When a political figure becomes popular enough, it’s easy for him to start attracting fanatical followers. If the politician decides to cultivate this following, he may be able to become the center of a full-on political cult, which lifts him beyond the realms of politics and into an almost religious figure — at least, among the faithful.
Many of history’s most famous and infamous leaders have had their own political cults, whether they liked it or not. Let’s take a look at some of the strangest ones.
10. Chairman Mao
Mao Zedong, the big man of Chinese communism, is a strange case as political cults go. While he definitely had a pretty strong cult thing going on during his reign, his cult of personality took an unexpected leap to the next level in the 1980s, a decade after his death. Over time, the public started viewing him as “godman,” a sort of saint with certain human features (see: decades of anarchy, purges, famines and mass murders), but who nevertheless projected a strong aura of power and authority. There’s also the fact that technically, his stated message of making all men equal could be seen as something of a messiah figure for the common man … again, if you forget all the awful stuff. The profitable lines of Mao-related merchandise were presumably didn’t hurt, either.
Being a Communist country, China generally disapproves “spontaneous” cults, but evidently, the one formed around the Great Helmsman managed to scrape by. The more the intellectuals of the country proclaimed their distaste for Mao, the more the commoners (who, in turn, saw the intellectuals as lazy and greedy) liked him. And so, by 1993, there was already a statue of Mao that was said to perform miracles.
9. Napoleon Bonaparte
Though he pretty much owned Europe at one point, Napoleon was an insecure, petty man with a host of inferiority complexes. The Emperor liked to be extra prepared for things to look as good as possible. As such, it’s no surprise that he developed the kind of knack for self-promotion that eventually created a cult of adoring subjects around him.
Napoleon started making his name in a big way around 1796, when he was given command of the French Army of Italy. He bedazzled Paris with a series of bulletins that vastly exaggerated the importance and magnitude of every little fight they had, inflating the opponent’s bravery and insinuating his own tactical skill. In just a few months, the government, his own troops and the public were in awe of him, and built on that foundation to the point that even the less than successful events of his later campaign in Egypt became “stuff of legend.” By this point, a lot of French people believed him to essentially be a fairy tale hero of prophecy, come to save the nation. At this point, France was easy pickings for Napoleon.
Emperor Napoleon I’s later mistakes and downfall made his reputation take a hit, but a cult started to form around him a few years after his death, turning him into another savior figure and a posthumous political mastermind. Napoleon’s nephew Louis-Napoleon, who was a propaganda master himself, aptly used his blood association to his cult figure uncle to gain control of the nation and become the first President of France. In just three years, he was able to acquire dictatorial powers, and eventually took the French throne as Emperor Napoleon III.
8. Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator and inventor of Fascism, was in the political cult game from the beginning. To craft a nation that was fully loyal to him and him alone, he made sure that all news outlets had editors who were in his pocket, and ordered teachers to take an oath to his regime. To make himself look better, he threw huge sums at various projects that were custom made to give him publicity points, both abroad and in Italy. Meanwhile, his would-be opponents were rendered toothless through official and, if necessary, unofficial routes.
To say that Il Duce’s personality cult project was a success is an understatement. In fact, the cult of Mussolini quite easily managed to survive the man himself. Even in the 2010s, many Italians believe that Il Duce was actually a man of honor, and much to the dismay of German tourists who have been less welcoming of their dictator’s memory, Mussolini merchandise remains a common sight in the country.
7. Francois Duvalier of Haiti
Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier started by being (or at least claiming to be) a man of the people, but once he gained control of Haiti, he wasn’t about to let go. Using his keen interest in Vodou (voodoo), he established a brutal militia called the Tonton Macoute — the bogeymen. With their aid, Duvalier’s corrupt, ruthless government started slowly isolating the country and ruining it to the ground, while Papa Doc himself began establishing a cult around himself.
When it came to raising himself to the pedestal, Duvalier didn’t mess around. He forced his people to sing and dance in his honor in front of his palace in Port-Au-Prince. He rolled around in his flashy, bulletproof limousine, stopping every once in awhile to throw money at the gathered crowds. He even had the Lord’s Prayer rewritten so it was all about him: “Our Doc, who art in the National Palace, hallowed be thy name.”
Still, the strongest weapon in Papa Doc’s political cult arsenal was his reputation as a Vodou master. He often boasted about his supernatural powers and said that his enemies could not beat him because he was “already an immaterial being.” He used slow movements, terrifying stare and ominous, whispering speech to create the image of the sort of pop culture voodoo priest you’re probably imagining right now. Spiritual powers or not, his very real Tonton Macoute made him an extremely frightening enemy … especially as it is rumored that later in life he took to personally torturing people.
6. Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of Iraq, is an extremely good example of what happens when a political party puts all its eggs in one magnificently mustached, yet ruthless basket. Over the years, Saddam’s Ba’th party increasingly poured its efforts into making their main man look good and strong. Over time, this started turning them toward hero worship, and by the mid-1980s the Ba’th were completely buying their own propaganda about Saddam.
As such, Saddam’s reign from 1979 to his well-publicized downfall in 2003 was quite similar to other personality cults. The country was littered with massive monuments to honor the dictator, and arguably the most famous one, the “Hands of Victory” arch in Baghdad, was actually modeled after Saddam’s own hands. The man himself was keen to nurture his reputation, and made a point of not ruling by fear alone. A large part of his popularity came from the fact that he made many strategic acts of goodwill, from pay raises to general amnesties (political prisoners excluded, naturally).
The Gulf War didn’t exactly hurt his image, either — around 1991, his reputation was spreading like wildfire over the “Arab, Muslim and Third Worlds,” as the L.A. Times puts it. In fact, he was so popular at that point that people were known to shout “Saddam is God!” out loud.
5. Philippe Petain, Nazi puppet ruler of Vichy France
Marshal Philippe Petain is a curiosity on this list because his “cult” came from legitimate heroics in World War I, but he later dragged his name in mud by siding with the Nazis in World War II. Petain was almost 60 when he was promoted to Brigadier General and proved to be a formidable commander in the Battle of the Marne in 1914. By 1916, he was a full general, tasked with stopping the German offensive at Verdun. Yeah, the Battle of Verdun. He was the guy who managed the borderline impossible task of holding the line … even though it cost the lives of 350,000 of his men.
Petain emerged from WWI as one of the most celebrated heroes in France, and his massive popularity scored him a number of influential positions. Among other things, he was influential in constructing the Maginot Line.
Unfortunately, the elderly Petain drifted towards right-wing political views. When WWII came and France started taking hits, he was hastily promoted to Prime Minister and tasked with brokering an armistice with the Germans in 1940. Soon, the 84-year-old found himself as the top dog of the Nazi-occupied part of France, known as Vichy France. It didn’t take him long to turn into a Hitler-backed despot fully intent on purging his corner of the country from the “morally decadent,” who just so happened to be the same people Nazis were persecuting. As you can probably expect, this made pretty much everyone loathe Petain after the war ended, and the old man was promptly convicted of treason and sentenced to death. However, this was later changed to a life in prison.
In a way, Petain’s cult of personality has survived to this day. He remains a popular figure in the country’s right-wing circles, who periodically (and largely unsuccessfully) attempt to whitewash his legacy by claiming he’s a “Crucified savior of France” who not only sacrificed his own considerable reputation to help France avoid Poland’s fate, but also secretly back-stabbed Hitler by tricking him to stay out of North Africa, thus enabling the Allies to win the war in 1945. Of course, sources indicate that to call these claims “revisionist” is a waste of a perfectly good opportunity to use the word “preposterous.”
4. Getulio Vargas of Brazil
Getulio Vargas, the longtime President of Brazil, wore a whole bunch of hats over the years. He is the most influential leader of the country’s modern history, having held supreme authority from 1930 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1954. He’s argely responsible for a whole bunch of economic and social reforms that helped bring the country up to speed. He came to power by overthrowing the oligarch-dominated former government and a number of his actions went against rich and influential landowners and businessmen, which earned him the nickname “Father of the Poor.” He steered the good ship Brazil through a politically tumultuous Great Depression, and even personally fought off the occasional coup attempt.
Then again, he also ruled as an essential dictator for about 15 years, and his last tenure in charge was marked by ultranationalism and scandals. Oh well.
Vargas’ whole “Father of the Poor” schtick was fertile soil for a cult of personality, which re-emerged after his suicide in 1954. He left behind two documents: A handwritten note that boasted: “To the wrath of my enemies I leave the legacy of my death,” and a much more elaborate letter known as “Carta Testamento,” meaning testamentary letter. The Carta Testamento laid out Vargas’ vision of the future of Brazil, and undermined his political adversaries at some length. The meaning and authenticity of the documents have been hotly debated ever since, but even so, it looks like Vargas managed to keep his cult of personality alive and influenced Brazil’s 20th century politics even from beyond the grave.
3. Fidel Castro
Towards the end of his life, Cuban leader Fidel Castro told his people in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want to become the subject of a cult. In fact, his final wish — or rather, demand — was that no statues be built to honor him, and no buildings or streets be named after him.
While this might seem like touching humility for a guy who already has a Wikipedia article about things named after him, Castro’s history doesn’t really paint the picture of a man who shies away from adoration. According to the Havana Times, Castro’s road to fame was actually very similar to infamous figures such as Mao Tse Tung, Mussolini, Muammar Gaddafi, and even Hitler: They were all charismatic up-and-comers, but after they seized power they unleashed a flurry of propaganda and repression that created a cult of personality. The Guardian describes some of Castro’s particular tactics: From his characteristic beard-and-cigar look to his use and appropriation of slogans such as “Hasta la victoria siempre” (Until victory, always), “I am the revolution” and “Socialism or death,” there was no mistaking that he was the face of the Cuban revolution — along, of course, with his martyred compatriot Che Guevara.
To be fair, Castro tended to claim that he didn’t want to appear in posters, and it looks like much of the posters and murals depicting him are the work of inspired artists instead of a government-dictated propaganda flurry (though Castro certainly indulged in that as well, seeing as he kept the media on a pretty tight leash). Then again, when people are voluntarily plastering your face all over the country, that’s a pretty good sign that your cult of personality is already on a pretty decent roll.
2. Adolf Hitler
The political cult that formed around Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany was something right from the emperor-god worshipping days of ancient Rome. The title he adapted was Fuhrer, which stands for “leader” and was used to demonstrate his complete and total authority. The obligatory greeting of the Third Reich was “Heil Hitler,” which combined with the infamous one-armed Nazi salute turned merely greeting someone into a full-on tribute to the Fuhrer. Photos, busts and portraits of the Nazi leader were everywhere, and he was routinely presented as Germany’s savior.
This was, of course, an entirely intentional tactic that enabled Hitler to keep his subjects in an iron grip. He started the political cult game well before World War II, too. In 1936, he was already talking about himself as a borderline divine figure at a party rally: “It is a wonder of our times that you found me,” he said. “And that I found you is Germany’s good fortune!” Clearly, precognition wasn’t part of his self-proclaimed savior skill set.
1. Josef Stalin
Josef Stalin was a member of Lenin’s very first politburo after the 1917 Russian Revolution gave birth to the Soviet Union, and when Lenin died in 1924, he was quick to seize power to himself. His close relationship with the military certainly didn’t hurt in this mission, but his main strength was his carefully crafted cult of personality.
As a member of Lenin’s inner circle, Stalin was able to paint himself as an extension of the late revolutionary, whose actions he characterized as infallible and “flawless.” By connecting the dead Lenin’s cult of personality with his own actions, he could “borrow” strength from his predecessor and heavily hint that his every action was of Lenin’s legacy — and since Lenin was perfect, this meant he was perfect, too. Soon, he was molding traditions and celebrations in his own image, always making sure to include plenty of the old stuff along with the new, Stalin-centric things to make the change easier to swallow … and to further entwine himself with the fabric of the Russian/Soviet identity.
Stalin’s main tool to maintain his cult was the press. Most every story about him was pure propaganda, presenting him as a wise, much loved genius character and even bestowing him the unofficial title of the Father of Nations. Even this name wasn’t accidental, as Russia’s priests were commonly called “Father,” which created the image that Stalin was the church as well as the earthly power. All in all, the dictator was so terrifyingly efficient he was at building his political cult that when his successor Nikita Khrushchev publicly denounced the cult of personality around Stalin in 1956 — three years after the man’s death — people were shocked and stunned.