Power struggles and war have existed since the dawn of humanity. Even today, we struggle with international relations and division within our own country. On numerous occasions, however, twisted political leaders have risen to power. Dictators like Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler crossed far beyond the boundary of war and genocide, initiating unspeakable atrocities. While we hope history never repeats itself, it’s important that we don’t forget our past either – even the ugliest parts. These dictators were among the evilest despots in world history. Which do you think is the most terrifying?
1. Qin Shi Huang
Reign: 247-210 B.C.
Qin Shi Huang was, you guessed it, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty. The grade school taunt, “first is the worst” comes to mind because he was an absolutely brutal ruler. If scholars disagreed with him, he sentenced them to death. Any books that criticized his views were burned.
He also was responsible for the first version of the great wall, which was a small version of the one we know today, and for the construction of a massive mausoleum including an army of life-sized terra-cotta soldiers. Many conscripts died during the wall’s construction, but wall duty was the better option; those who worked on the mausoleum were automatically killed after their job was complete to keep the tomb on the down-low. In addition to all the casually ordered death, he opted to castrate prisoners of war and force them into slavery.
2. Julius Caesar
Reign: A.D. 37-41
Julius Caesar, also known as Caligula, wasn’t always despised. At the beginning of his rule, he freed wrongfully imprisoned citizens and nixed excessively high sales tax, but as time went on, his health suffered. Historians believe he may have suffered from several small strokes and possibly depression, and his personality changed drastically. He killed his rivals and forced their parents to watch, among other malicious acts. His political actions were increasingly bold. He was eventually overthrown by a group of 60 senators…and in this case, overthrown means murdered. He was stabbed 23 times, ending his pivotal role in Roman society.
3. Attila the Hun
Reign: AD 434-453
The Hunnic Empire was located near present-day Hungary, and it was home to the infamous Attila the Hun. He liked to invade other empires. A lot. He successfully led invasions of the Byzantine empire, devastated the Balkans, and attempted many failed, yet extremely destructive, raids on the Western Roman Empire, Roman Gaul, and Italy. While he didn’t ultimately win, his aggressive tactics and eagerness to fight made him a formidable opponent. He died shortly after razing much of Italy to the ground, and likely would have continued to plunder his way across the continent had he remained alive. Surprisingly, he died off the battlefield from unspecified internal bleeding on the night of his marriage (one of several).
4. Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan was born to be tough. His father, chief of his tribe, was killed when Khan was only nine by poisoning, and the fatherless boy was raised in poverty. He was raised by his mother who taught him the importance of strong political alliances, and while he was captured by his father’s former allies for some time, he escaped and began to unite the Mongol tribes on his own. He proceeded to conquer much of China and Central Asia, and his methods were heartless. He killed civilians en masse more than once, including a massacre of the aristocrats of the Khwarezm Empire. He had so many wives and concubines that up to eight percent of men living in the region of the former Mongolian empire are genetic descendants of Khan.
There were honestly too many empires to remember them all, but Timur was responsible for founding the Timurid Empire. He led ruthless military raids throughout much of western Asia, covering the area of modern-day Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. His military conquests weren’t the scary part, though. As a leader, he was heartless. To end a rebellion after he successfully invaded the city of Delhi, he ordered a bloody massacre. When it was over, he mounted thousands of heads up on minarets. He also had a tower built out of live men, glued together with bricks and mortar.
6. Vlad III
Reign: 1448; 1456-1462; 1476
Vlad III was known as Vlad the Impaler for a reason. According to his reputation, when he first became ruler of Wallachia he invited his rivals to a formal dinner. When they arrived, he stabbed and impaled them all. Needless to say, he wasn’t the best host. Impaling became his favorite means of execution. While he did attempt to stabilize the tumultuous nation, he did so by bloody and lawless methods. He was also known as Vlad Dracula, based on his family name. You can see where this is going. Because of his lust for blood, the legend of the vampire Count Dracula was born. Thanks, Vlad.
7. Queen Mary I (aka Bloody Mary)
Religious wars and persecution were always a thing, but Queen Mary I took it to the next level. She was the only child of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and a devout Catholic. When Mary I became Queen of England, she wanted to share her beliefs with all of England. By share, I mean mandate. She married Philip II of Spain, who was also Catholic, and began a campaign of murdering hundreds of Protestants. Hanging sounds almost gentle compared to her methods; she had them all burned at the stake.
8. Vladimir Lenin
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, always had rebellious political views. He was outspoken about his communist views and pushed for socialism to replace capitalism. In 1917 after the Russian Tsar was overthrown and a provisional government was put in place, Lenin saw his chance. That October, he led a revolution of his own and took power. He redistributed land throughout the country and withdrew from WWI, but it all went downhill from there. His approach to his opponents was merciless, killing thousands in concentration camps and disregarding the famine and poverty his people endured.
According to the BBC, “During this period of revolution, war and famine, Lenin demonstrated a chilling disregard for the sufferings of his fellow countrymen and mercilessly crushed any opposition.”
9. Joseph Stalin
Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, wasn’t any less aggressive. Stalin was a highly significant figure during the early-mid 20th century, but his methods have been condemned for obvious reasons. First, his Five-Year plans contributed to wide-spread famine. Then, he began “The Great Purge”, to rid Russia of the so-called enemies of the working class. Over a million people were imprisoned, with over 700,000 executed. He was also responsible for mass repressions, deportations, and ethnic cleansing. Some people today, especially in Russia, still believe that some of his political views have merit.
10. Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini, like many members of this list, didn’t grow up in the most peaceful environment. He had always been an outspoken political activist, but when he was wounded in WWI, he gathered other disillusioned war vets into violent groups known as the Blackshirts. This was the beginning of fascism, an extreme-right totalitarian party. He began dismantling Italy’s democratic government piece by piece until he had complete power.
By 1936, he had become an ally of Hitler, bringing anti-Semitism to Italy. Despite surviving many assassination attempts, he was eventually caught and executed alongside his mistress and hung upside down from the roof of a gas station in Milan.
11. Adolf Hitler
The infamous Adolf Hitler wormed his way into power as the chancellor of Germany in 1933. and then as Führer just a year later. He was largely responsible for WWII after he invaded Poland in 1939, and was the primary instigator of the Holocaust. Within two years, Hitler’s Third Reich empire included most European countries. He proceeded to order the systematic destruction of any people who did not match his vision of an “ideal master race”, throwing Jews, Slavs, and anyone else he considered socially undesirable into concentration camps.
There, his followers conducted mass genocide on his orders, killing over 19 million. That’s not including the millions of soldiers and civilians who died in WWII. He’s likely responsible for the greatest amount of human loss and destruction orchestrated by a single man in all of history.
12. Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong was an influential communist leader of China who ruled with an iron fist. He was known for his political intellect and strategies and he made some positive changes, like modernizing China and improving education, health care, and women’s rights. Unfortunately, his regime was also totalitarian and repressive. He ordered the destruction of many religious and cultural artifacts, took control of all industry and agriculture, and snuffed out any opposition like a candle. His harsh policies encouraged forced labor and led to the death of over 40 million people through starvation and mass executions.
13. Idi Amin
General Idi Amin overthrew Uganda’s government in a military coup, instating himself as the new “president.” Almost overnight, he became known for his cruelty. Known as the “Butcher of Uganda,” his rule was exceptionally immoral and murderous. During his eight years in power, he massively mismanaged the economy, persecuted multiple ethnic groups, drove Uganda’s Asian population out of the country, and killed with reckless abandon. Somewhere between 100,000-500,000 people were killed by his command.