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Dictatorship

Leslie Beecher, Amy Kasza, Lesley Chapel
  • Author
    Leslie Beecher

    Leslie Beecher has been in the field of education for over 15 years serving as a tutor, teacher and instructional designer. She has a B.S. in Elementary Education from Northern Arizona University and M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from University of Phoenix.

  • Instructor
    Amy Kasza

    Amy has a master's of library and information science and a master's of arts in history.

  • Expert Contributor
    Lesley Chapel

    Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

What is a dictatorship? Learn the definition of a dictatorship and its main characteristics. See examples of ancient and modern dictatorships. Updated: 07/07/2021

What Is a Dictatorship?

A dictatorship is a form of government where one person, or a small group of individuals, can make decisions without effective constitutional limitations. In a dictatorship, the dictator has absolute power. They are not held accountable for their actions and are free to do as they please, even limiting citizens' freedom and rights, including:

  • Free speech
  • Freedom of religion

Dictatorships are not an old form of government long extinct. Many countries today are still under a dictatorship, including:

  • Cambodia
  • China
  • North Korea
  • Russia
  • And many more!

Interestingly, most modern dictatorships do not use the term "dictator" to identify their leader but rather use various titles. These titles include:

  • President
  • King
  • Prime Minister
  • Etc.

Many dictatorships are even found in developed nations, which means they usually have private economies that are not controlled by the state.

What is a Dictator?

A dictatorship is a form of government characterized by the absolute rule of one person or a very small group of people who hold all political power. While a dictatorship is a form of government in some nations, just as monarchy or representative democracy is the form of government in others, dictatorships are seen by non-dictatorships as dangerous and cruel because of the way they tend to treat their citizens.

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  • 0:00 What Is A Dictator?
  • 0:20 Dictators And Control
  • 2:10 Life In A Dictatorship
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History of Dictatorships

Dictator Meaning

The meaning of dictator is to grant a person absolute or unlimited government power during an emergency. But in a modern-day dictatorship government, one person (or a small group of individuals) has complete control over the government regardless of whether there is a state of emergency or not.

The term "dictatorship" comes from the Latin word "dictator." In the Roman Republic, the title "dictator" was temporarily given to an individual to deal with state crises and emergencies.

However, modern dictators do not resemble ancient dictators as their absolute power is not in response to a crisis or emergency and is also not temporary.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, many monarchies (a form of dictatorship) started to decline and disappear. As a result, dictatorship became one of the two dominant forms of government utilized by countries. The other was a constitutional democracy.

Latin America

In recent centuries, the dictatorships that replaced monarchies also evolved. For example, in 19th century Latin America, various dictators came into power after central authority collapsed in the nations recently freed from Spanish colonial rule. These self-proclaimed dictators used private armies to establish control over territories.

However, over the years, these governments evolved into national leaders and were put in their position of power by nationalistic military officers. They tended to ally with a particular social class and attempted either to maintain the interests of wealthy and privileged elites or institute far-reaching left-wing social reforms.

Africa and Asia

After World War II, many countries in Africa and Asia opted for a dictatorship instead of the constitutional arrangements put into place by Western colonial powers. This form of government was unworkable in the absence of a strong middle class. Some countries elected presidents and prime ministers by establishing a one-party rule to suppress the opposition, while in others, the military seized power and established military dictatorships.

Europe

In the first half of the 20th century, communist and fascist dictatorships arose in countries experiencing rapid growth in various technological advancements.

Both Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union were considered totalitarian dictatorships. A totalitarian dictatorship is a form of government or political system that:

  • Forbids opposition parties
  • Limits individual opposition to the state and its claims
  • Exercises a high degree of control over civil life (both public and private)

In both of these instances, the leaders of Germany (Adolf Hitler) and the Soviet Union (Joseph Stalin) were the chosen leaders of a single party. They were viewed as charismatic men, which gave them the ability to create a national ideology to legitimize and maintain their power. In addition, they both used terror and propaganda to suppress opposition and advanced science and technology to control the economy and civilians.

Around the time of World War II, Italy was also under a dictatorship. Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was a politician and journalist who founded and led the National Fascist Party. The Fascist Party was rooted in Italian nationalism, national syndicalism, revolutionary nationalism, and the desire to restore and expand Italian territories, which Italian Fascists deemed necessary to emphasize its superiority and strength.

Hitler and Mussolini, June 1940

Hitler and Mussolini riding in a car from June 1940

Types of Dictatorships

There are five types of dictatorships:

Dictators and Control

You won't find a dictator who calls himself a dictator. Instead, dictators have ordinary titles such as president, emperor, great leader and similar monikers. That's because 'dictator' is a pejorative term assigned to certain rulers by other nations, particularly the developed nations of the West - that is, countries with thriving economies - such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and many others.

To be considered a dictatorship means that a country is known to be run by one person without any checks and balances on his power. Dictators make unilateral decisions that affect their countries without having to consult any other branch of government. That's because there's no other branch of government that is not controlled by the dictator. Human nature being what it is, dictators don't rise to power for the good of their nations (though they usually claim otherwise). They seize power to benefit themselves, their families and their close political allies.

Dictators usually come to power through some kind of violent struggle, rather than the peaceful passage of power that we take for granted in the United States. In modern times, it's not unusual to hear news stories about dictators being elected by their citizens, when in fact the elections are manipulated through intimidation of voters to ensure the dictator's victory. A cult of personality often surrounds a dictator, driven by myths - typically perpetuated by the government-controlled media - about the ruler that are designed to build him up in the minds of the citizens as an all-knowing divine being who is the only one capable of bringing prosperity to the nation. In cases such as the late Kim Jong-il in North Korea, the ruler is even worshiped as a god.

Life in a Dictatorship

Unfortunately, dictatorships seldom usher in a nation's prosperity. In the most brutal dictatorships, the citizens live in extreme poverty because the government withholds food and supplies in order to keep the people under control. One of the more dramatic examples of this kind of human rights abuse occurred in Myanmar in 2008. When a cyclone swept over the country, killing hundreds of thousands and leaving millions without food or shelter, the country's military dictatorship blocked humanitarian aid from reaching the people until it could hold a sham election.

The rigging of elections is just one example of how citizens in a dictatorship have little to no personal freedom. Unlike in the United States and other similar nations, the people living in a dictatorship have no rights of free speech, freedom of religion, a free press or even the right to hold an opinion in opposition to the ruler and ruling party.

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Video Transcript

What is a Dictator?

A dictatorship is a form of government characterized by the absolute rule of one person or a very small group of people who hold all political power. While a dictatorship is a form of government in some nations, just as monarchy or representative democracy is the form of government in others, dictatorships are seen by non-dictatorships as dangerous and cruel because of the way they tend to treat their citizens.

Dictators and Control

You won't find a dictator who calls himself a dictator. Instead, dictators have ordinary titles such as president, emperor, great leader and similar monikers. That's because 'dictator' is a pejorative term assigned to certain rulers by other nations, particularly the developed nations of the West - that is, countries with thriving economies - such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and many others.

To be considered a dictatorship means that a country is known to be run by one person without any checks and balances on his power. Dictators make unilateral decisions that affect their countries without having to consult any other branch of government. That's because there's no other branch of government that is not controlled by the dictator. Human nature being what it is, dictators don't rise to power for the good of their nations (though they usually claim otherwise). They seize power to benefit themselves, their families and their close political allies.

Dictators usually come to power through some kind of violent struggle, rather than the peaceful passage of power that we take for granted in the United States. In modern times, it's not unusual to hear news stories about dictators being elected by their citizens, when in fact the elections are manipulated through intimidation of voters to ensure the dictator's victory. A cult of personality often surrounds a dictator, driven by myths - typically perpetuated by the government-controlled media - about the ruler that are designed to build him up in the minds of the citizens as an all-knowing divine being who is the only one capable of bringing prosperity to the nation. In cases such as the late Kim Jong-il in North Korea, the ruler is even worshiped as a god.

Life in a Dictatorship

Unfortunately, dictatorships seldom usher in a nation's prosperity. In the most brutal dictatorships, the citizens live in extreme poverty because the government withholds food and supplies in order to keep the people under control. One of the more dramatic examples of this kind of human rights abuse occurred in Myanmar in 2008. When a cyclone swept over the country, killing hundreds of thousands and leaving millions without food or shelter, the country's military dictatorship blocked humanitarian aid from reaching the people until it could hold a sham election.

The rigging of elections is just one example of how citizens in a dictatorship have little to no personal freedom. Unlike in the United States and other similar nations, the people living in a dictatorship have no rights of free speech, freedom of religion, a free press or even the right to hold an opinion in opposition to the ruler and ruling party.

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  • Activities
  • FAQs

Prompts About Dictatorship:

Essay Prompt 1:

In an essay of about two to three paragraphs, define dictatorship and explain how a dictator can rise to power.

Example: A dictatorship exists when a leader has absolute power that is unchecked by any other branches of government.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay of approximately one to two pages that describes the characteristics of life under a dictatorship. Be sure to explain the role of the cult of personality and human rights abuses.

Example: The cult of personality often elevates a dictator to divine status.

Graphic Organizer Prompt:

Make a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that shows the methods dictators use to control their people. Since many of these methods are graphic, it might be best to either use more text in the graphic organizer, or make any drawings look less realistic and more cartoonish.

Example: Dictators frequently use psychological manipulation.

List Prompt:

Think back to what you have previously learned about history. Make a list of at least four leaders from world history that could be considered dictators. Try not to focus so much on whether you are right or wrong, but rather, ask yourself if the leaders that you put on the list fit the characteristics ascribed to dictators.

Example: Joseph Stalin.

What are the 3 characteristics of dictatorship?

Dictators tend to resort to force or fraud to gain political power. Dictators use intimidation, terror, and the suppression of basic civil liberties. Dictators employ techniques of mass propaganda in order to sustain public support.

Who is a dictatorship leader?

A dictatorship leader is a political leader who possesses absolute power. Most dictatorship countries do not refer to their leader as a dictator, but rather as kings, presidents, prime ministers, etc.

Which definition best defines the term dictator?

A dictator is an individual who forms a government where they make decisions without effective constitutional limitations. The dictator has absolute power. They are not held accountable for their actions and are free to do as they please, even limiting citizens' freedom and rights.

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