The World's Most Notorious Despots

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

by Borgna Brunner

Top Ten Despots

Ivan the Terrible


Joseph Stalin

Adolph Hitler

Mao Zedong

Francois Duvalier

Nicolae Ceausescu

Idi Amin

Pol Pot

Joseph Stalin
Portrait of Joseph Stalin

Totalitarian leader of the U.S.S.R. from 1929–53, Stalin crushed the Soviet peoples with his megalomania and repressive version of communism. His adopted name meant "man of steel," and the term Stalinism has become the definition of a cruel, draconian socialism. He sent millions of Soviets not conforming to the Stalinist ideal to forced-labor camps, and he persecuted his country's vast number of ethnic groups—reserving particular vitriol for Jews and Ukranians. Soviet historian Roy Medvedev estimated that about 20 million died from starvation, executions, forced collectivization, and life in the labor camps under Stalin's rule. Another 20 million survived imprisonment and deportation.

Adolf Hitler

History's most chilling tyrant, Hitler controlled Germany from 1933–45. His fascist maneuverings for world domination, his dream of a Teutonic master race subjugating all non-Germanic peoples, led to a criminality unmatched by any leader this millennium. Responsible for the genocide of six million Jews, the slaughter of Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, Communists, and other "undesirables" and "decadents," as well as the invasion of Europe and the preposterous ambition to rule the world, Hitler defies any more sophisticated explanation than categorical evil.

Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung)
Portrait of Mao Zedong

A despotic ideologue who controlled China from 1949–76, Mao subjected the Chinese people to his massive social experiments, all of which went catastrophically amok. Early in his reign, he encouraged free speech in an attempt to avoid the mistakes of Stalinism. When criticism of his regime arose, however, his true sentiments—absolute intolerance of dissent and opposition—emerged, and he retaliated savagely. When he launched the Great Leap Forward—his economic plan to forge an industrial revolution in China—it resulted in the worst famine of the century, described as a "totally unnecessary, entirely man-made holocaust that claimed between 23 million and 30 million lives." He then masterminded the Cultural Revolution, which, despite its ideological claim to "purify" communism of bureaucrats and elitists, was a vehicle for settling Mao's personal scores and shoring up power. During the nightmarish decade when culture was equated with depravity, millions—most of whom were guilty of the crime of belonging to the bourgeoisie—were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered as suspected class enemies.

More Notorious Despots

Sources +