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Cult of personality

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(Redirected from Personality cult)
 built a strong cult of personality, based on the .
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Adolf Hitler built a strong cult of personality, based on the Fuhrerprinzip.

Cult of personality or personality cult is a term for what is perceived to be excessive adulation of a single living leader. The term was coined by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev soon after the death of Joseph Stalin, but the phenomenon as such is much older. The lifetime cult of Julius Caesar was deeply resented by patrician republicans; it paved the way for the imperial family cult of the Roman Empire.

Personality cults usually characterize totalitarian states or countries which have recently experienced revolutions. The reputation of a single leader, often characterized as the "liberator" or "savior" of the people, elevates that leader to an almost divine level. The leader's picture appears everywhere, as do statues and other monuments to the leader's greatness and wisdom. The leader's slogans and other quotes cover massive billboards, and books containing the leader's speeches and writings fill up the bookstores and libraries. The level of flattery can reach heights which may appear absurd to outsiders.

For example, during the Cultural Revolution, all Chinese works, including scientific papers, had a quote from Mao Zedong, and all quotes from Mao appeared highlighted in boldface or in red.

Personality cults aim to make the leader and the state seem synonymous, so it becomes impossible to comprehend the existence of one without the other. It also helps justify the often harsh rule of a dictatorship, and propagandize the citizens into believing that the leader operates as a kind and just ruler. In addition, cults of personality often arise out of an effort to quash opposition within a ruling elite. Both Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin used their cults of personality to help crush their political opponents.

The creation of such a vast cult often led to criticism of the regimes of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong in particular. During the peak of their reigns both these leaders appeared as god-like omniscient rulers, destined to rule their nation for all eternity. Government orders prescribed the hanging of their portraits in every home and public building, and many artists and poets were instructed to only produce works that glorified the leader. To justify this level of worship, both Mao and Stalin tried to present themselves as personally humble and modest, and would often characterize their vast personality cults as nothing more than a spontaneous show of affection by their people. Stalin in particular used this excuse to justify the Communist Party's massive campaign of renaming things in his honor (see List of places named after Stalin).

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Josef Stalin is often credited with creating the first modern-day cult of personality.

Cults of personality can collapse very quickly after the ousting or death of the leader. Stalin and Mao both provide examples of this. In some cases, the leader formerly the subject of a cult of personality becomes vilified after his death, and often a massive effort at renaming and statue-removal ensues.

It should be noted that the term "personality cult" does not generally refer to showing respect for the dead (such as historic national founders - for example, the fact that Lenin was glorified in the Soviet Union does not constitute a cult of personality, because it only took place after his death), nor does it refer to honoring symbolic leaders who have no real power. The latter often occurs with monarchies, such as that of Thailand, in which the king or queen's image is respectfully displayed in many public places, but convention or law forbid them from converting this respect into real political power. Other notable past personality cults included those of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany, Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam, Tito's Yugoslavia, Nicolae Ceauşescu's Romania, Enver Hoxha's Albania, the Dalai Lama in Tibet, Siad Barre's attempts in Somalia, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Imperial Rome and the world of Hellenistic Greece displayed many pre-modern equivalents of cult of personality features, with ancient Egypt especially practised in the ways of elevating monarchs to god kings.

Cults of personality do not appear universal among all totalitarian or authoritarian societies. A few of the world's most oppressive regimes have in fact exhibited little to no worship of the leader. The Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia and the theocratic Taliban government of Afghanistan lacked many of the trappings of cults of personality, and the leaders in these regimes remained almost anonymous. In these cases, the lack of a cult of personality seems partly motivated by the desire to project an image of a faceless but omniscient and omnipresent state. In other cases, such as the post-Mao People's Republic of China, authorities frown upon the establishment of a cult of personality for fear it may upset the balance of power between the leaders within the political elite.

Some current countries that feature personality cults include Kim Jong Il's North Korea (which succeeded that of his father, the late Kim Il Sung) and Saparmurat Niyazov's Turkmenistan.

The most famous fictional cult of personality is probably that of Big Brother in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. The character was possibly based on Britain's Earl Kitchener although more likely based on Stalin. However, this may not be a true cult of personality as Big Brother is not, apparently, a "real" person, but a fiction created by the inner party.

The cult of the personality in a state as described hereabove seems similar to the functioning of person-centred leadership in some purported cults. When the followers accept the charismatic authority of a person (e.g. a guru, or saint, or avatar) then this personality cult can take strong forms. Sometimes, cults or new religious movements defend this practice by comparing their living leader to mainstream religions like Christianity in which Jesus was venerated when he was still alive (some, like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, took it one step closer by claiming to be on the same spiritual level as Jesus), or to the Ishta-Deva (chosen deity) principle in Hinduism.

Related meanings

By analogy, the political term cult of personality has been extended to refer to media obsession with celebrities or ego-driven corporate management.

See also

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