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International conference to examine the rise of 20th century dictators

From Adolf Hitler to Saddam Hussein,  20th Century dictators have had a major influence in shaping the world we live in today. But how influential were the ‘cults’ behind these leaders in them coming to and remaining in power?

The Personality of Cults of Modern Dictators, organised by the universities of Warwick, Reading and Royal Holloway, University of London, brings together scholars from all over the world to London this Friday and Saturday, to discuss how these powerful men compare with each other.

Almost all modern dictators are the subject of personality cults that are highly organised even if they often also rest on spontaneous contributions. By creating a unique story around an individual they harness support and help consolidate a regime.

Dictators often borrow heavily from one another in developing their cults. Hitler, for example, was a great admirer of Mussolini, and Saddam Hussein of Stalin. Sometimes, as in North Korea, the leader is invested with a strongly religious aura to fit in with popular belief patterns.

The conference will be looking at cults from many angles including political, religious, media, literary and artistic.

Professor Stephen Gundle from the University of Warwick said:  “Personality cults are fascinating phenomena that mobilise a wide range of different energies, skills and media. they acquire meaning through rituals, sometimes of a quasi-religious nature, and through the artefacts they produce in the form of art, sculpture, film, and literature.

“Our aim in the conference is to compare dictators past and present and establish some patterns in personality cults that superficially may seem very specific but in reality are in important respects similar. We want to trace models and examine influences between cults  with the aim of understanding the way dictatorships establish themselves and sometimes shape cultures long after their demise.”

Professor Christopher Duggan from the University of Reading said: “The forms cults take depend on national traditions and histories, patterns of gender relations, and the existence or otherwise of an articulated civil society. In this sense, they are cultural as much as political phenomena.

“The highly specific nature of each cult means that comparative work is rare. The aim of this conference is to compare different aspects of many cults of personality, and, by so doing, raise new hypotheses of research and lay the foundations for potential new interdisciplinary collaborations.”

Among the themes that will be explored are Dictators and the mass media, Dictators and their publics, Masculinity and dictatorship and Dictators in film and literature.

Keynote addresses will be delivered on some of the key precursors of 20th century dictators: Maria Wyke (UCL) on Julius Caesar and his legacies, and Lucy Riall (Birkbeck College, London) on Garibaldi.

The Conference is the final event of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project on 'The cult of Mussolini'. It will be held over the 22 and 23 October at the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, Senate House, University of London.

Notes to editors

Kelly Parkes-Harrison, Communications Manager, University of Warwick, 02476 150483, 07824 540863,

James Barr, Press Officer, University of Reading, 0118 378 7115,

(AHRC): Each year the AHRC provides approximately £112 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from languages and law, archaeology and English literature to design and creative and performing arts. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,300 postgraduate awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.