It was perhaps the golden age of dictators.
During the 20th Century, regime after regime rose up across the planet, headed by some of the most-brutal despots in history.
In Africa, decolonization led to an explosion of tyrants, like Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko. Over in Latin America, so many countries lost their grip on democracy that the sunglasses-sporting caudillo became a cliche.
But the most-infamous dictators of all tended to come from a single landmass: Eurasia.
It was on Eurasia’s European side that madmen like Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco soaked the continent in blood. Over in Asia, Kim Il-Sung and Chairman Mao headed a cadre of despots.
And between the two – straddling both continents – stood Josef Stalin, a man who cultivated terror almost as assiduously as he cultivated his epic moustache.
For ordinary people trapped in these regimes – not to mention those of other freaks like Rafael Trujillo – existence could be a living Hell. A place where life was cheap, and fear in great supply.
But which of these Hells was the worst? Is it possible to quantify the nastiest regime of the 20th Century… and should we even try?
In today’s Xplrd, we’re diving deep into the murky world of dictator ranking to find a definitive answer.
It’s a classic internet listicle: the top ten – or five, or twenty – worst dictators.
On the surface, it’s a simple subject, one that should consistently give a definitive answer.
But, as we’re about to see, things aren’t so straightforward. Scratch that surface even slightly, and you’ll find enough ambiguities to keep you puzzling for a lifetime.
To explain, let’s start with the most-common way these lists are ranked: by kill count.
During the 20th Century, there were three despots whose body count far exceeded their challengers’: Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Chairman Mao.
Of these Olympic elite murderers, the one standing on the central podium beaming over his gold medal is usually Chairman Mao.
Coming to power after a 1949 Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, Mao launched three bloody campaigns of targeted killings: Land Reform, the anti-rightist drive, and – at the end of his life – the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
Together, these actions killed three to five million. But it’s what came between them that usually nets him the Worst Dictator award.
The Great Leap Forward was Mao’s attempt to do for Chinese harvests what Stalin’s Five Year Plan did for industrial production.
Starting in 1958, it saw peasants and farmers herded into collective farms, and given insane production quotas to fulfill.
Since these quotas were literally insane, no-one could fulfil them, resulting in the state confiscating all the grain and grain seed on these farms as taxes.
The result? The largest famine in human history.
Although Mao was told of the devastation as early as 1959, he didn’t pull the plug until 1962. By that time, uncountable millions had starved.
While you’ll often see figures of 70 million to 100 million victims floating around online, virtually all serious historians put the true toll at a still mind-bending 30 to 45 million dead.
This is why Mao nearly always tops these lists. Why he gets that big, shiny gold medal. Take away the Great Leap Forward, and he’s just a wannabee eating Hitler and Stalin’s dust.
And here we get to our first complication. Maybe discounting the famine is exactly what we should be doing.
Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize winning China scholar. In 2018, he argued that the Great Leap Forward differed from Mao’s other campaigns because the deaths were unintentional. Quote:
“Almost every legal system in the world recognizes the difference between murder in the first degree and manslaughter or negligence. Shouldn’t the same standards apply to dictators?”
Now, you might think this is splitting hairs. That all those peasants starving on collective farms didn’t spend their last moments caring about Mao’s intent.
But if we’re serious about identifying the 20th Century’s worst dictator, it matters. Because Mao’s famine wasn’t the only great action in that era that led to millions of collateral deaths.
There was also WWII.
If the Great Leap Forward was history’s worst famine, then WWII might be its worst war.
An average of death toll estimates puts the total killed at around 60 million. And, just as the Chinese famine was an eminently foreseeable consequence of one man’s actions, so was the Second World War the incredibly-predictable outcome of Adolf Hitler invading Poland.
Unlike WWI, where a whole bunch of falling dominoes inadvertently led to large-scale carnage, WWII’s horrors were the direct result of one psychotic Charlie Chaplin-lookalike making deadly decision after deadly decision: from invading Poland, to attacking the USSR, to fighting on till Germany was in ruins.
Even if we exclude those who died in the Asian theatre, that’s still between 15 and 30 million dead. 15 to 30 million people who belong on Hitler’s scorecard as surely as the famine dead belong on Mao’s.
Add to that the 11 to 12 million killed in the Holocaust, in POW camps, and reprisal killings in places like Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, and the victor is no longer clear. We’re verging on a tie.
Poor Chairman Mao might have to share his podium.
You could go on, making the battle between these three tyrants more and more complex.
You could say “fine then, only intentional killings count”, and watch as Stalin smugly tweaks his moustache, all too aware that his famine in Ukraine – which killed nearly 4 million; on top of those killed in the Great Terror and other purges – was a deliberate act of genocide.
But maybe we’ve been going about this all wrong. Maybe total dead is misleading, since China and Russia are both massive countries, and things naturally happen on a grand scale there.
This brings us to another logical, yet completely different way to rank dictators: by deaths per capita.
Much as the USA currently is #1 in covid-19 deaths as a total number, but doesn’t even break the top 25 when adjusted for population; so this method of counting clears our podium.
Mao, Hitler, and Stalin all go slinking off, allowing us to get some new blood. Guys who would never otherwise make the running.
Guys like Jean Kambanda.
Never heard of Kambanda? Don’t feel bad, he almost never appears in these types of lists. And yet, he really probably should.
Kambanda held office for just 100 days, in spring and summer of 1994.
Although technically a civilian leader, he was in practice the head of a military junta. One so bloodthirsty, it enacted what’s been called “Africa’s Final Solution” – the Rwandan Genocide.
One of the greatest killing sprees, the genocide saw extremist members of the Hutu ethnic group slaughter Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
At the center of government, Kambanda actively helped orchestrate the massacres – doing everything from working on logistics to traveling the country and giving speeches where he told Hutus present who to kill next.
When Kambanda assumed office, Rwanda had a population of 7.2 million. By the time he fled the country, it had dropped to around 5.4 million.
In other words, over eleven percent of Rwanda’s population – 800,000 people – died under Kambanda’s leadership.
Even if you include the Great Leap Forward, that’s a far greater percentage than Mao achieved. Considering Kambanda and the army did all this in around three months, it probably counts as the most time-efficient genocide in history.
Yet even the nightmare of Rwanda wouldn’t make Jean Kambanda the 20th century’s greatest monster.
In our new way of counting, that honor could only go to one man.
Pol Pot was a one-time teacher turned Communist resistance fighter who seized power in Cambodia in 1975 at the end of the civil war.
No sooner had they marched on Phnom Penh than his Khmer Rouge began instigating Year Zero, funneling the entire population onto collective farms where they worked for literal starvation wages.
Many died of disease or malnutrition. Many more were murdered in the infamous Killing Fields.
Like Rwanda, Cambodia is a small country. Because of this, Pol Pot killed only a fraction as many people as Hitler, Stalin, or Mao – most-recent estimates place the death toll between 1.2 and 2.8 million.
As a percentage of the population, though? Well, there’s no beating him.
At the higher end of that estimate, the Cambodian dictator would’ve been responsible for the murders of nearly 30% of his countrymen.
Had Mao come to power in Cambodia, and were the costs of the Great Leap Forward scaled down for population, a hair under 500,000 would’ve died.
Pol Pot, in short, makes even Mao’s regime look like amateur hour.
Yet is this really the best – or only – way to measure which dictator was worst?
The trouble with focusing on the number who died under a dictator – be that absolute or as a percentage – is that it means those who commit equally horrific crimes risk being obscured.
Take Hissène Habré, strongman of Chad from 1982 to 1990.
Under Habré, 40,000 people were murdered – a horrifying amount, but a drop in the ocean compared to Pol Pot. But that’s only because Habré preferred his victims to endure a living death.
The amount of people – including women, children, and men alike – who were sexually assaulted or forced into sexual slavery by his regime is likely unsurpassed in modern history.
At his 2016 trial, harrowing accounts were read of people who’d endured lifetimes of sexual torture at Habré’s hands.
Yet, because they didn’t physically die – as opposed to dying inside – his name remains relatively unknown.
You could make a similar case for Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu.
After his Communist dictatorship fell in 1990, 170,000 children were discovered living in orphanages so horrific, they were termed “child gulags”.
In these nightmare spaces, children were given nothing to eat but gruel. They were deprived of human contact, or any form of comfort or education. Their rooms and clothes were never cleaned.
The result was dozens of what were effectively prisons, where malnourished children who’d never even learned to speak lay in their own feces; screaming, squawking, self-harming. Their bodies shrunken and wasted; driven insane by an entire lifetime of isolation.
So disturbing were these scenes that the first outsiders allowed in later suffered PTSD so acute, it was on a par with those who liberated the Nazi death camps.
And these are just two examples. Examples of dictators who may have killed comparatively few, but whose crimes were still so monstrous they can be hard to even comprehend.
Nor are they alone.
You could look at Suharto, whose rule in Indonesia included trying to wipe out the ethnic group in East Timor. Or the generals in Uruguay, who rarely killed, but often tortured.
Or, hey, what about Kim Il-Sung, who wasn’t just a despot, but one who doomed whole future generations of North Koreans to a living Hell under his equally mad son and grandson?
Are we really comfortable saying none of these men should occupy the number one spot?
In the end, perhaps all an exercise like this shows is how pointless trying to rank the worst or best of any set of tyrants really is.
There’s that saying attributed to Stalin: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
Perhaps what we need to remember is that – in all of these regimes – the suffering these numbers imply isn’t a statistic, but a series of awful tragedies. An accumulation of horror for those affected that’s no more or less painful if the man in charge wears a Red Star, or a swastika, or a Hutu nationalist pin, or something else entirely.
In getting lost in arguments over who was really the “worst”, we can sometimes lose sight of this simple fact: that all the authoritarian regimes of the past were horrific. And it’s up to all of us to try and make sure they never come around again.
NY Review, Who Killed More: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao? https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/02/05/who-killed-more-hitler-stalin-or-mao/?lp_txn_id=1273973
Timothy Snyder, Was Hitler or Stalin Worse? https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2011/03/10/hitler-vs-stalin-who-killed-more/
Analysis of Khmer Rouge death toll: https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/ucla-demographer-produces-best-estimate-yet-of-cambodias-death-toll-under-pol-pot
BBC, Cambodia, Year Zero: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-10684399
Britannica, WWII death toll in Europe: https://www.britannica.com/topic/history-of-Europe/The-blast-of-World-War-II