What is dictatorship? Many have come to associate the term with the totalitarian, excessively violent political systems of the 20th century or, in recognition of endangered democracies worldwide, the autocratic regimes of the present. One might attribute this imbalance to historiographical and political topologies that have long dismissed dictatorship as a suitable designation for political systems prior to 1914. However, its meaning should not be limited to these epochs. Within the array of descriptive terminology, the related notions of authoritarianism, tyranny, and despotism, among several others, correspond with governmental structures from Roman Antiquity to oligarchic rule in the 21st century. As to what is defined as a political rule worth condemnation, perceptions have been equally variable throughout history. Notwithstanding, perspectives on dictatorship in liberal democracies of the Western hemisphere have grown particularly derogatory, with the experience of two world wars as a constant admonition.
As for the 19th century, dictatorship was not defined as a universally detested rule of terror. Instead, the attractiveness of non-democratic forms of government was not only heralded in Europe, but it swept through its former colonies overseas and eventually returned. A new collection of essays edited by Moisés Prieto, Associate Professor at the University of Bern, and published in Routledge’s series of studies in Modern History, sheds light on conceptualizations of dictatorship and its concrete manifestations in the era of Atlantic Revolutions and beyond. It emphasizes specific characteristics of 19th-century authoritarian rulership, differentiating the period from pre-Modernity and the 20th century. In doing so, it accentuates that dictatorship is a phenomenon of the long 19th century, though under different conditions. According to the editor, the volume’s central objective is to serve as a “reminder emphasising new paths of research on authoritarianism in the said century and the relevance of the Atlantic space as a specific but not exclusive area to focus on” (p. 9). With this goal in mind, the volume is mostly successful. It presents a collection of nine essays classified into three cumulative blocks. Sensibly entitled Conceptualisations, Experiences, and Transfers, these are designed to address the definitory history of dictatorship and its neighboring and subordinate terms, then the focus turns to Latin American case studies, and finally, the authors assess instances of reciprocal influence between distinct forms of non-democratic political rule and thought within a transatlantic framework.
The first four essays by Michael Broers, Markus J. Prutsch, Francesca Antonini, and Alexander Kruska are concerned with grasping what dictatorship meant to contemporary political leaders and thinkers from Bonaparte to Weber. All acknowledge that dictatorial government, as opposed to tyranny, did not necessarily produce impressions of wrongfulness or excessive violence, as it was initially tied to the ancient Roman definition of a temporary and justified phase of state stabilization; a connection gradually fading from 1789 onwards. Antonini’s analysis of Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte proves the most insightful and stimulating of the segment. She argues that Caesarism and Bonapartism developed as terms specifically linked to mid-19th century France. They incorporated modernity into the understanding of dictatorial rule, which led to the personalization of government, resulting in the practice of assigning authoritarian leaders’ names to their respective political systems. Following Antonini, one might argue that Stalinism, Hitlerism, Maoism, Trumpism, and so forth are, in some sense, the linguistic and conceptual heirs of Bonapartism, a thought that kept the author of this review highly engaged through the rest of his read.
The second and (regrettably) shortest section, Experiences, is by Stephan Ruderer and Mónica Ricketts, who propose Argentina and Peru, respectively, as examples of caudillismo, a concept broadly used to describe the political regimes of newly independent Latin American countries governed by powerful military leaders. Many of these caudillos were able to maintain power for prolonged periods and remain popular among the population, which cannot solely be attributed to violence and the abuse of power. Consequently, both authors emphasize the ambivalence caused by authoritarian rule(rs), generating ideological frameworks and political consequences that were broadly welcomed by contemporaries. Ruderer identifies the initial creation of institutionalized law and state structures as undeniable progress in Argentinian history, noting that it legitimized and supported the strict rulership that, for example, Juan Manuel de Rosas imposed on the Argentinian province of Buenos Aires. Similarly, Ricketts argues for additional research on gender roles within caudillo societies, highlighting new images of masculine strength represented by and projected onto the caudillos of Peru between the 1810s and 1840s. Their analyses vividly illustrate that authoritarian rule was widely accepted in both Argentina and Peru because it featured charismatic protagonists and engendered the internal stability needed to guarantee long-term independent state-building. Nevertheless, these governments restricted political participation and relied heavily on sole decision-making and personal power - later characteristics of Franco’s Spain or Castro’s Cuba. Bizarrely, the reviewer was also reminded that despite China's current dictatorial foundation, the speed of its infrastructual projects has gained praise among German politicians. In a similar vein, the caudillos did among European contemporaries.
The trio of Cesare Vetter, Stefan Rinke, and editor Moisés Prieto concludes with Transfers. Here, the volume reveals its strongest and most relevant content. Instead of adopting the argument that European ideas and political structures were a one-way road export, all three authors compellingly show that transfers of authoritarian political ideology were just as reciprocal as economic relations between the Old and New World. However, like misguided boomerangs, cultural exports vigorously backfired in Europe. First, Vetter follows Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the central forgers of the Risorgimento and the Italian unification of 1870. He was deeply influenced by Venezuelan revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, who in turn drew inspiration from Napoléon. Second, Rinke’s analysis addresses José de Francia, who ruled Paraguay from 1814 to 1840. Francia achieved what, according to Rinke, Napoléon merely hinted at: the genuine and permanent legitimization of dictatorship, which (in European contexts) was always conceived as temporary. Meanwhile, reports on his rule spawned ambivalent reactions in Europe, ranging from bewilderment to fascination towards his new style of "republican dictatorship" (p. 142). Closing, Prieto presents an example-laden gallery of iconographic transfers, most poignantly showing Jacques-Louis David’s 1801 painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps being faithfully copied for an engraving of Simon Bolívar Libertador, created 23 years later – globalized “Führerkult avant la lettre” (p. 168).
Capped off at 178 pages, the volume surely would not have suffered from certain expansions. As fruitful and fascinating as all nine contributions are, one would have wished to read less on terminology and more on samples and case studies of the Atlantic area in Experiences and Transfers. Excluding the non-Atlantic parts of the world seems wholly justified from a methodological point of view, and one must rightfully ask for further research in these fields. In places, however, the volume relies too heavily on explaining the paradigm shift regarding how dictatorship was defined throughout the 19th century, somewhat glossing over the essential premise of revealing transatlantic dialogues. Some redundancies in the final five essays concerning this aspect could have been avoided in the editorial process.
Nevertheless, what is left to be desired is still more than compensated for by evaluating the often disconcerting terminology and providing illustrative Atlantic case studies. Transfers stands out as the book’s highlight. In sum, the volume strikingly exposes the 19th-century roots of modern authoritarian thought. It should and surely will inspire further research in historical studies of dictatorships without emphasizing purely Eurocentric historiography.
 For further reading, see the following excellent overview: Alexander Gallus, Typologisierung von Staatsformen und politischen Systemen in Geschichte und Gegenwart, in: Id. / Eckhard Jesse (eds.), Staatsformen. Modelle politischer Ordnung von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Ein Handbuch, Köln 2004, pp. 19–56.