A cult of personality, or cult of the leader, arises when a country's regime uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized and heroic image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. A cult of personality is similar to apotheosis, except that it is established by modern social engineering techniques, usually by the state or the party in one-party states and dominant-party states. It is often seen in totalitarian or authoritarian countries.
The term came to prominence in 1956, in Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences", given on the final day of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the speech, Khrushchev, who was the First Secretary of the Communist Party - in effect, the leader of the country - criticized the lionization and idealization of Joseph Stalin, and by implication, his communist contemporary Mao Zedong, as being contrary to Marxist doctrine. The speech was later made public and was part of the "de-Stalinization" process in the Soviet Union.
The Imperial cult of ancient Rome identified emperors and some members of their families with the divinely sanctioned authority (auctoritas) of the Roman State. Throughout history, monarchs and other heads of state were often held in enormous reverence and imputed super-human qualities. Through the principle of the divine right of kings, in medieval Europe for example, rulers were said to hold office by the will of God. Ancient Egypt, Imperial Japan, the Inca, the Aztecs, Tibet, Siam (now Thailand), and the Roman Empire are especially noted for redefining monarchs as "god-kings".
The spread of democratic and secular ideas in Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries made it increasingly difficult for monarchs to preserve this aura. However, the subsequent development of mass media, such as radio, enabled political leaders to project a positive image of themselves onto the masses as never before. It was from these circumstances in the 20th century that the most notorious personality cults arose. Often these cults are a form of political religion, and they may share some traits with other kinds of cult, especially while they are still forming.
The term "cult of personality" probably appeared in English around 1800-1850, along with the French and German use. At first it had no political connotations but was instead closely related to the Romantic "cult of genius". The political use of the phrase came first in a letter from Karl Marx to German political worker, Wilhelm Blos, 10 November 1877:
Neither of us cares a straw of popularity. Let me cite one proof of this: such was my aversion to the personality cult [orig. Personenkultus] that at the time of the International, when plagued by numerous moves ... to accord me public honor, I never allowed one of these to enter the domain of publicity ...
There are various views about what constitutes a cult of personality in a leader. Historian Jan Plamper has written that modern-day personality cults display five characteristics that set them apart from "their predecessors": The cults are secular and "anchored in popular sovereignty"; their objects are all males; they target the entire population, not only the well-to-do or just the ruling class; they use mass media; and they exist where the mass media can be controlled enough to inhibit the introduction of "rival cults".
In his 2013 paper, "What is character and why it really does matter", Thomas A. Wright states, "The cult of personality phenomenon refers to the idealized, even god-like, public image of an individual consciously shaped and molded through constant propaganda and media exposure. As a result, one is able to manipulate others based entirely on the influence of public personality ... the cult of personality perspective focuses on the often shallow, external images that many public figures cultivate to create an idealized and heroic image."
Adrian Teodor Popan defines cult of personality as a "quantitatively exaggerated and qualitatively extravagant public demonstration of praise of the leader." He also identifies three causal "necessary, but not sufficient, structural conditions, and a path dependent chain of events which, together, lead to the cult formation: a particular combination of patrimonialism and clientelism, lack of dissidence, and systematic falsification pervading the society's culture."
One underlying characteristic as explained by John Pittman is the nature of the cult of personalities to be a patriarch. The idea of the cult of personalities that coincides with the Marxist movements gains popular footing among the men in power with the idea that they would be the "fathers of the people". By the end of the 1920s, the male features of the cults became more extreme. Pittman identifies that these features became roles including the "formal role for a [male] 'great leader' as a cultural focus of the apparatus of the regime: reliance on top-down 'administrative measures': and a pyramidal structure of authority" which was created by a single ideal.
The mass media have played an instrumental role in forging national leaders' cults of personality.
Thomas A. Wright in 2013 reported that "It is becoming evident that the charismatic leader, especially in politics, has increasingly become the product of media and self-exposure." And, focusing on the media in the United States, Robert N. Bellah adds that, "It is hard to determine the extent to which the media reflect the cult of personality in American politics and to what extent they have created it. Surely they did not create it all alone, but just as surely they have contributed to it. In any case, American politics is dominated by the personalities of political leaders to an extent rare in the modern world ... in the personalised politics of recent years the 'charisma' of the leader may be almost entirely a product of media exposure."
Often, a single leader became associated with this revolutionary transformation and came to be treated as a benevolent "guide" for the nation without whom the transformation to a better future could not occur. This has been generally the justification for personality cults that arose in totalitarian societies, such as those of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong. The admiration for Mao Zedong has remained widespread in China. In December 2013, a Global Times poll revealed that over 85% of Chinese viewed Mao's achievements as outweighing his mistakes. Jan Plamper argues while Napoleon III made some innovations in France it was Benito Mussolini in Italy in the 1920s who originated the model of dictator-as-cult-figure that was emulated by Hitler, Stalin and the others, using the propaganda powers of a totalitarian state.
Pierre du Bois de Dunilac argues that the Stalin cult was elaborately constructed to legitimize his rule. Many deliberate distortions and falsehoods were used. The Kremlin refused access to archival records that might reveal the truth, and key documents were destroyed. Photographs were altered and documents were invented. People who knew Stalin were forced to provide "official" accounts to meet the ideological demands of the cult, especially as Stalin himself presented it in 1938 in Short Course on the History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), which became the official history.
Historian David L. Hoffmann states "The Stalin cult was a central element of Stalinism, and as such it was one of the most salient features of Soviet rule ... Many scholars of Stalinism cite the cult as integral to Stalin's power or as evidence of Stalin's megalomania."
In Latin America, Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser link the "cult of the leader" to the concept of the caudillo, a strong leader "who exercises a power that is independent of any office and free of any constraint." These populist strongmen are portrayed as "masculine and potentially violent" and enhance their authority through the use of the cult of personality. Mudde and Kaltwasser trace the linkage back to Juan Peron of Argentina.
Juan Perón, elected three times as President of Argentina, and his second wife, Eva "Evita" Perón, were immensely popular among many of the Argentine people, and to this day they are still considered icons by the leading Justicialist Party. Academics and detractors often considered him a demagogue and a dictator. Peron sympathised with the Axis powers when he was a colonel and Minister of War and even served as a diplomatic envoy to Fascist Italy. During his regime he kept close ties with Francoist Spain. He ferociously persecuted dissents and potential political rivals as political arrests were common during his first two terms, he eroded the republican principles of the country as a way to stay in power and forced statewide censorship on most media. Following his election he built a personality cult around both himself and his wife so pervasive it is still a part of Argentina's current political life. During his regime schools were forced to read Evita's biography La Razón de mi Vida, union and government jobs were only given to those who could prove themselves to be a fervent Peronist, newspapers were censored and television and radio networks were nationalised, only state media was allowed. He often showed contempt for any opponents; and regularly characterised them as traitors and agents of foreign powers; Those who didn't fall in line or were perceived as a threat to Perón's political power where subject to losing their jobs, threats, violence and harassment. Perón fired over 20,000 university professors and faculty members from all major public education institutions. Universities were then intervened, the faculty was pressured to get in line and those who resisted were blacklisted, fired or exiled. Numerous prominent cultural and intellectual figures were imprisoned. Thousands of artists, scientists, writers and academics left the country, migrated to North America or Europe. Union leader and political rivals were arrested and tortured for years and were only released after Perón was deposed.
Benito Mussolini was portrayed as the embodiment of Italian Fascism and was keen to be seen as such. Mussolini was styled by other Italian fascists as Il Duce ("The Leader"). Since Mussolini was represented as an almost omniscient leader, a common saying in Italy during Mussolini's rule was "The Duce is always right." (Italian: Il Duce ha sempre ragione). Mussolini became a unifying force in Italy in order for ordinary Italians to put their difference to one side with local officials. The personality cult surrounding Mussolini became a way for him to justify his personal rule and it acted as a way to enable social and political integration.
Mussolini's military service in World War I and survival of failed assassination attempts were used to convey a mysterious image about him. Fascist propaganda stated that Mussolini's body had been pierced by shrapnel just like St. Sebastian had been pierced by arrows; the difference being that Mussolini had survived this ordeal. He was also compared to St. Francis of Assisi, who had, like Mussolini, "suffered and sacrificed himself for others".
The press were given instruction on what and what not to write about Mussolini. Mussolini himself authorised which photographs of him were allowed to be published and rejected any photographs which made him appear weak or less prominent than he wanted to be portrayed as in a particular group.
Italy's war against Ethiopia (1935-37) was portrayed in propaganda as a revival of the Roman Empire, with Mussolini as the first Roman emperor Augustus. To improve his own image, as well as the image of Fascism in the Arab world, Mussolini declared himself to be the "Protector of Islam" during an official visit to Libya in 1937.
Starting in the 1920s, during the early years of the Nazi Party, Nazi propaganda began to depict the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as a demagogue figure who was the almighty defender and saviour of Germany. After the end of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, the German people were left in turmoil under the Weimar Republic and according to Nazi propaganda, only Hitler could save them and restore Germany's greatness which in turn gave rise to the "Führer-cult". During the five election campaigns in 1932, the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter portrayed Hitler as a man who had a mass movement united behind him, a man with one mission to solely save Germany as the 'Leader of the coming Germany'. The Night of the Long Knives in 1934 – after which Hitler referred to himself as being single-handedly "responsible for the fate of the German people" – also helped to reinforce the myth that Hitler was the sole protector of the Volksgemeinschaft, the ethnic community of the German people.
Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels cultivated an image of Hitler as a "heroic genius". The myth also gave rise to the saying and concept, "If only the Führer knew". Germans thought that problems which they ascribed to the Nazi hierarchy would not have occurred if Hitler had been aware of the situation; thus Nazi bigwigs were blamed, and Hitler escaped criticism.
British historian Ian Kershaw published his book The "Hitler Myth": Image and Reality in the Third Reich in 1987 and wrote:
Hitler stood for at least some things they [German people] admired, and for many had become the symbol and embodiment of the national revival which the Third Reich had in many respects been perceived to accomplish.
During the early 1930s, the myth was given credence due to Hitler's perceived ability to revive the German economy during the Great Depression. However, Albert Speer wrote that by 1939, the myth was under threat and the Nazis had to organise cheering crowds to turn up to events. Speer wrote:
The shift in the mood of the population, the drooping morale which began to be felt throughout Germany in 1939, was evident in the necessity to organize cheering crowds where two years earlier Hitler had been able to count on spontaneity. What is more, he himself had meanwhile moved away from the admiring masses. He tended to be angry and impatient more often than in the past when, as still occasionally happened, a crowd on Wilhelmsplatz began clamoring for him to appear. Two years before he had often stepped out on the "historic balcony." Now he sometimes snapped at his adjutants when they came to him with the request that he show himself: "Stop bothering me with that!"
The myth helped to unite the German people during World War II, especially against the Soviet Union and the Western Allies. During Hitler's early victories against Poland and Western Europe the myth was at its peak, but when it became obvious to most Germans that the war was lost then the myth was exposed and Hitler's popularity declined.
When the leader of the Wehrmacht unit at the end of his speech called for a Sieg Heil for the Führer, it was returned neither by the Wehrmacht present, nor by the Volkssturm, nor by the spectators of the civilian population who had turned up. This silence of the masses ... probably reflects better than anything else, the attitudes of the population.
The North Korean cult of personality surrounding its ruling family, the Kim family, has existed for decades and can be found in many examples of North Korean culture. Although not acknowledged by the North Korean government, many defectors and Western visitors state there are often stiff penalties for those who criticize or do not show "proper" respect for the regime. The personality cult began soon after Kim Il-sung took power in 1948, and was greatly expanded after his death in 1994.
The pervasiveness and extreme nature of North Korea's personality cult surpasses that of even Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong. The cult is also marked by the intensity of the people's feelings for and devotion to their leaders, and the key role played by a Confucianized ideology of familism both in maintaining the cult and thereby in sustaining the regime itself. The North Korean cult of personality is a large part of North Korean socialism and totalitarianism.
The development of the cult of personality did not appear until after the death of Vladimir Lenin. During his lifetime, Lenin did not approve of the cult's power and influence. After the assassination attempt on Lenin in August 1918, he suffered numerous severe strokes with the worst in May 1922 and March 1923. It was during this time that the Communist Party began to promote the accomplishments of Lenin as the basis for his cult of personality, using him as an image of morality and revolutionary ideas.
After Vladimir Lenin's death in 1924 and the exile of Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin came to embody the Soviet Union. Once Lenin's cult of personality had risen in power, creating enough influence, Stalin integrated his ideals in his own cult. Unlike other cults of personalities, the Lenin and Stalin cults were not created to give the leaders power, they were created to give power to the Communist Party. Even after Stalin had risen to power, he spoke out against the cult and its claim to power centered around him. To merge the idea of the Lenin and Stalin cults together, Stalin changed aspects of Lenin's life in the public's eye in order to place himself in power. This kept the two cults in a line that showed that both Lenin and Stalin had the same ideas.
In December 1929, Stalin celebrated his 50th birthday which made Stalin become a prominent feature in the Soviet press. The Soviet press used positive adjectives like, "Great", "Beloved", "Bold", "Wise", "Inspirer", and "Genius" to describe him. Similarly, speeches that were given by people to the peasants described Stalin as "Our Best Collective Farm Worker", "Our Shockworker, Our Best of Best", and "Our Darling, Our Guiding Star". By 1934, under Stalin's full control of the country, socialist realism became the endorsed method of art and literature. Even under the communist regime, the Stalin cult of personality portrayed Stalin's leadership as a patriarchy under the features laid out during Khrushchev's speech. After 1936, the Soviet press described Stalin as the "Father of Nations".
One key element of Soviet propaganda was interactions between Stalin and the children of the Soviet Union. He was often photographed with children of different ethnic backgrounds of the Soviet Union and was often photographed giving gifts to children. In 1935 the phrase, "Thank You Dear Comrade Stalin for a Happy Childhood!" started to appear above doorways at nurseries, orphanages, and schools; children also chanted this slogan at festivals. Another key element of Soviet propaganda was the imagery of Stalin and Lenin. In many posters, Stalin and Lenin were placed together to show that their ideals were one. Throughout the 1930s, posters with both images were used as a way to bring the nation and the military together under the policies of the Communist Party during World War II, with the idea of Lenin as the father of the revolutionary ideas and Stalin as the patriarch who would fulfill the communist ideals Stalin was also portrayed in numerous films produced by Mosfilm, which remained a Soviet led company until the fall of the Soviet Union.