With the likes of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un threatening nuclear armageddon, its hard to believe the word “dictator” did not always have the very negative connotation it has today. During the time of the Roman Republic, a dictator was a public official granted temporary power to act in times of war.
Human nature being what it is sometimes people who were granted this power did not want to give it up. Dictators are evidence of the truth of British statesman Lord Acton’s line that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
We have come to associate the word with the industrialized, costumed version of the 20th century such as Mao and Hitler. Dictators have come from many different backgrounds and have taken many different routes to power — with unpredictably murderous results. Here are the 15 worst strongmen in history.
15. One Who Confronts
A U.S. Delta Force operator pulled the brutal dictator of Iraq out of a dark spider hole on 13 December 2003. Such a humble ending for the man who ruled Iraq with an iron fist since coming to power in a coup in 1979.
Although he had imprisoned, tortured and killed his own people for years, Westerners ignored him until he invaded neighboring Kuwait in August 1990. President George H.W. Bush put together an international coalition much like his son would do 13 years later to put down the threat.
The U.S. military deployed 100,000 troops in Saudi Arabia on Iraqi border and executing a month-long air campaign. The Marines pushed the Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait in a 100-hour blitz. Still, Saddam was allowed to stay in power so the Iraqi people continued to suffer.
When Saddam’s support for terrorism and nascent Weapons of Mass Destruction program were revealed, President George W. Bush committed to removing Saddam from his seat of power. He was given an opportunity to go into exile and avoid war, but he refused. American and British armored units crossed into Iraq on 20 March 2003. And the rest is history.
14. Bringer of Light
The communist dictator known as Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890 in what was then known as Indochina — French colonial territories. Ho Chi Minh was only one of the pseudonyms the communist dictator went by during his life, but it was probably the most ironic.
When asked about committing violence in the name of communism he reportedly said, “anyone who does not follow the line determined by me will be smashed.” He was always a staunch nationalist, but discovered communism while traveling in France as a young man.
During World War II, with the aid of the American G.I.’s, he fought to expel the Japanese from Indochina. After the war though, he ruthlessly pushed for communist domination of Vietnam.
After expelling the French in the early 1950s, Ho Chi Minh and the communists infiltrated and attacked South Vietnam. This war between the Communist North and the Democratic South lasted until after U.S. forces withdrew in 1973.
13. Little Boot
Gaius Caesar Germanicus was the third emperor of the Roman Empire. In his youth, legionnaires nicknamed him Caligula — or “little boot” — for the tiny military uniforms he wore on campaign with his father. He ascended the throne at 25 years old, but immediately took firm control by executing several rivals and family members.
Several months after becoming emperor, he apparently survived a murder attempt by poisoning. This ordeal left him paranoid and possibly mentally ill. He issued the order — under penalty of death — that subjects not mention goats in his presence because he believed people compared him to the hairy animals.
He started dressing like Hercules and replacing the heads of statues with his own likeness. The final straw came when he started demanding to be addressed as a god. His Praetorian guard finally had enough and murdered their emperor at a public sporting event.
12. The Butcher of Uganda
Idi Amin was a Ugandan military officer in 1971 when he initiated a coup against the sitting president, who was about to have Amin arrested on suspicion of attempting to assassinate him. This preemptive coup put Amin in power for eight years of paranoia and bloodshed against perceived enemies.
Estimates put the death toll at at least 300,000 people. He destroyed the Ugandan economy, when he inexplicably expelled all Asians from the country taking much needed financial and intellectual capital.
What little money the country did have went into Amin’s pockets and to fund the security apparatus that helped keep the dictator in power. After eight years of terror, he was driven from power in a coup. The ex-dictator lived in comfort in Saudi Arabia until 2003.
11. The Mad Dog of the Middle East
The Mad Dog of the Middle East had a conventional career as a military officer in the Libyan armed forces. He and a group of officers plotted and overthrew the king in 1969. Muammar al-Gaddafi separated himself from the rest of the plotters and declared himself the ruler of Libya at age 27.
He was known to send his security agents abroad to terrorize Libyans living in exile. Curiously, he had several cadres of female bodyguards. It obscured his heinous practice of keeping young sex slaves. Qaddafi became an international pariah by carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States.
The first one was the 1986 bombing of a disco in West Berlin. The second was the deadly 1988 Lockerbie bombing that brought down a passenger plane killing 259 people. Libya was swept up in the “Arab Spring” in 2011, which brought civil war to Qaddafi’s tent. He was tracked down and murdered by rebels ending 42 years of a strange and brutal reign.
10. El Presidente
Fidel Castro took power in Cuba as part of a Communist revolution in 1962. Although the son of a powerful plantation owner, Castro affected the persona of a populist folk hero. Castro came to international prominence after the Bay of Pigs — a failed U.S.-supported coup launched by Cuban exiles.
He was also at the center of the U.S.- Soviet standoff over nuclear missiles being installed on the island. The naval quarantine ordered by President Kennedy and backed with the threat of force convinced the Soviets to abandon their plan.
Castro played the superpowers against each other force his own benefit while stifling most economic activity and freedom of expression for the Cuban people. The CIA under Kennedy reportedly attempted to assassinate the dictator using several exotic methods such as poisoned cigars. Yet, he lived to the ripe old age of 90.
9. The One Who Shoots Arrows at the Sky
Moctezuma II, king of the Aztecs, was known to his people by another name that translates as “the one who shoots arrows in the sky.” Moctezuma ruled over the high point of the Aztec civilization, but theirs was a culture steeped in the gore of human blood sacrifice.
Prisoners and slaves had their hearts ripped out by the thousands to satiate thirsty gods. In 1519, Spanish Conquistadors, led by Hernan Cortes arrived, were surprised to find a fairly advanced indigenous empire.
When Moctezuma first heard about the fair-skinned strangers, he was not overly concerned. He assumed he could bribe them with gold to withdraw. Yet, the appetizer only whet the Spaniards’ hunger for more. The invaders were only 500 hundred strong, but their armor, firearms and horses made them formidable.
After Cortes captured him, Moctezuma gave a speech to the Aztecs to persuade them to stand down. But his subjects stoned him to death.
8. Sing Me a Sung
After the Allied forces expelled Japanese forces from the Korean Peninsula at the end of World War II, it was divided into two countries. In 1948, the south became a democratic state while the north became a repressive communist dictatorship ruled by one man: Kim Il Sung.
He decided to gamble and launch an invasion across the 38th parallel into the South Korea. Kim Il Sung’s disciplined forces rolled over South Korea’s ill prepared military. U.S. forces were rushed over from Japan, but were not much better prepared than the South Koreans.
South Korea took some heavy damage in the invasion, but with General McArthur’s assault on the port city of Inchon, the North’s forces were cut in half. They retreated across the border and the war would rage on for three years before a ceasefire was signed. The two Koreas are technically still at war to this day.
More than half a million Koreans died in the war as well as more than 30,000 Americans. Kim Il Sung died in 1994 of calcium growth in his neck, but the North Koreans won’t forget this dictator anytime soon. His regime erected 500 statues in his honor.
7. A New Marshal in Tito
Josip Broz became known as “Tito” became something of a folk hero during World War II. The leader of Yugoslav partisans who battled Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1945, Tito had been a member of the Communist Party since young adulthood. He used the Yugoslav party machinery to come to power in the vacuum left at the end of the war.
After taking over, he had a short-lived relationship with Stalin’s Soviet Union. The two dictators fell out over differences in policy as well as Tito’s insistence on remaining largely free from Soviet hegemony.
He focused much of his attention on two groups: the Stalinists and ethnic Albanians. The Yugoslav secret police — modeled on the Soviet KGB — persecuted them to no avail. The second half of his reign was less oppressive, but this is of little comfort to the thousands of innocent people who were harassed, jailed or killed by his authoritarian regime.
6. The Duck of Damascus
Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria since 2000 has become known as a bloodthirsty tyrant for his response to Arab Spring protesters and the subsequent civil war. But to his wife, he’s duck. This is an obscenely inappropriate nickname considering the Syrian Civil War has caused the death of as many as 500,000 people.
Assad succeeded his father who had ruled for decades, but wasn’t necessarily the obvious choice. He trained in England to be an ophthalmologist and also met his wife there. Before the carnage of the ongoing civil war, many observers had hoped Assad would prove to be a much more enlightened ruler than his father.
Yet, he will go down in history as one of the bloodier dictators of the early 21st century.
5. Ivan the Terrible
Ivan Vasilyevich IV is commonly known as Ivan the Terrible and for good reason. He was a formidable 16th-century conquerer who made Russia a continental power spanning 1.5 million square miles. He showed his potential for ruthless at the young age of 13 when he had a rival executed.
His sociopathic tendencies surfaced in his youth; he was known to drop puppies from the Kremlin’s towers. When he became Tsar, he quickly moved to cow the nobility into supporting him and created a relatively efficient bureaucracy to tax his vast empire.
Ivan was a complex man who was highly intelligent and a patron of the arts but was infamous for his explosive temper and periods of mental instability. He killed his eldest son leaving a weak and less than astute son to inherit the throne.
4. Founding Dictator
Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese communists founded “The Peoples’ Republic of China” in 1949 after driving the national forces out of mainland China and over to the island of Taiwan. He became a communist as a young man, but much of his energies were focused on fighting the brutal occupation by the Imperial Japanese Army between 1937 and 1945.
After World War II, Mao and the Communists were free to resume their civil war against the nationalists. When Mao took power he immediately started instituting major changes in line with Marxist-Leninist theories — land redistribution schemes and crash industrialization.
Combined with political oppression, Mao’s policies took an unbelievable toll on Chinese culture and its people. Over the course of his 27-year reign, he caused the death of as many as 70 million people. Even Stalin and Hitler did not leave this earth with that amount of blood on their hands.
3. Der Fuehrer
“At the risk of appearing to talk nonsense I tell you that the National Socialist movement will go on for 1,000 years! … Don’t forget how people laughed at me 15 years ago when I declared that one day I would govern Germany. They laugh now, just as foolishly, when I declare that I shall remain in power!”
When Adolf Hitler spoke these words to a British journalist in 1934, perhaps it was still possible to not take the German leader too seriously. This would soon change however. His racially motivated crimes against Jews and other minorities and his aggressive actions toward his neighbors began to sink in.
The European powers had their chance in the late 1930s as Great Britain and France were stronger than Germany — at least on paper. But Hitler was shrewd. He knew the British and French would agree to almost anything to avoid another bloodbath like World War I.
Ironically, their refusal to confront Hitler, when he occupied Czechoslovakia, set a course that would end only after more than 55 million people were dead. Europe and the world are still dealing with the consequences of allowing this genocidal dictator to attempt at creating his dream — a thousand-year empire.
2. Uncle Joe
Joseph Stalin rose up in the communist ranks, and when Lenin died, became leader of Russia. Stalin was a particularly cruel leader, arresting, torturing and executing many thousands of his own people. Perhaps his biggest crime however, were the famines deliberately imposed on whole populations who he felt were not loyal.
In what became known as the “Ukrainian Genocide” as many as four million men, women and children starved to death. On the eve of World war II, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany signed a nonaggression pact that laid out secret plans on carving up Europe between the two powers.
When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Stalin allied with America and Britain. But as soon as the war ended in 1945, the Allied Powers had a falling out. Winston Churchill declared that an “iron curtain” had descended over Europe.
Stalin moved to install Communist governments in liberated countries. Germany was divided into Democratic and Communist zones. In March 1953, the dictator suffered a major stroke and slowly died over the course of several hours.
1. Pot of Genocide
Like his contemporary Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot traveled to France as a student and there was introduced to Communism. In 1963 he became leader of the Cambodian Communist Party also known as the Khmer Rouge.
We usually think of dictators like Stalin and Hitler when we think of maniacs ruling a country at the expense of millions of their own people. But Pol Pot — born Sloth Sar — was a totalitarian who committed mass genocide.
During his four-year run (1976-1979) as the premier of Cambodia’s Communist Party, he instituted cruel collective farming programs and work camps with deplorable conditions. It caused the deaths of as many as three million people in just four years.
These deaths represented a staggering 25 per cent of Cambodia’s population at the time. Though his government was eventually toppled, Pol Pot evaded justice and lived out his years in peace until his death in 1998.