brzezinski, Zbigniew K. (1965). Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (2nd ed.). Praeger.
  • Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce; Smith, Alastair; Siverson, Randolph M.; Morrow, James D. (2003). The Logic of Political Survival. The MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-63315-4.
  • Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith (2011). The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. Random House. p. 272. ISBN 978-1-61039-044-6. OCLC 701015473.
  • Ridenti, Marcelo. "The Debate over Military (or Civilian‐Military?) Dictatorship in Brazil in Historiographical Context." Bulletin of Latin American Research 37.1 (2018): 33–42.
  • Ringen, Stein. The perfect dictatorship: China in the 21st century (Hong Kong UP, 2016).
  • Ward, Christoper Edward, ed. The Stalinist Dictatorship (Routledge, 2018).