Everyone has to start somewhere. It’s not as if a young boy from Tikrit woke up one day and decided he would be known as “the Butcher of Baghdad.” It’s far more likely such a boy would just become a butcher. (And for the record, Saddam Hussein was trained to be a lawyer.)
Dictators are just like the rest of us (at least, at first). If they’re not born into powerful families, they will likely need to help their families make extra cash to survive or just make a living on their own until circumstances afford them the chance to take hold of the state’s coffers while stomping on the necks of their enemies real and perceived.
Here are the ways a few brutal dictators made ends meet while waiting for their big breaks:
Ho Chi Minh – Baker
The leader of the Vietnamese independence movement that liberated his home country from colonial France, as well as the figurehead for the North Vietnamese who fought the United States during the 1960s and 1970s also brought a brutal form of Communism to Vietnam. 50,000 to 100,000 people are thought to have been killed in his rise to power. He once said: “Anyone who does not follow the line determined by me will be smashed.”
Ho Chi Minh in 1921 (French National Library photo)
Before that, he claimed to be a baker at the Parker House Hotel while living in Boston in the early years of the 20th Century. He also spent time living in New York City, working in a series of menial labor jobs.
Pol Pot – Teacher
Born Saloth Sar, Pol Pot studied a number of disciplines as young man, but proved as capable a student as he was a capable leader, which is to say, not at all. He failed as a student in both France and his native Cambodia. When he came back, he taught at a school in the capital of Phnom Penh until he was forced out by the government.
In response, he changed his name to Pol Pot and took charge of the Khmer Rouge, ousting the government and installing himself as leader in 1975. He ruled for four years, presiding over the deaths of a million Cambodians after implementing disastrous economic, agricultural, and cultural reforms. Luckily for the average Cambodian, Vietnam invaded in 1979 to overthrow the regime.
Adolf Hitler – Artist
The boy who was all set to become a priest dropped out of the seminary in 1903 to be come a professional painter. His works were exact, unremarkable, unemotional landscapes that “was ripe for instruction he never received.” He moved to Vienna in 1908 and struggled there as a poor artist while the city’s culture incubated his racist and anti-Semitic ideas.
He left Vienna to dodge the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s draft for World War I. He was deemed unfit for service later anyway. He did volunteer in the Bavarian Army as a dispatch runner.
François Duvalier – Doctor
Haiti’s 40th president was a democratically elected black nationalist and classically trained doctor, which made him an excellent butcher of 30,000-60,000 Haitians. His education also earned him the nickname “Papa Doc.”
The 41st President of Haiti was his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, who was handed the name “Baby Doc,” despite not being a doctor at all. Baby Doc fled Haiti after a 1986 rebellion toppled the government.
Benito Mussolini – Author
Many dictators penned books. Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book is one of the bestselling books of all time. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf. Mussolini wrote romance novels. That’s right, romance novels.
The Cardinal’s Mistress tells the tragic story of,a 17th-century Catholic clergyman and his mistress. Lines like “cast a ray of your light into my darkened soul,” do much toward explaining why he was made to take the other fork in the career road, the one marked “dictator.”
Bashar al-Asad – Opthalmologist
A graduate of Damascus University, Asad spent time as a doctor in his father’s (Syrian “President” Hafez al-Asad) army. He studied ophthalmology at London’s Western Eye Hospital. He returned to Syria when his brother Bassel was killed in a car crash to be groomed to take over for his father as “President” of Syria. Before ascending to leadership, his only administrative role ever, was head of the Syrian Computer Society.
Than Shwe – Mailman
The man who shipped almost a million Burmese people off to jungle gulags and work camps led one of the most repressive, autocratic regimes in the history of Earth. The military junta led by Than Shwe even executed Buddhist monks by the hundreds, dumping their bodies in the wilds and countrysides of Burma.
As a younger man, fresh from school, Than Shwe worked at the Meikhtila Post Office as a postal clerk before enlisting in the Burmese Army and becoming an officer who would later be Prime Minister.
Muammar Qaddafi – Goat Herder
No one knows exactly when Qaddafi was born, but it’s widely known his family comes from a Bedouin tribe of nomads who were illiterate and didn’t maintain birth records. His father was a camel and goat herder who wanted his son to attend school.
Qaddafi would seize power in 1969 while the pro-Western King Idris was away on state business. Qaddafi increased the Libyan quality of life at the cost of mass political repression and extrajudicial killings. In the early days of the Civil War that would lead to his overthrow and death, he ordered his army to starve the citizens of his own cities and kill any government troops who surrendered to the rebels.
Stalin – Weatherman
Joseph Stalin, the brutal Russian dictator and one of the deadliest dictators in history was actually born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, a Georgian seminary student with webbed toes. He dropped out of the seminary and worked as a meteorological clerk before joining Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Movement. He started using the name Stalin around 1912.
The estimated number of people killed by Stalin’s regime and its policies range between three and sixty million Soviet citizens, with the higher victim estimates being more common among experts.