History is replete with horror stories about brutal leaders and the atrocities they seemed to delight in committing upon their people. While some have been glossed over by history, some have been too recent to easily forgive. Who would make it on to your list of history’s most brutal dictators? The following are among some of the most brutal and infamous.
1) Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia “Vlad the Impaler” (1431 — 1476 or 1477)
Romanians venerate him as a saint and as a national hero — a reputation largely unknown outside the country. A prince of the House of Draculesti, he became the basis of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”
Vlad ruled from 1448 to 1476, acquiring his nickname for his love of impaling people on stakes and letting them die over many hours. Though he brought peace, order, and stability to his kingdom, it is estimated that between 40,000 to 100,000 of his own people died to bring it about.
2) Shaka Zulu (1787 — 1828)
South Africa’s Zulu identity came about because Shaka Zulu unified it, reigning from 1816 to 1828. Under him, European conquest of the region was severely curtailed, thanks to brilliant military tactics he devised. Despite his revered status, he was also famous for his brutality.
When his mother died, he ordered his men to kill anyone who was not grieving enough, banned the harvesting and planting of crops, and the use of milk for a year. Women found pregnant during this period were also killed, as were their husbands. His brothers, having had enough, killed him.
3) Adolf Hitler (1889 — 1945)
Though he ruled over Germany from 1934 to 1945, the damage he did both in his country and abroad is inestimable. Hitler did not invent anti-Semitism, but he did use industrial methods to get rid of those he deemed to be sub-human. Besides those who suffered and died in his death camps, it’s estimated that some 50 to 70 million lives were lost because of the war he started.
4) Joseph Stalin (1878 — 1953)
Stalin ruled the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1952 and was responsible for perhaps more deaths than even Hitler. His Five-Year Economic Plan led to famine which cost some 3 million their lives. While he did not start World War II, he began purging not just his own people, but those of satellite states he later absorbed. Deportations, forced labor, and failed economic policies, led to over 23 million deaths.
5) Francois Duvalier (1907 to 1971)
“Papa Doc” qualifies as one of history’s most insane rulers. Reigning from 1957 till his death in 1971, Haiti is still recovering from his regime, which was succeeded by his son. Using a brutal militia known as the Tonton Macoute, a personality cult which claimed he had magical powers, and the voodoo religion, thousands were tortured and killed, while another 30,000 went into exile. In 1963, he ordered all black dogs to be killed, believing that one of his enemies had turned into one.
6) Mao Tse Tung (1893 — 1976)
The father of Chinese Communism, his reign from 1945 to 1976 was similar to Stalin’s. His Great Leap Forward program alone caused 20 million to die of hunger. His purges, all in the hopes of creating the perfect communist society, saw another 58 million die in concentration and labor camps. Even harming cats got people in trouble, since the Mandarin word for cat is māo — similar enough to his surname to be accused of being disloyal.
7) Idi Amin “The Butcher of Uganda” (1925 —2003)
Ruling from 1971 to 1979, Amin was renowned for his sadism as well as his charm. While the number of those tortured and killed during his reign cannot be known, the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva estimate it to be anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000. He began his reign by expelling all Asians from Uganda, plunging the country into an economic crisis it still hasn’t recovered from.
8) Pol Pot (1925 — 1998)
Born Saloth Sar, he reigned from 1963 to 1981, though his government collapsed in 1979. Combining communism with misguided beliefs in a long lost Khmer golden age, he depopulated cities and forced millions to work on farms. Some 35% of the population (about 3 million) died from hunger, torture, summary executions, and non-existent health care.
The execution of teachers and intellectuals, as well as the disruption of normal life for almost twenty years, devastated the country’s intellectual pool. It also left an entire generation without access to education. This state of affairs still exists today in a Cambodia whose ruling party is still largely made up of the Khmer Rouge.
9) Kim Il Sung (1912 — 1994)
Despite ruling North Korea from 1948 to 1994, he remains the country’s “Eternal President.” It was he who ordered the invasion of South Korea in 1950, bringing about the current state of affairs that split that peninsula in two. Officially a communist state, North Korea is ruled by a personality cult revolving around him, and now his son and successor, Kim Jong Il.
While the exact number of those tortured and killed under his regime remains unknown, it is estimated that the number of those who died through hunger because of his failed economic policies stands at about 3.5 million. Torture and summary executions are the norm in North Korea, according to escapees and aid workers. Escapees like Shin Dong Hyuk even claims that entire families, including children, are born and raised in prison camps to punish descendants of those who run afoul of the government.
10) Saddam Hussein (1937 — 2006)
Saddam ruled Iraq from 1979 to 2003, leaving behind an estimated death toll of some 2 million people. He began his reign by purging his cabinet, forcing people to denounce others, and having them immediately executed. He had no qualms about using chemical weapons against his own people, as well as other ethnic groups. The use of secret police and torture were common, events he took his sons to as part of their training to succeed him. He was tried and executed in 2006.