Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.
Who Was the Most Brutal Dictator in History?
Throughout world history, many military leaders and political officials have been renowned for their brutal policies, harsh treatment of civilians, and their murderous (and sometimes genocidal) campaigns. Of the dictators that have appeared thus far (as of 2022), several rulers stand out above the rest regarding their brutality, temperament, and disdain for human life.
From Ivan “the Terrible” to Genghis Khan, this work examines and ranks the 10 worst dictators in history. It provides a brief overview of each leader and their policies and various practices.
In order to select (and rank) the worst dictators in history, a number of basic criteria were necessary for the extents and purposes of this work. First and foremost, it is important to note that each of the following dictators for our list was selected according to their propensity for violence and brutality.
This was important to consider, as a number of early dictators were responsible for a lesser number of deaths (when compared to more modern leaders) but were extremely ruthless in their quest to secure power for themselves. As such, the inclusion of this criterion allowed for a greater number of individuals to be considered that are typically excluded from traditional lists.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the overall number of people killed under each dictatorship was also utilized for the selection process. More often than not, genocidal actions and murderous campaigns are one of the primary indicators of a regime’s brutality and ferocity. As such, the inclusion of this criterion was extremely important for constructing our “final 10” list below.
While these standards allow for potential gaps in the ranking process, the author believes them to be the best means for ranking the 10 worst dictators in history.
The 10 Most Brutal Dictators in History
- Ivan the Terrible
- Vlad the Impaler
- Idi Amin
- Saddam Hussein
- Pol Pot
- Leopold II
- Adolf Hitler
- Joseph Stalin
- Genghis Khan
- Mao Zedong
10. Ivan the Terrible
- Reign: 1547 to 1584
- Number of People Killed: 60,000+
- Death: 28 March 1584
The infamous Ivan IV (commonly known as “Ivan the Terrible”) was the first grand prince of Moscow to declare himself “Tsar of all Russia” and reigned for a period of nearly 37 years before his death. Born to Vasili III, Ivan found himself in a position of power at a young age as he was appointed to the position of grand prince by his third birthday (following the unexpected death of his father).
Surrounded by a group of reformers known as the “Chosen Council,” Ivan quickly took control of Russia, establishing Moscow as the predominant state within his new kingdom by the age of 16. Under his rule, Moscow was transformed from a medieval state to an empire as Ivan concentrated tremendous amounts of power into his hands.
By the time of his death in 1584, however, his mismanagement and cruel nature completely altered Russia’s governmental structure, leading to the decline of the Rurik Dynasty and the “Time of Troubles” that accompanied his successors.
How Many People Did Ivan the Terrible Kill?
As his name implies, Ivan the Terrible was an incredibly ruthless and cruel individual renowned for systematically slaughtering and butchering his subjects (along with the people he conquered). Suffering from extreme paranoia and mental deterioration throughout his reign, Ivan was renowned for his ferocious temper and would often kill his subordinates during unprovoked fits of rage (including his own son).
In other instances of brutality, Ivan was known to mercilessly execute those he viewed as potential enemies. One of his worst crimes included the burning of Novgorod (a chief rival of Moscow) to the ground, leaving 12,000 dead. Ivan also enjoyed torturing his enemies (especially the aristocracy and church officials), who he would often have burned at the stake, or boiled alive in vats of hot water.
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In total, it is currently believed that Ivan the Terrible was responsible for over 60,000 murders during his time in power. However, historians are quick to point out that these numbers do not include the number of individuals tortured, mutilated, and displaced by Ivan (which could easily reach in the hundreds of thousands). For these reasons, Ivan the Terrible was certainly one of the most brutal dictators in human history.
9. Vlad the Impaler
- Reign: 1448 (First); 1456 to 1462 (Second); 1476 to 1477 (Third)
- Number of People Killed: 80,000+
- Death: January 1477
The infamous Vlad III (commonly referred to as “Vlad the Impaler” or “Vlad Dracula”) was the Volvode of Wallachia on three separate occasions between 1448 and 1477 (in what is now modern-day Romania). Later serving as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Vlad III was the second son of Vlad Dracul and earned his nickname after coming to power in the late 1440s.
Faced with the tremendous division within his kingdom, Vlad became obsessed with stabilizing his country, which had been thrown into disarray by warring boyars for several decades. To remedy the situation (and secure his position of power), Vlad took control of Wallachia by the most ruthless measures possible, garnering peace and stability through fear and intimidation of potential rivals.
Although his actions were incredibly brutal, he is currently classified as a national hero of Romania due to his defeat of the Ottoman Empire and his defeat of rival rulers. These defeats proved pivotal to his success, as he was able to secure total independence from Hungary and regain land that had been ceded to Transylvania.
How Many People Did Vlad the Impaler Kill?
Despite his military and political achievements, Vlad the Impaler was an incredibly brutal and vicious leader renowned for his extreme cruelty. As his name implies, Vlad III was renowned for his use of extreme torture, with impalement being among his favorite forms of execution.
During his rule, approximately 20,000 individuals were killed in this manner and were left on “display” for others to witness their demise. Vlad was also renowned for poisoning the wells of his enemies and for burning crops to ensure starvation ensued. Likewise, other forms of torture and execution were implemented during his reign, including disembowelment, boiling (and skinning) his enemies alive, and beheading individuals for the simplest offenses.
In total, it is currently estimated that Vlad the Impaler was responsible for killing 80,000 to 100,000 people during his time in power. When combined with his extreme disdain for human life, it is easy to see why Vlad III was one of the worst dictators in world history.
8. Idi Amin
- Reign: 1971 to 1979
- Number of People Killed: 300,000 to 500,000 People
- Death: 16 August 2003
Idi Amin was a Ugandan military officer and the third president of Uganda between 1971 and 1979. Born to Koboko and Kakwa parents (in 1925), Amin rose to power through his service in the British Colonial Army, attaining the rank of Lieutenant before Uganda gained its independence in 1962.
After remaining in the army, Amin continued to rise through the ranks, reaching the highly-coveted position of “Commander of the Uganda Military” only three years later. Upon learning of a plot to arrest him, however, Amin quickly launched a coup d’etat in 1971, removing President Milton Obote from power and declaring himself the de facto leader of the Ugandan people.
During his reign, Amin shifted Uganda away from its pro-Western stance to align himself with Soviet ambitions in the region. With Soviet backing, he unleashed many devastating attacks on political dissidents and particular ethnic groups to stabilize his regime. Nevertheless, his dictatorship was short-lived as he was later ousted in 1979 (following an invasion by Tanzania which forced him into exile).
How Many People Did Idi Amin Kill?
During his time in power, Idi Amin was renowned for his incredibly ruthless and brutal policies against his people. For approximately 8 years, Amin eliminated (via execution, torture, and extended jail sentences) various political officials and ethnic minorities and launched several repressive measures against his own people, including exile, imprisonment, and torture (without cause or reason).
Among some of his worst crimes were the systematic shooting of innocent civilians and his utilization of an underground prison used for extreme torture and executions. It is even rumored that Idi Amin was a cannibal of sorts and was known to eat his victims’ flesh and internal organs on occasion.
In total, it is currently estimated that Idi Amin was responsible for approximately 300,000 to 500,000 deaths in Uganda; however, historians are quick to point out that these figures are likely far higher, as a large number of individuals (and their fate) remains unknown at this time.
When combined with his gross mismanagement of the Ugandan economy, acts of nepotism, and the overwhelming corruption that characterized his regime, it is clear that Idi Amin was truly one of the world’s worst (and cruelest) dictators in history.
7. Saddam Hussein
- Reign: 1979 to 2003
- Number of People Killed: 250,000 to 1-Million People
- Death: 30 December 2006
Saddam Hussein was an Iraqi dictator that served as the fifth president of Iraq between 1979 and 2003. Serving as a leading member of the revolutionary movement known as the “Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party” (which espoused both Arab socialism and nationalism), Saddam first came to power during the 1968 coup that seized control of Iraq for his party.
Initially serving as vice president under General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, Saddam quickly began to consolidate power for himself through the creation of loyal security forces, the nationalization of Iraqi oil, and his seizure of independent banks. Forcing al-Bakr to resign on 16 July 1979 (with the help of his security forces), Saddam quickly took control of Iraq, plunging the country into bitter conflict, chaos, and devastation in the decades that followed.
After a terrible war with the Iranians and two separate wars with the United States (that left Iraq in ruins), Saddam Hussein was forcefully removed from power by an American-led coalition in 2003. He was later captured, placed on trial for his numerous crimes against humanity, and executed in 2006.
How Many People Did Saddam Hussein Kill?
Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator known for severe human rights abuses, repressive regime, and total disregard for human life. Implementing many repressive campaigns during his reign, Saddam was particularly cruel towards the Shi’a and Kurdish people living within Iraq and instituted several purges to limit their power and strength.
Arbitrary arrests, torture, extreme violence, and sporadic executions of individuals suspected of disloyalty were also rampant during Saddam’s reign, as he attempted to control his people through both terror and intimidation. Among his most vicious actions as president involved deploying chemical weapons against the Kurds in Northeastern Iraq, leaving thousands of people injured and dead.
Although it is difficult to determine the overall extent of Saddam’s crimes, it is currently estimated that he was responsible for nearly 250,000 confirmed murders. However, historians and former Iraqi military officials quickly point out that the actual figure is probably much higher and more than likely stretches beyond a million deaths.
When combined with his cruelty, use of extreme torture, and total lack of conscience, it is not difficult to see why Saddam Hussein was one of the most brutal dictators in human history.
6. Pol Pot
- Reign: 1963 to 1981
- Number of People Killed: 1.5 to 2 Million People
- Death: 15 April 1998
The infamous Pol Pot was a Cambodian revolutionary (and later politician) who served as Prime Minister of Cambodia between 1976 and 1979. Classified as a Marxist-Leninist in his ideals (as well as a Khmer nationalist), Pol Pot was a leading member of the communist movement known as the Khmer Rouge and even managed to serve as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea between 1963 and 1981.
Shortly after coming to power, Pol Pot became a key figure in transforming Cambodia into a one-party state. Through his efforts to create an agrarian socialist society (which he believed was a fundamental step towards becoming a communist state), he ordered the forced relocation of Cambodia’s urban population to the countryside, where they were then ordered to work on collective farms.
Renowned for his disdain for human life, Pol Pot later purged large sectors of the Cambodian population before he was removed from power by the Vietnamese Army in 1978. Although his forces continued to fight against the newly-installed Marxist-Leninist government for several decades, poor health eventually forced Pol Pot to step away from many of his leadership roles. He later died in 1998.
How Many People Did Pol Pot Kill?
Pol Pot was an incredibly ruthless dictator and was renowned for orchestrating the Cambodian Genocide (sometimes referred to as the “Killing Fields” campaign) against his own people. For approximately 4 years, Pol Pot ordered the Khmer Rouge forces to systematically execute so-called “troublemakers” who were causing issues for his regime.
Through mass shootings of innocent civilians, forced labor, torture, conscription of child soldiers, and deliberate starvation policies, Pol Pot and his regime are believed to have killed 1.5 to 2 million people (a figure representing 25-percent of the Cambodian population in the 1970s).
Of these deaths, nearly all of the victims were Muslims, Chinese-Cambodians, and Vietnamese-Cambodians. If not for the invasion of Vietnamese forces (in 1978), scholars believe that these killing sprees would have likely continued well into the 1980s. As such, Pol Pot was truly one of the worst dictators in history due to his barbarism, violence, and outright cruelty.
5. Leopold II
- Reign: 1865 to 1909
- Number of People Killed: 10+ Million People
- Death: 17 December 1909
Leopold II was the second King of the Belgians and served on the throne from 1865 to 1909. Born in Brussels to Leopold I and Louise of Orleans, Leopold II ascended to the throne at the age of 30 (following his father’s death), ruling over his kingdom for 44 years (making him the longest-reigning monarch in Belgian history).
After taking control of Belgium, Leopold sought to keep pace with other European nations and their imperialistic ambitions by taking control and establishing the Congo Free State (in the modern-day Democratic-Republic of the Congo). Claiming approximately 770,000 square miles of territory for himself, Leopold hoped establishing a colony there would boost Belgium’s prestige and wealth on the world stage (all in the name of humanitarianism and supposed philanthropy).
However, the venture soon became a brutal and exploitative process as Leopold II unleashed some of the cruelest and most inhumane practices against the Congolese people recorded in human history. By the time of his death in 1909, his impact on the Congo was both catastrophic and heartbreaking, given the sheer amount of damage (and pain) he had inflicted.
How Many People Did Leopold II Kill?
Leopold II was an exceptionally vicious ruler whose atrocities amounted to severe “crimes against humanity.” After seizing control of the Congo, Leopold exploited the labor of the Congolese people to obtain their region’s vast natural resources (such as ivory and rubber).
To maintain strict discipline amongst the people, he authorized his administrators and army officials to use extreme violence against the people, including beatings, the amputations of hands and feet, torture, and outright murder. In other cases, Leopold personally allowed for the burning of entire villages and the kidnapping of children for use in child labor camps (where approximately 50-percent of them died in captivity).
In total, it is currently estimated that Leopold II was responsible for the deaths of over 10-million people in the Congo. When combined with his brutal policies, he was truly one of the worst dictators in human history.
4. Adolf Hitler
- Reign: 1933 to 1945
- Number of People Killed: 19+ Million People
- Death: 30 April 1945
The infamous Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born dictator who ruled Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. First coming to power in the 1920s (during the “Interwar” period), Hitler used the embarrassing German defeat in the First World War to galvanize the population to a heated and vengeful frenzy. Promoting pan-Germanism, anti-Semitism, and anti-communism through both propaganda and his skills as a charismatic orator, Hitler quickly assumed control of the German nation with popular support (becoming the Chancellor in 1933 and Fuhrer by 1934).
Immediately setting to work on a rearmament program and aggressive foreign policy plan, Hitler’s actions eventually led to the outbreak of the Second World War, resulting in the worst global conflict in human history. By the time of his death (by suicide) in 1945, Hitler’s racially-motivated ideology and disdain for non-Aryan individuals had left much of Europe’s social, economic, and political structures in total ruin.
How Many People Did Adolf Hitler Kill?
Adolf Hitler was an incredibly ruthless and brutal dictator that embodied the true definition of “evil.” Maintaining the idea that Jews and other ethnic groups were “inferior” to the German people, Hitler unleashed numerous policies that aimed to rid Europe of those he deemed undesirable. In both the Holocaust and his seeking of Lebensraum (“living space”) in Eastern Europe, it is currently estimated that Adolf Hitler was responsible for over 19.3 million deaths across the European continent during his reign of terror.
To achieve these numbers, Hitler utilized mass shootings, gas chambers, labor camps (death camps), death marches, and outright starvation to eliminate entire groups of people. Individuals were also routinely beaten, humiliated, and dehumanized in every conceivable way. When taken together, it is easy to see why Adolf Hitler was one of the evilest and cruelest dictators the world has ever known.
3. Joseph Stalin
- Reign: 1924 to 1953
- Number of People Killed: 40+ Million People
- Death: 5 March 1953
Joseph Stalin was a Georgian revolutionary that served as General Secretary of the Soviet Union between 1924 and 1953. Coming from a poor family in the city of Gori, Stalin’s communist-leanings eventually led him to join the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, where he was first introduced to Vladimir Lenin. After becoming a full-fledged member of the Bolsheviks, Stalin played a key role in seizing power from Tsar Nicholas II and helped Lenin establish a one-party state in 1917.
Serving in the Russian Civil War that followed, Stalin’s actions (and supposed loyalty) earned him numerous promotions, which helped him consolidate a great deal of power in the years that followed. In the aftermath of Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin quickly assumed control of the Soviet Union and rapidly instituted many social, economic, and political policies to strengthen and stabilize his newfound position.
Relying heavily on his “cult of personality,” Stalin became a widely popular leader to the Soviet citizens despite his initiation of mass repression, ethnic cleansing, deportations, purges, and mass killings.
How Many People Did Joseph Stalin Kill?
As with all of the figures appearing on this list, Joseph Stalin was an incredibly evil dictator who was brutal and vicious in his day-to-day affairs. Through his totalitarian regime and the thousands of Soviet cadres loyal to him, Stalin implemented a series of repressive measures that aimed to purge Soviet society of dissidents, political rivals, and potential enemies of the state.
Millions of individuals faced deportation to the Gulag (prison camps) under Stalin, whereas countless others were imprisoned, questioned, tortured, and executed for any sign of disloyalty. Stalin was also instrumental in the purging of his military officers and the man-made famine that spread across Ukraine (1932 to 1933).
Although it is incredibly difficult to determine (with accuracy) the number of individuals killed during Stalin’s reign, scholars currently estimate that approximately 40 million people may have died as a result of his social, political, economic, and military policies.
However, the true number will never be fully realized as the Soviet state undertook extreme measures to ensure that documents alluding to their crimes were destroyed (including the silencing of individuals when necessary). Despite this, these figures clearly demonstrate that Joseph Stalin was one of the most brutal and ruthless dictators in human history.
2. Genghis Khan
- Reign: 1206 to 1227
- Number of People Killed: 40+ Million People
- Death: 18 August 1227
The infamous Genghis Khan was the founder (and Great Khan) of the Mongol Empire between 1206 and 1227. Genghis first came to power in the early Thirteenth Century after uniting the nomadic tribes in Northeast Asia and being declared “universal” ruler over all the Mongols. Soon after his ascension to power, Genghis Khan initiated the “Mongol Invasions” into Asia (and later Europe), conquering the vast majority of Eurasia and parts of Northeastern Africa.
By the time of his death in August 1227, Genghis Khan had managed to initiate dramatic social, economic, and political changes throughout his conquered territories (which spanned over 23-million square kilometers in terms of size). Coupled with the unprecedented level of death and destruction that his horseback warriors unleashed, Genghis Khan solidified his reputation as one of the greatest conquerors in history while simultaneously being recognized as one of the world’s most brutal leaders.
How Many People Did Genghis Khan Kill?
Despite his leadership capabilities and upbringing as a warrior, Genghis Khan was an incredibly vicious and ferocious leader renowned for his cruelty and barbarism on the world stage. During his conquests, millions of innocent civilians were killed after battles to avenge fallen warriors. Likewise, they were known to lay siege to cities (especially in China), starving entire civilian populations to death before burning the cities to the ground.
Operating under a strategy known as “total war,” Genghis Khan believed that mass extermination and the profound use of terror were the only ways to ensure obedience from conquered individuals. As such, it is currently estimated that Genghis Khan was responsible for 40 to 60 million deaths during his reign of terror, resulting in an 11-percent decrease of the entire world’s population for that time.
When combined with his utter disdain for human life and intolerance of any form of resistance (whether real or imagined), Genghis Khan was truly one of the most brutal leaders of all time.
1. Mao Zedong
- Reign: 1949 to 1976
- Number of People Killed: 55 to 70 Million People
- Death: 9 September 1976
Topping our list of the world’s worst dictators is the infamous Mao Zedong. Mao was a Chinese communist revolutionary who served as the founder of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), acting as its chairman from 1949 until 1976. Subscribing to a political ideology termed Maoism (which was influenced heavily by Marxist-Leninist thought), Mao emerged from the Chinese Civil War (and Second World War) in a position of total power, establishing a single-party state in the years that followed.
In his quest to transform the Chinese economy from an agrarian to industrial one (a key component to any communist society), Mao launched his “Great Leap Forward,” “Socialist Education Movement,” and “Cultural Revolution” campaigns to rapidly secure power and stability for his newfound position.
Although he was later praised by a number of individuals and groups for leading China to its position as a dominant world power, his repressive actions proved devastating in terms of both human death and persecution.
How Many People Did Mao Zedong Kill?
Mao Zedong was an exceptionally ruthless figure that stopped at nothing to achieve his personal goals. After implementing his “transformation” policies in China, Mao and his cadres quickly set to work on suppressing opposition, silencing dissenters, as well as torturing and executing anyone that got in their way.
Hell-bent on achieving a communist state within only a few years, Mao also implemented a number of excessive grain-collection policies that left the Chinese people with nothing to eat. With millions of individuals forcefully placed into “people’s communes” (which were nothing more than labor camps), Mao’s poor planning and disregard for human life proved devastating.
In total, it is currently estimated that Mao Zedong (and his government officials) were responsible for approximately 55 to 70 million deaths during his time in power. Historians are quick to note, however, that these numbers may reach as high as 80 million when those that perished from malnourishment and famine-related diseases (in the years that followed the Great Leap Forward) are also taken into account (Owlcation.com).
When combined with his silencing of political opponents and widespread executions of innocent civilians, one thing is clear: Mao Zedong was truly the most brutal and ruthless dictator in human history—a terrible feat that will likely remain for the foreseeable future.
Mao Zedong Biography
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- Marples, David. Russia in the Twentieth Century. New York, New York: Pearson Educational Limited, 2011.
- Slawson, Larry. “Crime and Punishment: Peasant Resistance in the Ukraine, 1927-1933.” Thesis. University of North Carolina at Charlotte. 2018.
- Roberts, J. A. G. A History of China, 2nd Edition. New York, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.
- Slawson, Larry. “The Top 10 Worst Genocides in History.” Owlcation. 2022.
- Pixabay Commons.
- Wikimedia Commons.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Larry Slawson