Though the origins of the word are not firmly defined, and its original, far less insidious meaning is obsolete, in a modern context the term “henchman” is defined as “a trusted follower or supporter who performs unpleasant, wrong, or illegal tasks for a powerful person (such as a politician or criminal).” The world has known far too many brutal dictatorships and regimes, led by power hungry, ruthless tyrants seemingly incapable of any humanity, but what is equally disturbing is the amount of supporters those rulers have historically managed to employ to carry out their most barbaric tasks.
The mutilation, execution, rape and outright murder of millions of people has historically been the job of the dictators’ henchmen, those blind supporters willing to do whatever is necessary to see their leader succeed, and further their own careers. While there have been equally as many brutal henchmen as regimes over the course of history, here are ten who combined account for nearly 100 million deaths among a multitude of other atrocities.
10. Tomas de Torquemada
A prominent member and Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, Tomas de Torquemada was a Dominican friar responsible for the exodus of 200,000 of Jews from the Spanish Kingdoms and the conversion or torture of more than 50,000 others amidst the kingdoms’ fight to reclaim the land for Christianity in the late 1400s. Though Torquemada was said to have been a “hammer of heretics” for the Pope, employing many methods of denouncement and torture. Many Jews who converted to Christianity still retained many of their old traditions, and were spied upon and routed out by Torquemada and forced to repent. If they did not, or were caught practicing their traditions again, they were burnt at the stake. Though the true number of those who died during Torquemada’s time as the Grand Inquisitor is debated, the number has been estimated to be upwards of 2,000 people.
9. Vincent Otti
Second in command to Joseph Kony in the vicious Lord’s Resistance Army, operating in Uganda and Sudan, Vincent Otti rose to power quickly after joining the militant group’s ranks in 1987. As the Lieutenant General and Vice Chairman of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Otti carried out numerous barbaric attacks of civilians throughout Uganda, including the 1994 attack on Atiak, Otti’s home town, where at least 200 people were brutally murdered, and the 2004 attack on Barlonyo, a town where 300 people were hacked to death, dismembered, burned and shot. Ultimately, the man indicted on 21 counts as a war criminal for his role in multiple massacres was a proponent of peace talks – peace talks that the Lord’s Resistance Army’s leader, Joseph Kony, had no desire to take part in. Though details are scarce, speculation is that in 2007 Vincent Otti was killed in a meeting of the Lord’s Resistance Army due to his enthusiasm for peace talks.
8. Perence Shiri
The commander of the Zimbabwean air force, a member of the Joint Operations Command, the government body that oversees of day-to-day government activity in Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s cousin, Perence Shiri is also the man responsible for the most heinous war crimes in the African nation. While commanding the Fifth Brigade of Zimbabwe, Shiri was involved in a campaign in the ethnically tense Matabeleland region of the country, and in 1983 and 1984, Shiri and his forces undertook a massive campaign of terror against the Ndebele tribe, in which up to 20,000 civilians were tortured and murdered, many buried in mass graves. Considered ethnic cleansing by the international community, and genocide by the Ndebele peoples of Matabeleland, Perence Shiri remains active in Zimbabwe, but has been sanctioned by the western world, and survived an assassination attempt.
7. Luckner Cambronne
The man know as the “Vampire of the Caribbean,” Luckner Cambronne rose to power as second in command to Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, becoming the leader of Haiti’s feared secret police, the Milice de Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale, better known locally as the Tonton Macoutes. During his career, Cambronne developed a reputation for extreme cruelty, mass executions and a myriad of disappearances amongst the Haitian population. Cambronne was also accused of profiting from the sale of blood and body parts of his victims to Western nations, hence his nickname. All told, the Tonton Macoutes were responsible for as many as 60,000 deaths. Luckner Cambronne was forced into exile during a power struggle following Francois Duvalier’s death, and died in Florida in 2006.
6. Maximilien de Robespierre
Though initially a prominent intellectual of the French Revolution who advocated equality, the abolition of slavery and basic human rights for all, French lawyer Maximilien de Robespierre ultimately became a henchman to his own ideology. While initially a voice in the Jacobin sect of the revolution, Robespierre rose to prominence as his politics became increasingly militant. An advocate for the execution of French King Louis XVI, following the King’s death, and with the French government left with little stability, Robespierre and his cohorts seized power in the country and set about removing any threats of revolution, however real or imagined. Thus began the “Reign of Terror,” in which over 40,000 French citizens were executed, nearly 17,000 of them by guillotine. As the terror reached a fevered pitch, Robespierre’s tenuous hold on power collapsed in on itself, and not long after many of his accomplices were executed, he himself met the blade at the end of July, 1794.
5. Reinhard Heydrich
No list of vicious henchmen would be complete with one of Adolf Hitler’s murderous Nazis. Nicknamed “The Hangman of Prague,” Reinhard Heydrich was the man who created the Einsatzgruppen death squads that roamed Nazi-occupied territory during the Second World War, committing war crimes and mass executions of opponents of the Reich. Heydrich was also the chairman of the Wannsee Conference that in 1942 set in motion the Final Solution. As the brutal overseer of the areas of Czechoslovakia that the Third Reich absorbed in 1938, Reinhard Heydrich ultimately met his demise at the hands of Czech special agents who ambushed his car and shot him to death in Prague.
4. Nikolai Yezhov
As the head of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police force under Joseph Stalin, between 1936 and 1938, Nikolai Yezhov was the man most responsible for the Great Purge of political dissidents, the Red Army and peasants resistant to collectivization. In power of the NKVD at the height of the Great Purge, Nikolai Yezhov oversaw the imprisonment of over one million people and the execution of nearly 700,000 more. Yezhov also sent almost 700,000 more enemies of the state to the Gulag labor prison camps where it is estimated that a further 200,000 died. Ironically, but entirely characteristic of the climate in the Soviet Union at the time, the apparatus that Nikolai Yezhov was master of for a short period also became his judge, jury and executioner. Yezhov was considered a threat having “seen too much and knowing too much to be kept alive” and he was executed by the NKVD in 1940. His legacy was erased so thoroughly by Stalin that even photos showing the two together had Yezhov’s image removed.
3. Kang Kek lew
The head of the Khmer Rouge’s secret police squad the Santebal, Kang Kek lew, better known by his nom de guerre, Comrade Duch, was responsible for implementing the brutal prison systems throughout Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. The Tuol Sleng prison camp in particular was notorious for its brutality, where thousands of political prisoners were held and tortured. Duch was extremely thorough in his record keeping, including keeping such notes about the camps and its prisoners, referring to who should be spared following interrogation, and who should be “smashed to pieces.” Overseeing at least 15,000 interrogations, including the subsequent torture and execution of prisoners, Duch was ultimately tried as a war criminal in Cambodia in 2007 and was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his “shocking and heinous” crimes.
2. Heinrich Himmler
Another Nazi on the list, Heinrich Himmler’s devotion to National Socialist racial purity helped shape his vision to solve the “final solution to the Jewish problem in Europe.” Himmler was the ultimate decision maker in the Final Solution, and set in motion the plan to send millions of Jews, Roma, political dissidents and others, to the concentration camp system across German occupied Europe, where anywhere from 12 to 14 million people perished. Himmler’s feared SS also committed many wartime atrocities in territories conquered and controlled by Nazis. Though at one time he was Hitler’s most trusted henchman, before the end of the Second World War, Heinrich Himmler fled Berlin and sought peace with Britain, an overture that was rebuffed. Himmler was arrested and set to be tried as a war criminal when he committed suicide.
1. Lavrentiy Beria
Another head of the NKVD, and indeed the member of Stalin’s inner circle that succeeded Nikolai Yezhov, Lavrentiy Beria was not only a notorious political mass murderer, he was also a serial killer. Georgian by birth, Beria assumed the role of head of the NKVD in 1938, and continued the work of the Great Purge, before he began planning, along with Nazi Germany, the partition of Poland. Various massacres, including the Katyn massacre, were carried out under Beria’s orders and upon the commencement of the Second World War, Beria was instrumental in the mass arrests and executions of enemies of the state, and the punishments doled out to the ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union accused of anti-communist sentiments.
Beria was also tasked with overseeing the Soviet atomic weapons project, which required thousands of prisoners Beria had sent to the Gulags to work in dangerous uranium mines. While a vicious political henchman of Stalin’s, in his personal life Beria was a sexual predator who raped and murdered women during his time in office. Human remains found in the 1990s at his former home corroborated long-standing suspicions of Beria’s legitimacy as a serial killer, although following Stalin’s death, as with many prominent figures in the Soviet Union, Lavrentiy Beria was tried and executed for treason and terrorism in 1953.
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