Who knows why some people are just predisposed to evil? Doesn’t it sometimes seem that so many of these hateful, ruthless people become powerful leaders? Perhaps their ability to reach a position of power can even be attributed to that ruthlessness. Throughout history, certain notorious leaders have been active proponents of hate and violence. Often, the root of this hate lies in a fear of the foreign or unknown, compounded and even excused by a misguided feeling of righteousnesses and the greater good.
Whatever the reason, there have probably been more evil, vilified rulers in history than there have been truly good and noble ones. It’s hard to categorize and rank levels of evil – is any type of evil really better than another? – but here is a list of 10 worthy contenders for most ruthless, power- and blood-hungry leaders in mankind’s short history.
10. Pol Pot
Pol Pot was a Cambodian communist and leader of the Khmer Rouge from 1963 to 1997. He was also the leader of Cambodia for four years, ruling as a totalitarian dictator. During his radical rule, an estimated 1 to 3 million people died due to his policies (out of a population slightly over 8 million).
He attempted to “cleanse” the country with a highly questionable policy called agrarian civilization, where he forcibly moved city folk to the countryside to work in forced labor projects at collective farms. Combining his executions, malnutrition, poor medical care, and forced labor, Pol Pot caused the deaths of approximately 25% of the Cambodian population.
9. Attila the Hun
Attila the Hun is considered the epitome of a cruel and ruthless leader. He was the ruler of the Hunnic Empire from 434 to 453, and he was known to be bloodthirsty and barbaric. He is best known for his attacks on Rome, where he was known as the Scourge of God, but he really ravaged the provinces of almost all of Europe, creating an empire that stretched from Central Europe to the Black Sea and from the Danube River to the Baltic.
It is speculated that he killed his brother Bleda to keep the throne for himself, as well as his son. He marched through France and Italy and killed hundreds of thousands, and he invaded the Balkans twice. It is said that he would tear people limb from limb and would drink people’s blood. When Attila found the perpetual Virgin, Saint Ursula, and wanted to marry her, she refused, and he proceeded to kill her and her 11,000 companions.
Tamerlane (aka Timur) was a Turko-Mongol leader who ruled Central Asia from 1411 to 1449. He aligned his vision with that of Genghis Khan (who he believed he was a descendent of), and wanted to restore the Mongol Empire to its former glory. While he was a patron of the arts, he is best known as being the most powerful and feared ruler in the Muslim world after defeating the Mamluks, the Ottoman Empire, and the Sultanate of Delhi.
Massive parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe were laid to waste during his military campaigns. He would kill surrendered soldiers and civilians, decapitate thousands, and even force entire cities to jump from very high walls to their deaths. Scholars estimate that he caused the deaths of around 17 million people, about 5% of the world population at that time.
7. Vlad Tepes
Vlad III was the Prince of Wallachia and known as Vlad the Impaler (can you guess why?). He ruled from 1456 to 1462 and was highly feared during his tenure. He was also the inspiration behind the vampire Dracula. His exceedingly cruel punishments included disemboweling, rectal and facial impalement, skinning, burying alive, and cutting off the sexual organs of people he didn’t like.
One popular story tells of when Vlad refused to pay taxes to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed II. Legend has it that Vlad invaded Bulgaria and impaled 23,000 Turks. Mehmed raised an army to conquer Wallachia, but Vlad’s forces killed many Ottomans during night attacks, angering Mehmed. The Sultan marched to the Wallachian capital of Târgovişte, only to discover a forest of 20,000 impaled Turkish skeletons. Horrified, the Sultan and his troops fled. It’s estimated that 40,000 to 100,000 people were tortured by Vlad the Impaler.
6. Ivan IV
Ivan the Terrible was the Grand Duke of Muscovy from 1533 to 1547, and the first ruler and proclaimed tsar of Russia. He was described as intelligent, yet given to bouts of rage and mental illness. He is known to have burned thousands of people in frying pans, impaled people, and he actually built walls around his city to keep people from leaving.
He launched Russia into the 24-year-long Livonian War against Sweden, Lithuania, and Poland. After drought, famine, and a plague epidemic, he became mentally unstable and violent. He persecuted the nobility and peasantry. One story says that Ivan would gather between 500 and 1,000 peasants everyday and then torture and kill them while he and his son watched. He also later killed that same son.
5. Leopold II
Leopold II was the king of Belgium from 1865 until his death, and he is best known for creating the Congo Free State, which was a private project undertaken to extract ivory and rubber from the Congo region of central Africa. He claimed a land plot in the Congo 14 times the size of Belgium, and then ruled with an iron fist. The Congo Free State relied on forced labor, enslavement, and mutilation, and resulted in the deaths of approximately 3 to 15 million Congolese.
4. Genghis Khan
Temujin, better known as Genghis Khan, was the founder of the Mongol Empire, which would become the largest contiguous empire in history after his death. Although he is known as a great military commander, a revolutionary of trade, for encouraging religious tolerance, and as a hero to Mongolia, his conquests vilified him throughout most of history.
Khan killed his brother when he was 10 for stealing a fish he caught. He is known for many wholesale massacres of civilian populations, one of which resulted in the deaths of over 1 million civilians in a single day. The sacking of Urgench, as it is known, was considered one of the bloodiest massacres in human history: He killed three quarters of the population in the Iranian Plateau (10 to 15 million people), destroyed most of the Middle East, and annihilated all of the major cities of Eastern Europe. It’s terrifying to think just what he would have been capable of if he had the killing technology we do today…
3. Mao Zedong
Chairman Mao was the communist leader and founding father of the People’s Republic of China. After founding the Red Army, he solidified his control by introducing radical land policies against “counter-revolutionaries,” landlords, and perceived enemies of the state. In 1957, he launched the Great Leap Forward campaign in an attempt to rapidly industrialize the country and transform China’s economy. This campaign led to the deadliest famine in history, killing between 20 and 30 million people.
Mao later initiated the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, where he purged all elitist and capitalist culture, killing millions in a violent class struggle, and destroying much of China’s cultural artifacts. While he is officially held in high regard in the People’s Republic of China – thanks to his building the nation into a world power, promoting the status of women, improving education, healthcare, and housing – in death toll alone Mao Zedong is one of the most ruthless rulers of all time, contributing to the deaths of 40 to 70 million people through starvation, forced labor, mass murder, executions, and democide.
2. Joseph Stalin
These last three spots are very hard to organize, as any of them could take the number one spot. Stalin was the Premier and dictator of the Soviet Union from 1941 to 1953. He started as a Bolshevik revolutionary in 1917, and exercised great political power after that. In 1928, he launched his Five Year Plan, an aggressive industrial and agricultural program which left hundreds of thousands of peasants starving or dead.
He got rid of all of his political opposition through a Great Purge (or “Great Terror” depending who you talk to), aimed at his rivals through trials and secret executions. In Ukraine there is a dark period known as Holodomor, where his policies caused a famine and killed between 2.5 to 10 million people – citizens that he simply let die in order to depopulate the country. Stalin killed more of his own people than possibly anyone else in history (except maybe Mao Zedong). Through massacres, famine, Gulag camps, executions, policies, and military campaigns, it is estimated that Stalin is responsible for the deaths of between 15 to 30 million people.
1. Adolf Hitler
While Stalin might have let his people die (which some would consider worse), Hitler actively pursued the genocide of entire people. This man was the fuel and fire behind the most infamous and vile genocides in history, The Holocaust. Nazi forces under his Third Reich systematically murdered up to 17 million civilians – six million of whom were Jewish – during his time as dictator.
By the end of World War II, Hitler’s policies, territorial conquests, racial subjugation and concentration camps caused the death and destruction of much of the world: Adolf Hitler can certainly be considered the most ruthless and evil ruler in history.