The political system has always been fraught with misconceptions about what can be achieved within its framework, but many of the expectations have little to do with the organization of the system itself. While leaders like Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln have been able to navigate the complexity of the political system and leave the country they led and the world better off than it was, there are also those on the other side of the line who have turned the allegiance of their citizens on its side and shocked the international community with the extent of their corruption. It’s possible that the motives of leaders like Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein may have started out with a grain of good intent, but the rigidity of their vision and their own ascent to power led to some of the worst atrocities the world has ever known. The possibility always remains for the leaders of the future to learn from the mistakes paved by history, but there is no undoing the damage that the following leaders have done or the terrifying scope of what they envisioned for the land that they ruled.
5. Nicholas II
Whether or not one knows much about the reign of Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov, it’s unlikely they’ve managed to escape hearing about Rasputin or the mysterious end of the last imperial Russian family, the Romanovs. Born in Pushkin, Russia in 1868, Nicholas II may have been more interested in being a colonel than a powerful political figure, but as heir to the throne, he became the Tsar in 1894 upon his father’s death and married Alexandra Feodorovna soon after. Together, they had 5 children before Alexei was born in 1904, the only boy and the rightful heir to the throne. While Nicholas’s apathy with the Russian public could be witnessed right from the beginning with the deadly public stampede that occurred on his coronation day, the events of Bloody Sunday on January 5, 1905 cemented the coming upheaval when civilians marching in St. Petersburg for better working conditions were shot at by troops with hundreds fatally wounded. With tensions rising between the working class and the ruling house, the situation only worsened during World War II when Nicholas took control of the military in Mogilev and the public became increasingly suspicious of the power that peasant healer Grigori Rasputin had over Tsaritsa Alexandra in Nicholas’s absence. By 1917, the Russian army was being devastated and the last Tsar’s own legislative assembly had turned on him, forcing Nicholas II to give up the throne. While the Romanov family was held captive from August 1917, their legacy came to a finite end on July 17, 1918 when they were assassinated.
4. Saddam Hussein
A dictator whose name will always be synonymous with the presidential legacies of George Bush and George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein was born in Tikrit, Iraq in 1937. Having experienced the deaths of his father and brother in his childhood and abuse at the hands of his stepfather, Hussein went to live with his uncle at age 10 whose beliefs would shape his ideologies. Saddam made his initial foray into politics when he joined the Ba’ath Party in 1957, but after an attempt on the life of Iraq’s President Abd al-Karim Qasim as a member of the party’s assassination squad, Hussein fled to Egypt. In 1963, the Ba’ath Party took control of Iraq and Hussein returned to rise to the rank of Deputy in 1968 and eventually force the resignation of President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr in 1979, becoming Iraq’s leader. Hussein didn’t waste any time in asserting his power, and invaded Khuzestan, Iran and Kuwait which led to the Gulf War and the notable involvement of the United States in the Middle East. Ruling with terror and brutal tactics, Hussein led Iraq until 2003 when he was found by American troops. While Iraq experienced improvements in health care, education and industry under Saddam Hussein, he was executed on December 30, 2006 due to crimes against his own people.
3. Pol Pot
Born as Saloth Sar in 1928 in the village of Preb Sbauk, Pol Pot was the communist leader of Cambodia and the head of the Khmer Rouge between the years of 1975-1979. Sar was not a very successful student in his youth, but a scholarship sent him to Paris, France in 1949 to pursue studies in radio electronics where he became enchanted with the ideas of Marxism. Upon returning to Cambodia in 1952, Sar became affiliated with a number of local Communist organizations and most notably became the leader of the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) in the early 1960’s. Known as “Khmer Rouge” because of its Communist leanings and its Khmer descent, the philosophies of the regime borrowed much from those of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which idealized rural society that was free from the institutions of modern life. Following political upheaval in Cambodia and the overthrow of ruling leader Prince Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge seized the moment and waved the flag for Cambodian independence. Once in power, they imposed their ideas with brute force, and murdered and tortured those who did not comply or were not deemed fit to be a part of their society, whether they were Muslims, Buddhists or Laotians. While the Khmer Rouge regime are alone accountable for the deaths of approximately 1.7 million people, Pol Pot was never tried for the egregious crimes of his party after they were defeated in 1979.
2. Idi Amin
A Ugandan dictator who seized power from the government in 1971, Idi Amin Dada was responsible for the deaths of up to 500,000 people. Born in 1925 in Koboko, Uganda, and raised by his mother, Idi joined the King’s African Rifles, a British colonial regiment, in 1946 where he gained a reputation for being a take-no-prisoners type. Soon appointed as Sergeant Major and rising through the ranks, Amin was appointed the First Lieutenant of Uganda’s army after the Uganda People’s Congress gained power in the country. While Amin was considered troublesome because of his extremely aggressive behaviour, it was President Apolo Obote who felt threatened by Amin’s growing power and demoted him. On January 25, 1971, a coup d’état organized by Amin while Obote was out of the country gave him the presidential powers he was after. Though Amin was initially viewed favourably, his desire for absolute control led to attacks on Tanzania to sniff out Obote and the creation of the “Public Safety Unit” which was responsible for enforcing order by way of torture and murder. In 1978, Amin’s brutal reign ended when Tanzania took control of Kampala, and respectively Uganda. While Amin escaped and eventually died in relative peace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 2003, he was never brought to justice for his considerable crimes.
1. Adolf Hitler
With the atrocities of World War II still ever-present in the mind of many, it goes without saying that Adolf Hitler is loathed more than almost any other leader in world history. Born in 1889 in Braunau am Inn, Austria, Hitler had a passion early on for painting, but was rejected by Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. While it is believed that Hitler developed hostility towards the young Jewish art students, his early poverty led him to join the Bavarian Army in 1914 where he became keenly aware of the defeat and shame experienced by Germany after World War I. Utilizing his skills as a powerful orator, Hitler joined the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, known as the Nazi Party, and rose up the political ladder until he was appointed as the Chancellor by President Hindenburg. It was when a suspicious fire occurred at the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament, that the Nazi’s had the opportunity for a power grab. After Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler became the official ruling leader of the country and began to further segregate and penalize the Jewish Germans. While the country’s economic outlook improved under the helm of Hitler and the Nazi Party, Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 led to World War II and the slow descent of Germany’s power. The war continued until 1945, but the rule of Hitler and the Nazi party led to the systematic extermination of approximately 11 million people in concentration camps and one of the worst atrocities the world has known.