Looking back now, even if the 20th century was definitely a time of unprecedented progress for mankind, it was also one of the most violent. With two of the deadliest wars in recorded history, killing close to 100 million people, and countless other large conflicts and revolutions, the past century has left a considerable legacy of things we must not repeat. One of the trademarks of the 20th century is the rise of dictators, ruthless leaders who have led their countries, against their people’s interest, starting wars and maintaining power through fear and manipulation.
We all have heard about the big ones, Stalin, Hitler, or Mussolini, but there were many others that were just as cruel, but didn’t have such a big and powerful nation to command in order to inflict as much damage. Instead, they focused on enslaving their own people while they literally lived like kings, surrounded by a web of lies. Manipulation was their favorite game and power was always what they were after. But, while they may have lived lives that their fellow countrymen would never even dream of, in the face of history, they will forever be remembered for the atrocities that they have perpetrated.
15. Khorloogiin Choibalsan (Mongolia)
Choibalsan was the Communist leader of Mongolia, where he created a dictatorial system suppressing his political opponents and killing tens of thousands of people. He learned the art of manipulation from his mentor, Joseph Stalin, whom he visited many times, and applied his methods in Mongolia to keep the people under his control for two decades. From the beginning of his reign, he either arrested or killed the members of other political parties, intellectuals, or army officers that opposed him. He also targeted Mongolian Buddhists, which at the end of his rule were almost extinct from the country. Often referred to as “the Stalin of Mongolia,” he heavily supported the USSR during WWII, expanding the international recognition of Mongolia as an independent state.
14. Jozef Tiso (Slovakia)
A former Roman Catholic priest, Tiso, was the fascist ruler of the First Slovak Republic, which was essentially a satellite state of Nazi Germany. He was a close ally of Hitler as they both shared a deep hatred towards the Jewish people. Because of that, under Tiso’s command, Slovakia became the first of the Nazi’s allies to agree to the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. To get an idea of what an impact this former “man of God” made on his country, at the beginning of his 6-year rule, there were about 88,000 Jewish people living in Slovakia. By 1945, when he was hanged for crimes against humanity, there were no more than 5,000 left in the country.
13. Döme Sztójay (Hungary)
He was the prime minister of Hungary during WWII in 1944 and was instated by the Nazi after Hungarian leader, Miklós Horthy, refused to comply to Hitler’s requests. Before he was appointed prime minister, Sztójay was the Hungarian ambassador to Nazi Germany, which explains how he could become such a puppet for Hitler and his acolytes. During his very short time as the leader of Hungary, more than 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to Nazi concentration camps in what was one of the major population transfers of the Holocaust. In 1946, after losing the war, he was captured by the American troops and executed.
12. Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic)
The infamous South American dictator ruled his country with an iron fist for over 30 years in what Dominicans call the “Trujillo Era.” Rising to power after winning the election with an improbable 99% of the vote, Trujillo established himself as a dictator and began jailing his political opponents before he was even sworn in. More than 50,000 Dominicans were killed during Trujillo’s regime, which was marked by propaganda and personality cult, and monuments and celebrations of Trujillo being a common sight during those times. Even though he clearly wasn’t a “good guy,” many praised Trujillo for the stability and prosperity that his 31-year reign has brought to the Dominican Republic. He was assassinated in 1961 as part of a failed coup by a number of high-ranking military officers.
11. Michel Micombero (Burundi)
After landing the prime minister’s chair in July 1966 and a successful coup, Micombero assumed dictatorial powers and abolished the monarchy. He was an ethnic Tutsi and his regime was focused primarily on the genocide against the country’s Hutu community. As the first President of Burundi, he deepened the conflict between the country’s two ethnic groups and ordered mass executions of the Hutu people, resulting in as many as 150,000 deaths. Even after his 10-year reign of terror, his legacy of hatred carried on and resulted in a civil war between the Hutu and the Tutsi.
10. Jorge Rafael Videla (Argentina)
His rise to power after a coup d’état in 1976 was very well-received by the people of Argentina, as the country was then plagued by systemic corruption and a failing economy. In his 5-year rule, he managed to revive the economy by applying free-market reforms and brought an end to the violent guerrilla attacks. However, the price for these improvements was very high. Videla closed the courts and concentrated all of the power between him and a small number of associates. He resorted to killing and kidnapping any enemies of his regime including politicians, journalists, and basically anyone who had beliefs that opposed his. He was also convicted of ordering his men to take the babies born during the captivity of their mothers from them and pass them on for illegal adoption by supporters of his regime. He lived under house arrest until 2008 when he was sent to a military prison. He died in prison in 2012 after suffering a fall in the shower.
9. Francisco Macías Nguema (Equatorial Guinea)
As the First President of the Equatorial Guinea, Nguema was widely regarded as one of the most cruel and corrupt dictators in modern African history. His paranoid personality, aided by his extended use of psychedelics, made him the worst things that ever happened to the already-struggling small African nation. He introduced forced labor programs and led a bloody campaign against the country’s educated classes killing almost a quarter of the country’s total population during his 11-year reign. The level of corruption was almost absurd, as his government didn’t even have an accounting system for public funds. He also killed two-thirds of the national legislature and 10 of his original ministers. It is estimated that during his rule, almost half of the population fled the country.
8. Ian Smith (Rhodesia/Zimbabwe)
Ian Smith is one of the most controversial African leaders of the 20th century. He led the secession of Rhodesia from the British Empire, but not really for the good of the people. Though 96% of the country’s population is black, Smith aimed to maintain a white rule of Rhodesia and succeeded for the better part of his term. His apartheid system was similar to the one in South Africa as he created system of racial segregation. He still remains a very polarizing figure, as some people call him a man of integrity and vision for his efforts to liberate Rhodesia. However, others consider him a despicable racist whose actions caused a great deal of pain and still affect Zimbabwe today.
7. Enver Hoxha (Albania)
The Eastern European nation of Albania was ruled by this Communist dictator for an astonishing 44 years, during which he created what essentially was a European version of today’s North Korea. He banned religion and ordered ridiculous public building projects, attempting to make Albania a self-reliant socialist state. He created a powerful cult of personality and isolated his country from most of the world, while also imprisoning up to 200,000 people, about 10% of Albania’s population. His rule was also characterized by Stalinist methods of annihilating the ones that were threatening his power and establishing a strong secret police called the Sigurimi.
6. Idi Amin (Uganda)
Idi Amin was an army general when he found out that President Milton Obote was planning on arresting him for misappropriating army funds. Instead, he organized a coup and overthrew Obote, declaring himself the President of Uganda. The estimated number of deaths brought on by his reign is between 100,000 and 500,000, as he targeted many small ethnic groups and promoted an atmosphere of violence and criminal behavior. He spent most of the public funds on the military, leading to the country’s economic decline. Eventually, he was abandoned by most of his supporters and allies and fled into exile in Saudi Arabia. He lived in Jeddah on the top two floors of the Novotel Hotel until his death in 2003.
5. Teodoro Obiang (Equatorial Guinea)
After the disastrous rule of the First President of Equatorial Guinea, Francisco Nguema, he was overthrown by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang, who assumed power in 1979 and never lost it since. Obiang is, at the moment, the longest-serving President in the world. As oil reserves were discovered in the small African nation in the 90’s, he found the means to fund his oppressive regime and to enrich himself in the process. Obiang and his family supposedly own mansions all over the globe, a fleet of supercars, and other extravagant possessions. Only the US government seized upwards of his $70 million worth of assets, while his people are among the poorest and most deprived in the world. He was accused of instructing diplomats to use their immunity in order to smuggle large quantities of illicit drugs all over the world. There were even claims that President Obiang is “an authentic cannibal.”
4. Radovan Karadžić (Republica Srpska)
After Bosnia’s secession from Yugoslavia, Karadžić led the subsequent secession of Republica Srpska, one of the two constitutional entities of today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina. As the head of the newly founded state, he started a campaign of oppression against Bosnian Muslims and is believed to have ordered the genocide in Srebrenica, where over 10,000 were killed. After the Bosnian civil war, he went into hiding and assumed a new identity as a homeopathic health expert while starting to write articles under a different name and attending numerous conferences while working for a private clinic in Belgrade. His identity was revealed in 2008 leading to his arrest. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison for genocide and other war crimes in 2016 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
3. Yahya Jammeh (Gambia)
The Gambian military strongman has been President since 1996, after leading a coup d’état against former President Dawda Jawara. His regime is characterized by the oppression of journalists and political opponents. His preferred means of control are arrest and torture. He also has a deep hatred for the LGBT community, as he threatened to personally slit the throats of the country’s gay men. Despite being a small country, Gambia accounts for a large part of the migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, as Yahya’s rule was extremely unpredictable. In January 2017, he lost the election to Adama Barrow and went into exile in Equatorial Guinea.
2. Mao Zedong (China)
The communist leader, Mao Zedong, was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China and one of the most controversial leaders of the 20th century. He was Chairman of the ruling Communist Party from 1949 until his death in 1976 and he is credited for modernizing and uniting the country, paving the way for China to become the global superpower that it is today. Although today’s China is becoming more and more capitalist, Zedong started by putting all the industry under state control and elevating his personality cult. It is estimated that his policies of forced labor and systematic starvation led to the death of as many as 70 million people. Though he’s a very polarizing figure, most Chinese people view him as a national hero, and we can’t argue that his results were incredible, even if some of his measures were quite extreme.
1. King Leopold II (Belgium)
Leopold was the second King of Belgium and he is primarily known for founding the Congo Free State (Democratic Republic of Congo). Unlike the colonizing process of other states, Leopold didn’t make Congo a colony of Belgium, he made it his own property. The Congo Free State was his own personal project, owned in its entirety by him. He used the native inhabitants as slaves and amassed a vast fortune trading ivory and rubber from Congo. He ran the colony using mercenaries, even though his claim of Congo was authorized by the other major colonial nations of Europe with the purpose of educating and improving the lives of the Congolese people. An estimated 10 million people lost their lives while Leopold coordinated the exploitation of Congo, using the proceeds to fund large construction projects in Belgium. The legacy for which he’s remembered, however, is not the one of the magnificent buildings and wealth he left to the Belgians, but the blood and suffering he caused to the native people of Congo.