Some people make bad decisions. Typically they result in a really bad hangover, someone deeply offended, or a few awkward conversations. However, when a person in complete and total power of a country makes a bad decision, people die. A lot of people. Over the last 150 years, people who have been given all the power have committed enough genocides, brutal wars, and systematic murders to teach the world that no one person should ever be given complete power again.
Yet, who out of these eight horrible people did enough terrible deeds to result in the most loss of life within their country?
Think Hitler and Stalin will be duking it out for the number one spot on this list? What if I told you there was someone more deadly to their country than those two Axis powers combined?
*Note - The numbers below includes the death of civilians from the dictator's home country, soldiers from their country, rebels from their own country, and civilians of any invaded countries. It does not, if applicable, include the casualties of enemy soldiers sent to fight against them.
1.7 to 2.5 Million Dead
While Pol Pot's overall kill count is rather low, he has become one of history's most famous dictators due to his brutal treatment of his own citizens. Pol Pot and his communist movement, Khmer Rouge came to power following a bloody civil war in Cambodia. After secret bombing raids on the country from the U.S. during the Vietnam War, the citizens were left shell-shocked and starving, ultimately allowing Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge to march right into the capital after the U.S. ended its aggressions in Southeast Asia.
Immediately after taking power, the 2.5 million residents of capital city Phnom Penh were evacuated, stripped of possessions, and forced to farm as part of a re-education program. Naturally, civil servants, doctors, and teachers were not great farmers or used to the work. Anyone that raised complaints were taken to detention centers like the now infamous S-21 where roughly only 7 people of the 20,000 sent there managed not to die of malnutrition, sickness, or torture.
Outside of detention centers, everything was controlled by the state. A person owned nothing, whatever food they produced was collectivized, children were taken from their homes for a career in the military, and people could not even have sexual relations without jumping through government hoops. It is estimated that 1.7 to 2.5 million Cambodians died during this travesty, which at the time was about one-fifth of Cambodia's population.
Fortunately, Vietnam would later invade and force Pol Pot into the jungle where he led many guerilla campaigns that thankfully failed.
1.7 to 2.5 million dead toiling in fields or in torture camps
Ismail Enver Pasha
2.4 Million Dead
The world tends to forget the Ottoman Empire and their even more forgettable dictator Ismail Enver Pasha. However, his crimes against humanity are considered one of the first modern genocides.
Pasha began as a military officer and eventually led the Ottoman Empire in both the Balkan Wars and World War I. Unfortunately, he was a pretty terrible military commander, suffering devastating defeats in both wars. Like any good dictator, he used a scapegoat to cover up his military failings. After the Ottoman Empire crumbled, Pasha found himself in a place of power among the Young Turks and with the power of nationalism, rallied the Turkish people into believing that the Armenians, who had sided with Russia in their previous invasion of the Ottoman Empire, were to blame for any problems in their country.
The Armenians, who were still part of the Ottoman Empire at the time even after the Sultanate was overthrown, were first stripped of weapons. Then they began to be sent to brutal labor camps. Any liberal Armenian leaders or intellectuals were shot before a firing squad in Istanbul, and finally, the entire community was uprooted. Under the "resettlement plan," Armenian communities were marched towards the deserts of Syria where they cooperated in hopes of a better life in their new home. Instead, during the long marches, they were beaten, starved, and raped. As they were never meant to survive the marches, those that did were killed upon arrival.
Approximately 1.5 million Armenians were executed alongside 300,000 Greeks and 600,000 Assyrians who didn't fit the build of being a Muslim of Turkish descent that the Young Turks desired for their homeland.
2.4 million Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians killed on death marches
4.4 Million Dead
Before he had the comical super villains of the world like Kim Jong-Il or Kim Jong-Un, there was the significantly less comical Kim Il-Sung, the man responsible for North Korea's trip into delusion. As Kim Il-Sung fought tooth and nail for a command economy like other communist countries in which the government controlled everything, the people just didn't take to him.
Naturally, in order to keep his tenuous grasp on the country, he pushed the blame on the U.S., blaming them for spreading disease throughout North Korea. This was particularly popular after Sung's attempt to reunify Korea by force with the Korean War ended in a stalemate. Sung also took a page out of Stalin's book and held widespread purges to rid himself of political and ideological enemies, but unlike Stalin, he cut out pointless trials and just skipped right to the punishment.
Throughout his reigns, Sung began putting anyone that vocalized concerns into forced labor camps. In order to really get his point across, he would put whole families into labor camps where they would toil until dead. Of course, there are suspicions that his descendants haven't quite abandoned the practice, which is why rare local looks inside North Korea play out like the beginning of an Orwellian novel.
As so many other countries were involved in the Korean War and the world has a general lack of knowledge inside the real North Korea, Kim Il-Sung's kill totals are a bit hard to estimate. It is believed during his reign his sent around 1.6 million people to labor camps while 400,000 North Korean soldiers died in the Korean War, and 1.5 million North Korean civilians were killed in the fighting. However, South Korea also had near one million civilians that were killed or abducted, though Russian and Chinese forces may share some blame there.
1.6 million dead in force labor camps
400,000 North Korean soldiers dead in the Korean War
1.5 million North Korean civilians killed during the Korean War
1 million South Korean civilians dead, missing, or abducted
7.4 Million Dead
Depicting Hideki Tojo as a dictator of Japan is something of a difficult subject as scholars now believe that spiritual leader and true commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Emperor Hirohito had more to do with Japan's going-on's throughout World War II than previously believed. However, Tojo was blamed and executed for Japan's war crimes during the war.
Yet, throughout his life, Tojo held a number of offices concurrently, particularly once he became Prime Minister in 1940 after the rather rapid assassination of previous Prime Ministers. During this time, he was not only Prime Minister, but Army Minister, Home Minister (1941-42), Foreign Minister (1942), Education Minister (1943), and Minister of Commerce and Industry (1943) that made it seem like Hideki Tojo was controlling all facets of Japan.
Unlike other dictators, the majority of Hideki Tojo's kill count comes from not purposely terrorizing his own citizens, but getting them involved in a number of unprovoked wars. When being charged with his war crimes in post-World War II, he was charged with unprovoked aggression with the Republic of China, America, Britain, Netherlands, and France as well as other charges.
During his reign over Japan, the Japanese armed forces were responsible for roughly 5 million civilian deaths in China, Indochina, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Burma. During these brutal military campaigns, around two million Japanese soldiers died as well as 400,000 Japanese civilians that had to endure bombing raids as well as two atomic bombs.
Unlike other dictators, before his execution, Tojo apologized for his war crimes and asked for leniency for the Japanese people.
5 million civilian dead in other countries
2 million dead Japanese soldiers
400,000 dead Japanese civilians
2 - 15 Million Dead
Leopold II was King of Belgium from 1865 to 1909 and throughout his reign, he was keen on establishing Belgium as an imperial power in Europe. He believed the key to doing so was taking a page out of Britain's book and establishing colonies throughout the world. However, the main focus of his reign would be on one colony.
The 1870's launched the "Great Scramble for Africa," where Europeans had their eyes set on a country that was primarily ruled by indigenous tribal kings. Over the next 40 years, Africa would primarily be transformed into colonies, protectorates, or territories of Europe. For Leopold II, he paraded himself as a philanthropist eager to bring Christianity to Europe. As Belgium had virtually no navy or merchant marines, he persuaded 14 European countries as well as the United States to allow him to purchase a large swath of land along the Congo River, roughly twice the size of Belgium, for his own personal property which he named the Congo Free State.
Leopold used this area to fill his own royal coffers, first through harvesting ivory, then through gathering rubber. He would march his own personal army into villages to hold women hostage and send the men scrambling into the Central African rainforest to gather quotas of rubber. As natural rubber trees dwindled, husbands, fathers, and sons would be forced to walk for days in order to gather rubber to free their families.
At the same time, Leopold also employed more forced labor of indigenous people in order to build roads and chop wood to fuel steamboats. Between the starvation of women hostages, exhaustion from work camps, and numerous failed rebellions the death count is someone between two to fifteen million dead in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. As accurate records were never kept in King Leopold II's personal genocide colony, no one can be quite sure of the real estimates.
However, it is worth noted that at the beginning of Leopold's reign in the Congo, the area was home to 20 million indigenous people. After his reign, there were only 10 million left. This is due in no small part to the starvation caused by no one left to hunt or fish for food and low birth rates caused by men and women being kept separate.
- Between 2 and 15 million people killed from exhaustion, starvation, and rebellion
23 Million Dead
Ah, the famous Hitler. You'd think a man famous for horrific genocide and losing a major World War would have a large kill count, but comparatively, it is rather low. Rising to leader of the Nazi party and the absolute ruler of Germany in 1934, Hitler gained support in a Germany that was suffering following the loss of World War I and the strict restrictions put upon them. He used his charisma to inspire German nationalism and used anti-Semitism to give downtrodden Germans someone to blame for all their troubles.
After the rapid militarization of Germany under Hitler, they launched into World War 2. Not only would Germany lose with about 6 million soldiers killed in the field, but they also were the perpetrators of the Holocaust, which saw 17 million people executed, worked to death, or dead from sickness in concentration camps. Among these 17 million people were those that did not fit the bill of Hitler's "perfect" Germany including Jewish citizens from throughout Axis-ruled Europe, Romani (gypsies), homosexuals, and the mentally disabled.
17 million dead in concentration camps
6 million German soldiers dead in World War II
23 - 32 Million Dead
Josef Stalin initially started as the first Secretary of the Communist Party in Russia in 1922, but after the death of Lenin in 1924, he became the leader of the Soviet Union. With a country still reeling from the Great Famine of 1921 combined with Stalin's new policies that unraveled much of what Lenin had set in motion for Russia's economy, things began to go south at a steady rate. By 1932, farmer's were so unhappy with the government's forced collectivization of crops that they began to refrain from field work and kill livestock so that the government couldn't take their work and leave them starving.
In the Ukraine, this period of famine is referred to as "Holodmor" or "extermination by hunger," as it was believed that the Soviet state was specifically targeting the area due to new-found Ukraine nationalism. Within Russia it is estimated that about 8 million Soviets died during this period from starvation, with 4 million being from the Ukraine.
In the later 1930's came the Great Purge, also known as the "Great Terror," where Stalin and his secret police sought to "repress" peasants, Communist Party government officials, and Red Army leadership after whispers against his leadership. Of course, by "repress" what they really meant was "execute". The Great Purge say about one million people die from execution as well as those that died in gulags or shortly after their release from them.
Finally, it was time for World War II where the Soviets first allied with Nazi Germany, had their non-aggression pact violated by Germany, and then joined the Allied nations. Throughout, due to harsh weather conditions and some more famine, they endured the largest death toll of World War II with about 23 million deaths.
8 million dead by "execution by hunger"
1 million dead from the Great Purge
23 million dead in World War II
49 - 78 Million Dead
Unlike Hitler and Stalin, Mao Zedong didn't need any fancy wars or genocides to rack up this utterly disturbing death toll; he did it to his very own people. Even today, the revolutionary, political theorist, and communist leader that is Mao Zedong is still considered the savior of China by the Chinese people.
Mao wasted no time racking up a kill count during his first five years in office from 1949 through 1953. Starting off typically enough for an up-and-coming dictator, he killed around 6 million people through either execution or "reform through labor" camp. He defended his execution quotas and mass repressions by stating he was securing the power of The People's Republic of Power.
Next came his social programs, namely the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The Great Leap Forward aimed to rapidly transform China away from agriculture and into the industry powerhouse they are today. Mao thought the best way to do this was by producing steel, not just from steel mills, but from everywhere. People even built smelters in their backyard to pump out steel. however, as one would expect, the problem with backyard smelters is that people threw whatever they had one hand in there and the steel was of dismal quality. As so many people through their own cook pots in the smelter and no money was actually coming from the steel they made, a whole lot of people started to starve.
While China eventually made their "Great Leap Forward" into industry, because of this program, around 45 million people starved to death. Of course, such a blunder could not be overlooked, so communist leaders took the reins of China away from Mao and put him in a political time out.
Until about 1964.
During his timeout from rulings, Mao began a socialist education movement to revolutionize China through its youth. Unfortunately, it would be more accurate to say he was educating the youth to hate the older communist government that now ruled and swayed them to side with him. He organized these youngsters into the Red Guard which took out intellectuals as well as Mao political adversaries. They were the start of the Cultural Revolution that aimed to revitalize the communist movement in China. The basic principles were to abolish Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. This meant destroying sacred objects, old buildings, killing those who did not agree, and talking back to your elders. Through filial and neighborhood paranoia, resistance, accidentally saying the wrong thing, around 7 million people were killed by this movement.
Finally, in perhaps the most genius moment of Mao Zedong's reign, is the 100 Flowers Movement. This happened in 1956 before Mao was wrested from power due to the Great Leap Forward fiasco. During this time, intellectuals were invited to come and opine on the communist party and give suggestions on how to better rule China. Naturally, people jumped at the chance, encouraged by both Mao and the communist party. Unfortunately, after a sudden change of heart, the government then turned around and persecuted 500,000 of them as "dangerous thinkers".
6 million people to consolidate power
45 million starved in the Great Leap Forward
7 million in the Cultural Revolution
500,000 "dangerous thinkers"
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