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Tyrannical Dictators: Rule of One!

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The author is a student of ancient and modern European history.

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler

Tyranny: One Man Leads All

Dictators have risen to take control of the reigns of society for as long as men have organized society. From Caesar to Hitler, dictatorships have changed in scope and power, but the root causes of their rise have remained the same throughout the ages. When democracy fails to provide for the security of the people, dictators are able to seize control of the arms of government.

While assessing what constitutes a dictator, one has to determine the conditions by which a leader is considered one. Dictatorship is defined as having total power over a country, but in a historical sense, the term needs to be explained.

Dictatorships should be defined by singular rule, thus excluding military juntas or any form of oligarchy. They must be formed by abusing the rule of law, excluding monarchs and despots. Lastly, tyrannical dictatorships must wield absolute power. This is affected by the command of a nation's military, political, and industrial capabilities.

With dictatorship defined, one can find four main causes of its rise. First, a sizeable portion of the state's population must be disenfranchised to form the bulk of the dictator's support. Second, a dictator always finds an enemy within the state to blame for the state's problems. Third, they will find an enemy outside the state to manipulate as a threat to the state. Lastly, for a dictator to rise, the political body of the state must have become unable or unwilling to attend to the population's needs.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

Disenfranchised Populations

In 1762 Jean-Jacques Rousseau released The Social Contract, a book intended to explain the nature of political organization. The idea is that people give up a certain measure of freedom to cooperate for the betterment of society overall. Political philosophy throughout the Modern Era worked to understand and explain the necessity of government being a legitimate expression of the will of the people governed. Dictators exploit this concept by agitating parts of the population who find themselves, rightfully or not, unable to express their will.

Unemployment, or underemployment, is one of the greatest factors in disenfranchising the population. When people are unable to have the dignity of work that produces tangible benefits, they lose confidence in the government. Historically this was done by driving people off of common lands, but with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it has involved controlling the means of production.

When Caesar seized power, the Roman world was reeling from a series of disasters. Civil War had become common due to the expansion of Roman provinces. Many people living within the Roman Empire were not Roman citizens, including those in Italy who had fought for the Roman Legions. Caesar's Gallic Wars also produced a massive influx of slaves, which combined to form the latifundia, a series of large inherited estates that slaves worked. This created a class of people who could neither vote nor find meaningful work, placing many on the public dole. Caesar's offer of reforms and bringing work back to Romans gave him great public support.

French Revolutionaries

French Revolutionaries

Napoleon likewise came to power on the heels of a massive social uprising. France was governed by and for one percent of the population, which was beginning to benefit from new agricultural methodology. With a growing middle class that was rich but politically ignored and a lower class that was increasingly losing their traditional homes and way of life, Napoleon benefited from a public revolution.

Hitler, in turn, came to a population that was able to remember life from a better time. Before World War I, the German Empire was a growing political unit that dominated continental Europe. After losing the war and the worldwide spread of the Great Depression, German people were unemployed, hungry, and felt ignored by the political elite who were making economic policy.

Internal Scapegoats

Dictators use perceived internal enemies to bolster their cause. Minority groups bear the brunt of the trouble for this perception. By pointing out an internal enemy, the dictator is able to turn the people against his political opposition. Those that support the opposition are therefore cast as enemies of the state.

Caesar's internal enemy was the rich senatorial nobility. As Caesar was a member of the Populares, he cast the Optimates as being out of touch with the populace. He blamed the optimates, somewhat correctly, for policies that had led to multiple civil wars and the unemployment that plagued the lower class.

In Napoleonic France, the internal enemy was the nobility, the Church, and the rural farmers. The nobility was the first casualty of the French Revolution outbreak. The Church was then targeted because of its riches and ties to the nobility. As the revolution stretched on a large scale, pogroms were carried out in the countryside to rid France of the rural farmers, who were seen to be supporting the Church. Napoleon consistently cast the return of the nobility as a threat to the safety of the people of France.

In Nazi Germany, Hitler was able to blame the Jews. The Jewish people had cornered the banking market, and some high-profile Jews were connected to the Communist party. Tenuous connections allowed Hitler to provide scant evidence for his oratory and blame the Jews for all the problems that were facing the Germans.

Map of Europe

Map of Europe

External Enemies

Just as important as internal enemies, external enemies form a necessary part of a dictator's oratory. After a dictator takes power, he uses the external enemy to unite the people behind a cause. Whether that cause is preemptively attacking, defending, or even just organizing depends on the situation's specifics.

Caesar's external enemies were many, from the barbarian tribes of Germania to the treacherous eastern princes. Of particular note was the Parthian Empire. The Parthians had defeated a Roman Army under Crassus, and before his death, Caesar was setting the stage for a grand campaign to avenge that loss. These external threats provided a visceral response from the Roman people, easily allowing Caesar to manipulate the Roman system.

With the execution of the Austrian princess, Maria Antoinette, Napoleon did not have to find an external enemy. Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, Spain, the United Provinces, and Piedmont were all trying to invade France to prevent the spread of republicanism. These enemies continued to threaten Napoleon's regime, as evinced by the seven wars committed by the Coalitions against France between 1792 and 1815.

Hitler's enemies changed along with his fortunes. First on the German agenda was France. After WWI and the punishing Versailles Treaty, Germany had an easy enemy in France. Communist Russia was next on the list and, had that succeeded, it would have next been Great Britain. By focusing the people outward, Hitler was able to continually extend his mandate to rule without having to end the government formally.

Napoleon crossing the Bridge of Arcol

Napoleon crossing the Bridge of Arcol

Collapse of the Political Body

The last and one of the most important factors that lead to the rise of dictators is a broken political system. Corruption, control, and impotence lead to the stagnation of laws and inability to act. Political bodies that no longer serve the function of operating government for the benefit of the people under it quickly become the focus of dictators.

In ancient Rome, the Senate had become divided between the Optimates and Populares. The Optimates were the old nobility and, after the Social Wars, controlled the Senate to the point of excluding the lower class. The Populares, of which Caesar was one, used the lower class for their votes to empower themselves. These two parties used the political system for their own gain to the exclusion of all other goals, ultimately leading to their destruction, partly under Julius Caesar as they were defeated in battle and finally under Octavian.

In Napoleonic France, the Nobility and Church had reached a place of immeasurable power compared to their fellow countrymen. Wars were fought, laws were enacted, and the economy was rigged to work in favor of the nobility. The serfs became nothing more than another commodity in the Ancien Regime. This system was utterly untenable to most people, and Napoleon was the hero who saved the republic.

In the Weimar Republic that preceded the rise of Hitler, the government was in dire straits. Harsh economic truths had to be accounted for as a result of WWI, but it was not on the back of the legislature that enacted those laws. A long-sighted plan to fix the economy is okay for people with enough food to last it out, but for the majority, it was not simply a little pain now for less pain later. Many people of the majority were starving in the streets, and Hitler offered a change, any change, to that situation.

Caesar's Assassination

Caesar's Assassination

Rise and Fall

Tyrannical dictators appear only when the situation has already reached dire straits. They offer solutions to the people's problems, but their power cannot be revoked once enabled. Eventually, a dictator's methods turn against them, the solutions to the people's problems create new problems, and the dictator rarely has the skills to turn the same trick twice.

Sources and Further Reading

Allen, William Sheridan. The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922-1945. Brattleboro, VT: Echo Point Books & Media, LLC, 2014.

Arnold, James R. Marengo and Hohenlinden: Napoleon's Rise to Power. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2005.

Rinaldo, Denise. Julius Caesar: Dictator for Life. Franklin Watts, 2010.

© 2016 A Anders