12 Famous Dictators Throughout History
Throughout history, benevolent leaders, rulers, presidents, and prime ministers have helped shape the world with positive changes and policies that uplift their citizens. On the opposite side of the spectrum are the infamous dictators who ruled with an iron fist. Dictators obtain a ridiculous amount of power, which they often abuse.
The oppressive rule revolves around their cult of personality, not following the rule of law, and repressing political opponents and the media. They commonly suspend free and fair elections leading to a one-party state. With their extraordinary personal power, dictators attack civil liberties and human rights. Below are some of the worst dictators throughout history who left their mark for better or worse.
1. Julius Ceasar
In 48 BC, Julius Caesar took control of the Roman Republic, naming himself dictator perpetuo (dictator for life). The Roman general earned a reputation as a great military commander. Initially, Caesar shared power with the First Triumvirate but later outmaneuvered his rival, Pompey, taking complete control of the Republic.
He reformed social and government programs, such as providing land for veterans and granting citizenship to residents of the Roman Republic’s other provinces. His social programs and attempt to consolidate power angered the elite, so in 44 BC, a group of conspirators assassinated Caesar. Julius Caesar’s dictatorship and death contributed to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
2. Adolf Hitler
Dictator Adolf Hitler rose to power throughout the 1930s, culminating in one of history’s deadliest wars. As the leader of the Nazi Party, he became the German chancellor in 1933, cementing his dictatorship the following year when he became the Führer und Reichskanzler. Hitler used the big lie technique and anti-Semitism to target the Jewish community in Germany.
In 1939 he kicked off World War II when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. During that time, Hitler also initiated the genocide of six million Jewish people in the Holocaust. He and the Nazi Party killed millions more people as they invaded and occupied nearby countries.
At the start of the war Hitler and the Axis Powers scored several notable victories over the Allies, but by 1945, the momentum had shifted and the Soviet Union army was zeroing in on Hitler. To avoid capture, the most infamous dictator committed suicide on April 30, 1945. He became one of history’s most notorious figures through his abuse of power, anti-Semitic views, oppression, war crimes, and genocide.
3. Mao Zedong
From the late 1940s to the early 70s, Mao Zedong ruled over China as the founder and leader of the People’s Republic of China. Also known as Chairman Mao, he declared China a single-party state with the Chinese Communist Party taking control in 1949. In 1958, he initiated the Great Leap Forward, resulting in widespread famine and the death of between 15 to 55 million people. Mae followed that with the Cultural Revolution in 1966, which aimed at removing counterrevolutionaries.
With Mao’s cult of personality reaching new heights, he oppressed his rivals and murdered millions. While he helped turn China into a superpower, his regime was accountable for between 40 to 80 million deaths due to famine, mass executions, and persecution. A notorious chain smoker, Mao’s reign ended with his death in 1976 after serious health complications.
4. Joseph Stalin
In the 20th Century, Joseph Stalin utilized antisemitic tones, ethnic cleansing, mass oppression, and executions to rule as dictator over the Soviet Union. Adopting the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, Stalin’s reign of terror began in 1929, turning the Soviet Union into an industrial leader and military superpower. Known as the Great Purge, Stalin’s government forced many into labor camps, killing roughly 700,000 from 1936 to 1938.
In 1941, Nazi Germany broke a pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. Stalin then entered World War II, joining the Allies and playing a pivotal role in bringing down Adolf Hitler and ending the war in Europe. The Soviet Union emerged as a global superpower, engaging in the Cold War with the United States. After Stalin died in 1953, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, criticized Stalin, commencing the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union.
5. Idi Amin
The military dictator Idi Amin’s deadly reign began in 1971 after a successful coup d’état of the Ugandan government. His views shifted from pro-Western to enjoying the support of the Soviet Union, Zaire, and Libya. Throughout his rule, Amin’s corrupt regime committed ethnic cleansing, illegal executions, and repressed political opposition. He also committed numerous human rights abuses, including murdering 100,000 to 500,000 people.
His government was also responsible for mismanaging Uganda’s economy. With opposition mounting, Amin attempted to annex Kagera in Tanzania. Instead, Tanzania forces invaded Uganda, removing Amin from power. He lived in exile in Libya, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia before passing in 2003.
6. Kim Jong II
Following his father’s death in 1994, Kim Jong Il became the second supreme leader of North Korea. As a dictator, he controlled the media and oppressed political opponents. With a totalitarian dictatorship, Kim built up the military, making it central to North Korean life.
In the 1990s, widespread famine struck the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although he did push through several social and economic reforms, his dictatorship still ruled through fear and violence. Also known as “dear leader,” he withdrew from the public in 2008 and died in 2011.
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7. Augusto Pinochet
From 1973 to 1990, dictator Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile through violence, intimidation, and rigging the system in his favor. Pinochet took control of Chile with a U.S.-supported coup d’état, taking down Salvador Allende’s democratically elected left-wing government. Pinochet became the Supreme Head of Chile with the backing of the ruling military junta. Pinochet’s dictatorship featured human rights abuses, such as the oppression of political opponents, forced disappearances, and more than 3,000 executions.
In 1980, he cemented his reign of terror in Chile and Latina America with the controversial approval of a new constitution allowing him to be dictator for life. A 1988 vote undid the changes in the constitution, and Pinochet stepped down from power. In 1998, authorities arrested Pinochet in London for human rights violations, tax evasion, and embezzlement. During his reign, Pinochet made himself a very wealthy person. He died in 2006 with more than 300 criminal charges still pending.
8. Kim Jong Un
Much like his grandfather and father, Kim Jong Un rules over North Korea with fear, intimidation, and a cult of personality. He became the Supreme Leader of North Korea following the passing of his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011. He has stirred up controversy around the globe with his brutal dictatorship.
The United Nations accused him of human rights abuses, including the execution and purging of dissenting North Korean officials. Evidence also suggests he ordered the assassination of his half-brother in 2017. Furthermore, he expanded their nuclear weapons program, increasing tension worldwide.
9. Rafael Trujillo
Dictator Rafael Trujillo’s rule over the Dominican Republic is one of history’s bloodiest and deadliest dictatorships. With a figurehead President in place, Trujillo spent most of his 31-year reign as an unelected strongman who was really running the country. Trugillo’s corrupt government utilized the notorious SIM security force to commit 50,000 murders.
In 1937, Trujillo’s forces murdered roughly 30,000 Haitians during the tragic Parsley massacre. His rule was littered with violent incidents and corruption, but 1960 was the beginning of the end for Trujillo. He was behind the murders of prominent opponents, the Mirabal sisters, a Spanish writer José Almoina, and attempted to assassinate Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt. He lost the support of his government and military, who turned on him. A group of conspirators assassinated Trujillo on May 30, 1961.
10. Manuel Noriega
Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega’s rise to power began when he helped Omar Torrijos overthrow President Arnulfo Arias in 1968. As the ruler of Panama from 1983 to 1989, Noriega suppressed the media, punished political rivals, and controlled the elections. Noriega used his influence to amass an incredible fortune through drug trafficking and other illegal activities.
In the 1950s, Noriega began working closely with the United States and the CIA. He was one of America’s most valued sources giving insight into the political climate in Latin America. His relationship with America fell apart after the murder of Hugo Spadafora in the 1980s.
In 1990, The U.S. invaded Panama, arresting Noriega on drug smuggling, racketeering, and money laundering charges. He served 40 years in American prisons before serving another seven in France. He returned to the Panama prison system but died in 2017 during surgery to remove a brain tumor.
11. Saddam Hussein
In the late 70s, revolutionary Iraqi politician Saddam Hussein began his rise to power. Hussein united Iraqi and Arab nationalism. In the early 90s, Iraq invaded Kuwait, initiating the Gulf War against a coalition led by the United States. As his power and influence increased, loving portraits, murals, and statues adorned the streets and buildings of Iraq. He used the police force and army to terrorize his own people, imprisoning and torturing his enemies.
Known for his giant ego and being unnecessarily cruel, Hussein committed war crimes and human rights abuses, including killing over 250,000 citizens. In 2003, the United States falsely claimed Hussein built weapons of mass destruction, resulting in the Iraq war. In 2006, Americans captured Hussein. The interim Iraqi government executed him later that year.
12. Fidel Castro
From 1959 to 2008, Fidel Castro served as the leader of Cuba after overthrowing the government of Fulgencio Batista. A well-known Cuban nationalist, Castro implemented numerous programs and reforms that ensured Cuba wouldn’t rely on America for help. Castro’s policies, views, and alliance with the Soviet Union brought Cuba into conflict with the United States. The Americans attempted to overthrow Castro’s government with a coup, economic embargo, and assassination attempts.
In the early 60s, Cuba was central in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro eventually stepped down in 2008 after transferring power to his brother, Raúl Castro, and died in 2016. His supporters remember him as a revolutionary socialist who expanded education and healthcare. Castro’s detractors point to his many human rights abuses, state control press, suppressing of dissenting opinions, and mismanaging Cuba’s economy.
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