History's Most Dangerous Leaders
History's Most Dangerous Leaders
There has been no shortage of dangerous, evil dictators throughout history, including many in the modern era. Such rulers are defined by their ability to oppress large groups of people by wielding military might and through other fear and intimidation tactics. They also funnel the country’s financial resources into their own pockets and into the building of their armies, which in turn, commit acts of aggression against the people. Attempts at peaceful protestations typically fail, because these are not democracies. Protests are illegal and protesters are often jailed, tortured or shot in the streets. The families of protesters are often harassed or committed to house arrest. Women are raped and brutalized, men are murdered and many of these atrocities take place in public as a means of subjugating the masses. They are fearful of advocating for their fundamental human rights. Their leaders have never humanized them, so the notion that they would have rights is a foreign concept. In addition, there is no expiration date to the offices held by these rulers. Many ruled for decades and used force and illegal vote tampering to assure their continued power. In some countries, the dictator may appoint their own successor. Many appoint their children or siblings in order to assure that their philosophies will continue to be enforced. Some of the most evil dictators in history have included the following:
Hitler was a key player in the rise of fascism in Europe. With Germany in the midst of an economic depression in the 1920s and1930s, Hitler was able to convince the German people that his politics were the solution to their economic woes. Under his leadership, he expanded industry and the military while slashing unemployment rates. The latter was achieved primarily by dictating that women remain home while men occupy all available jobs. At the same time, scapegoats were needed to explain the previous economic depression and make the public fear its reprisal. This made it possible for Hitler to demonize Jews and other minority groups and he began a campaign of racial cleansing that ultimately led to the Holocaust and the extermination of nearly 14 million people, including 6 million Jews. Other targets included homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war, gypsies, the handicapped and mentally ill, trade unionists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Hitler was a very paranoid man, as many dictators are, because despite his allies, his enemies were vast and he survived more than one assassination attempt. He suffered from depression and contemplated suicide at several points throughout his life. Hitler formed unholy alliances with the leaders of Japan and Italy. Emperor Hirohito and Benito Mussolini were presiding over their own repressive regimes making them likely allies. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Hitler formally declared war against the United States, an act which pitted him against the largest, most powerful armies in the world including the US, the British Empire and the Soviet Union. Many of the army factions that Hitler believed existed within Germany were splintered and lacked power. As the Soviet’s Red Army pushed into Berlin, Hitler felt his power ebbing away and confessed to military insiders that the war was lost. His ally, Mussolini, was assassinated, increasing Hitler’s own fear and paranoia about how his life and rule might come to an end. On April 30, 1945, one day after marrying his long time mistress, Eva Braun, Adolf committed suicide in an underground bunker using his own pistol.
Under Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union both prospered and suffered. While Stalin transformed the former USSR into a nuclear superpower, he achieved much of his power by intimidating, torturing, suppressing and killing his opponents. Entire villages were terrorized and burned if citizens did not swear allegiance to Stalin. Food and other supplies were withheld until villages relented out of sheer desperation. Deserters and other “renegades” were publicly executed as a means of intimidation. Some opponents were exiled or sent to labor camps. He became known for changes to the justice system in which trials of opposition leaders were ordered to take no more than 10 days. There were no appeals, no defense attorneys and no prosecutors. Death sentences were executed quickly to assure that there was no recourse for the condemned. Accusations of high treason against military officials were commonplace, making it impossible for his “supporters” to defect. To do so was to risk their own peril. Stalin was notoriously vicious to even those close to him. He reportedly treated his son, Yakov, with such distain that the younger Stalin attempted suicide by shooting himself. When his suicide attempt failed, Stalin reportedly quipped, “He can’t even shoot straight.” His son later joined the Red Army and was captured by the Germans, who offered to exchange him for a German prisoner being held by the Soviets. Stalin rejected their offer and Yakov finally succeeded in killing himself by running into an electric fence. His daughter also committed suicide by shooting herself after quarreling with him and there was speculation that after an abusive fight with his wife, Stalin killed her. Stalin was so intent on etching his image on the USSR, that many public buildings, prizes, and programs bore his name. While Stalin was busy suppressing his opponents and building his personal empire, famine was ravaging parts of the USSR and the promises he had made to improve upon agriculture and industry were not kept. Religion was abolished in favor of communism. It was denounced as the opiate of the masses and atheism was promoted in its place. Stalin presided over the USSR from 1924 – 1953 and died in office. During his reign, he was responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million people.
This brutal Ugandan dictator served from 1971 – 1979, during which time he ordered countless murders, repressed his people, and committed countless human rights abuses. He achieved power during a political coup in which the current leader, Milton Obote, was overthrown. Initially, Uganda was hopeful about Amin’s rule. He made promises to release political prisoners and made himself appear to be a man of the people. He promised free and fair elections through a democratic process. But within one week of seizing power, Amin turned Uganda into a military state, assigning top government offices to military officials and subjecting civilian cabinet ministers to military discipline. Obote’s supporters, primarily those in exile, quickly mobilized to exact retaliation and reclaim power. As a result, Amin’s forces gunned down anyone that was perceived as a threat, including countless innocent victims. Before long, not only Obote supporters were targets. Amin’s armies now murdered homosexuals, foreign nationals, students, lawyers, artists, religious leaders and countless others and anyone that he perceived as a threat to his political or financial wellbeing. In an act of ethnic cleansing and financial greed, Amin expelled about 80,000 Asians who were not citizens of Uganda, but who owned business there and had lived there most of their lives. The businesses were given to his supporters. The supporters were ill-equipped to run them however, and as such, Uganda began to fall into economic ruin. In his growing quest for ultimate power and his delusional state, he dubbed himself the King of Scotland and began dressing in Scottish attire and playing Scottish music for foreign guests. His descent into apparent madness began to affect the number of his supporters. Those that remained largely did so out of fear or because he was financially supporting them. Amin’s opponents mobilized against him again in 1977, but with dwindling support, Amin’s armies were no match for them. He was forced into exile in 1979 and given refuge by Moammar Khaddafy in Libya. He eventually made his way to Saudi Arabia, where he was paid handsomely in exchange for his agreement to stay out of politics.
Pol Pot, born Saloth Sar, was the leader of the Cambodian Communist movement known as the Khmer Rouge. During this time, from 1975 – 1979, he was responsible for the deaths of 2 million people; possibly more. He attempted to enforce agrarian socialism and forced his people from the cities into the country where they were put to work in agriculture. Forced labor, executions, lack of adequate medical care and extensive malnutrition decimated the population, killing 21% of Cambodians. As it is with evil dictators, Pol Pot was, by all accounts, delusional. He believed that through his attempts to enforce agrarian socialism, he would effectively restart civilization. His aim was to start life again at Year Zero. In 1975, Pot declared Year Zero and instigated his ruthless campaign to purify Cambodian society. He expelled foreigners, repressed any sign of western culture, obliterated religion in favor of Communism, and isolated Cambodia from the rest of the world. He abolished the country’s currency. Cambodians poured into the capital city of Phnom Penh, but were quickly overrun by Khmer Rouge and US forces. All 2 million people were forced into the countryside to live in the labor collectives which became known as the killing fields. Scores of people including public servants, police, military leaders, Christian clergymen, Muslim leaders, educated persons and ethnic Vietnamese were identified and executed. While in the killing fields, citizens could be executed for “crimes” including wearing jewelry, not working hard enough, complaining about work or conditions, stealing food, having sex, expressing religious views, or grieving the loss of friends or relatives. In 1979, Cambodia was invaded by Vietnam and Pot fled into the Cambodian jungle where he and former Khmer Rouge officials operated from 1979 – 1997, though the Khmer Rouge had effectively collapsed.
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Mussolini was one of the founders of fascism in Italy. Known widely by his self-appointed title, Il Duce, Mussolini transformed Italy in the 1920s and 30s through the creation of jobs and improvement of services such as public transport. But his credibility with the Italian people was lost over time, as his tactics became more and more extreme. In one telegram sent by Mussolini to his appointed Prefect, Cesare Mori, he wrote,
“Your Excellency has carte blanche, the authority of the State must absolutely, I repeat, absolutely, be re-established in Sicily. If the laws in force hinder you, this will be no problem, as we will draw up new laws.” In his quest for supreme power, Mussolini did not hesitate to use military might against his own people in their townships. He tortured them and held citizens hostage, including women and children. Over 10,000 of his own people were killed in his relentless quest to create an Italian Empire over which he intended to preside as supreme ruler. Under Mussolini, the laws of the parliamentary system were rewritten so that all teachers and journalists were forced to swear an oath of loyalty to the fascist regime. Journalists were issued certificates to publish in exchange for their oaths. Those that did not take the oath were not allowed to practice journalism. FerdThis was Mussolini’s way of ensuring that his propaganda was the primary news available to the Italian people. Mussolini was an ally of both Emperor Hirohito and Adolf Hitler during WWII. Because Mussolini did not believe that the war would last long, he entered on the side of the Axis power and declared war on Britain and France, a fateful decision which marked the beginning of the end of his reign of power. On April 28, 1945, Mussolini was executed, the day before Hitler married Eva Braun and two days before Hitler’s suicide. Following his execution by firing squad, Mussolini was strung up by his feet using meat hooks in the Piazza Loreto. Before being strung up, the hatred of the Italian people was heaped upon him as they kicked and spat upon his corpse.
Hussein served as ruler of the Ba’ath party and President of Iraq from 1979 – 2003. Like so many others on the list, Hussein was not above attacking his own people when it served his personal interests. The fear and intimidation with which he ruled helped to keep him in power for decades. In his most deadly, and perhaps famous, attack, Hussein ordered the Halabja poison gas attack on the Kurdish people of northern Iraq. This attack claimed between 3,200 and 5,000 lives. As many as 10,000 others were injured. The victims were primarily civilians. This attack is the single largest chemical weapons attack against a civilian population in world history. Thousands more Kurds were killed during the Anfal campaign from 1986 – 1989 as ground offensives, aerials bombings, firing squads, chemical warfare and deportations were carried out in an attempt at ethnic cleansing. Wars with Iran and Kuwait contributed to the instability of the middle east and set Hussein up as a dictator that could not be trusted. US sanctions against the nation were imposed and attempts to overthrow him proved unsuccessful. Hussein was finally captured in 2003 by American troops, who found him hiding in an underground hole at a farmhouse. He was tried by the Iraqi government and subsequently executed by hanging for his crimes against humanity.
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Khaddafi is the longest serving ruler of Libya, having been in power since 1972. He is one of the most controversial and eccentric leaders of our time. He is known as much for his tyrannical ramblings and social eccentricities as he is for his leadership. Like Stalin and Amin, he bestowed self-aggrandizing titles upon himself such as, King of Kings of Africa, Leader of Arab Leaders, and Imam of Muslims. In 2009, opposition to NATO, Khaddafi proposed the creation of a rival organization that he called, SATO. It did not catch on. To voice his opposition to peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO, Khaddafi expelled over 30,000 Palestinians that were living in Libya in 1995. Like other dictators, Khaddafi is said to be responsible for the deaths of scores of opponents. He is unwavering in his commitment to remaining in power and has threatened to launch military strikes against anyone engaged in peaceful demonstrations against him. The Geneva based Libyan League for Human Rights was created in 2006 to investigate claims that at least 30 Libyans and foreigners were killed during protests in Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya. Khaddafi is also thought to be behind the disappearance of Musa al-Sadr, a prominent Lebanese dissident. His disappearance came as al-Sadr was traveling to Libya with two companions to meet with government officials. He never arrived and the Lebanese government has indicted Khaddafi in that disappearance. In the 2011 middle east uprisings, scores of demonstrators took to the streets of Libya calling for Khaddafi’s removal. In response, Khaddafi publicly cited Libyan laws that give him the authority to arrest and execute anyone who sits in opposition to his regime. Khaddafi vowed to remain in power until he had lost every last drop of blood. He threatened bloodshed. While Khaddafi cannot claim responsibility for as many lives as others on the list, what makes him so dangerous is his clearly unstable mind. He publicly demonstrates a vast ego, a level of paranoia and a willingness to attack his own people if necessary to preserve power. He believes that he can do battle with world wide super powers and win. He has given refuse to other despots such as Idi Amin, who committed some of the most vile atrocities known to humankind. And he refuses to relinquish power in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Kim Jong Il
The indisputable leader of North Korea makes the list as one of the world’s most dangerous leaders because of his unflinching approach to opposition and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Kim succeeded his father’s rule and has chosen his own son as his successor, ensuring that the philosophy and person politics with which he rules will continue. In fact, Kim is not even required to stand for his country’s elections because his unanimous reinstatement is guaranteed. With the Korean military providing the real power, Kim had himself appointed the supreme commander of the North Korean armed forces. North Korea has the fourth largest standing army in the world. In 1987, Kim allegedly ordered the bombing of Korean Flight 858 that killed 115 people. He was also accused of ordering the 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma that killed 4 cabinet members and 17 South Korean officials that were visiting the country. In 2002 he acknowledged that North Korea had been producing nuclear weapons in spite of having signed an Agreed Framework with the US to freeze and gradually dismantle the weapons program. In fact, in 2006, the country announced the successful underground test of a nuclear weapon.
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Leader of Spain beginning in 1936, he was just coming to power at the onset of the Spanish Civil War. Franco’s troops emerged victorious in 1939, after the deaths of up to a half million people. He formed alliances with both Mussolini and Hitler during this time and in one of his most famous and deadly acts, he covertly arranged for the obliteration of the Spanish Basque town of Guernica, an event cemented in the public consciousness after Picasso unveiled his famous work by the same name. This bombing was carried out by the Condor Legion as a means of bringing the civil war to an end by
destroying the only escape route available to republican forces. Bridges and roads were targeted, but bombs also fell on the center of town during the busiest time of day, when a regularly scheduled market was being held, killing several hundred civilians. During the civil war the country fell into poverty. At least 200,000 died of starvation and in an unusual twist, Franco was convinced of his ability to feed the masses with dolphin sandwiches. In addition to his targeting of Guernica, Franco ordered the executions of as many as 50,000 political opponents. He suppressed countless others from groups such as trade unions, Basque separatists, and liberal democrats. Trade unions were outlawed. Franco also attempted to establish language politics in which the use of Castilian Spanish was the only acceptable means of communication. Other languages such as Galician, Basque and Catalan were suppressed. Women were also suppressed. Like Hitler, Franco believed that the woman’s place was at home caring for her family. As such, women were not allowed to secure positions such as judge or university professor. They were also not allowed to sit on juries. During the 60s and 70s, student revolts began to take place at colleges and universities throughout the country. Military secret police were put in place inside classrooms. Armed military personnel engaged in violent counterattacks against protesters.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton articulated the view of many Milošević critics when he told a veterans group that Milošević "sought to expand his power, by inciting religious and ethnic hatred in the cause of Greater Serbia; by demonizing and dehumanizing people, especially the Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims ... He unleashed wars in Bosnia and Croatia, creating 2 million refugees and leaving a quarter of a million people dead ... he stripped Kosovo of its constitutional self-government, and began harassing and oppressing its people."
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright explained the U.S. Government's view that, "Slobodan Milošević initiated four wars during the 1990s, including a devastating campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo which killed thousands and drove almost a million people from their homes."
Detractors say that Milosevic was intent on creating a Greater Serbian State and that it was this ambition that drove his bloody politics. His focus on promoting Serbian national interests alienated Bosnians, Macedonians, Slovenes, Croats and Kosovan Albanians. He was in power as Yugoslavia began to splinter. He supported ethnic cleansing efforts as Bosnian Serb guerillas massacred people from other ethnic groups in an effort to create an exclusively Serbian state. They also drove millions of Bosnians and Croats from their homes, essentially rendering them refugees.
Milosevic was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal in 1999 in charges that included: genocide; complicity in genocide; deportation; murder; persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds; inhumane acts/forcible transfer; extermination; imprisonment; torture; willful killing; unlawful confinement; willfully causing great suffering; unlawful deportation or transfer; extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly; cruel treatment; plunder of public or private property; attacks on civilians; destruction or willful damage done to historic monuments and institutions dedicated to education or religion; unlawful attacks on civilian objects.
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