The term dictatorship refers to a form of government in which a single person, or a very small group of people, hold all of the power, and wield absolute authority. Many dictatorships are, at least initially, established by force and violence, and once a dictator is in place, the nation’s citizens have virtually no say in the affairs of their country. To explore this concept, consider the following dictatorship definition.

Definition of Dictatorship


  1. Absolute, imperious, or haughty power or control.
  2. A nation, government, or form of government in which absolute power is wielded by a dictator.
  3. Rule by dictator.


1540-1580       Middle English  < Latin dictātor  (dictator + ship)

What is a Dictatorship

In the ancient Roman Republic, a “dictator” was a man appointed as a temporary magistrate, or judge, to deal with dilemmas of state. Dictators were given great power and authority to deal with such matters. What they did not do was run the government.

Modern times see modern dictators, who often have little to do with rendering judgment on problematic issues, and more to do with oppression and tyrannical rule. In many nations, dictators rise to power by manipulating the fears of the people. Force and fraud are just rungs on the ladder that leads to absolute power.

Once in power, dictators generally maintain their positions through the use of fear, intimidation, and suppression of civil liberties. A dictatorship may also attempt to gain, and then keep, the support of their people, usually by engaging in a far-reaching vehicle of mass propaganda.

Dictatorship Example in Modern Days

In the 1930s, as the German people reeled from their crushing defeat in WWI, they were browbeaten, and struggling under the heavy load of a severe economic depression. The people had no work, little food or other necessities of life, and no faith in their government.

Adolph Hitler was a riveting speaker, able to lure people desperate for a change to follow him. Hitler promised a new Germany, and sparked dreams of a better life for all. Hitler’s party, the Nazi party, was especially appealing to the youth coming into adulthood, the unemployed, and the everyday people in the lower-middle class. Under Hitler’s hypnotic assurances of a better world, the Nazi party rose meteorically, and Hitler took power in January, 1933.

Almost immediately, Hitler used the country’s “enabling act,” which gave him emergency powers for one year, during which time he disbanded all other political parties. In this example of dictatorship, an opportunistic leader took power without the need for violence, but by persuading the people with deceptions.

Modern Dictatorship Countries

During the first half of the 20th century, dictatorships took control of a number of technologically advanced countries. While Latin America, Asia, and Africa were already dictatorship countries, they differed from the dictatorships formed in what became known as the Eastern Bloc.

According to Freedom House 2016 Freedom in the World report, freedom is in decline, as democratic countries around the globe experience racist intolerance and fear. This fear undermines the economies of all nations who need the natural resources others can provide. In response, dictators work harder to crush rebellion and dissent. This is often done by further limiting the people’s civil liberties, and withholding basic necessities.

As of the end of 2015, 50 nations were considered to be dictatorship countries. Freedom House ranked the freedom afforded to citizens of 195 countries, and 15 territories for the year 2015. The Freedom in the World report evaluates the freedoms actually enjoyed by the people, rather than government policies or performance.

Scores given in these freedom evaluations range from “1,” which indicates the least free conditions, to “100,” which indicates the most free conditions. The following nations hold the top 12 spots for the least free people in the world. It begins with the worst of the worst:

Ranking Country/Territory Aggregate Score
1 Syria -1
2 Tibet 1
3 Somalia 2
4 North Korea 3
5 Uzbekistan 3
6 Eritrea 3
7 Turkmenistan 4
8 Western Sahara 4
9 Sudan 6
10 Central African Republic 7
11 Equatorial Guinea 8
12 Saudi Arabia 10

At the top of the list, Syria is a deeply divided country, ruled by an ostensibly elected president, Bashar al-Assad. Since the role was forced upon him following the death of his brother in 1994, Assad has worked toward removing the autocratic leaders of his father’s time within the government system. In this example of dictatorship, the rifts between the country’s various religious sects, as well as political cronies, has resulted in a complete breakdown in societal function and safety.

Break Down of Dictatorship Rule

People living under the rule of a dictator have no control over their government, or affairs of their nation. Policies and laws may change without warning, and attacks on the regime, whether from internal conflict, or from outside sources, put individuals and families in great danger. The country of Syria has been the epicenter of a devastating breakdown of dictatorship rule for years.

Internal strife kindled various rebel groups, the members of which want their inherent human rights respected. Seeking a regime change to a democratic system of government, these rebel forces have been joined by volunteers from other countries. As forces loyal to Assad fight to protect their way of life, forces opposed to his authoritarian rule meet them in violent conflict. What began as a conflict over Assad’s rule, drew the attention of jihadist militants and other sectarian forces.

Full-scale civil war has seen the death of more than half a million Syrians, and has forced more than 11 million people from their homes. This example of dictatorship breakdown and opposition is, to date, one of the largest and far-reaching tragedies affecting people on a global scale.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Magistrate – A civil officer charged with administering the law.
  • Propaganda – Information or rumors of a misleading or bias nature, designed to publicize and promote a particular political cause.
  • Socialism – A political and economic theory in which the community as a whole should control the production, distribution, and exchange of goods and services.

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