12 Most Famous Dictators Ever Lived

Originated from the Roman Republic, the term dictatorship implies possession of unchecked/absolute powers by a single individual or a small group.

Some ever-present components of a dictatorship regime are; rule by decree (unchecked proclamation of a law), the cult of personality, and repression. Although there have been numerous dictators throughout history, only a few stand out. So who are those infamous/famous dictators? Let’s find out.

12. Francisco Franco

Francisco FrancoFrancisco Franco with his wife in 1968 | Image Courtesy: Dutch National Archives

Affiliation: FET y de las JONS

Francisco Franco was a Spanish Captain General (the highest military rank in the country), who later ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975. Franco was a hard conservative, who firmly opposed the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931.

It was in 1936 that Franco, along with other Spanish Generals launched a military coup against the newly elected left-wing government. It was the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

After winning the civil war in 1939, Franco imposed laws banning his political rivals and protests. He executed close to 200,000 people during his regime.

11. Omar al-Bashir

Omar al-BashirOmar al-Bashir listens to a speech during NEPAD The New Partnership for Africa’s Development in Addis Ababa on January 31, 2009

Affiliation: National Congress Party (Sudan)

Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir ruled Sudan for three decades from 1989 to 2019. His regime witnessed one of the bloodiest civil wars on the African continent. al-Bashir seized power in 1989 after a successful military coup, which ousted prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi.

President al-Bashir and his government received international attention in 2005 after it brokered peace with southern rebels to end the Second Sudanese Civil War. The peace treaty leads to the formation of South Sudan as a sovereign nation.

In 2009, Omar al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur. It was the first time in the history that a sitting president was charged with such misdemeanor. The War in Darfur, often cited as one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, caused nearly 3 million people to displace and registered 300,000 deaths.

He was effectively removed from power after a military coup on April 11, 2019.

10. Kim Jong-il

Kim Jong ilKim Jong-il’s portrait 

Affiliation: Workers’ Party of Korea

Kim Jong-il, son of the 1st Supreme Leader of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Il-sung, assumed full control of the state in 1994. Popularly known as “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il implemented military-first policy, which gave utmost priority to the nation’s military.

North Korea suffered one of the world famine during his regime. Although uncertain, it is been estimated that nearly 600,000 people died out of starvation between 1993 and 2000. He was later accused of making the famine much worse.

Kim Jong-il’s North Korea was described as “the world’s most repressive governments” by a Human Rights Watch report in 2004. According to various international organizations, North Korean prison camps held more than 200,000 political prisoners in 2011.

9. Ante Pavelic

Affiliation: Ustashe (Croatian fascist Revolutionary Movement)

After successfully conquering the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, the Axis powers installed several local puppet regimes to exercise better control over the region. One such puppet government was the Independent State of Croatia and its control was given to Croatian military dictator named Ante Pavelic.

During Pavelic’s regime, about 800,000 people including Jews, Serbs, and Croats were killed in various concentration camps. He even executed several members of his political party for treason. At one point, Pavelic took his genocidal campaign to such extremes that even German authorities had to intervene.

8. Pol Pot

Pol PotPol Pot with former Romanian President Nicolae Ceaușescu | Image Courtesy: the Romanian Communism Online Photo Collection

Affiliation: Communist Party of Kampuchea

Pol Pot, born as Saloth Sar, was a totalitarian dictator, who ruled Kampuchea (modern-day Cambodia) between 1976 and 1979 as the Prime minister and leader of the Communist Party of Kampuchea from 1963 to 1981.

In 1953, inspired by the likes of Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot joined a Marxist–Leninist movement which sought to overthrow Cambodia’s king Norodom Sihanouk. Under his leadership, the movement was converted into a political party and was named the Communist Party of Kampuchea. It gained complete control over Cambodia in 1975.

Pol Pot wanted to turn Cambodia into an agrarian socialist society, adhering to his Maoist ideology. To achieve that, Pot ordered his troops to forcefully relocate the urban population to rural labor concentration camps, where they can work on fields. The event led to malnutrition, widespread disease, epidemic, and mass execution.

According to an estimation, from 1975 to 1979, close to 2 million Cambodians (half of the country’s population) died in what we now know as the Cambodian genocide.

7. Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong unKim Jong-un (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the North Korea-Russia Summit in 2019 | Image Courtesy: kremlin.ru

Affiliation: Workers’ Party of Korea

After the death of Kim Jong-ill in 2011, his son Kim Jong-un became the Supreme leader of Korea. In 2013, Forbes magazine ranked him the 3rd most powerful Korean after Ban Ki-moon (former Secretary-General of U.N) and Lee Kun-hee (Chairman of Samsung Group).

Since Kim Jong-un came in power, he reportedly executed several North Korean officials including his uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013. It is also believed that Kim ordered the killing of Kim Jong-nam, his half brother in 2017.

On multiple occasions, Kim Jong-un has been accused of human rights violations and crimes against humanity by international communities.

6. Saddam Hussein

Saddam HusseinHussein addresses Iraqi state television in 2001

Saddam Hussein, one of the 20th century’s great dictators, became the leader of Iraq in 1979 and remained in power until 2003. Almost immediately after seizing power, Saddam took control of all oil and banking operations in the country, which greatly helped Iraq’s economy in the 1980s.

During his regime, Iraq invaded the neighboring nations of Iran and Kuwait. The Iran-Iraq war, which lasted for nearly 8 years, took more than 500,000 lives. In Iraq, his closely controlled paramilitary security forces massacred nearly 250,000 Iraqis, a significant of them were Kurdish and Shia Muslim population.

Although Saddam was widely condemned for war crimes, many in the Arab world supported him for opposing the United States and Israel.

5. Hideki Tojo

Hideki TojoHideki Tojo (in the middle) with Wang Jingwei in 1942

Affiliation: Imperial Rule Assistance Association

Hideki Tojo, a general of the Imperial Japanese Army turned Prime Minister of Japan, was one of the most influential and famous dictators of the 20th century. After becoming the Prime minister in 1941, Tojo declared war on Britain, the United States, and the Netherlands.

He simultaneously controlled four other ministries in the Japanese government, which he effectively make use of to impose totalitarian policies. One such policy was eugenics.

During his regime, Imperial Japan committed heinous war crimes. It’s been estimated that during this period somewhere between 3 million to 14 million people lost their lives including civilians and war prisoners.

4. Mao Zedong

Chairman Mao proclaiming PRCChairman Mao proclaiming the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949 (colorized).

Affiliation: Communist Party of China

Mao Zedong, or chairman Mao, was one of the most celebrated members of the Communist Party of China (CPC). He played a crucial role in CPC victory over Kuomintang during the Chinese Civil War. By the end of the War, Mao solidified his position as the leader of CPC.

As the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Mao introduced certain economic and cultural reforms that ultimately led to civil unrest and socio-political crisis in the country.

One such reform was 1957’s “Great Leap Forward,” which sought to shift China from an agrarian economy to an industrial powerhouse. About 20-45 million people died between 1958 and 1962 due to a famine caused by drastic changes in fiscal policies.

Then in 1966, Mao launched the infamous cultural revolution, which prohibited all “counter-revolutionary” elements from society. It was a less radical step following the catastrophic failure of the Great Leap Forward. The outcome, however, was much worse as it further drained the country economically as well as politically. About 500,000 to 2 million Chinese died during that time.

3. Benito Mussolini

Benito MussoliniBenito Mussolini with Adolf Hitler on October 25, 1936, when an alliance between Germany and Italy was formalized

Affiliation: Italian Socialist Party

Benito Mussolini was a prominent figure in World War II and several years leading to it. He was the Prime Minister of Italy from 1922 to 1943. After obtaining the position, Mussolini banned labor associations and dissolved other political parties in the country, creating an ultimate totalitarian state.

At the core of Italian fascism, Mussolini was among those who inspired Adolf Hitler and other contemporary rulers. One of the most important components of Mussolini’s fascist Italy was cult of personality (use of propaganda and mass media to create an idealized image of the leader), which many believe was emulated by likes of Stalin and Hitler.

According to historian Konrad Jarausch, Mussolini played a crucial role in making fascism a dominant ideology in Europe at that time. He not only proved that the movement can seize control but can effectively run the government in a large nation.

Read: 19 Most Famous Scientists Of All Time

2. Joseph Stalin

StalinJoseph Stalin (right) along with Vladimir Lenin in 1922

Affiliation: Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was one of the most prominent figures in the Soviet political setting in the early 20th century. He played a crucial role in the Russian Civil War, which started shortly after the Bolsheviks gained power in 1917.

From 1918 to 1923, Stalin oversaw important military operations during which he ordered numerous mass executions to enforce the Bolshevik propaganda. In one instance, he ordered his troops to burn down an entire village.

After taking full control of the country in 1924, Stalin installed a centralized command economy, which eventually led to the great famine of 1932.

The infamous Great Purge, also known as the Great Terror, was a repression campaign launched by Stalin to subdue his political opponents and counter-revolutionaries. This Stalinist repression took as many as 1 million lives.

1. Adolf Hitler

Adolf HitlerHitler’s motorcade in Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia (annexed after Munich Agreement) in October 1938 | Image Courtesy: Bundesarchiv, Bild 137-004055 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Affiliations: Nazi Party

Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. A few months later, on March 23, the Enabling Act was introduced, which marked the beginning of Nazi Germany based around the ideas of totalitarianism and national socialism.

Hitler’s rise to power was greatly attributed to the growing unrest among citizens following Germany’s defeat in World War I. He sought to exterminate Jews along with others, whom he considered “unworthy of life,” from Germany and annex territories to provide living spaces (Lebensraum) to Germans.

Read: 46 Interesting And Lesser Known Facts About World War II

According to an estimation, nearly 19.3 million people including civilians and prisoners of war were killed during the Nazi regime.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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