Karma can be a bitch. The old adage that one lives by the sword and dies by the sword has been one that has prevailed throughout recorded history, and for those who have lived lives that have caused untold misery to others, the threat of a similarly miserable situation comes to them was always there.
Sometimes dictators and tyrants manage to escape punishment – some of the greatest criminals of the twentieth century, the likes of Hitler and Stalin, managed to end their lives on their own terms – there is a satisfyingly long list of despots who got what was coming to them. Here, we will talk through some of the worst people that history has to give, safe in the knowledge that something indescribably unpleasant is in the post for them at some point.
Though the word tyrant itself is one of Greek origin – tyrannos, the original Ancient Greek word, simply meant “monarch or ruler of a polis” – the term came into its modern usage in Ancient Rome, a civilization that was far from lacking in potential candidates for this list. We will scan over but a few of the dictatorial maniacs who met their end at the hands of their own people, but the list of tyrannical Roman emperors who were stabbed in the back (and sometimes in the front) by the Praetorian Guard is extensive.
From there, we will cycle forward to the next period of popular uprisings, beginning with the English and French Revolutions. Here we will learn the true meaning of karma, as tyrannical rulers are executed by their own people, only for the leaders of those revolutions to find themselves in the self same position not long afterward. As we said: live by the sword, die by the sword.
We will move into the last hundred years or so, in which the rate of revolutions has skyrocketed, bringing us right up to the present day. It promises to be a long list of bad guys getting their just desserts: so do join us as we take a trip through 12 tyrants who finally got their comeuppance.
Julius Caesar is one of the most famous men in history, and the subject of one of the most famous assassinations of all time to boot, making him a prime candidate for our list. But was he a tyrant? His murderers, led by Brutus,
To understand the politics of Julius Caesar’s demise, it makes sense to first understand the political system of Ancient Rome at the time. The Roman Republic worked like a kind of British House of Commons in reverse: where the British government (lead by the Prime Minister) today asks the Commons, who are representative of the people, to vote on an issue and then the Lords, who are not elected and were previously made up of nobles and gentry), can only veto it, the Roman Republic’s Consuls – there were generally two, who could veto each other – proposed legislation to the unelected Senate (made up of nobles), who debated it and then passed it onto the Tribune of the Plebeians, elected by non-nobles, who could potentially veto it.
Consuls were always taken from the Senate, always nobles and generally acted on behalf of their noble class. It was a strong system of checks and balances. The only way that it could be subverted was if the Senate decided to vote in a Dictator. This was only ever temporary – lasting six months at most – and only to be used in very specific circumstances.
The fly in the ointment was the Governors. The Senate appointed Governors to run the provinces that Rome had conquered, especially as they were too far away to govern centrally. Thus Governors became localized chiefs, running the Roman army in their territory without the same structure of checks and balances as Rome itself. Thus, they could, if they were strong enough militarily, challenge Rome directly, as Caesar – who had been Governor of Gaul (France) – did in 50BC. He marched on Rome and “captured” the city, ousting his rival, Pompey, and becoming sole Consul himself.
He was then appointed Dictator in 49 BC and reappointed it again in 48 BC for a year and then in 47 BC for a decade. It made a mockery of the supposedly temporary nature of the post and angered many in the Senate. When Caesar was named Dictator for Life in 44 BC, it was the last straw.
A cabal of senators, feeling that the power of the Roman Republic was slipping from their grasp, acted to save the Senatorial system of rule by murdering Caesar. Around 60 of them stabbed him to death. It did little to save the Republic. Caesar’s time in office had been characterized by a move toward populist policies that bypassed the Senate and spoke directly to the people, which had made him very popular, and the lower classes were angered by his murder. They attacked the homes of the murderers and sparked a civil war between the leaders of the conspiracy, Brutus and Cassius, and Caesar’s appointed successor, Octavian.
Octavian won, beating out all opposition to become the undisputed leader of Rome and was proclaimed the first Emperor. In killing Caesar, those who sought to preserve Roman democracy from the tyranny of one individual had inadvertently delivered the entire Empire into the hands of just one man.
The whole episode has gone down as one of the most influential events in world history. Most of our perception of what happened on the Ides of March, as the date of Caesar’s assassination was known in Rome, comes from the Shakespeare play of the 16th century, but the real history is also well known. The legacy of Caesar as a tyrant is still disputed, but in the eyes of the conspirators at least, he certainly got what was coming to him.
He would be far from the last to receive such treatment. The next on our list, Caligula, however, was a far less ambiguous character.
Julius Caesar was a hard act to follow, but his successor, Octavian, later known as Augustus, did more than a decent job of it. He turned a state ravaged by internal conflict into a monolithic political system, with himself as a military dictator, and did much to create the Roman Empire as we know it today.
He created extensive road systems, a complex structure of taxation, a standing army that was loyal to Rome and not individual Governors, expanded the borders of the Empire hugely and introduced what would be known as Pax Romana – peace under Rome – that endured for more than 200 years. His empire spread from Germany in the north to Egypt in the south, from Spain in the west to Palestine and Syria in the East, encompassing almost 70 million people.
When Augustus passed away after over 40 years in charge, he was replaced by his step-son, Tiberius, who ruled for a further two decades, before passing the torch onto his grand-nephew, Caligula, whom he had treated like a grandson and groomed to take over. Tiberius had been a largely competent ruler – at least for the first decade – and had left the Roman state in rude financial health, with a broadly peaceful situation at the edges of the Empire and a relatively settled political scene in Rome. Caligula, it seemed, was hell-bent on doing as much as possible to destroy all this.
He began well enough. He attempted to curry favor with the military by doling out pay increases and with the public by announcing a huge repertoire of games to be held. It was all change, however, when he contracted an illness – or was, as rumor had it, poisoned. Caligula began to become very suspicious and paranoid, seeing enemies everywhere and fearing that they were out to take his throne. The money that he had paid to the military became seen as a bribe to keep them from turning on him, particularly the Praetorian Guard that protected him every day, while public reforms were seen as having been carried out to keep the mod from his door.
Soon, all these outgoings began to tot up and the huge treasury that Tiberius had built up was all but exhausted. With cash running low, Caligula began accusing rich Romans of crimes against him so that their estates might be taken as forfeit, and when that didn’t work, he tried to tax the public to fund the deficit. He continued to fund huge building projects around Rome, glorifying himself through vanity projects.
His personal life was also widely reported and scorned. Caligula was known as a womanizer and a cruel man who would kill his enemies and was accused of everything from insanity to incest. At one point, he even threw a section of the audience at the gladiatorial games to the wild animals for sport because there were no prisoners to be found. He was even accused of making his favorite horse into a Consul.
After a while, the tyranny of Caligula had to be stopped. A conspiracy of Praetorian Guardsmen and politicians rose and killed the Emperor, immediately replacing him with his uncle, Claudius. He would be far from the only Roman emperor to be killed by the Praetorian Guard – being killed by them was really the culmination of the career of being Roman Emperor – but it was still far better than being publicly shamed and humiliated in front of your own people. For an example of that, we must cycle forwards in time over a thousand and a half years, and scoot from Rome to London, where we will meet another out-of-touch tyrant: King Charles I.
King Charles I never really set out to be a tyrant. In fact, he never really set out to be King of England: his brother, Henry, was older and therefore the heir to the throne, but died suddenly when Charles was a child, propelling him up to next in line. Henry had been smart, strong, handsome, well-liked…essentially, everything that Charles was not.
Charles was groomed for the role from an early age, but lacked the temperament to rule well. He prevaricated often, and was easily led by whichever courtier had his ear at any given time and when he did finally get around to making a decision, they were often catastrophic. He did little for his own personal popularity by remaining close to his father’s friend, the Duke of Buckingham, who was something of a mentor to Charles but widely disliked by just about everyone else, and by marrying a Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France. The King was the head of the Church of England, which had been formed less than a century earlier in opposition to Catholicism, and many Protestants in England feared a return of what they saw as papacy when Charles came to the throne.
When his father died in 1625, Charles set about the business of being King. He wanted to go to war with Spain, but couldn’t get the cash together. When he called a Parliament to grant him money, they refused, so he dismissed them and didn’t call another for 11 years. In the meantime, he attempted to spread the Church of England via the Book of Common Prayer, which was to be used at every service in the country. Unfortunately for Charles, this included Scotland, where a totally different form of Protestantism was prevalent. This provoked war with the Scots, which required him to recall Parliament, who again refused to grant him money without serious reforms. He lost the war and subsequently had to pay even more in reparations to Scotland, leaving him flat broke. Again, he had to return to Parliament.
Charles’ argument with Parliament would only escalate. They considered themselves to be the sovereign power, while Charles saw himself as appointed by God to rule, the so-called Divine Right of Kings. The center of this debate was over who controlled the military forces – both sides thought they did – and it turned out that they both sort of did. The army split along the middle and the English Civil War began in 1642. Charles again lost and found himself on trial for treason against the nation.
Ironically, almost none of the people trying him had ever wanted to oust the King – they just wanted a constitutional monarchy, where Parliament made the laws and the King was a figurehead – but now that he was on trial, they had to fulfill their role. Still, of the 135 Parliamentarians tasked with forming the court, only around half actually showed up to put the King on trial. For Charles’ part, he refused to accept the authority of Parliament to try him. Technically he was right, as the Parliament required Royal Assent to pass anything, but in practice, it wasn’t going to work like that. His attitude towards his jurors was contemptuous and he continually claimed that only God could judge him and was eventually removed from the court. A death sentence was passed.
On Tuesday, January 30, 1649, King Charles I was executed publicly in the center of London. He had had countless opportunities to reverse his tyranny and avoid his own execution, very few of his executioners actually wanted to execute him and most of the people who showed up did not want to see him beheaded, but he had worked himself into a corner. After Charles would come to the man who was third to sign his death sentence and a man who would become arguably an even larger tyrant than the King himself: Oliver Cromwell.
If King Charles had become a tyrant by accident and, indeed, got himself executed by accident, then the path that delivered Oliver Cromwell to the top of British politics was if anything even more unlikely. Cromwell was born in 1599, in Cambridgeshire, to a family that was part of the lower nobility, but primarily rural and obscure. He made his living from farming and lived a generally quiet life until the 1620s when he became a staunch believer in Puritanism.
Puritanism was a form of Protestantism that wanted to go even further than the Church of England had in denouncing the Catholic Church. They were extremely devout, lived simple, pious lives and followed an extremely strict moral code. Cromwell was active in his community and wanted to further influence the country towards his beliefs. To this end, he became a Member of Parliament in 1628, only for King Charles to dissolve Parliament soon afterward.
By the time that the Parliament returned 11 years later, Cromwell had become a successful businessman and a well-known Puritan. He was part of a group of religiously-motivated MPs who campaigned for freedom of conscience, Parliamentary sovereignty and regular elections to check the power of the King. When war broke out, he was drafted in as an officer, despite having little to no military experience. Cromwell soon proved himself to be a superb soldier, winning battle after battle until he found himself in charge of the whole Parliamentarian forces. By the end of the war, Cromwell was the most powerful man in England.
As mentioned, he presided over the regicide of King Charles I and was elected by his fellow Members of Parliament to replace the King in the new system, the Commonwealth of England, under the title of Lord Protector. He was, essentially, a dictator, and it was at this point that his reputation for tyranny began. Though the war in England had largely ended, over in Ireland, the Royalist forces were regrouping. As many had suspected that Charles secretly harbored Catholic tendencies – he was married to a Catholic after all – there was much support for him in Ireland, where the aristocracy was mostly made up of Catholics.
Cromwell and the Puritans were vehemently anti-Catholic as well as being anti-Royalist, and invaded Ireland in 1649. He saw Catholicism itself as a tyranny from Rome and showed absolutely no mercy to any Catholics once he landed in Ireland. He laid siege to Drogheda, a major city on the Eastern coast, and when his forces managed to get inside, they massacred 3,500 citizens in one day, including women, children and priests. He moved on to Wexford, where another 3,500 were slaughtered as he razed the whole town. Most of the rest of Ireland surrendered rather than face the same fate. All in all, the campaigns of Cromwell in Ireland lead to the deaths of between 600,000 and 200,000 civilians from war and associated diseases and famines, which was somewhere in the region of a quarter of the whole population.
Cromwell died peacefully in 1658, but he would get his comeuppance through one of the most bizarre incidents of British history. Such was his personality, there was no single figure who could adequately replace Cromwell as Lord Protector and within two years of his death, Parliament was forced to restore the Monarchy via Charles I’s son, Charles II. On the restoration, there was a huge backlash against those who had been involved in the killing of the King, with many of the regicides rounded up and execution. As Cromwell was already dead, this wasn’t possible, but the Royalists found a way. They exhumed his corpse, hung it at Tyburn, the execution grounds, then beheaded. His head was stuck on a pole in central London for the next twenty years.
Cromwell was privy to the execution of one tyrant and then proceeded to become just as dangerous a figure himself. The lesson of King Charles would not be learned by rulers to come, and neither would the lessons of Cromwell. In fact, just over the channel in France, King Louis XVI was about to repeat the mistakes all over again.
The story of Louis XVI of France does bear several similarities to that of Charles I. Like Charles, Louis was not the initial heir to the throne: his brother, who was also considered by his family to be smarter and more handsome, died at a young age and foisted the pressure of succession onto Louis. Like Charles, he was prone to bouts of indecisiveness and easy to manipulate. Like Charles, his belief in his own innate power was strong and his indignance, when challenged, was fierce. And, of course, like Charles, he would end up with his head on the block at the hands of his own people.
The Kingdom of France that Louis inherited when he became King in 1775 was already beginning to fall apart. The country was almost totally broke, weakened by wars against Prussia and Britain, and the monarchy, who lived in opulence in Versailles while the masses starved in Paris, were deeply unpopular. In order to raise capital, Louis needed to call the Estates-General, the French equivalent of the Parliament, where he could be granted new taxes. The Estates-General was made up of the First Estate, the clergy, the Second Estate, the nobility and the Third Estate, everyone else. As the meetings went on and the terrible finances of the nation were laid bare, those from the Third Estate began to question why they should be asked to bear the brunt of the costs when those with the most money paid the least. Angered, they broke away and formed the National Assembly in 1789 and set about drawing up a new constitution. It would be the start of the French Revolution.
Though the Revolution had begun, Louis was still the King. He ruled as a constitutional monarch, but his inability to do anything concrete made him seem tyrannical. Reform was clearly needed and needed fast, but Louis continued to sit in Versailles, doing precisely nothing. The people of Paris turned increasingly towards the National Assembly, who took more and more power without Louis doing anything to stop them. Politicians from the First and Second Estates tried to persuade Louis to act, but he was unwilling: despite a strong belief in the Divine Right of Kings, he seemed totally unable to use his God-given power to help his people or indeed, himself.
The National Assembly passed legislation that ended the feudal economic system and that stripped away the power of the Church, they passed a new constitution that severely limited the power of the King and the clergy and they created free trade within France. It was becoming increasingly obvious that, for many, the monarchy was also on the list of things that had to go. Louis, who had moved into the center of Paris in order to seem closer to his people, finally made a decision. He attempted to escape to England in June 1791 but was captured and arrested.
Still, Louis was kept on as King. The National Assembly – which by now had transitioned into a parliament called the Legislative Assembly – maintained Louis as monarch and granted him veto powers over laws. He was all but a prisoner of the revolution, however, and when war broke out with neighboring Austria and Prussia, a major demand was that he be set free and returned to the throne. The King was in favor of war, as he thought a victory would endear him to the people of France, but when the Austrians and Prussia declared that they would not harm civilians if the King was not harmed, it made it look as if the King was orchestrating with his royal cousins to crush the revolution.
Thus, it came that the King was put on trial and executed via the guillotine in the center of Paris. He had gone from a position of supreme power to being killed by his own people in less than a decade, and, like during the English regicide, from an environment in which most people did not actually want him to be guillotined. Of course, as any student of history knows, the French Revolution did not end with the killing of the King: in fact, it was just the start. The second tyrant of the Revolution was waiting in the wings to take over, and the terror that he would unleash would be even more stark. His name was Maximilien Robespierre.
If King Charles and King Louis XVI are to be considered as analogous, then we must also draw the same comparison between Oliver Cromwell and Maximilien de Robespierre. It is always possible to find similarities between the two men who provided the face of the two great European revolutions of the Enlightenment period: they were both of wealthy, but not particularly aristocratic backgrounds, they were both provincial rather than metropolitan, they were both steadfast in their beliefs. though Cromwell’s were concerned with religion, while Robespierre’s were more ethical and philosophical.
Born in the north-eastern town of Arras, Robespierre was from a family of lawyers and drenched in legal tradition at school, he learned to love the traditions of the Roman Republics and the works of contemporary philosophers, particularly Rousseau, who prioritized the concept of virtue in men. He qualified as a lawyer and began practicing, regularly combining his legal campaigns for impoverished people with his growing political beliefs in favor of fundamental rights, equality before the law, and (ironically given what would follow) opposition to the death penalty.
He was elected to the Estates-General as a member of the Third Estate and joined the National Assembly when it split in 1789. He defended the rights of Jewish and Black French citizens, campaigning for religious tolerance and slave emancipation, which saw him drift gradually to the left of the National Assembly. He is even credited with inventing the “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” slogan that is still the bedrock of the French state to this day. As he grew in prominence, Robespierre became associated with the Jacobin Club and known as “the incorruptible” because of his virtuousness.
When war came with Austria, Robespierre spoke against it, fearing that the liberal principles of the revolution would be lost in a wave of militarism – he spoke of the French generals and referenced two of our previous tyrants, saying: “If they are Caesars or Cromwells, they seize power for themselves.” His confidence was in the power of the ideals to spread the revolution, rather than the power of the French army to do so. As the Jacobins split into two camps, Robespierre became the de facto leader of the leftist section, the Montagnards, and began to campaign for the end of the monarchy. As we have heard, he got his wish.
The Girondins were in charge of the National Convention, as the parliament was known, but were struggling. The war was not going well, the country was even more broke and the Parisian population was starving. They rose up and deposed many of the Girondins. The power vacuum was filled by the Committee of Public Safety, to which Robespierre was elected. They began the purge of all “counter-revolutionary” elements from French society, beginning a period known as the Reign of Terror. In this, Robespierre presided over the deaths of more than 16,000 perceived enemies of the state, the majority via guillotine.
Robespierre, a previous opponent of the death penalty, felt that terror was completely necessary to make the revolution possible. For him, the virtuous must be willing to use terror in pursuit of higher social goals, enforcing equality before the law. As he put it:
“Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the country”
Thousands of priests and nobles were sent to the guillotines, as well as many nobles and, eventually, even revolutionaries who had made been members of the Jacobin Club and the Mountain. The revolution had devoured everyone in a leftward direction, turning the most radical into conservatives and then counter-revolutionaries. Inevitably, Robespierre would suffer the same fate. After a year and a half of terror, he got his comeuppance. There was a reaction within the National Convention, which declared him a tyrant and called for his arrest. He was taken in, but freed when the mobs of Paris demanded his release.
Robespierre, along with his brother and two others, holed themselves up in the Hotel de Ville. He tried to commit suicide, but only managed in shooting his own jaw off. He was left to die by those sent to arrest him, but instead lived in agonizing pain for over 12 hours until it was decided that, like so many that he had himself sentenced, he would face the guillotine.
Maximilien Robespierre was virtuous to the last, though his belief in the Revolution and its goal lead him to become an unspeakable tyrant. He was still deified by the common people of Paris and, as the years have gone by, his reputation has been much debated. For some, he was the defender of the goals of the Revolution from the counter-revolutionaries, the man who stood up and continued pushing when others called for reaction. To others, he was the man who pushed the envelope too far and enacted greater terror than the King himself ever managed.
His concept of terror would pass onto into other revolutions, of course. Just over a century later, in Russia, the Terror would be writ large again, and our next subject – perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly – would feel the sharp end of it. He was Nicholas II, the last Tsar.
If we could not discuss King Louis XVI of France without referring back to King Charles I of England, then we certainly can’t talk about Nicholas II of Russia without considering his royal predecessors as well. Louis might have learned a lot from the problems that befell Charles and Nicholas certainly could have looked back at the sticky ends that befell his forebears, particularly in the perils of doing nothing, being lead astray and lacking gumption when sitting at the top of an autocratic system.
Nicholas was one of Europe’s last remaining autocratic monarchs when he took power in Russia in 1894. He was born to rule, the eldest son of his father, Alexander III, and became the heir after the death of his grandfather, Alexander II, who was assassinated in 1881. Despite being next in line, Nicholas’ father did little to prepare him for his future as the ruler of over 100 million people. Alexander III had assumed the throne at the age of 36 and was supposed to live for a long time, with Nicholas likely to have a prolonged apprenticeship before taking over. Of course, it didn’t pan out like that. When Alexander died in 1894, his son was just 26 and totally unprepared for the task at hand.
He inherited an Empire that was massively backward compared to other European nations. The vast majority of the population were peasants and the country had a tiny industrial sector. Furthermore, while other states functioned as constitutional monarchies or democracies, Russia was ruled centrally by the Tsar in St Petersburg. Many in the country were pushing for reform, but Nicholas was adamant that his autocracy would continue.
His misrule would be total. In 1905, he botched a war with Japan, sending the entire Russian fleet halfway around the world only to see it destroyed. Nicholas was hugely embarrassed by the defeat. He had tried to use the war to boost his popularity and to raise patriotic fervor, instead he drained the treasury and made himself look like a fool. It would get worse too, as starving workers marched on St Petersburg to deliver a petition to the Tsar asking for reforms, only for Nicholas to refuse to meet them. His troops fired on the crowd and nearly a hundred were killed. This sparked a wave of strikes and the Tsar was forced to bring in liberal reforms.
Over the next decade, however, he would act to undermine them at every turn. He closed the Duma, the Russian Parliament, on three occasions and became increasingly distant. By the time the First World War broke out, Nicholas was back in near-autocratic power. The war went dreadfully for the Russians and in 1915, Nicholas decided that he needed to take control of the army to put it right. Instead of turning the tide, he essentially made himself the prime target for blame as the conflict slipped away from Russia. His wife, the German-born Alexandra, was left in charge in St Petersburg: Russia was now fighting a war against Germany while being ostensibly ruled by a German, and a German who was in thrall to a maniacal priest, the famed Rasputin, at that.
By the start of 1917, the vast majority of people simply wanted the war to stop, the soldiers to come home and the chronic famines that blighted Russia to end. Strikes again broke out and when the troops were sent in to crush them, they joined the strikers. Nicholas was forced to abdicate his throne and attempted to flee to England. He was unable to escape and, as the February Revolution turned into the socialist October Revolution, the entire royal family was arrested.
It was thought that Nicholas would be put on trial, but it was not to be. On the night of July 17, 1918, the Russian royal family were woken from their beds in Yekaterinburg and executed by a Soviet firing squad. Nicholas, who had done almost everything in his power to consolidate his own position while the rest of Russia starved and who had prevaricated about reform at every opportunity, found himself on the wrong side of his own people.
His example was one of the starkest we have seen, but perhaps the most dramatic and violent of our overthrown dictators is the next on the list. As the communist forces rose in the East, Fascism was to come to prominence in the West of Europe. Our next dictator is the man who brought the idea to fruition in Italy, and eventually paid for his actions: Benito Mussolini.
It doesn’t really need to be said in advance that Benito Mussolini was a tyrant. The man who came to be known as Il Duce was the first fascist dictator in Europe and arguably the first man to specifically set out with a political goal of a totalitarian state that, in theory at least, was established from below. His legacy as an autocrat within the grand pantheon of 20th-century dictators might not rank him on the same level as his contemporaries Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, but suffice to say, Mussolini was a massive tyrant and, come to the end of his reign, found himself on the receiving end of some very satisfying comeuppance.
Mussolini did not come from a well-off or privileged background. He was born in Romagna, in the center of Italy, the son of a blacksmith and devout socialist father. The young Benito, named after Mexican socialist and anti-clerical activist Benito Juarez, was schooled from an early age in politics, with his father imparting on him a mix of socialist, Italian nationalist and militarist ideas, all of which would come to play a large role in his later outlook. When he was 19, he emigrated to Switzerland to avoid having to do national service. He was unable to find gainful employment and instead spent his days reading political philosophy and agitating among Italian migrant workers, before one run in too many with the Swiss police saw him return to Italy.
Now 26, Mussolini continued to work towards socialism, becoming one of the most famous activists in Italy. While publicly he was a socialist, his private thought had begun to shift: having avidly read Nietzsche, he became convinced the people were not intrinsically as equal as socialism held that they were. He supported the First World War, when most of the Italian left did not, and was expelled from the Socialist Party. It was at this point that he formed the first incarnation of the Fascist Party, a revolutionary organization inspired by both the populism and economics of the left, but also the nationalism of the far right.
When the war ended, Mussolini’s Fascists began to grow and grow in strength. Italy was rocked by far-left activism – the Biennio Rosso, the red two years, which saw the country teeter on the bring of communist revolution – and his new political group was active in the streets, breaking up demonstrations of the left. The government did little to halt the Blackshirts, as the Fascists were often known, feeling that they preferred their violence to that of the communists. The power of the Fascists grew and, in 1922, Mussolini led the famous March on Rome, which saw the government capitulate and hand him the reigns of power.
As Prime Minister, he cracked down on all dissent and opposition. He broke up the trade unions, gerrymandered elections and turned Italy into a police state. Abroad, he invaded Libya, Ethiopia and Albania, while also intervening in the Spanish Civil War and becoming increasingly close to Hitler and Germany. Mussolini’s regime was not as explicitly racist and anti-Semitic as that of the Nazis, it was still politically very close and, when war broke out, it was with them that Italy sided.
When the Second World War began to turn on the Axis Powers, Italy would feel the brunt of it first. The Allies turned them over in North Africa and then invaded southern Italy in 1943. It was enough to see Mussolini arrested and deposed, but he was released and then placed in charge of a smaller entity, under the control of Germany, known as the Italian Social Republic. When that too began to fall, Il Duce tried to escape to Switzerland but was caught by partisan fighters. He was taken to the small village of Dongo, Lombardy, and summarily executed by a firing squad. He died just two days before Hitler himself would commit suicide in his bunker in Berlin. Once dead, Mussolini’s body was urinated on, spat on, kicked and mutilated. He was strung up in the main square of Milan, hung upside down and disfigured.
It was an ignominious end for the man who had once ruled Italy with an iron fist. His fate was not one that was shared by many of the Axis leaders at the end of the Second World War, though he would be far from the only one who would feel the wrath of the people. Our next subject had a similar lust for power and a similarly painful end, just a few hundred kilometers to the north. He was the Butcher of Prague, Reinhard Heydrich.
Reinhard Heydrich might not be as well known a name as the likes of Julius Caesar, Benito Mussolini, Maximilien Robespierre – or any of our Kings or Tsars or Emperors for that matter – but he might be the single figure responsible for the most deaths of any of the tyrants on our list. Bear that in mind when reading this, and then factor in that the reason he was a tyrant has very little to do with all the deaths that he was a large part of causing. That should give you a measure of the kind of bad guy that Reinhard Heydrich was. And if it makes you feel better, remember that this is a list of people who got what was coming to them, and what is coming to Reinhard Heydrich is a bullet to the skull followed by a week of agonizing pain.
Heydrich was, as you might have guessed from the Teutonic name, a German, and a fervent Nazi to boot. He was raised in Halle, in the east of the country, by a father who was a composer and staunch German nationalist and the young Reinhard was raised in a comfortable home. At the age of just 15, he joined the Freikorps, an anti-communist group that fought leftists in the aftermath of the First World War, before moving into the Navy. He was promoted often, but destroyed his reputation and lost his commission after an affair with an unmarried woman, Lina van Osten, in 1931. She was already a member of the Nazi Party and, unemployed and now married to Lina, Reinhard joined the SS.
Again, Heydrich moved swiftly through the ranks. He began in counterintelligence, being made a Major by Himmler within a year, before being named as head of the new party intelligence service, the SD in 1932 and then, when the Nazis took power, being put in charge of the Gestapo in 1934. Thus, Heydrich was at the forefront of the creation of the concentration camps and, after purging a large part of the Nazi Party, he was only second to Himmler in terms of the internal security forces of Germany. When war broke out in 1939, Heydrich could comfortably be seated at the very top table of Nazis and was regarded internally as the most fierce and cold-blooded.
It is here that we must mention the death toll. A rabid anti-Semite, Heydrich signed the orders that resulted in the Kristallnacht, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Jews and kick-started the Holocaust. He planned the operation that triggered the invasion of Poland and the start of the Second World War. On top of this, he was the man who chaired the Wannsee Conference, at which the Final Solution was decided upon, and subsequently, was the man tasked by Himmler with the logistics and implementation of the extermination of the Jews, over which Heydrich wanted and received total control. His actions killed an estimated 2 million people.
His personal tyranny, and eventually comeuppance, would come in Czechoslovakia. Heydrich had been seconded to Prague as the head of the German occupying forces and was ruthless in his treatment of the Czechs. Alongside deporting thousands of Jews, he attempted to “Germanise” the local population, executing anyone who crossed him and suppressing all Czech culture. Nearly a hundred people were summarily executed within his first three days as “Protector” of Bohemia and Moravia, while his general conduct would earn him the nickname “The Butcher of Prague”.
His confidence was supreme and would prove his downfall. Though most internal opposition had been quashed, the British had been covertly training Czech and Slovak exile soldiers in assassination techniques. Heydrich, so confident that he had the population under his thumb, would regularly drive around Prague in an open-topped limousine. On May 27, 1942, two British-trained airmen, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, ambushed Heydrich as he was driving to work, throwing a grenade at his car and critically wounding him. It took the Butcher of Prague over a week to die from his shrapnel wounds.
The reprisals against the Czechs were swift. 13,000 people were arrested, 5,000 of whom were sent to concentration camps and hundreds were summarily executed. Two entire villages, Lidice and Lezaky, were razed to the ground after inaccurate intelligence linked them to the assassins. Gabcik and Kubis themselves stayed on the run for three weeks, before holing up in a church in central Prague, where they made their last stand. They were both killed but not before they had taken down several SS troops as well.
Heydrich’s demise was as hubristic as any on our list. If there is anyone who could surpass him, however, in surprise at the way in which their world came falling apart, it might be our next subject. For him, we have to travel to the next great period of revolutions and to Romania, where the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu is about to dramatically end.
Like many of those on our list, it’s doubtful that Nicolae Ceausescu set out to become an authoritarian dictator. By the time of his death in 1989, however, his name had become synonymous with oppression. Ceausescu’s Romania was the byword for everything that was wrong with Eastern Bloc communist regimes: the secret police controlled everything, abuse of human rights was routine and the economy tanked to a point at which people were starving and almost every commodity was rationed. As this all took place, Ceausescu built a cult of personality around himself. As tin-pot dictators go, he was up there with the very worst examples of the genre.
Nicolae Ceausescu was born into poverty in rural Romania in 1918. His father was a peasant and devoutly religious, as well as violent towards his 9 children, which caused Nicolae to escape to the capital, Bucharest, when he was 11. He became an apprentice shoemaker, but his true calling was in the streets, where he was a vehement communist and an activist for the Communist Party – which was at the time outlawed – from the age of just 14. This brought him into regular contact with the authorities, who recognized his prodigious ability to recruit and spread propaganda.
His political activities saw him in and out of prison during the 1930s and, when Romania became a client state of the Nazis during the Second World War, interned in a camp for political dissents. Locked up with basically every other communist of note in Romania, Ceausescu became known as an enforcer for the then leader, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. When Romania was liberated, Gheorghiu-Dej seized power and aligned the country with the Soviet Union, and Nicolae was named as the head of the Communist youth movement.
He rose further in the ranks, joining the Politburo in 1952 and then eventually taking over from Gheorghiu-Dej when he died in 1965. He immediately tightened the control of the communist party over Romania: he eschewed the Soviet Union, preferring to try to turn Romania into a global player, and cultivated the idea of himself as the great leader, the hope of all Romanians. Among his policy ventures was the total banning of abortions – he thought that the path to world status was a much larger population, but instead, the outcome was one of the largest orphan communities in the world, as people simply could not afford the children that they were forced to have.
Economically, Ceausescu put all of Romania’s eggs in one basket, hoping to capitalize on high oil prices, only for low productivity and a catastrophic earthquake to nearly bankrupt the country. The reaction to this was to try and generate funds via exports, meaning that all the goods that were produced made their way abroad, leading to energy blackouts and food shortages. Despite these failures, Ceausescu’s huge security apparatus meant that he was rarely challenged. The Securitate, his equivalent to the Stasi or KGB, was both numerically huge and methodically brutal, spying on almost everyone and showing little restraint when doling out beatings.
It was not until 1989, when the Iron Curtain had begun to fall all over Europe, that Ceausescu too would get his comeuppance. The footage is striking to watch. The leader, so immune to criticism and insulated from public opinion, took to a balcony of the palace in Bucharest to denounce demonstrations that had taken place in the Western city of Timisoara. While he was speaking, lone protestors began to heckle him and eventually, he was forced to abandon the speech. The population of the capital were in full rebellion against the leadership and the leader himself tried to flee via helicopter but was tracked down and handed over to the army, which by this point had switched to the side of the people.
A kangaroo court was hastily convened and, in front of national television cameras, Nicolae Ceausescu was charged with genocide of the Romanian people, embezzling from the state, and other crimes against the nation. He, like King Charles and Louis before him, refused the authority of the court to try him, but was convicted anyway and summarily executed by a firing squad.
His rule had terrified the people, bankrupted the country and left Romania as one of the most deprived places in Europe. Ceausescu, as much as almost anyone on this list, got what was coming to him and, moreover, got it in front of all of the people he had once terrorized. It would not be until over a decade later, when our next candidate was deposed, that such a public disassembly of a regime would take place. That would be in Iraq, and the man shivering before the television cameras would be the former dictator, Saddam Hussein.
Saddam Hussein’s fall from power is not long enough ago that we really need to go deep into the circumstances by which his end came. For those of short memory, or who cannot remember the events of the spring of 2003, his fall was spectacular and swift: Iraq was invaded by a US-led coalition, his regime was overthrown and he went to the ground: quite literally, as it transpired, as he was discovered outside the city of Tikrit, hiding in a hole in the earth, bedraggled and a shadow his imposing former self. It was hard to remember the tyrant that he had once been.
Saddam Hussein was, for decades, one of the most notorious autocrats in the world. He was born in Tikrit and raised in Baghdad, joining the Ba’ath Party – part of an Arab-focussed socialist movement – at the age of 20. Ba’athism was based on ideas of unity between Arabs, state control of industry and of authoritarian leadership. It had already been part of a successful revolution in Egypt, but when the King of Iraq was overthrown in 1958, the generals who had taken power refused to join the United Arab Republic that had been founded in Cairo. Saddam, who was in favor of this Arab union, was part of a group that tried to assassinate the Prime Minister and found himself exiled to Syria.
His actions in the assassination attempt had made his name among Ba’athists and by the time he returned to Iraq in 1964, he was well known. This got him arrested but he escaped in 1967 and began his meteoric rise. He first took office as Deputy President after an internal Ba’athist coup in 1968 and set about on what would be two of his biggest themes: crushing internal opposition and national unity. Iraq was a nation split between Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as a significant Kurdish minority, not to mention economic and tribal divisions, but Saddam sought to bring them all together under the one banner. He enacted economic reforms, largely based on Iraq’s oil wealth, which brought many to his side and was internationally praised for campaigns to raise literacy and reduce poverty.
Behind this all, of course, was the ever-strengthening hand of the state. Saddam’s secret police ensured that dissent got nowhere and, in 1976, he became the undisputed leader of Iraq. He purged the Ba’ath Party in 1979, executing 22 close party rivals, further cementing his power. When neighboring Iran (and Shia) had an Islamic Revolution in that same year, a war swiftly broke out between the two. Saddam’s stranglehold was yet strengthened and, though the 8-year conflict ended in a stalemate, it showed just how far the Iraqi dictator was willing to go: he used chemical weapons against the Iranians, as well as against his own people in Kurdistan. Half a million died in the war and Iraq was all but bankrupt.
At this time, Saddam was relatively popular in the West, and funded extensively by the United States, which saw him as a bulwark against Islamic Iran. When he invaded Kuwait in 1990, however, that relationship ended and Iraq was bombed and invaded by American and British forces. The Allies also stoked dissent within Iraq – among Shia and Kurds, as well as political rivals to Saddam – leading to a huge internal crackdown by Saddam. Though internationally isolated and facing huge economic sanctions, the rule of the Ba’ath Party within Iraq was steadfast, largely because of the huge repression of the population.
When he was finally overthrown in 2003, the scenes were beamed around the world. The cult of personality that Saddam had developed, like the hundreds of statues of himself that he had erected, came falling down and the once unassailable leader was forced to go into hiding. When he was discovered in his hole in Tikrit, he was a shadow of his former self. He was put on trial and, in the grand tradition of the tyrants we have discussed, refused to recognize the authority of the court to judge him. As we have seen, that is rarely a successful defense and, just after Christmas 2006, he was executed. The final humiliation was for a shaky mobile phone video of the execution to make it out to the media, showing his last moments to the world.
Saddam had once been the West’s biggest bogeyman in the Middle East, but his death passed that title back to Muammar Gaddafi, the dictator of Libya. His time was soon to come as well, and in a far more chaotic fashion than Saddam Hussein’s.
When thinking of dictators who got what was coming to them, then the most obvious recent candidate must be Muammar Gaddafi. The long-time leader of Libya was a tyrant for over 40 years, inflicting huge internal repression on his own people but also funding terrorism around the world and causing untold death and destruction in the Middle East.
He came to power along the same lines as Saddam Hussein, albeit around a decade earlier. He was part of the Arab nationalist movement in the late 1960s that initially came to prominence in Egypt but later spread to Syria, Iraq and, through Gaddafi, Libya. Born into poverty and then trained in the military, the young Gaddafi was an officer in the army when the revolution that deposed the King of Libya occurred. He played a leading role in enacting a bloodless coup and found himself, in his mid-20s, as the de facto leader of his country.
He swiftly became autocratic and dominated politics in Libya. Economically, he set about trying to make Libya self-sufficient by extending agriculture and capitalizing on the huge oil wealth that was available. Gaddafi endeared himself to the population through doubling the minimum wage and promoting gender equality – which won him some friends on the left in Europe – while funding literacy and health care expansions via oil profits. In the early years of his reign, at least, Gaddafi was often feted for his reforms.
On the world stage, however, he would soon make himself into the West’s stock villain. After his ideas of pan-Arab solidarity began to founder, Gaddafi began funding groups that antagonized the Americans and British, leading to several high-profile terrorist attacks that bore his fingerprints. The Munich Massacre, in which Israeli athletes were killed at the 1972 Olympics, was notably funded by the Libyan regime, while all sorts of radical groups – terrorist and otherwise – received funds.
In the meantime, his internal crackdown continued. Gaddafi dissolved all laws in 1973, replacing them with a succession of diktats, and brought about a cultural revolution that sought to banish foreign influences from Libya. His security services grew in stature and his ideology, which he called Third International Theory, became the dominant theme of the nation. The power of the state was total, and Gaddafi’s power within that was unassailable. Within Libya, he ruled supreme, but beyond its borders, Gaddafi was a pariah. It was also known that, at this time, Gaddafi was looting from the national wealth, with his personal fortune thought to be in the billions. The West isolated Libya yet further when they began to develop chemical weapons and, in 1988, sanctions were imposed on the regime. They were maintained until 2003, when Gaddafi allowed UN inspectors to see that he had destroyed the country’s chemical capacities. In the meantime, thousands of Libyans had died.
When the Arab Spring began in 2011, few expected Libya to become embroiled in it, as the might of Gaddafi was considered far too strong. Protests did spring up and the police were unable to deal with them, which saw the unrest quickly spiral into a full-blown civil war. NATO intervened on behalf of the rebels and Gaddafi was defeated, fleeing to one of the small villages that still remained loyal. He was tracked down by rebels and forced to hide within a drainage pipe. He was found by local militia, injured and dying. They paraded him through the streets, sodomized him with a bayonet, shot him in the head and left the once all-powerful leader to die on the ground.
It was an ignoble an end as they come, but fittingly contemptuous for a man who showed little compassion to anyone who opposed him. Gaddafi was power-hungry, blood-thirsty, indiscriminate and obsessed with his own survival. That it was taken from him by his own people, in such a brutal way, makes a fitting end to our story.