Here are the 10 Most Cruel and Despotic Leaders of the 20th Century

Here are the 10 Most Cruel and Despotic Leaders of the 20th Century

Patrick Whang - February 8, 2018

The world has seen more than its share of cruel and despotic rulers. From the infamous, psychotic madness of Caligula, to the bloody massacres led by Genghis Khan, countries and many peoples have suffered under these regimes throughout history. Unfortunately, the twentieth century history of the world is replete with examples of less than stellar leadership. Corruption has been a major problem that has plagued political leadership throughout the ages and up to the present day. In Africa alone, corruption in governments after independence from colonial powers, has cost the continent roughly $150 billion annually according to a 2002 African Union study. But beyond corruption, violence and persecution against opposition groups and innocent people, have been a stain to many global nations. Good and fair governance have often been an exception rather than the rule.

Why has this happened and why does it continue in many countries? This is a difficult question to answer. Part of the blame certainly lies with former colonial powers of countries who enhanced tribal and political rivalries in order to maintain control over disparate populations. These rivalries would often turn into autocratic, one-party ruled systems after independence. Another is the lack of institutional checks and balances which can prevent the rise of these types of ultra-nationalistic or dictatorial regimes. The final part of the blame falls on those leaders who felt that absolute authority and even violent methods were needed to maintain “control.” Whatever the reasons, the following list of leaders reflect what occurred in many countries around the world and serves as a lesson to us all.

Here are the 10 Most Cruel and Despotic Leaders of the 20th Century
Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe, CNN.

There is certainly no shortage of bad leaders in history to choose from. One example was Robert Mugabe who, until recently, was the long-time leader (37 years) of the country of Zimbabwe. His rule was finally ended through a military backed coup late last year. However, the focus was not on those that just followed undemocratic principles or were just corrupt. There also had to be other less than savory attributes exhibited by these leaders. A penchant for violence, murder, genocidal tendencies, and/or other deviancies were prerequisites to make this top ten list. These leader’s legacies have left indelible impressions of the countries they have once ruled – as well as the world. It is hoped that the twenty-first century will be a better one for good leaders around the globe

Here are the 10 Most Cruel and Despotic Leaders of the 20th Century
Idi Amin Dada, Uganda,

Idi Amin Dada (In power: 1971 – 1979)

For those who have seen the film The Last King of Scotland (2006), you would have sat through a fictionalized version of a few of the terrible events that occurred in Uganda in the 1970s. For the rest of the world, the view of the president of Uganda would have been that the country was being led by an African buffoon. But the reality for thousands of Ugandans was far worse and widespread. Estimates have been made that up to 300,000 Ugandans and others perished during his reign.

Idi Amin Dada was believed to have been born in 1925 and was a member of the Kakwe tribe in northwestern Uganda. Amin was not well educated but this was compensated for by his sheer natural strength and size, he stood at 6 feet 4 inches, which towered over many other Africans. This drew the attention of the British military who occupied Uganda as part of their colonial control. In 1946, Amin joined the famed King’s African Rifles as an assistant cook. His charisma and physical skills helped him to rise quickly within the ranks. From 1952-1956, Amin participated in the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. In 1961 he was commissioned as an officer, one of only two Ugandans to be so elevated. But during these years, Amin began to gain a reputation for his bravery as well as for his cruelty.

After Uganda’s independence, Amin rose quickly in the ranks of the newly formed Uganda Army. In 1971, he led a military coup which overthrew President Milton Obote. At first, he promised to be an enlightened leader. But Amin soon began his murderous reign as he eliminated rival tribal members of the army and then moved to do so with opposition politicians, student activists, businessmen, and even the clergy. Bodies began to fill the Nile River (a favorite tactic of Amin was to dump the bodies of victims into the Nile River feed the Nile crocodiles). In 1972, he forcibly expelled all the South Asian residents in Uganda which crippled the economy. The “Butcher of Uganda” as he was to become known as, would have continued his rule for many years if he had not overstepped his bounds by invading a part of Tanzania in 1978. In retaliation the Tanzanian Army invaded Uganda and Amin fled into exile. He would live in Saudi Arabia until 2003 where he died of organ failure.

Here are the 10 Most Cruel and Despotic Leaders of the 20th Century
Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, Cambodia,

Pol Pot (In power: 1975 – 1979)

Like Amin, this infamous ruler used fear to maintain his rule and control of the population. Starvation, forced labor, torture, and executions were the methods used by Pol Pot and his followers during the Cambodian Genocide. They were dramatized in the 1984 film The Killing Fields which told the story of an American journalist and his Cambodian assistant who survived the genocide. The estimates vary widely but it is believed that about 1.5 million Cambodians perished. Pol Pot was never charged nor brought to trial for any crimes committed during his reign. He died in April 1998 just before he was to be turned over to an international tribunal.

Pol Pot (Saloth Sar at birth) was born in 1928. Growing up, he was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to Paris to study there. It was here that he was first exposed to Marxist ideology which would have an influence on this personal philosophy. Returning to Cambodia in 1953, he briefly joined the Viet Minh and learned about guerilla tactics. In 1955, he helped form a new political party that would eventually be called the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), or more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge. In the late 1960s, the Khmer Rouge began an armed struggle to overthrow the government. It took several years but they were ultimately successful in April 1975. When in power, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge began a ruthless campaign to remake Cambodian society.

Following their strict ideology, religion was banned, ethnic groups could not speak their languages, and even family groups were broken apart as everyone was directed to support the state. The year that the Khmer Rouge took power was referred to as “Year Zero” which meant that not only was this the start of a new calendar but that Cambodian society would begin anew. Cities were emptied as citizens were forced into the forests to begin mass agricultural projects. The breakdown of society’s infrastructure that resulted had a negative effect on the population as malnutrition and starvation spread. Only those who were in high levels of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy were able to enjoy any semblance of a normal life. While others who were deemed enemies, or fell from favor were executed or sent to prisons, such as the infamous Tuol Sleng (S-21) where it was “the place where people go in but never come out.” This reign of terror was finally stopped when the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in 1978 and drove out the Khmer Rouge, installing a new government in January 1979.

Here are the 10 Most Cruel and Despotic Leaders of the 20th Century
Joseph Stalin, Soviet Union, Snopes.

Joseph Stalin (In power: 1929 – 1953)

Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili on December 18, 1878. But he would become better known as Joseph Stalin. He took the name “Stalin,” which in Russian means “Man of steel,” some time in his 30s. After the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, this “man of steel” would become the leader of the world’s first communist country. But what came with his rise to power was an almost pathological suspicion of others and a ruthless determination to hold power at any costs. This paranoia would hurt and almost destroy the country during the Second World War. He would survive the war and continue his murderous regime until his death in 1953.

When Stalin came to power, he instituted several aggressive five-year plans that were based on meeting high benchmarks for agricultural production. Farms were collectivized and millions of people were forced to work on these farms. However, many resisted these moves and paid for it with their lives. In addition, potential opposition members and high ranking military officers were deemed enemies of the state and either imprisoned or executed. When war came to the Soviet Union in 1941, the military and society were ill prepared to meet the German military onslaught. Fortunately, the sheer size of the Soviet Union probably saved the country – as was the case during Napoleon’s failed invasion over a century earlier.

Following the war, Stalin was the main instrument in installing puppet governments in Eastern Europe and other countries in order to create a counter balance to western countries that he now deemed to be enemies. Churchill would describe this as an “iron curtain” being laid across Europe. In the meantime, Stalin’s paranoia continued as he initiated further murderous purges and exiles. There is no exact tally for the numbers of people killed under his rule, but it believed that up to 20 million people may have perished either directly or indirectly under his orders.

Here are the 10 Most Cruel and Despotic Leaders of the 20th Century
Augusto Pinochet, Chile, Encyclopedia Britannica

Augusto Pinochet (In power: 1973 – 1990)

One of the marks of many despotic rulers is the longevity of their hold on power. For South America, one of the twentieth centuries most infamous leaders is the former dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Born in 1915 in Valparaíso, Chile, Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte was a career military officer in the Chilean army. He reached the pinnacle of his military career when he was appointed as the army commander in chief by President Salvador Allende in 1973. However, this decision would be a costly one for Allende and the people of Chile.

On September 11, 1973, General Pinochet helped to orchestrate a military coup which overthrew the Allende government. In the process, Allende was believed to have committed suicide but many believe that he was really assassinated. Following the coup, a military junta was set up with Pinochet as the chairman. He at first designated himself as the “Supreme Chief of the Nation” but later referred to himself as “President.” During the early years of the regime, approximately 130,000 Chileans would be arrested on suspicions that they were against the new government and many were subsequently tortured. Ultimately, over 3,000 people were executed or removed through “forced disappearances.”

Many have suspected that the coup against Allende was backed by the United States CIA and while there have been investigations, none have shown definitive evidence of U.S. involvement. However, it was widely known that the U.S. did not look kindly to the heavily socialist-leaning Allende regime. For Pinochet, he eventually left the office of the president in 1990 but he was again appointed as commander-in-chief of the army until 1998. At that time, he was granted immunity as a “senator for life” under the Chilean constitution. However, Pinochet did not escape the reach of justice as he was first put under house arrest in Britain and then Spain before returning to Chile. There, attempts were made to try him for crimes committed during his presidency. Eventually in 2004, the Chilean Supreme Court ruled that he could be charged with crimes committed during his long tenure in office. But Pinochet would succumb to ill health before he could be convicted in December 2006.

Here are the 10 Most Cruel and Despotic Leaders of the 20th Century
Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire, Afrika-News

Mobutu Sese Seko (In power: 1965 – 1997)

If it wasn’t for a military invasion of Zaire (as it was once known) in 1997, this African leader would have continued in power until he would have died in office. Born Joseph (-Desire) Mobutu in October 1930 in what was then known as the Belgian Congo. He was the son of a hotel maid and a cook for a Belgian judge. His upbringing would have been unremarkable except that he was arrested for stowing away on a boat to the capital after running away from Catholic-mission school. Given the option of serving in the army or prison, Mobutu chose the former. It was this event that would lead to his meteoric rise in politics.

On June 30, 1960, the Belgian Congo was granted its independence. A coalition government was formed with Patrice Lumumba as the prime minister. Lumumba proceeded to appoint Mobutu as Chief of Staff of the Armée Nationale Congolaise, the Congolese National Army. Peace was illusive in the Congo as Lumumba was arrested and executed in 1961. Political turmoil ensued for a number of years until Mobutu grabbed power in 1965. He consolidated power by eliminating opposition politicians and leaders and by establishing only one legal political party in the country – one that he would head. He renamed the country “Zaire” in 1971. In 1972, he gave himself the name: Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (“The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”) – or Mobutu Sese Seko for short.

Mobutu’s reign was characterized as a “kleptocracy” where all national resources and wealth were exploited for his personal benefit. The people of Zaire saw little of this wealth as the citizen’s overall standard of living declined over the years. By 1984, it was estimated that Mobutu’s personal fortune was worth over $5 billion USD. This was equivalent to the national debt at the time. The end finally came when an army led by Laurent Kabila invaded eastern Zaire with the support of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi in late 1996. Mobutu’s army was no match for the invading forces and he was forced to flee. He died in Morocco from advanced stage prostate cancer in 1997.

Here are the 10 Most Cruel and Despotic Leaders of the 20th Century
Mao Tse Tung, China, Wikimedia Commons

Mao Tse Tung (In power: 1949 – 1976)

The mausoleum for Mao Tse Tung located in Beijing is a massive edifice. It reflects the sheer size of the country he once ruled and also the notorious legacy he had left behind. Mao was born in 1893 in the Hunan province of China. He was the son of a wealthy farmer which allowed him the rare access of an education. He was a voracious reader and he quickly became an anti-imperialist against the fading Chinese dynastic rule. When Mao was older, he traveled to Peking (as it was known at the time) to study and work at the university there. He soon became involved in radical student movements there – particularly against the Chinese government’s lack of resistance to Japanese aggression.

When the Communist Party was founded in 1921, Mao was one of its earliest recruits. The party presented a different ideology than the opposition Koumintang (KMT or the nationalist party). These differences boiled over into a civil war which began in 1927. At the first, the KMT was well supported and won several battles. In 1934, the Communist army was forced to flee and this is where Mao’s legend really began to grow. Mao led his army hundreds of miles into western China in what became known as the “Long March.” However, World War II and the invasion by Japan forced an uneasy alliance between the KMT and Communist forces.

Upon victory over Japan in 1945, the KMT and Communist Chinese forces resumed their civil war. However, this time the Communist would prove to be victorious in 1949 and Mao would become the first Chairman of the Community Party. While he was leader, he instituted many cultural and social reforms. One of which was the infamous “Great Leap Forward” in 1958. The result was one of the worst manmade famines in history where it is estimated that over 40 million people died of starvation. This was followed by the “Cultural Revolution” in 1966 which destroyed much of the cultural and historic legacy of China. It is probably with much relief that Mao died in September 1976 at the age of 82.

Here are the 10 Most Cruel and Despotic Leaders of the 20th Century
Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania, Biography,com

Nicolae Ceaușescu (In power: 1965 – 1989)

One of the Cold War’s most notorious leaders was Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania. Born in 1918, Ceausescu was well indoctrinated as a Communist as a member of the Romanian Communist youth movement. His devotion was absolute and he was arrested several times for being a “dangerous Communist agitator.” When the Communist party finally took power in 1947, Ceausescu was appointed as the Agriculture Minister before eventually rising to the number two position in the Politburo behind the party leader, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej.

In March 1965, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej died and Ceausescu would eventually be elected as the secretary general of the party. He quickly proved that he was a nationalist as much as a Communist. In the years following his establishment as head of the country, he was the first leader of a Warsaw Pact country to recognize West Germany and joined the International Monetary Fund. He even defied the Soviet Union in refusing to support the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. But he was also responsible for more draconian decrees. One was in 1966 with the enactment of “Decree 770” which banned abortion and made divorce extremely difficult in order to boost population growth.

The end of Ceausescu’s reign began in late 1989 with an anti-government uprising in Timișoara that first began as protests led by ethnic Hungarians against prejudicial mistreatment and eventually became an anti-government rally. Government forces moved in and fired into the crowd. Estimates on the number who were killed vary wildly with reports of a few hundred shot up to 64,000! The protests spread to the capital, Bucharest, and the Romanian army defected to the side of the demonstrators on December 22, 1989. Ceausescu and his wife attempted to flee the country but were captured before leaving. On December 25th, a special military tribunal was formed to try Ceausescu and his wife for crimes of mass murder and corruption. The trial ended quickly with both being found guilty. Ceausescu and his wife were then immediately executed by firing squad.

Here are the 10 Most Cruel and Despotic Leaders of the 20th Century
Kim Il Sung, North Korea, Wikimedia Commons

Kim Il Sung (In power: 1948 – 1994)

There are many despotic leaders in history. However, few have matched the ability to turn an entire nation into a devoted personality cult like former North Korean dictator, Kim Il Sung, did. He was born as Kim Song Ju in April 1912 near Pyongyang. His parents soon fled to Manchuria to escape Japanese rule that had annexed the entire Korean peninsula in 1910. It was here that he became exposed to Marxist ideology as a student. In the 1930s, Kim joined the anti-Japanese resistance movement based in Manchuria and carried out guerilla activities against the Japanese army. It was during this period that Soviet leadership took notice of him.

At the end of World War II, the peninsula of Korea was divided at the 38th parallel. The south came under the stewardship of the United States while the north fell under Soviet influence. In 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the official name for North Korea) was founded with Kim Il Sung placed at its head. Kim disliked the partitioning of the country and initiated a plan for reunification by force when North Korea invaded the south in June 1950. After three bloody years of war which ended in an armistice, over two million Koreans (on both sides) were killed.

After the war, Kim would continue to consolidate his control over the population of the north through propaganda, reeducation camps, and spy networks. He introduced his own personal ideology called juche, which roughly means self-reliance, to the country. Externally, he continued to rail against U.S. imperialism through organized demonstrations and even through military action, like the 1968 seizure of a U.S. Navy intelligence ship and her crew off the coast of North Korea. Kim Il Sung also pursued a program to develop nuclear weapons. A program whose legacy continues to the present day. Kim died in July 1994. He was succeeded by one of his sons, Kim Jong-Il, thereby continuing the family dynasty.

Here are the 10 Most Cruel and Despotic Leaders of the 20th Century
Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia, Wikimedia Commons

Mengistu Haile Mariam (In power: 1977 – 1991)

Unfortunately, it is often the case that one authoritarian ruler is just replaced by another one. In the case of Ethiopia, the long reign of Emperor Haile Selassie was ended by a military coup which would bring one of the cruelest leaders to the head of an African nation, Mengistu Haile Mariam. Under his repressive rule, many were hunted down and killed. But his biggest claim to infamy was his reaction (or lack thereof) to the massive famine that struck the country in the early 1980s which killed hundreds of thousands.

Mengistu was born in 1937 in the capital, Addis Ababa. His father was a soldier in the Ethiopian army which is probably what influenced his son to follow in his footsteps. Mengistu was mentored by an army general and rose steadily in the ranks. After receiving some military training in the United States, Mengistu began to speak out against the class structures in society – and against aristocrats in particular. In 1974, after years of declining public sentiment, a faction of the army, calling themselves the Derg, overthrew the rule of Emperor Selassie. It was rumored that Mengistu himself executed Selassie by smothering him with a pillowcase in 1975. Something which he has denied.

In 1977, Mengistu successfully maneuvered himself into power and declared himself a Marxist. He nationalized the economy and stripped the influential Ethiopian Church of its land and wealth. However, it was his economic reforms and policies which directly contributed to the great famine in the country that began in the early 1980s. An estimated 1.2 million people would perish from famine-related hunger. Images of this famine contributed to the 1985 Live Aid concert organized by Bob Geldof. Millions were raised but questions remain whether it actually benefited the victims of the famine. In 1990, the Soviet Union ended all support to Mengistu and pressure mounted against his rule. In May 1991, the opposition Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front army advanced on Addis Ababa and Mengistu fled into exile in Zimbabwe. He lives there to this day but with the recent fall of Robert Mugabe, the possibility of extradition to Ethiopia to address his crimes has arisen.

Here are the 10 Most Cruel and Despotic Leaders of the 20th Century
Adolph Hitler, Germany, Wikimedia Commons

Adolph Hitler (In power: 1933 – 1945)

The last person on this list needs little introduction. One of the most notorious and reviled leaders of the 20th century was Adolph Hitler. Born in 1889 in Austria and christened “Adolphus Hitler,” he was the fourth of six children. His beginnings were humble and he had an often-contentious relationship with his father. As a youth, he began to take an interest in German nationalism – even though he was an Austrian by birth. A few years after the death of his father, Alois, in 1903, Hitler moved to Vienna to pursue an education in fine arts. However, he was twice rejected from attending the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. In 1913, Hitler relocated to the city of Munich.

Upon the outbreak of World War I, Hitler volunteered for the German army and was eventually accepted. Even though he spent a majority of his time away from the front lines, he did participate in the battle of the Somme and was decorated for bravery. When the war finished, Hitler became bitter and disillusioned by the peace that followed and the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In 1919, Hitler joined the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) – or the Nazi party for short. In just two years, Hitler’s charisma and zealous anti-semitic and anti-Marxist rhetoric led him to the chairmanship of the Nazi party.

The rest as they say is history. It is well known that Hitler went on to write his infamous Mein Kampf while briefly being imprisoned in 1924. From there, he would eventually win the ultimate position of the Chancellor of Germany where he proclaimed the beginning of a “thousand-year Reich.” His vehement anti-Semitism would lead to the Holocaust and his desire to conquer Europe would lead to the beginning of World War II. During the war, his Nazi regime would be responsible for the deaths of an estimated 19 million civilians and prisoners of war (including those killed in concentration camps). The murderous reign would finally come to an end in April 1945 when Hitler, and his wife, committed suicide as Soviet troops closed in on Berlin.