With the recent death of Robert Mugabe, the world is seeing one of the most ruthless dictators of all time finally disempowered. He rules Zimbabwe from 1987 until 2017 with an iron fist. In one year, in a province where he did not receive any votes, he orchestrated the killing of over 20,000 civilians in retaliation.
Unfortunately, Mugabe is just one example of how powerful people have crossed the line in order to secure their own interests. There are examples from throughout history, dating back to the likes of Nero and Genghis Khan. It is easy to dismiss some of the stories of the actions of these ancient dictators as fantasies, since the evidence is pretty remote and flimsy. But considering what some world leaders are up to today, it doesn’t seem so implausible.
Here are fifteen of the worst dictators from the 20th century and what makes them stand out for censure.
The first leader of the North Korean dictatorship from 1948 until 1994, he established North Korea as a communist state. He started the process of brainwashing the people of North Korea into an us against the world mentality, and he used enforced disappearances and deadly prison camps to do it. He also established the songbun system, which divided people into core, wavering or hostile depending on their political beliefs. A person’s songbun status dictated everything about their lives including access to education employment, housing and food. Kim Il-Sung was succeeded by his son, King Jung-Il, who proved to be an even worse ruler, but he belongs to the 21st century.
Idi Amin Dada
A Ugandan military leader from 1971 to 1979, he was also known as the Bitcher of Uganda. He became president following a military coup which was precipitated by him being accused of embezzlement. His role was characterised by the slaughter of groups that did not support him. This started with Acholi and Lang ethnic groups in 1972, and then moved onto other ethnic groups, religious leaders, journalists, artists, judges, lawyers, students, anyone that he saw as a threat to his power. While the exact number of people killed in this way is unknown, it is estimated at around 300-500,000.
Head of the government of Soviet Russia from 1917 until 1924, he oversaw the Soviet Union becoming a one party communist state under a variant of Marxism, known as Leninism. Opponents to the regime were supressed by the Red Terror, a campaign carried out by the state security services that saw tens of thousands killed of put into concentration camps. He also oversaw the Russian Civil War and the Polish-Russian, which led to devastation and famine that killed millions more.
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev
Another Soviet head of state, in power from 1964 until 1982, he reversed many of the liberalizing policies introduced by his predecessor Khrushchev. He put influential figures that opposed the regime on public trial, and by 1970s he had imprisoned around 10,000 political and religious opponents. Many were placed in mental health asylums where they underwent unneeded operations. He also introduced a foreign policy that stated that any threat to the socialist rule of any state in the Soviet bloc was a threat to everyone, allowing him to justify acts such as the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese leader from 1945 to 1965, establishing the Communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north of the country. Ho Chi Minh forced adherence to his new regime by threatening locals, cutting off the hands of children and messages to their parents. Vietnamese troops that survived battled were killed for cowardice. People were executed for errors of thought. Between 50,000 and 100,00 civilians are thought to have been killed.
The head of state of Nigeria from 1966 to 1975, he was in power during the Nigerian Civil War, which cause the death of almost 3 million people, most of which were civilians. He took power in a military coup. When this was followed by rioting, more than 30,000 eastern Nigerians were killed. When a region of the country, known as Biafra, tried to break away, starting the civil war, Gowan blocked all aid, leading to the deaths of more than one million people by starvation, and the surrender of Biafra.
Mengistu Haile Mariam
The leader of Ethiopia from 1977 to 1991, he was part of the Derg that took over from the Solomonic dynasty that had ruled the country since the 13th century, but he then purged his rivals in the Derg and set himself up as a dictator. The period during which he was consolidating his power is known as the Ethiopian Red Terror. He was tried for genocide in the 1990s, with more than 8,000 pages of evidence including signed execution orders, videos of torture sessions and personal testimony.
President of Iraq from 1979 until 2003, Saddam Hussein is probably one of the most infamous modern dictators. As well as killing individual political opponents and their supporters,, Hussein is known to have rounded up and deported 8,000 men from the Kurdish Barzani tribe and deported them, never to be seen again; depopulated Kurdish regions through starvation leading to the deaths of 182,000; and used chemical weapons on the Kurdish village of Halabja killing 5,000. He invaded Kuwait, torturing and killing civilians and setting more than 700 oil well alight. More than 270 mass graves have been found in Iraq, indicating that Hussein’s regime killed tens of thousands of people.
Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge from 1963 until 1979, which took over control of Cambodia from 1975. Seeking to create an agrarian socialist society, he forcibly relocated urban populations to rural collective farms, and killed enemies of the regime, including Buddhist monks and ethnic minorities. Mass executions and malnutrition led to the deaths of around 2 million people, a quarter of Cambodia’s population, during his rule.
The last Russian emperor, he rules the country from 1894 until his forced abdication in 1917. He is also known as Nicholas the Bloody due to the Khodynka Tragedy, a human stampede during his coronation that killed 1,400 people; anti-Semitic pogroms which saw 2,000 people killed as Jews armed themselves to protect their families from attackers; and Bloody Sunday, when hundred were killed when soldiers fired upon unarmed demonstrators. He is also known to have ruthlessly repressed his political opponents, and is general held responsible for Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war, which saw more than 100,000 Russians killed.
Serving as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1922, and as Premier from 1941 to 1953, he was a de fact dictator from the 1930s. As well as his policies being responsible for famines that killed many, he carried out the Great Purge to eradicate the enemies of the working class, which saw more than 700,000 killed and one million imprisoned in the 1930s. He led his country through the bloodshed of World War II, and the annexation of the Baltic states, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian civilians.
King of Belgium from 1865 to 1909, he laid claimed to the Congo and created the Congo Free State as his own private land hold. He ran the land using mercenaries and extracted a fortune from the territory in ivory and forced labour. He maintained his power using systematic brutality that included murder and torture. The hands of men, women and children were amputated when quotas were not met as a sign to others. He is responsible for around 10 million Congolese deaths.
A man that needs little introduction, he was the dictator of Germany from 1933 to 1945 and initiated World War Ii with his invasion of Poland. He is the primary author of the Holocaust, which killed more than six million Jews in Europe. His Nazi regime was also responsible for the killing of an estimated 19.3 million civilians and prisoners of war, and another 28.7 million died as a result of the great war for which he was responsible.
Chairman Mao, the founder of the Chinese communist state, he was the leader of the country from 1943 until 1976. His revolutionary policies aimed at bringing China into the future quickly led to the worst feminine in history that caused the deaths of between 20 and 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. He is considered responsible for the deaths of an additional 20 million people through prison labour and mass executions that were implemented to maintain his totalitarian regime.