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Saddam Hussein

Post-war dictators: Saddam Hussein to Kim Jong-il

Image: Saddam Hussein's family, mid-late 1980s

In the annals of 20th-century dictators, it’s the tyrants of World War II – Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini – who loom the largest in most people’s minds. But many others ruled with absolute authority and left a permanent mark on their nations.

1. Saddam Hussein

Presiding over Iraq from 1979 to 2003, Saddam Hussein didn’t merely stifle opposition and instil fear in his political rivals. He committed outright atrocities against his own citizens, including the use of chemical weapons in a genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds. He also instigated a war against Iran which dragged on throughout much of the 1980s and rivalled World War I as a gruelling conflict of attrition.

Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 triggered the Gulf War, a brief confrontation with a US-led coalition that did not bring about the end of his reign. He fared less well when, in the aftermath of 9/11, the US spearheaded the invasion of Iraq. Reduced to the status of a bedraggled fugitive, Saddam was eventually captured in 2003. Found guilty of crimes against humanity, he was executed three years later.

2. Mao Zedong

Former primary schoolteacher Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and dominated the country until he died in 1976. Although he is still revered by many as an iconic leader who re-invented China in the 20th century, his tenure is also notorious for the ruthless suppression of dissent, and fateful decisions that cost untold lives.

Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ of 1958, an aggressive attempt to modernise his gigantic nation, wound up devastating agricultural output and causing the worst famine in recorded history. In 1966, he led the ‘Cultural Revolution’, a purge of alleged ‘bourgeois’ elements which caused fresh chaos and bloodshed. In all, Chairman Mao is thought to have been responsible for more deaths than Hitler and Stalin combined.

3. Idi Amin

Starting out as a cook in a British colonial army regiment, Idi Amin became president of Uganda in 1971, and one of the most notorious dictators of the 20th century. His tenure was marked by corruption, nepotism and widespread bloodshed – there were massacres of certain ethnic groups, as well as the targeted murders of politicians, religious figures and intellectuals.

Amin was also known for his bizarre, erratic behaviour. He declared himself ‘Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth’, claimed to be the uncrowned king of Scotland, and even confessed to cannibalism. Eventually toppled in 1979, he lived for decades in exile, dying in Saudi Arabia in 2003.

4. Pol Pot

In 1975, following years of savage civil war, the communist Khmer Rouge movement took control of Cambodia. Its leader was Pol Pot, whose name rapidly became synonymous with autocratic barbarism.

Attempting to remake Cambodia as a perfect socialist state, Pol Pot evacuated people from the cities into rural areas, where they were put into forced labour. Urban professionals and intellectuals were particularly persecuted, and torture, starvation and mass executions became the norm. It’s thought that at least 1.7 million people were buried in the so-called ‘killing fields’ of Cambodia during that time.

Pol Pot’s time in power was ended by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979, but he continued to lead the Khmer Rouge as a guerrilla leader, dying of natural causes in 1998.

5. Rafael Trujillo

Seizing power after a military coup in 1930, Rafael Trujillo ruled over the Dominican Republic for more than three decades. Cultivating a quasi-religious cult of personality (the name of the capital city was even changed from Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo), he both modernised and terrorised the nation, utilising death squads to round up and kill dissenters.

Haitians living in the Dominican Republic were particularly victimised, and tens of thousands were slaughtered in the Parsley Massacre of 1937 – so-called because Dominican troops asked civilians to identify a sprig of parsley and killed them if their pronunciation marked them out as Haitian. Trujillo was shot to death in an ambush in 1961, a fittingly violent end for a brutal tyrant.

6. Papa Doc

Haiti itself was no stranger to tyrannical strongmen in the 20th century. The most notorious was Francois Duvalier – more commonly known as Papa Doc because of his original career as a hospital physician – who was elected president on a populist platform in 1957.

Before long, he’d created a fearsome militia known as the Tonton Macoute, which carried out innumerable murders and rapes in a sustained campaign of state-sponsored terrorism. Papa Doc was also prone to irrational acts of violence, such as ordering the killings of all black dogs in Haiti because he believed a political rival had transformed himself into one. Following his death from natural causes in 1971, he was succeeded by his son, Baby Doc, who became a tyrant in his own right.

7. Kim Jong-il

The most secretive and closed-off country in the world, North Korea has been led by a unique dynasty of dictators, beginning with Kim Il-Sung in 1948. His son, Kim Jong-il, took over in 1994 and – partly because of his distinctive appearance – became an even more notorious figure on the world stage.

Known as ‘Dear Leader’, Kim Jong-il continued the cult of personality formulated by his father, but his incompetence contributed to a downward spiral for the North Korean economy. This, coupled with severe flooding, led to a famine that claimed the lives of up to 3.5 million people.

Widely condemned as a ruthless autocrat by organisations such as Amnesty International, Kim Jong-il continued as perhaps the world’s most widely recognised dictator into the new century, eventually passing away in 2011.