A dictatorship is an authoritarian style of government in which one leader has complete control over the country.
Often, dictators come to power through military coups or by undermining democracy. Once in power, the dictators will use fear and violence to stay in office and suppress any opposition. They generally aim to control the media narrative in order to censor information and prevent people from learning about the true state of affairs in the country.
As a result, life under a dictatorship can be extremely difficult and dangerous. People living in dictatorships often live in fear of being arrested, tortured, or even executed if they step out of line.
Examples of dictatorships from history include the dictatorships of General Franco, Pol Pot, and Kim Jong-il, who all reigned in the latter half of the 20th Century.
Examples of Dictatorships
1. General Franco in Spain
General Francisco Franco was the dictator of Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975.
A right-wing nationalist, he rose to power during the Spanish Civil War and oversaw a brutal regime that terrorized its opponents. Although he initially allied himself with Nazi Germany, Franco eventually broke with Hitler and aligned himself with the Allies during World War II.
After the war, he remained in power and continued to rule Spain with an iron fist. His dictatorship finally came to an end with his death in 1975, after which Spain transitioned to a democracy.
2. Kim Dynasty in North Korea
The Kim Dynasty is the ruling family of North Korea, a communist nation on the Korean peninsula.
The dynasty was founded by Kim Il-sung, who served as the country’s first leader from 1948 until his death in 1994. He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il, who ruled North Korea until his death in 2011, and then Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un.
They call themselves the Mount Paektu bloodline and take the style ‘great leader’ or ‘dear leader’.
The Kim Dynasty has been criticized for its totalitarian rule, human rights abuses, and aggressive foreign policy. The entire nation is perhaps the world’s largest example of a total institution.
3. Saddam Hussein in Iraq
Saddam Hussein was an Iraqi dictator who ruled from 1979 until he was ousted by the United States in 2003.
Born into a poor family in Tikrit, Iraq, Hussein rose to power through the Ba’athist party and became the country’s de facto leader in 1979.
During his rule, Hussein crushed any dissent and maintained a strict grip on power. He also engaged in numerous human rights abuses, as well as launching aggressive military campaigns against Iran and Kuwait. In 1990, Hussein invaded Kuwait, leading to a UN-mandated international intervention.
In 2003, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq and toppled Hussein’s government. He was subsequently tried and executed for his crimes in 2006.
4. Augusto Pinochet in Chile
Augusto Pinochet was a Chilean dictator who rose to power after leading a military coup that toppled the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende.
Pinochet’s regime was characterized by human rights abuses, state terrorism, and economic neoliberalism. He was believed to have been propped up by the United States and the CIA, despite the fact he was undemocratic.
He remained in power until 1990, when he lost a referendum on his rule.
He then stepped down as president and went into retirement, but continued to wield considerable influence behind the scenes until his death in 2006.
Pinochet’s legacy is one of controversy, with some Chileans seeing him as a hero who saved the country from communism, and others viewing him as a brutal dictator responsible for horrific crimes.
5. Hafez al-Assad in Syria
Hafez al-Assad was the President of Syria from 1971 until his death in 2000. He was born in Syria in 1930 and joined the Syrian Air Force in 1953 where he rose the ranks of power.
In 1970, Assad was elected President of Syria.
As President, Assad implemented a series of economic and social reforms. He also supported anti-Israel militant groups, and cultivated close relationships with Iran and Lebanon.
Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad.
6. Muammar Gaddafi in Libya
Muammar Gaddafi was a Libyan dictator who ruled the country for more than four decades. He was born in 1942 in a small village in the desert, and he rose to power in a military coup in 1969.
Gaddafi was an autocrat who suppressed dissent and instituted a brutal dictatorship.
He oversaw a number of human rights abuses and he was internationally condemned for his support of terrorist groups.
Gaddafi was ousted from power in 2011 during the Arab spring and was killed by rebel forces in October of that year.
7. Idi Amin in Uganda
Idi Amin was a Ugandan dictator who served as the country’s president from 1971 to 1979.
Born in 1925, Amin joined the British colonial army in 1946 and quickly rose through the ranks. In 1971, he staged a military coup and seized power from Uganda’s democratically elected president, Milton Obote.
Amin’s regime was characterized by human rights abuses, political repression, and ethnic violence. An estimated 300,000 people were killed during his rule, and many more were tortured or exiled.
In 1979, Amin was ousted from power by a coalition of Ugandan and Tanzanian forces. He fled to Saudi Arabia, where he lived in exile until his death in 2003.
8. Pol Pot in Cambodia
Pol Pot was the leader of the communist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.
The Khmer Rouge regime was characterized by a totalitarian dictatorship, collectivization of agriculture, and strict regulation of cultural and daily life. During Pol Pot’s rule, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people died from execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor.
In addition, the regime forcibly relocated city dwellers to rural areas in an effort to create a classless society based on agrarianism. The resulting conditions led to widespread famine and death.
After being ousted from power by Vietnamese invaders in 1979, Pol Pot fled Cambodia and lived in hiding until his death in 1998.
9. Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia
Mengistu Haile was an Ethiopian dictator who served as the country’s Head of State from 1977 to 1991. He came to power after leading a military coup that overthrew the Ethiopian government, and he proceeded to rule Ethiopia with an iron fist.
Under Mengistu’s regime, thousands of political opponents were executed, and hundreds of thousands more were imprisoned or forced into exile. In addition, Mengistu oversaw a devastating famine that killed millions of Ethiopians.
Ultimately, his brutal rule led to his downfall, and he was ousted from power in 1991. He currently resides in Zimbabwe, where he has been granted asylum.
10. Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina
Jorge Rafael Videla was a dictator who ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1981. He came to power after leading a military coup that overthrew the democratically-elected government.
During his rule, Videla oversaw a brutal campaign of repression, in which thousands of political opponents were killed or “disappeared.”
After stepping down from power, Videla was convicted of human rights abuses and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2013.
Throughout his life, Videla remained unapologetic for his actions, insisting that he had saved Argentina from communism.
11. Napolean Bonaparte in France
Napoleon Bonaparte was a French political leader and military general who rose to prominence during the French Revolution.
He played a key role in the overthrow of the French monarchy and the establishment of the French Republic.
As leader of the Republic, Napoleon oversaw a period of significant reform and modernization, including the abolition of feudalism and the introduction of the Napoleonic Code, which is still in use today in many countries.
In 1799, Napoleon staged a coup d’etat and assumed absolute power as First Consul of France. He would later be crowned Emperor of France, ruling for a decade until his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
12. Adolf Hitler in Germany
Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933 after the Nazi Party won the plurality of seats in the German parliament. Shortly after becoming chancellor, he set about deconstructing democracy and installed himself as the dictator.
As Chancellor of Germany, Hitler led the country into World War II in 1939, a decision that was supported by many Germans swept up in a wave of ultranationalism.
During the war, Hitler oversaw the Nazi regime’s genocidal policies, which resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews, Roma people, homosexuals, and others.
In 1945, Allied forces defeated Nazi Germany, and Hitler committed suicide shortly thereafter.
13. Benito Mussolini in Italy
Benito Mussolini was an Italian political leader who served as the Prime Minister of Italy from 1922 to 1943.
A leading member of the National Fascist Party, he came to power in 1922 following a march on Rome. As Prime Minister, Mussolini oversaw a period of authoritarian rule in which he established totalitarian control over the country.
He also pursued an aggressive foreign policy, leading Italy to invade Ethiopia in 1935 and, later, to join Nazi Germany in World War II.
Following the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943, Mussolini was ousted from power and arrested. He was subsequently executed by his own countrymen.
14. Vladimir Lenin in the Soviet Union
Vladimir Lenin was a Russian Communist revolutionary who led the October Revolution of 1917. He served as head of government of Soviet Russia from 1917 to 1924 and of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1924.
In 1917 he led the Bolshevik Party in a takeover of the government and subsequently established the USSR. The USSR was a dictatorship that controlled all aspects of society and operated a strict command economy.
During his rule, Lenin oversaw the implementation of radical Marxist policies that resulted in millions of deaths.
15. Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union
Joseph Stalin was a Soviet politician who served as the leader of the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953.
One of the most controversial and divisive figures in Russian history, Stalin was born in Georgia to a poor family. He rose to power in the Communist Party during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and was appointed general secretary of the party’s Central Committee in 1922.
As head of the USSR, Stalin launched a series of Five-Year Plans that aimed to rapidly industrialize the country. Although they succeeded in transforming the USSR into a major industrial power, they also led to widespread famine, repression, and human rights abuses.
By the time of his death, he had established himself as one of the most powerful dictators in history.
16. Mao Zedong in China
Mao Zedong was a Chinese political leader who led the Communist Party of China to victory in the Chinese Civil War, making him the ruler of the People’s Republic of China.
Mao is considered one of the most important figures in modern Chinese history. During his reign, he instituted many policies that had a profound and long-lasting impact on China and its people.
For example, he launched the Great Leap Forward, an ambitious economic and social transformation campaign that aimed to rapidly modernize China. However, the campaign was largely unsuccessful and resulted in widespread famine.
Mao can be considered a dictator because he held absolute power over China and its people during his reign. However, he is also revered by many as a great leader who helped to modernize China.
17. Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela
In 2013, Nicolas Maduro was elected president of Venezuela after the death of Hugo Chavez. Since taking office, Maduro has been accused of using his power to consolidate control over the government and suppress dissent.
For example, in 2017, Maduro convened a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, a move that was widely criticized as an attempt to entrench his power. Furthermore, Maduro has been accused of using the judiciary to punish political opponents and stifle free speech.
In 2018, he was re-elected in a vote that was widely seen as fraudulent. These actions have led many to consider Maduro a dictator.
Under Maduro’s reign, Venezuela has experienced an economic and political crisis that has led to widespread poverty, inflation, and crime. Maduro’s government has been accused of human rights abuses, and he has been widely criticized by the international community.
18. Fidel Castro in Cuba
Fidel Castro was a Cuban revolutionary and statesman who served as the Prime Minister of Cuba from 1959 to 1976 and then as the President of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers from 1976 to 2006.
Born into a wealthy family in eastern Cuba, Castro embraced the Marxist ideology while studying law at the University of Havana. After participating in rebellions against right-wing governments in the Dominican Republic and Colombia, he finally led the nationalist 26th of July Movement against Fulgencio Batista’s regime in Cuba.
Following the Cuban Revolution, Castro governed Cuba under a one-party system within the Marxist-Leninist framework established by Soviet influence. He nationalized American businesses in Cuba and improved relations with the Soviet Union, resulting in an influx of aid that helped to modernize the country.
However, Castro’s regime was also characterized by human rights abuses, as well as a strict censorship of the press and opposition. He remained in power until 2008, when he resigned due to poor health.
Dictators have complete control over a nation’s government and can impose their will on the populace with impunity. But without checks and balances, dictatorships generally end poorly. It is all too easy for a leader to become corrupt and abuse their power. Furthermore, dictatorships often stifle creativity, innovation, and economic productivity.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.