Chirot's text is a study of various tyrannies that took root during the twentieth-century. Although his primary focus is on those regimes most would not rationally have difficulty accepting as tyrannies (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot), he does accept that there existed various government regimes throughout the last century (Pinochet, Ataturk, Franco) sitting on the `periphery' of his classificatory scheme: depending on whether one chooses to critique the states' ultimate accomplishments or the means they used to get there, one could make a strong argument either way. A fuller discussion of these borderline regimes and their corresponding features would have been enlightening, but Chirot, understandably, explains that these considerations needlessly broaden the text's project. I also note a reviewer's commentary that s/he wished there had been less concern with the tyrants' personal lives. Although I agree that this practice sometimes veers into the tabloid-esque and challenges the seriousness and scholarly tone of the text (anyone want to know how many ties Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo had in his personal collection?), it is instructive to see that tyrants were, in fact, people capable of the same personal failings as the rest of us. With respect to tyrannies bent on realizing a given ideology, the fact that even the ruler deviated from the very standards that his/her subjects was forced to observe demonstrated the impracticability and inhumanity of their rule.
More than a plodding historical survey of twentieth-century tyranny, Chirot seeks to ask why the Hitlers and the Stalins arose when they did. This question prompts him to consider tyranny not as a unique and static phenomenon but, rather, a result of emerging ways of thinking that materialized out of the West during the nineteenth century. In particular, the superiority granted to the discourse of science and its findings led to a chain of circumstances (decentring of God, social Darwinism, colonialism) that informed not only how nation-states were governed, but also the rationalizations for governance. Chirot makes a strong case that since the rise of tyranny in the twentieth-century nation was largely a product of identical emerging discourses, many tyrannies shared not only the same features, but also evolved in similar ways.
Buttressing these features is the discourse of science; its emphasis on logic and absoluteness compels the (potential) despot to rule according to the `tyranny of certitude.' For example, Marxism, which many influential thinkers believed was the science of history, provided the impetus for Stalin, Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, Kim Il Sung and many others to construct a brutal, rigid and unyielding understanding of social organization. No matter the countless atrocities they committed in following their road map, such rulers `knew' that their scientific construction of politics would eventually give rise to a social utopia and allow a formerly great people to realize their place in the world. That these policies left the countries in much worse shape than when the leaders assumed control is a cruel and poignant irony.
Pick this book up. It is a fascinating and enlightening read.