The World's Most Notorious Despots

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff
The World's Most Notorious Despots

by Borgna Brunner

The Me Millennium

Infoplease's top ten despots of the last thousand years share a few common bonds. Each had a penchant for sadism. And each would no doubt claim that the murder and mayhem that took place under his rule was necessary for law and order or to make the trains run on time. But whether their excuse is ideological or practical, the genuine reason was an overweening egotism at the expense of everything and everyone else.

Top Ten Despots

Ivan the Terrible


Joseph Stalin

Adolph Hitler

Mao Zedong

Francois Duvalier

Nicolae Ceausescu

Idi Amin

Pol Pot

Tamerlane (Timur)

Tamerlane's life (c. 1336–1405) was spent conquering the inhabitants of Asia. A Turkik Mongol, his goal was to make his capital, Samarkand, the most impressive in Asia. Yet he rarely stayed at home, preferring to vanquish and destroy additional lands. Legendary for his ruthless savagery and lack of mercy, Tamerlane massacred entire populations—including the 80,000 residents of Delhi— and razed whole cities, leaving behind nothing but rubble. And he had a macabre sense of architecture—building towers out of the skulls of his victims.

Ivan the Terrible (Ivan IV)

On January 16, 1547, Ivan became the first czar of Russia, ruling until 1584. His early reign was primarily spent in battle in an effort to expand Russian land. His tyrannical cruelty only developed later in life, when he turned increasingly paranoid and vindictive—historians suspect mental instability. In 1570, Ivan formed a troop of personal bodyguards called oprichniki, who answered only to him and became the vehicle for massacring his perceived enemies over a seven-year period (1565–1572). The landed gentry was Ivan's particular nemesis, and he unleashed his oprichniki upon thousands of them. He was equally guilty of domestic violence, killing his son and heir, Ivan, in a state of fury, as well as several of his wives—he is believed to have had seven of them.

Maximillien Robespierre

Robespierre was the mastermind of the Reign of Terror (1793–1794), the dark underside of the French Revolution that perverted its lofty ideals of democracy with fanaticism and inhumanity. Robespierre, leader of the infamous Committee of Public Safety, turned France into a police state, sending "enemies of the nation" to the guillotine without benefit of a public trial or legal representation. About 40,000 French men and women were executed or died in prison, and another 300,000 were imprisoned. Only Robespierre's own beheading ended the slaughter.

More Notorious Despots

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