I recall a teacher in middle school who had an expression that has stayed with me over the years: “There are means and there are ways; and there mean ways”. Indeed. If there is one thing that history has shown, it is that bad people exist and often rise to the top. There have been many outright evil characters who have gained significant control of the political workings in their country and impacted the course of world history with their wicked ways. This list presents some of the worst offenders of breaking the trust that is given by the public to a leader.
15. Queen Ranavalona I
Queen Ranavalona I, best known as the villain in George Fraser’s novel Flashman’s Lady, ascended the throne of Madagascar in 1835. Known abroad as the Bloody Mary of Madagascar, the Queen’s favourite methods of execution included half-boiling and tossing off of cliffs, and over a third of her population died under her reign. Although she and her court wore French dress, Ranavalona banned Christianity and drove Europeans off the island. Nevertheless, she united Madagascar and kept it free of French or British control at a time when other African nations were brought into the growing empires.
14. Attila, King of the Huns
Attila, King of the Huns, was the Emperor of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453, ruling over an empire that stretched from Germany to the Ural River and from the River Danube to the Baltic Sea. During his rule, he was one of the most fearsome of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires’ enemies. The question remains one of the central dilemmas in revisionist history: was he a bad guy or simply a harsh yet fair and visionary leader? In much of Western Europe, he is remembered as the epitome of cruelty and rapacity. However he is regarded as a hero and his name is revered and used in Hungary, Turkey and other Turkic-speaking countries in Central Asia. Some histories and chronicles describe him as a great and noble king, and he plays major roles in three Norse sagas: Atlakviða; Völsunga; and Atlamál.
13. Emperor Caligula
The emperor Caligula, whose birth name was Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus and was a distant cousin to Julias Caesar, is one of the most well known of the Roman Emperors yet actually held the job for less than 4 years. Today this would not even merit a lapel pin by corporate standards, yet in that short time Caligula managed to fall into the depths of madness and turn his world upside down. Among some of his more bizarre habits were having dinner parties hosted by his favorite horse, opening a brothel in the Imperial Palace and reinstating treason trials, the bloodthirsty trials which had given an air of terror to the latter years of Tiberius’ reign. Caligula had four wives, three of them during his reign as emperor and he was said to have committed incest with each of his three sisters in turn. In 24 January AD 41, Caligula was murdered by the praetorian officer Cassius Chaerea, together with two military colleagues.
12. Emperor Nero
Some historians describe the life of Roman Emperor Nero as a series of excesses in sport, music, orgies and murder. In AD 62 he divorced Octavia and then had her executed on a trumped-up charge of adultery. All this to make way for Poppaea Sabina whom he married. (But then Poppaea too was later killed. – Suetonius says he kicked her to death when she complained at his coming home late from the races). Had his change of wife not created too much of a scandal, Nero’s next move did. Until then he had kept his stage appearances to private stages, but in AD 64 he gave his first public performance in Neapolis (Naples). – Romans saw it indeed as a bad omen that the very theatre Nero had performed in shortly after was destroyed by an earthquake. Within a year the emperor made his second appearance, this time in Rome. The senate was outraged. The next year – July AD 64 – the Great Fire ravaged Rome for six days, from which comes the famous vision of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Nero, a man desperate to be popular, looked for scapegoats on whom the fire could be blamed and found it in an obscure new religious sect, the Christians. Many Christians were arrested and thrown to the wild beasts in the circus, crucified or burned to death at night, serving as ‘lighting’ in Nero’s gardens, while Nero mingled among the watching crowds. It is this brutal persecution which immortalized Nero as the first Antichrist in the eyes of the Christian church.
11. King John “Lacklands”
John, King of England, was considered a failure as a king, and called “Lacklands” because he was the youngest of Henry II’s sons and inherited no territory. He was considered manipulative and conniving toward his family and court. However, he must also be remembered for an extraordinary and visionary decision: it was King John who signed the Magna Carta, which declared that the kings of England could not hold absolute power, but must share authority with the 25 barons of the land. The document is still recognized as a base of modern forms of constitutional government, and may well mitigate any excesses on the part of the king in a revisionist view of our larger global history.
10. Tomas de Torquemada
By 1479, when Spain was unified under Ferdinand and Isabella, Torquemada was a Dominican priest and Isabella’s confessor. Four years later he had established himself as the head of the Spanish Inquisition. The purpose of the Inquisition was to root out heresy, and for Torquemada this meant destroying the Muslims and the Jews (including the converses: converted Jews, New Christians). Torquemada was the Hitler of his day, and killed thousands in his reign of terror. The Spanish Inquisition alone committed the ritual murder of about thirty thousand Jews. Interestingly, his grandmother was a converso, which he never seemed to go public with. Today, Torquemada remains one of the most vile and horrific figures of history.
9. Prince Dracul
His full name was Vlad Tepes Dracul, yet eventually was given the nickname of Vlad the Impaler. Prince Vlad Dracul was born in a small town in former Transylvania (now known as northern Romania) in 1431, and was named after his father Vlad Dracul, who belonged to the Order of the Dragon. This was an order formed by the Holy Roman Emperor for the purpose of defeating the Turks, who tried to conquer Europe at the time. The name “Dracul”, which means dragon or devil, was taken on by his father, when he joined the order. Following the murder of his father by army troops, the prince set up a heavy handed path of revenge and carnage. Dracula created a very severe moral code for the citizens of Walachia. You can guess what happened to anyone who broke the code. Thieves were impaled, even liars were impaled. Naturally there wasn’t a lot of crime in Walachia during his reign. Several thousand people were killed during his reign. But prince Dracula didn’t just kill people; he liked to see them suffer. His favorite method of torturing someone to death was impalement, hence the nickname. *more details on his story here*
8. Francisco Pizarro
Pizarro was born in Trujillo, Spain in 1478 to parents who never married. During his childhood Pizarro worked to help out the household, meaning that he did not go to school and never learned to read. Despite this potential handicap, he managed to join several exploratory expeditions to the New World, the first in 1509 as a first mate to Captain Balboa. He led the Spanish troops that conquered Peru, Brazil and Ecuador and, like his relative Cortez was to the Aztecs in Central America, Pizarro wiped out the Incas in his quest for gold. Driven by no more than loyalty to a distant throne and search of riches, he was one of the most ruthless figures in modern history.
7. Queen Mary I of England
England suffered during the reign of Mary I: the economy was in ruin, religious dissent reached a zenith and England lost her last continental territory. Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, was born in 1516, and took the throne as Queen at 37 years of age. She was a staunch catholic from birth, constantly resisting pressure from others to renounce her faith, a request she steadfastly refused. Her major goal as queen was the re-establishment of Catholicism in England, a goal to which she was totally committed. Persecution of the non-believers and heretics under Mary’s reign came more from a desire for purity in faith than from vengeance, yet the fact remains that nearly 300 people (including former Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer and many of the most prominent members of society) were burned at the stake for heresy, earning Mary the nickname, “Bloody Mary.
6. Tsar Ivan IV
Ivan, born near Moscow, was the first Russian to assume the title of ‘tsar’ (Latin Caesar) as Ivan IV. After he defeated the Tartars (Mongols) at Kazan and Astrakhan, Ivan IV acquired his title ‘the Terrible’ through the bloody violence with which he destroyed the aristocratic opposition to his autocratic rule. Despite the violence that marked the period of his rule, Ivan IV also did much for Russian culture and commerce. He initiated the opening of Siberia, established commercial links with England, centralized the administration of Russia, and created an empire that included non-Slav states.
5. Elizabeth Báthory
Though not a leader herself, Bathory was a member of a a noble and influential family in 16th century Europe. In 1575, she married Nádasdy Ferenc, who later became the chief commander of Hungarian troops, leading them to war against the Ottomans. Elizabeth moved to Nádasdy Castle in Sárvár and spent much time on her own, while her husband studied in Vienna, and it was here that her true nature of evil and sadism emerged in full. After her husband’s death, she and four collaborators were accused of torturing and killing hundreds of girls and young women, with one witness attributing to them over 600 victims, though the number for which she was convicted was 80. The case of Elizabeth Báthory inspired numerous stories during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The most common motif of these works was that of the countess bathing in her victims’ blood in order to retain beauty or youth.
4. Joseph Stalin
To his credit, Stain directed the building of socialism in the USSR, effectively transforming the political entity from a rural to an industrial power, yet the price the people paid along the way was significant, in terms of economy, social life and survival rate. His forced collectivization of agriculture cost millions of lives, while his program of rapid industrialization achieved huge increases in Soviet productivity and economic growth but at great cost. The counterpoint to progress under Stalin was a repressive regime, indifference verging on hatred of the people, labor camps, political crackdowns and deportations, citizen disappearances and executions. The population suffered immensely during the Great Terror of the 1930s, during which Stalin purged the party of ‘enemies of the people’, resulting in the execution of thousands and the exile of millions to the gulag system of slave labour camps. Estimates place the number of Soviet citizens that died at the hands of the Stalin regime between 4 and 60 million people. Increasingly paranoid, Stalin died of a stroke on 5 March 1953.
3. Idi Amin Dada
Idi Amin Dada, who became known as the ‘Butcher of Uganda’ for his brutal, despotic rule while president of Uganda in the 1970s, is possibly the most notorious of all Africa’s post-independence dictators. Amin seized power in a military coup in 1971 and ruled over Uganda for 8 years. Estimates for the number of his opponents who were killed, tortured, or imprisoned vary from 100,000 to half a million. He was ousted in 1979 by Ugandan nationalists, after which he fled into exile. Popular legend has Amin involved in Kakwa blood rituals and cannibalism. More authoritative sources suggest that he may have suffered from hypomania, a form of manic depression which is characterized by irrational behavior and emotional outbursts. As his paranoia became more pronounced he imported troops from Sudan and Zaire, until less than 25% of the army was Ugandan.
2. Pol Pot (Saloth Sar)
Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar on May 19, 1928 in Cambodia. As a young man, he studied radio and electrical technology in Paris. However, in France Pol Pot began to spend less time studying and more time becoming involved with the Communist Party. In September 1960 Pol Pot and a handful of followers met secretly at the Phnom Penh railroad station to found the “Workers Party of Kampuchéa” (WPK). He also traveled to Beijing, China, to receive organizational training. Upon his return to Cambodia in 1966, the WPK changed its name to the Communist Party of Kampuchéa (CPK). In 1971 Pol Pot was elected as leader of Khmer Rouge and as commander of its “Revolutionary Army.” By the mid 1970s, Pol Pot began to remove many of his rivals, including cabinet ministers and other top party leaders.
Meanwhile, Pol Pot’s reform policies drove many people from major cities and forced tens of thousands into labor. The Cambodians were denied food and medical care, and mass killings of all suspected opponents—especially intellectuals or those with political experience—took place. Pol Pot was responsible for the deaths of over one million Cambodians—nearly 20 percent of the country’s total population.
1. Adolf Hitler
The collective memory of peoples around teh world still holds the horrors and evil that Hitler brought to the world in recent memory. There is little to say that is new or more insightful than the hundreds of thousands of pages that have been published. The killer of millions of people in a rage of genocide and homicidal madness was made possible by the ability of this national leader to bring his nation to the lowest human instincts and deplorable behaviour. Hitler led his country, and subsequently most of the world’s population, into the most devastating war ever known, and is hands down the most evil political figure that we have known.
Prime Minister of Rwanda during the genocide mass murders in that country, when 500-800,000 Tutsis and Hutus were killed with machetes by rival tribal extremists. He was later charged with crimes against humanity.
Mao’s rise to communist leader and eventual creation of a communist China included the murder of an estimated 70 million citizens in his purge.
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