Dendritic cells (DCs) initiate and shape both the innate and adaptive immune responses. Accordingly, recent evidence from clinical studies and experimental models implicates DCs in the pathogenesis of most autoimmune diseases. However, fundamental questions remain unanswered concerning the actual roles of DCs in autoimmunity, both in general and, in particular, in specific diseases. In this Review, we discuss the proposed roles of DCs in immunological tolerance, the effect of the gain or loss of DCs on autoimmunity and DC-intrinsic molecular regulators that help to prevent the development of autoimmunity. We also review the emerging roles of DCs in several autoimmune diseases, including autoimmune myocarditis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, type 1 diabetes and systemic lupus erythematosus.