In this article:
- Cults of personality get overshadowed by religious cults and the cruel acts committed by history’s scariest dictators, but they’re as much a part of these dictators’ toolkit for holding onto power as any other method.
- Many of these dictators with cults of personalities around them were heads of communist governments who benefited from the additional influence they gained through their propaganda-fueled cult of personality.
- While the psychology behind cults of personality isn’t as clear as that of cults, since there are fewer of them that can be studied, what does stand out as a common denominator is the way cults of personality exploit hero worship.
You’ve probably heard someone accuse a political figure they disagreed with of having a “cult of personality.” It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot, mostly because it just sounds bad, even if there isn’t a lot of evidence to show that a politician has one.
In the strictest sense of the word, a cult of personality is a cult following built around a charismatic leader who either directly or indirectly, that is, through their powerful supporters, has created an idealized public image using propaganda.
Because of the amount of work and influence that it takes to be able to cultivate a cult of personality, it’s no surprise that most cults of personality have been centered on political leaders, most of whom are from communist regimes.
The Scariest Cults of Personality Throughout History
1. Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin was a leader of the Soviet Union who succeeded Vladimir Lenin in 1924. Stalin had an underdog backstory. He was the only child in his family to survive infancy and his father was an abusive alcoholic who would beat up the young Stalin and his mother.
The two would often change their place of residence, likely because Stalin’s mother didn’t make enough to support the two of them. Despite this, he grew up to be a talented artist and an excellent student.
Stalin was a promising young poet who wrote about patriotism under his pen name “Soselo” and a rebellious intellectual who read forbidden books along with Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.
From this, you can already get an image of what Stalin must have been like — an unconventional intelligent, well-spoken young man with a tragic backstory and a lot of admirable qualities. It also didn’t hurt that he was attractive.
A.O Avdienko had this to say about Stalin, giving us a clue as to how people within his cult of personality perceived him, “The men of all ages will call on thy name, which is strong, beautiful, wise and marvelous. Thy name is engraved on every factory, every machine, every place on the earth, and in the hearts of all men.”
Aside from his natural charms, Stalin made a point of showing people that Lenin, his predecessor, approved of him and his rise to power by disseminating propaganda posters that depicted the two leaders as friends.
In reality, Lenin hated his guts. This was done to help legitimize his claim to power.
Stalin also created youth groups, such as the Komsomol, that were taught to embrace new Soviet ideals and, naturally, him as an ideal leader.
2. Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler is another part-time artist and full-time dictator who you might remember from one of his greatest hits, the Holocaust. Jokes aside, Hitler had one of the most influential cults of personality in history that framed him as a superhuman hero who has come to save Germany from ruin.
But since saying that the ruin is some abstract phenomenon, like economic problems, doesn’t elicit a strong emotional response, he presented Jews as enemies of the state.
Now equipped with an enemy and a charismatic persona, Hitler had his Nazi propaganda machine depict him as someone who could make Germany great again and as a local counterpart to other popular leaders in the region.
One such case involved a devotee of his telling a crowd that “Germany’s Mussolini is called Adolf Hitler.“
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, is credited with creating the Führer Myth. The Führer Myth was a great feat of propaganda that elevated Hitler to a god-like status, giving him the support of over 90% of Germans.
3. Kim Il-Sung
Of all the dictators on this list, the only truly successful one, in terms of how long their “legacy” has lasted, is Kim Il-Sung. You may have heard of his grandson, Kim Jong-Un, who inherited the dictatorship of communist North Korea.
Before becoming the founder of a powerful political dynasty, Kim Il-Sung was a resistance fighter who contributed to anti-Japanese efforts together with his mother, Kang Pan-Sok. Their roles in the struggle against the Japanese would later be mythologized as part of the Kim family’s cult of personality.
Kang Pan-Sok is hailed as the “Mother of Korea” and Kim Il-Sung as the “Sun of Korea”. Many propaganda books show Kang giving Kim pistols and teaching him the virtues of Korean patriotism.
This was the start of the Kim family’s unique take on cultivating a cult of personality. While other political leaders set themselves up as sole saviors, Kim Il-Sung granted his entire family legitimacy by making them part of his cult of personality.
As he grew older, Kim Il-Sung began to prominently feature his son, Kim Jong-Il, in propaganda material alongside himself. Kim Jong-Il did the same for his son, Kim Jong-un, by having him make public appearances with him before he died.
4. Josip Broz Tito
Josip Broz Tito doesn’t get as much press as the other charismatic leaders on this list, but he was the subject of what is arguably one of the most thought-out cults of personality barring that of Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro’s own followings.
Josip Tito is wildly considered to be the father of Communist Yugoslavia, a country that was dissolved into seven different states, and served as the president of Yugoslavia from 1953 to 1980.
His meteoric rise to fame began through his attachment to Stalin, himself a near-mythical communist hero.
Additionally, public disappointment in previous leaders made it easier for Josip Tito to present himself as the savior of Yugoslavia. He camped on this and his military achievements to begin his cult of personality.
When Tito finally gained political prominence, he obscured his true personal life, likely because he did not have any particularly great accomplishments as a child. His first mention in a publication referred to him as “Commandant Tito” and songs were made to celebrate him and his wartime achievements.
Tito’s propaganda machine also organized relay races in his name which helped cement his name in the public consciousness.
These days, it’s Yugonostalgia that keeps Tito’s legacy alive.
Yugonostalgia refers to the nostalgia felt by people who live in countries that were once part of Yugoslavia for the glory days of the nation which was, incidentally, during Tito’s rule. Many Serbians still see the days of Yugoslavia as a golden age where interethnic relations between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims were at their most stable and harmonious.
5. Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong, lovingly called Chairman Mao in China, had a cult of personality that helped him rein in his nation during the Cultural Revolution.
It was unique in that instead of being designed to help him maintain power, it was used to help him regain power following his decline in influence due to the failure of the Great Leap Forward.
Zedong’s Great Leap Forward was a five-year plan to revolutionize China’s economy that led to the Great Chinese Famine, one of, if not the, most disastrous famine in human history.
The PR fallout that followed eroded his popularity enough that Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were able to establish themselves more firmly within the communist party.
Mao was able to return to power through a combination of his Red Guards and his cult of personality, both of which were inseparable. Mao’s cult of personality created the Red Guards, but the Red Guards added to his idealized public image which in turn attracted more Red Guards.
Soon, the Red Guards of Chairman Mao could be found all over China, especially in universities, and they were all devoted to serving Mao and defending the revolution.
The Red Guards destroyed cultural relics, both physical and ideological, to erase the existence of a Chinese past that existed without Mao. This was reinforced by the “Little Red Book” that the guards were given.
The said book contained instructions on how to worship Mao in the form of daily rituals where they would be tasked with asking Mao for guidance and reporting back in the evening to his portrait.
6. Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin is the Kim Kardashian of the cult of personality scene.
The Russian president is known for having a propaganda team that publishes images of him doing “macho” activities, such as hunting, fishing, and subduing a tiger, to present him as a hyper-masculine strong leader who won’t let Western nations interfere in Russia’s affairs.
So far, it seems to be working well.
According to Al Jazeera, Putin’s popularity soared after his annexation of Crimea in 2014 (though there’s no news yet regarding Russian sentiment towards the recent activities in Ukraine).
The president has impersonators, cologne lines, and songs in his honor. Not to mention, the merchandise. Vladimir Putin’s image is plastered onto everything from t-shirts to phone cases that loving fans willingly purchase just in case the macho public persona rubs off.
7. Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein is hailed as the best-known Middle Eastern dictator. Much like Stalin, he has an underdog backstory thanks to being born to a peasant family. From early on, he devoted himself to the Arab nationalist ideology of his time and later joined the Ba’ath party in a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Abdel-Karim Qassem.
Saddam caught his big break under the leadership of Hassan Al-Bakr, then the new Iraqi president and a distant relative of Saddam.
This proved to be a mistake on Al-Bakr’s part as Saddam became Vice-President and began to remove politicians not aligned with him from their seats in government, putting him in the position to force Al-Bakr out of power.
After securing his position, Saddam flooded Iraqi society with his image.
He had murals of him as a military leader, a sheik, the nation’s “father,” etc. placed in public spaces. He ordered 83 palaces to be built in his name and claimed he was descended from a historical Iraqi religious leader all in a bid to legitimize his takeover as a valid one.
Part of his influence relied on perpetuating the fear of foreign influence that was used to justify his decisions.
Why Do Cults of Personality Form?
By now, you’ve likely noticed that there are similarities between all of these charismatic leaders, no matter their time period and country. They always present themselves as superhuman or at least exceptional beings who are especially worthy of respect and admiration.
They then use this charisma to reel people in and create a cult-like group that’s centered on them. The leader then identifies an “enemy” for his followers to rally against. This consequently gives them a reason to rally around him and regard him as their savior.
If that makes you think “But that’s what every politician does!” then you’re right. Every election is just a collection of new cults of personality in the making.