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The despotism or despotism ( Gr. Δεσποτία despotía , from δεσπότης despótes "lord") is a form of rule in which a ruler or head such as a head of state ( despot = unrestricted ruler, tyrant or pejorative for a ruling, tyrannical person) the unrestricted domination exercises. Nowadays, the term despotism is used to denote “unlimited violence and arbitrariness”.

Often despotism means a form of degeneracy of the monarchy ( tyranny ). Characteristic of this form is arbitrary rule , because only the will and the arbitrariness of the ruler decide. Despotism thus represents the highest degree and the special design of an autocratic or absolutist system of government. Despotism is not limited to the monarchy, because even in a republic , those in power can appear despotic, insofar as they succeed, only according to their will To determine the people. Therefore, in the modern typology corresponds to political systems , the totalitarian dictatorship of despotism.

In general, despotism also describes a system of rule or government characterized by arbitrariness and limitlessness. The concept of despotism is often transferred from state theory to other living conditions. In community , church , club or family life, the term is also used when an individual will dominates others in an unjustified manner.

Because the ruler or the ruling group exercise their power in a despotic way and abuse powers, some state theorists deny despotism any promotion of the common good . In the opinion of many state theorists, despotism, as an illegitimate form of rule, establishes a right of resistance , as guaranteed in the Basic Law in Germany in Article 20 (4) of the Basic Law.


In the Greek origin of the word, the despot is the master , especially over slaves and also in the sense of master of the house. The Greek polis was characterized by a separation of the household ( oikos ) and the public sphere. When a politician behaves in the public sphere as he does in the private household, i. H. treats free citizens as slaves, one speaks in the ancient tradition of despotism. Despotism is one of the oldest forms of rule, because monarchical and democratic governments have repeatedly degenerated into despotisms. Many examples can already be found in ancient times among the Greeks ( Dionysius I of Syracuse ) and in the Roman Empire ( Caligula ), and even at the time of the Great Migration , numerous tribal princes ruled their peoples in a despotic way.

In the Middle Ages , some princes strived for absolute power and this is how prince despotism emerged. In the 17th century, Louis XIV of France described himself as the "Sun King" and eliminated the influence of the nobility. In Germany, a patriarchal despotism arose in the 17th and 18th centuries , which was characterized by a rather paternal-caring relationship between sovereigns and regional children.

Strongly despotic empires also appeared in Asia , with the emperor of China exercising the greatest power and establishing an enlightened despotism in the Qing dynasty .

Since the time of the Enlightenment , absolute state power has been criticized by French philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau , Condorcet , Montesquieu and Voltaire, as well as English thinkers such as Hume and also by the founding father of American democracy Thomas Jefferson .

The reference to an impending "victory of Russian despotism" served the SPD party chairman Hugo Haase in August 1914 as a reason for agreeing to the war loans .

More recently, despotism reappeared in the Third Reich (1933 to 1945) under Adolf Hitler , in Spain (1939 to 1975) under Francisco Franco , in the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin , in Italy (1922 to 1943) under Benito Mussolini , in Chile (1973 to 1990) under Augusto Pinochet , in what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo ) under Mobutu Sese Seko , in Uganda under Idi Amin or in the Central African Republic under Jean-Bédel Bokassa . Several of today's states in Asia and Africa can also be viewed as despotism, such as North Korea , Turkmenistan and Zimbabwe .

Characteristics of a despotism

Despotism in antiquity

Before antiquity , the distinction between despotism and other forms of rule was difficult to conceptualize because there were no laws or restrictions on rule. According to the Greek understanding, there was only despotism (s) before the polis and beyond the polis. In ancient Greece, especially Athens, the Attic democracy developed , which was able to differentiate between a legitimate and an illegitimate rule. The tyranny , a degeneration of the monarchy, despotism was not because the framework of the political still existed. Only if the tyrant succeeded in making all citizens permanently slaves and also in making the memory of a time before the tyranny disappear, then one can, according to the ancient understanding, speak of a despotism. According to the Roman understanding, the term dictatorship was a time-limited sole rule. This limitation set it apart from despotism. Even in the Roman Empire, the laws of the republic continued to apply de jure. In fact, however, the actions of some emperors can be described as despotic.

Term “despotism” according to antiquity

The subjects are obliged to obey their despot unconditionally . There is no parliament and no parties, or they just appear to exist. There is no opposition and discussion will not be tolerated. Critics and deviants are mercilessly persecuted. The despot rules mostly through favorites , who not infrequently have great, but exclusively from him, political power. However, the despot seeks to control this power through the deliberate fomenting of rivalry .

The ruler of a despotism has an absolute monopoly of power; the military and police are subordinate to him alone . As a rule, there is a secret police for the organized pursuit of political opponents in the spirit of a surveillance state . The politics of these states is often based on an ideology .

The personality cult around a despot often takes on religious traits: his image is depicted on medals and porcelain plates, for example, you can see him on monuments ; Streets and squares are named after him.

Title "Despot"

In the Middle Ages , the title of despot , which was reserved for the higher aristocracy, arose in Byzantium . Created as the highest title after that of the emperor, the despot could be the holder of a despotism or despotate , but was also the title of heir to the throne from 1261, who was also the ruler of the despotate Morea . The feminine form Despoina denotes a female despot or the wife of a despot.

Even outside Byzantium, especially in Southeastern Europe, the title as the highest ruler title spread, so Béla III. of Hungary (ruled 1172–1196) the first non-Byzantine despot . As a rule, their territory was then referred to as a despotate, like the despotate Epirus or the despotate Dobrudscha .

In the Byzantine liturgy the priest is addressed by the deacon as a despot to this day. These titles are to be understood neutrally in the sense of “ruler”, without the negative meaning “tyrant” that is common today.

See also

  • Dystopia - similar term (to despotism )

Web links

Wiktionary: Despot  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
  • Despotism (1946) educational film for the classroom, produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, 1946 (English)

Individual evidence

  1. Despot in, accessed on May 22, 2015
  2. Despotie in, accessed on May 22, 2015
  3. ^ Declaration by the Social Democratic Party on the outbreak of war given by parliamentary group leader Haase in the Reichstag (August 4, 1914)