Downfall: How Five fearsome dictators were finally overthrown

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini riding in the back of a car
Benito Mussolini is seen as the inventor of facism and was of the main inspirations for Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany | Image: Shutterstock

‘Unlimited power corrupts the possessor’ William Pitt

Dictatorships sit on the polarising end of the spectrum to democracies. The latter is a representation of the popular voice whilst the former is the suppression of that voice. In a democracy, people are involved in decisions ranging from the economy to the military, whilst in a dictatorship, the people have no voice.

Although history is filled with examples of ruthless dictators who seized power, ruled with an iron fist, and held that power until the end, not every tyrant had it completely their own way. Many have been overthrown, imprisoned, killed, or run out of town.

Here’s a list of five infamous dictators who were given the boot.

Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)

Perhaps the most infamous dictator of them all, the fascist ruler of Nazi Germany dragged the globe into another world war in 1939 after invading Poland. Six years and around 50 million deaths later, including six million Jews during the Holocaust, Hitler found himself holed up in a bunker in Berlin. The war had not gone Hitler’s way, especially his disastrous attempt to conquer Russia during Operation Barbarossa where his forces sustained catastrophic losses.

On 30th April 1945, with Allied forces approaching Berlin from the west and east, Hitler shot himself in the bunker whilst his mistress, Eva Braun, consumed a cyanide capsule. A few days later, Berlin was liberated and the tyrannical reign of Hitler’s Third Reich was officially over.

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945)

Benito Mussolini has the ill-famed notoriety as the man who invented fascism. The Italian politician and journalist rose to power in the early 1920s and turned his position as Prime Minister into a dictatorship. He invented the first one-party fascist state and created the model that Hitler based his Nazi Germany off.

When World War II began, Mussolini was part of the Axis powers, the military coalition between Germany, Italy, and Japan that sought to fight the Allies. By 1943, the war had come to Italian shores and Mussolini had lost the confidence of the Italian public. Ousted by the Fascist Party he once created, he was placed in custody until German paratroopers broke him out.

After a failed stint in charge of a puppet regime in northern Italy, Mussolini and his mistress were captured by Italian partisans as they attempted to flee to Switzerland. They were shot two days before Hitler died on 28th April 1945. Their bodies were transported to Milan to be publicly hung upside down.

Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918-1989)

Nicolae Ceaușescu, the post-war communist dictator of Romania, held power for 24 years after being sworn in as general secretary in March 1965. Initially seen as the most liberal of the Soviet Bloc leaders, his attitude shifted in the 1970s as he gradually became more and more authoritarian.

His transition to dictator was complete when his feared secret police force, known as the Securitate, became his go-to department if ever there were signs of internal dissent. By the end of the 1970s, Romania was one of the most oppressive states in the world.

After a failed oil refinery building program, the country descended into financial ruin and austerity. Dissenting voices grew so loud that not even the secret police could keep them down. After Ceaușescu ordered the military to open fire on an anti-government protest, rioting and civil unrest quickly spread throughout the country. After the army turned on him, Ceaușescu had no choice but to flee, dramatically escaping from the rooftop of the Romanian parliament by helicopter. The army threatened to shoot down the helicopter, forcing Ceaușescu to land and be taken into custody.

After a quick trial, Ceaușescu and his wife were sentenced to death by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989.

Muammar Gaddafi (1942-2011)

In 1969, 27-year-old Muammar Gaddafi seized control of the Libyan government via a bloodless coup, making the young military officer the new ruler of the country. A disciple of President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and admirer of the Arab nationalist movement, Gaddafi hoped to correct what he saw as unfair economic legacies by foreign nations, especially concerning oil.

Although he garnered support in his early years with the ‘black gold’ making Libya incredibly wealthy, it wasn’t long before Gaddafi’s transition to corrupt dictator turned many of the populace against him. His appalling record of human rights violations and absolute intolerance of dissent led to draconian laws oppressing the people of Libya for decades.

The financing of foreign terrorism led to the US renaming Gadaffi the 'mad dog of the Middle East'.

During the Arab Spring of 2011, widespread protests against Gaddafi’s rule put the dictator in the firing line. Civil war ensued and the opposition to Gaddafi became known as the National Transitional Council (NTC). NATO soon intervened with the NTC and Gaddafi found himself on the run. By October 2011, Gaddafi had been captured and killed by NTC fighters, his bloodied body dragged around the streets for all to see.

Saddam Hussein (1937-2006)

Known for using terror against his own people, Saddam Hussein’s regime is believed to have caused the deaths of a quarter of a million Iraqis. His brutal rule also included a multitude of war crimes after conducting unsuccessful wars against neighbouring countries.

Born into peasantry, Saddam rose to power through his leadership of the Baʿath Party that seized power in 1968 via a coup. Although he effectively held power from the start, he asserted his totalitarian authority during the late 1970s. The extensive use of a secret police force helped Saddam brutally retain his control over the country. Foreign invasions led to direct conflict with the US during the Gulf Wars and after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, America had Saddam firmly in its sights, falsely believing he harboured weapons of mass destruction.

The Iraq War began in 2003 with the invasion of the country by US-led coalition forces. After Baghdad fell in April, Saddam went into hiding. It would take until December of that year before the dictator would finally be captured, dragged from a small underground hiding place near a farmhouse. Two years later he went on trial before an Iraqi court and was found guilty of crimes against humanity. In December 2006, Saddam was publicly executed by hanging.