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Background

Cults of Personality are a long standing phenomenon going back to at least the Roman Emperor Commodus. However the term really only entered popular lexicon after Nikita Khrushchev's Secret Speech. That speech heralded the beginning of the dismantling of Stalin's cult of personality and the assassination of Commodus put an end to his cult of personality (if you don't count Septimus Severus' deification of Commodus).

Likewise, Hitler's cultic hold and sustainment of Nazism "burst like a bubble" after his suicide according to historian John Toland.

On the other hand, American presidents with a soft Cult of Personality following like Ronald Reagan still receive mentions in major political events like the 2016 Republican Primary Debates decades after his death. And my late grandmother always talked about presidents Harry Truman and JFK in awe. Another extreme example is that in North Korea, even though Kim Il Sung has been dead over 25 years, he still "rules" the country and every North Korean citizen worships him, whether that worship be voluntary or genuine.

Question

I was curious if there has been any political science research done into specifically how Cults of Personalities end, since not even death guarantees the end of a cult. Hence my question: "what conditions must arise to end a Cult of Personality?

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    The Reagan reference seems a bit gratuitous. How would you feel if someone put in Obama instead? There is a difference between an organic, "natural", appreciation for a leader by their citizens and supporters and a personality cult. And, yes, that extends even to leaders I don't like and feel are over-appreciated, like Kennedy. A cult of personality is a conscious decision, often by the leader in question themselves, to set up a system to idolize a leader. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jun 15 at 15:55
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    @Italian Philosophers 4 Monica: Indeed, the Reagan "cult" seems much more about politics (for instance "Reaganomics") than about his IMHO rather bland personality. – jamesqf Jun 15 at 16:36
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(This answer is predicated on the existence of a pathological idolization of a specific, coercive, leader, achieved through systematic, conscious state-level propaganda. Not on mere popular biases, justified or not, about a leader).

In most other contexts than the de-Nazification process* in post-WW2 Germany, history books and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions would be a good start.

  • Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, where the historical circumstances of the leader's actions are examined and the victim impacts fully brought to light. Personality cults work by propaganda, meaning they are based on lies. Bringing the truth out immediately weakens their appeal.

  • Trials. Crimes not covered by Truth and Reconciliation should be tried in court, with open media access to the evidence. Underlings have a way of blaming their superiors for bad orders and this does a great job of bringing bad leaders to light.

  • History books. If a nation really has a problematic leader with an ugly history, then the best long term way to neutralize their appeal and the appeal of their ideology is to teach what happened to people as part of the public school system. Might be a bit more about what Jefferson Davis stood for. Or, speaking as someone French but brought up in the Dutch school system, perhaps the French would be surprised how many other European countries view Napoleon if they knew how the Napoleonic wars affected their neighbors. Given a better history of the Gulags, the NKVD and his repeat military blunders in the early days of Barbarossa, it is quite possible Stalin would be quite a lot less appealing to modern Russians.

  • Truthful and thorough media coverage of the issues, with protection for journalists and historians. After all, if the leader's cult was really pathological in nature, there will be plenty of skeletons to look at. If on the other hand, there wasn't really all that much going on (Reagan's case for example), then this will also be evident in media coverage. Bring forward members of the wrongly-treated population to give momentum to this takedown, which is why Reagan or Kennedy might be polarizing but wont get a concerted push to get them off their pedestals (nor should they).

  • Religion. Religious authorities have often been coopted to support authority figures. Franco in Spain (or Modi in India) comes to particular attention. However, while religion can be used to support coercion, most mainstream religions are not based on coercion, or at least claim not to be. Bring in some opposing religious scholars to show that Dear Leader had it all wrong.

  • Real intent by local politicians to take down the object of that cult. Stalin is being rehabilitated in Russia because it suits Putin to project the narrative of going back to a strong Russia with Putin as their savior. External forces can't de-cult a figure, unless they are very much in charge.

  • Last, there needs to a be strong kernel of popular rejection against the ex ruler so that this de-culting is seen as legitimate, rather than just political jockeying. This task needs empathy and understanding of the context. The reason de-Baathification went off the rails in Iraq is because the Americans decided to fire anyone in charge of anything who was a Baathist party member. Failing to recognize that, in many cases, far from being a political choice, party membership was obligatory to hold any kind of management position. Likewise, if Maduro ever gets booted, people will have their hands full rooting out Chavismo, but will also need to recognize that Chavismo got started due to the deep inequalities so often found in South America.

* De-Nazification really needs to be seen as a special case. After 1945, Germans could quickly see for themselves what an absolute mess Hitler had made of Germany and the horrors of the Holocaust. The Allied powers had just about ground Germany into dust, killing many, many civilians and soldiers in the process. Extreme coercion from the occupying powers was - justifiably so - totally on the table should Germans have insisted on following Hitler and there wasn't a darn thing Germany could do about it.

Germans came around and sincerely regret their ways and German history books are a huge part of the reason. These types of circumstances will not be repeated too often. Mis-applying de-Nazification in other contexts, like the US did in 2003-04 with de-Baathification in Iraq, can hugely misfire. You can easily go wrong mixing hearts and minds with coercion.

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    I beg to disagree. You assume that cult of personality existed only in dictatorial regimes, you turn a blind eye on the ubiquitous cult of personality in all the other contexts. The spasmodic attention that the world media gave to Trump during the 2016 campaign and during his mandate is a kind of cult of personality that you totally miss out. It may fit the image of people in Russia get of Putin, but it doesn't fit the way Western media paints Putin, which is a cult of personality in itself. ... – FluidCode Jun 15 at 19:41
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    I think the relatively short reign of Hitler helped with De-Nazification. It's easier to isolate and compartmentalise short "periods of madness" than decades or even centuries of cult-of-personality rulers or dynasties. With a still relatively recent pre-war history, there was something to prevent total collapse of German identity and cohesion. – Crazymoomin Jun 16 at 10:21
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    @Crazymoomin True, but I also think Hitler's extreme nastiness helped dispel his appeal quickly, once he was out of power. Among other things, you have to remember that the Nazis were hanging German people left and right in the last months of the war. That also makes it risky to generalize too much about those methods working elsewhere, with a more ambivalent Dear Leader to deal with. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jun 17 at 0:24
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    @FluidCode saying that Elvis or Marylin Monroe have ongoing cults is misunderstanding the word ‘cult’ pretty drastically, I’d say. – Fivesideddice Jun 17 at 3:52
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    "Germans quickly came around and sincerely regretted their ways". From all I know about this, not that quickly. It literally took a generation. – Zeus Jun 17 at 4:23
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Hitler's cult of personality did not end with him killing himself. It ended during the process of denazification. This project included:

  • Public trial and subsequent execution of Hitler's most important henchmen. (Nuremberg Trials)
  • Removing Hitler imagery and other Nazi symbolism from public places.
  • Removing Hitler loyalists from all key positions in the public administration.
  • Starting a counter-propaganda operation to show people the true extent of the crimes against humanity committed on Hitler's orders. (German collective guilt).
  • Re-educating the German population to denounce nationalism and embrace democracy.

And it was not even 100% effective. There are a few people who revere Adolf Hitler even today.

When Stalin took power, he did similar things to make people forget about Lenin. He took considerable propaganda efforts to remove Lenin form public perception and replace him in the public mind with an even stronger cult of personality of himself.

As you can see, dying is not enough to end a cult of personality. There has to be conscious, unopposed and effective effort to destroy their public image posthumously and replace it with something else.

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    One thing that might have contributed to the Hitler personality cult could have been using Hitler as a scapegoat, as in "we only followed the orders of mad-man Hitler". This is something that, to the best of my superficial knowledge, did not happen to Lenin when Stalin took over, and only to small degree when Stalin was dead. – Dohn Joe Jun 17 at 8:09
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If you'll allow me to dive into the psychology a bit, the root of a cult of personality is archetypal: the creation of an idealized persona that an ostensible leader must enter into and fulfill. A leader must appear in the world as (for lack of a better term) a kind of demigod, a larger-than-life human with superhuman capacities or characteristics, one who can single-handedly take on the problem of the salvation of others. The cult forms around the leader because people identify with him as the archetype of success. The sanitized, reified persona the leader projects becomes the ideal the followers reach for: his achievements are their achievements; his strength and wisdom are what they hope for themselves; his failings and weaknesses are their failings and weaknesses, and are instantly forgiven the way we all look past our own mistakes and misdeeds.

A cult of personality is over-identification tied to the hope of salvation: he is us, and we can rise out of our misery to find his kind of power and success if only we can follow his path.

Cults of personality are not intrinsically bad things. Most religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, etc) began as the teachings of one semi-deified person to a cult of devoted followers, and those teachings can resonate through the world for thousands of years. But as we know, cults of personality can go very badly wrong...

Ending a cult of personality means destroying the archetype, which is far more difficult that it might seem on the surface. People create archetypes of salvation because they honestly feel they need to be saved from something, so until that 'something' is addressed these people will be vulnerable to cult mentality. This is aggravated by the fact that cult leaders of the worse sort are often quite skilled manipulators, and will aggravate the sense of urgency and depth of misery behind people's desire for salvation. With that in mind, there are really only two ways for a cult of personality to die out:

  • The archetype of salvation must become irrelevant (usually by removing the problem it was meant to save people from), so that people are no longer inclined to seek it out, or...
  • The leader presenting the archetypical persona must be rendered fully and completely human: weak, deluded, stupid, frightened, haughty, sinful, shamed, or anything that will cause people to cease to believe in the demigod-like puissance of the leader.

It isn't sufficient to trash-talk the archetype of the leader, which will be ignored by the cultists as an effort to defame the Great One. Somehow, one must slip past the presented persona and expose the man underneath. This is the reason, for instance, that Hitler never allowed recordings of his voice outside of public speeches and rallies; he did not want people to hear him speak in a normal, casual voice about trivial subjects because that would undercut the illusion of him as constantly fiery, dynamic, focused force of nature.

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    Not Judaism. This was rather a 'theocratic' religion than a cult following (unless you consider Yahweh a 'person' - but even then, probably not). – Zeus Jun 17 at 4:30
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    @Zeus: I think you underestimate the status of Moses. He gathered the Jews from Egypt to bring them to the promised land (salvation); was empowered to call down plagues, split the Red Sea, call manna from heaven, draw water from stone, etc (superhuman powers). Don't forget that the Levites followed Moses to the point that they killed 3000 of their own people at his command, from those who had worshipped the Golden Calf. Seems like a personality cult to me... – Ted Wrigley Jun 17 at 4:46
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    An apt quote from Edwin Edwards (who?): "The only way I can lose this election is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy." – RedSonja Jun 17 at 7:42
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    @TedWrigley The problem with all the examples you gave is that there is essentially no non-Torah evidence that a person by that name existed and performed any of the deeds you mention. In fact, skimming across the relevant section of Wikipedia, I believe it's reasonable to conclude that 'Moses' as he is mentioned in the Exodus never existed -- and it is even highly unlikely that the Exodus itself ever happened as the Bible describes. – Jan Jun 18 at 11:49
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    @Jan: as Biden would say: "C'mon man!". I'm not here to argue biblical literalism. Take the story at face value for the purposes of the example, or don't, but either way you're going to find some charismatic leader who organized the Hebrews as a religious unit. – Ted Wrigley Jun 18 at 16:05
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I think sometimes a personal cult only ends with a generational change.

People have a hard time abandoning deep convictions, especially those that are emotionally loaded. Glorification of a leader is but one example; attachment to a political or religious movement, for example extreme nationalism, another. Don't make the mistake to believe that the Nazis changed their opinion after Hitler's death. Many people, especially the older ones, were still Nazis; it was just that it had been made politically incorrect to show Nazi opinions in public, and the country was first led by the allies and later by a new generation. The Nazis were sidelined and outcast in the public discourse. Nevertheless Nazi support groups of increasingly old men prevailed in the military and in the secret service as well as in the judiciary. They were just rather discreet. They had to retire or die before many Nazi crimes were prosecuted in earnest.

Coming around to personal cult: I would contend that to many of them, the true sign of Hitler's insanity was that he had lost the war. Even retrospectively they did not question his leadership as long as it was successful. The admiration for a leader like Hitler is connected to the adherence to an ideology because typically a leader attaches themself to a myth: A founding myth (ex-Yugoslavia), a race myth (Hitler), heroism in the fulfillment of a political teleology (Mao, Lenin and Stalin, Castro).

I think (without having any supportive study at hand) that this is a general pattern for true change: Often the core supporters must become old enough to lose the hold on their peer groups, or, for officials, to retire. The effect is two-fold: The next generation, young people who grew up when the cult was not in full effect any longer, is able to accept a different reality; and at the same time new office holders uncover misdeeds of the old rulers or even conduct investigations that would not have happened while the old guard was in power.

That only a new generation can bring on fundamental change, including the ending of leader cults, can be observed not only in politics but also in seemingly much more objective domains like science, including medicine.

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  • Whilst I consider your assessment of the post-war German history accurate, I'm not sure if a new generation is the only way to dismantle a personality cult; see De-Stalinisation during Khrushchev's rule. – Jan Jun 18 at 11:58
  • @Jan Surely not the only one, no; but nobody seems to have mentioned it here. Also, one could argue that the 1950s and beyond were shaped by a new generation (of politicians, media persons, administrators, people). – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jun 18 at 12:10
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Actually it is not correct to say that Hitler cult of personality ended. You are assuming that a cult of personality is only about creating a positive character, but a cult of personality is in modern times often used to define a character with strong traits. Those traits can be used later to contaminate the perception of anything simply by association with the character. In the case of Hitler the purpose is evident, every time someone wants to paint something in a negative image the association with Hitler is the most common argument. If you noticed how often the name of Hitler is mentioned you would understand that the cult of his personality is way far from the end.

So when the the cult of personality can end? When we want to recall the image of the mad man who plays the buffoon we still refer to Nero who died a little bit less than 2000 years ago. It's difficult to say when the cult can end, the emergence of a new similar image with stronger connotations might be a factor. The traits associated to the character becoming useless might be another factor. The small details around the image that reinforce the traits being forgotten might be another factor.

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    You need to read up on what a cult of personality entails. Hint: Nero did not and does not have a cult of personality. – Mark Jun 15 at 23:48
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    FluidCode might be on to something. The word "cult" implies that we ascribe god-like qualities to a person. When the cult ends, the person is seen as human again. But Hitler is now seen as absolute evil (at least in Germany), the role of an evil god or the devil. Even Trump's personality cult has two sides, simultaneously: he's seen either as a god or as a devil. +1 – user24582 Jun 16 at 8:20
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    @Mark Unfortunately Wikipedia is frequently exploited by the propaganda machine. That definition of the cult of personality that you linked was carefully designed by the corporate propaganda system to call themselves out. If you noticed that everything they say starts from sport/media/politics/billionare celebrities you'd understand that the cult of personality is a fundamental tool for them. – FluidCode Jun 16 at 8:33
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    @Mark That page you linked me reminds of the period when Apple wanted to brush off the bad publicity caused by the lawsuit over the bounce back patent. First you could hear or read the words "patent troll" everywhere, then via Wikipedia they released a definition of a patent troll that clearly called Apple out. Then all the media began to describe Apple as a victim of the American patent system, which is the exact opposite of the truth. – FluidCode Jun 16 at 8:36
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    Being (in)famous is quite different to having a cult of personality. – Dan M. Jun 17 at 16:53

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