Leading by example


Amongst the seemingly essential accoutrement for a dictator is the acquisition of a short and snappy title. The trend was set by Adolf Hitler becoming der Führer – a term that literally translates as leader but which also has an almost mystic sense of being a guide. Plenty of other dictators had similar names, but few were as effective as this Germanic invention and some sound decidedly comic.

In 1934, Adolf Hitler succeeded Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg as the head of state of Germany. Hitler did not, however, assume the title of President. This was left vacant – ostensibly out of respect for von Hindenburg but also because the Chancellor wanted to remove all the trappings of the discredited Weimar Republic. Instead, Hitler became Führer und Reichskanzler.

Adolf Hitler from the Bundesarchiv

By the time the Third Reich was firmly established, this title developed into Führer des deutschen Reiches und Volkes and by 1942 it reached an apogee of grandiosity with Führer des Großdeutschen Reiches and Führer der Nation. Whilst this was not as absurd as Größter Feldherr aller Zeiten (Greatest Military Commander of All Time), it was decidedly more expansive than a plain Mr President or Prime Minister.

Arguably, Hitler was merely copying his Italian fascist colleague. Mussolini was known as il Duce from 1925. It also means leader, but is rooted in the Latin word Dux and is therefore cognate with duke. Essentially, it wasn’t quite as naff a title as Führer, but Mussolini certainly did his best to ensure it had a faintly comical overtone.

Benito_Mussolini_(primo_piano) By Giac83 at Italian Wikipedia ([1]) [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Although Mussolini started the trend, it was the example set by Hitler that was so enthusiastically taken up by other European fascist leaders. In Spain, Francisco Franco became el Jefe – the chief, the boss or the head (as in Jefe del Estado – head of state). Over the border, Philippe Pétain took a similar title as Chef de l’État of the French State (i.e. Vichy France). Some other examples from across the Axis included:

  • Poglavnik (First Person) – Ante Pavelić  – Croatian fascist leader;
  • Fører  (the Leader) – Vidkun Quisling – Norwegian fascist leader
  • Nemzetvezető (Leader of the Nation) – Ferenc Szálasi – Hungarian fascist leader
  • Conducător (Leader) – Ion Antonescu – Rumanian fascist leader.

Such titles were not reserved for the ultra-right. In the USSR, Josef Stalin was known as the Vozhd (the leader). This was reserved compared to the array of ludicrously grandiloquent titles that he accumulated. He became the “Coryphaeus of Science”, “Father of Nations”, “Brilliant Genius of Humanity”, “Great Architect of Communism” and the “Gardener of Human Happiness”.

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