Tyrants in History

By Tim Lambert

There have been many tyrants in history and they were responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people. Here are some of the most infamous tyrants.


Mary Tudor was Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s daughter. Mary was born on 18 February 1516. However, Catherine fell from favor with Henry VIII. Henry had another daughter, Elizabeth, with Anne Boleyn in 1533. Mary was sent to be a lady in waiting for her half-sister.

Henry VIII died in 1547 and he was replaced by his 9-year-old son Edward. Both Edward and his protector, the Duke of Northumberland were Protestants. However, Edward was sickly and it was clear he was not going to live long. The Duke of Northumberland was alarmed as the next in line for the throne, Henry’s daughter Mary, was a Catholic.

Northumberland married his son to Lady Jane Grey, a descendant of Henry VII’s sister Mary. When Edward died in 1553 Northumberland had Lady Jane Grey crowned queen. However, the people rose in favor of Mary and Lady Jane Grey was imprisoned.

When she became queen Mary was surprisingly lenient. The Duke of Northumberland was executed in August 1553. However, Lady Jane was, at first, spared. However, Queen Mary married Phillip of Spain in July 1554. The marriage was very unpopular and in Kent, Sir Thomas Wyatt led a rebellion. He was defeated but Mary was forced to execute Lady Jane, fearing her enemies might try and place Jane on the throne.

Mary was a devout Catholic and she detested the religious changes of her father Henry VIII (1509-1547) and her brother Edward VI (1547-1553). Mary was determined to undo them. Catholic mass was restored in December 1553. In 1554 married clergy were ordered to leave their wives or lose their posts. Then, in November 1554 the Act of Supremacy was repealed.

In 1555 Queen Mary began burning Protestants, which later earned her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. The first martyr was John Rogers who was burned on 4 February 1555. The same year bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were executed. Then in 1556, Thomas Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury was executed. Altogether between 1555 and 1558 nearly 300 Protestants were executed. (Most of them were from Southeast England where Protestantism had spread most widely). Many more Protestants fled abroad.

However, Mary’s cruelty simply gained sympathy for the Protestants and alienated ordinary people. She simply drove people away from Roman Catholicism. Furthermore in 1557 England went to war with France. In 1558 the English lost Calais, which they had hung onto since the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453. It was a major blow to English prestige. Queen Mary died on 17 November 1558. She was 42. Mary was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Queen Mary


The French revolution entered a new radical phase in 1792 when war began with Austria in April and with Prussia in May. At first, the war went very badly for France leading to fear and recriminations.

The Legislative Assembly declared that the king was suspended. The assembly then agreed to call elections for a new government, the National Convention, which met in September 1792. Then, in September 1792, massacres of political prisoners took place. At that time the Prussian army was advancing into France. The Parisians were frantic and they began killing prisoners held in jails in the city. Kangaroo courts were set up and thousands of people were killed. The killings became known as the September massacres.

The new government, the National Convention, abolished the monarchy. In December 1792 the king was put on trial. He was executed on 15 January 1793. Marie Antoinette followed him to the guillotine on 16 October 1793.

In June there was another popular uprising in Paris. This time the National Convention was purged. The moderate members (called Girondins) were removed and the extreme revolutionaries (called Jacobins) took control. The French revolution now entered its most extreme phase.

In March 1793 Watch Committees were formed to monitor foreigners and other suspects. In September 1793 the committees were given much greater powers. From then on anyone who ‘by their conduct, their contacts, their words or by their writings’ were revealed to be ‘supporters of tyranny, of federalism and or to be enemies of liberty’ could be arrested. Such a catch-all phrase meant virtually anybody could be arrested and executed.

In the following 9 months at least 16,000 people were executed. (The exact number is not known and it may have been much higher).

Meanwhile, the military tide turned. In October 1793 the French army defeated the Austrians at Wattignies. In December 1793 Captain Napoleon Bonaparte recaptured Toulon.

Many Jacobins were deists or atheists and were bitterly opposed to Christianity. In September 1793 a movement called De-Christianization began. The church was persecuted. Churches were vandalized and closed. The church of Notre Dame was renamed the ‘Temple of Reason’.

In October a new calendar was adopted. Years were no longer counted from the birth of Christ. Instead, they began on 22 September 1792, the first day of the republic. The year was divided into twelve months with names taken from nature. The seven-day week was replaced by a ten-day one.

However, the Convention became thoroughly alarmed. The members now feared for their lives, realizing that Robespierre might arrest and execute any of them. The only way to ensure their safety was to denounce Robespierre and remove him from power. This they did.

Robespierre then tried to shoot himself on 27 July. He was sent to the guillotine on 28 July 1794.

The apparatus of terror was then dismantled. Furthermore, thousands of prisoners were released. In March 1795 many churches re-opened for worship for the first time since October 1793.

Josef Stalin

Stalin was one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century. His real name Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili and he was born in 1879. His father was a poor shoemaker. He died when Josef was 11. His mother was a washerwoman and she was a deeply religious woman. She wanted her son to become a clergyman. Stalin studied at a seminary but he became a Marxist and he was expelled in 1899. Like all Communists, Stalin was an atheist. (Although we don’t know exactly when Stalin lost his religious faith completely).

Stalin was a short man. He was 5 feet 4 inches tall and he was pockmarked by smallpox. Furthermore, his left arm was shorter than his right. Stalin joined the Social Democratic Party, which split into Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Stalin was committed although he played only a small part in the revolution of 1917. However, in 1922 Stalin was appointed Secretary-General of the party.

Following Lenin’s death in 1924 the cunning and devious Stalin took power. By 1928 he had made himself dictator. His main enemy, Trotsky (Lev Davidovich Bronstein 1879-1940) was exiled 1929. In 1940 he was assassinated in Moscow. Stalin soon proved to be a tyrant who murdered millions of people.

In 1929 he produced a series of 5 years plans. The heavy industry in Russia was to be greatly expanded. Stalin decided that farms in Ukraine should be collectivized. In other words, peasants would be deprived of their land and livestock and made to work as farm laborers on land now owned by the state. Not surprisingly many Ukrainian peasants bitterly resisted even slaughtering their own livestock rather than hand it over to the state.

However, Stalin was determined to crush the Ukrainian peasants and he caused a terrible famine in 1932-33 that took the lives of millions of innocent people. In 1932 collective farms were given completely unrealistic quotas to fill. Soviet law decreed that the peasants would not be allowed to keep any grain until they had met their quotas. They could not, of course, meet them so Soviet officials simply confiscated all the grain they wanted leaving the peasants to starve. How many people died in this man-made famine is not known for sure but it was probably about 7 million. This horrific artificial famine is called the Holodomor.

In 1934 Stalin began a series of ‘purges’ in which millions of people died. The purges are known as the Great Terror. They began when Sergei Kirov was assassinated. He was probably murdered on Stalin’s orders. Nevertheless, Stalin used it as an excuse to eliminate his enemies (or anyone he thought might be an enemy). Many prominent communists were put on show trials and executed. Millions of ordinary people were sent to labor camps and forced to work in appalling conditions.

In 1937-38 Stalin ‘purged’ the officers in the red army. About 80% of the generals and 50% of the colonels were executed. So the red army was weakened just when Russia was facing a threat from Nazi Germany. Furthermore in the 1930s, under Stalin, the churches were persecuted. Thousands of clergymen were arrested and propaganda for atheism was widespread.

Despite Stalin’s terrible crimes, Russian industry grew rapidly in the years 1929-1941.

In 1939 Stalin made a non-aggression pact with Hitler. In 1939 the two men divided Poland between them. Then Stalin demanded that Finland give him territory, which he hoped would make Russia easier to defend. When the Finns refused Stalin went to war. The Russians attacked Finland on 30 November 1939. At first, the Finns successfully resisted but superior Russian numbers eventually overwhelmed them. The Finns surrendered in March 1940. In 1940 Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were still independent. However, in the summer the red army entered them and they were absorbed into the Soviet Union.

Despite the non-aggression pact of 1939, the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941. Stalin was taken by surprise and the Russians suffered heavy losses. However, the rate of German advance slowed and by the beginning of December it had ‘run out of steam’. The Germans failed to take Moscow and on 5 December 1941, the Russians counterattacked. They made some progress early in 1942 but in the summer the Germans returned to the offensive.

German troops attempted to capture Stalingrad. The battle for the city was fought from August onward. In November the Russians counterattacked and encircled the Germans. The majority of German troops surrendered on 31 January. The rest surrendered on 2 February. The Germans and Russians fought a great tank battle at Kursk in July 1943. The result was a resounding Russian victory. Afterward, the red army advanced rapidly. In November 1943 they liberated Kiev.

In January 1945 the Russians advanced across Poland. In April they entered Berlin. The war ended on 8 May 1945. When Germany surrendered the red army was left occupying Eastern Europe. So Stalin installed puppet regimes in each country. Stalin also clamped down on his own people. Fortunately, he died on 5 March 1953.


On January 30 1933 President Hindenburg asked Hitler to become Chancellor and to lead a coalition government. Hindenburg disliked Hitler who he called the ‘Bohemian corporal’. However, several German politicians thought they could use Hitler. They were convinced that if he joined a coalition they could dominate him. They soon turned out to be very wrong.

On 27 February the Reichstag burned down. A Dutchman called Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested and confessed to the crime. Hitler claimed that van der Lubbe did not act alone and that it was a communist plot. The next day President Hindenburg was persuaded to sing ‘Presidential Decree for the Protection of the People and the State’, which allowed arbitrary arrest. As a result, all the leading Communists were arrested. The last election in Weimar Germany was held on 5 March 1933. The Nazis still failed to gain a majority of the vote. However, the Communist Party was banned and none of its members could take their seats in the Reichstag. As a result, the Nazis were left in control of the Reichstag.

In March 1933 Hitler persuaded the Reichstag to pass the enabling law. This would give Hitler the power to pass new laws without the consent of the Reichstag. The new law meant changing Germany’s constitution and that would require votes by two-thirds of the Reichstag’s members. Incredibly 80% of the Reichstag voted in favor of the law, only the Social Democrats voted against it. The Reichstag voted to make a madman dictator of Germany.

Hitler wasted no time in introducing a tyrannical regime in Germany. After 1871 Germany was a federal state. It was made up of units called Lander, which had once been independent countries. A governor ruled each. However in April 1933 Hitler replace them with Reich governors, all of who were loyal Nazis. This helped to bring the country even more under Hitler’s control. In May Hitler banned trade unions. To replace them he created the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labour Front) under Robert Ley. It set levels of pay and hours of work.

The Social Democratic Party was banned in June 1933. Later that summer other parties dissolved themselves, under pressure from the Nazis. On 14 July 1933 Hitler banned all parties except the Nazi party. n Hitler consolidated his grip on power with a purge called the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934. The SA or brown shirts wanted to take over the army. The army was appalled by this idea and Hitler needed the army’s support. Moreover, the SA had other enemies. In 1925 Hitler created the Schutzstaffel (protection squad) of SS as his bodyguard. Heinrich Himmler the head of the SS resented the fact that the SS was officially part of the SA. He wanted the SS to be a separate organization. He also wanted more power for himself. Himmler told Hitler that the SA was planning to overthrow him. Hitler himself arrested Rohm the leader of the SA. The SS arrested other important figures in the SA and other prominent critics of the regime. All of them were shot.

Then on 2 August 1934, President Hindenburg died. Hitler, the Chancellor took over the President’s powers and called himself Fuhrer (leader). The army was made to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. (Previously they swore an oath of loyalty to Germany).

Furthermore any opponents of the regime (mostly communists and socialists) could be arrested and sent to a concentration camp without trial. (At first, although prisoners were beaten and tortured concentration camps were designed as prisons rather than extermination camps). Homosexuals were also sent to concentration camps. So were vagrants, beggars, and the ‘work-shy’.

Hitler hated Jews. In April 1933 he ordered a boycott of Jewish shops. Also in 1933, a law banned Jews from working in government jobs. Then in 1935 Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws. They made it illegal for Jews to marry ‘Aryans’ (people of Germanic descent) and stated that Jews could not be German citizens.

The Nazis also detested Gypsies. In 1935 they were forbidden to marry ‘Aryans’. From 1939 onward German Gypsies were deported to Poland. Later, like the Jews, they were murdered in concentration camps.

The Nazis were, of course, responsible for murdering millions of innocent people. From 1940 Polish Jews were confined in ghettos. When the Germans invaded Russia in 1941 the mass murder of Jews in the east began. At first, they were shot. Then at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 Nazi leaders decided to exterminate all Jews. So they were rounded up and deported to death camps. When they arrived some were selected for work (and worked to death), while others were gassed. Afterward, the bodies were burned. By the end of World War II some 6 million Jews had been murdered.


Mao Tse Tung was born on 26 December 1893. His father was a farmer but the family was not poor. They were quite well off. Mao was an educated man and an avid reader and he soon became interested in radical politics. In 1918 Mao qualified as a teacher and he worked for a time in Beijing University Library. Later he moved to Shanghai.

In 1921 Mao Tse Tung was one of the founder members of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai. Then in the autumn of 1927 MaonTse Tung led a peasant rebellion called the Autumn Harvest Uprising. However, it was crushed.

In 1930 Li Lisan led another Communist rebellion but it was easily crushed. However, in the countryside, Mao Tse Tung adopted a much more successful policy. From his base in a mountain range, he carried out guerrilla warfare. He created a well-disciplined force that conducted ‘hit and run’ raids and hid whenever the enemy advanced, avoiding pitched battles. His men were able tonwear down and demoralize them.

In 1934 the Kuomintang attempted to encircle thenCommunists. Mao decided to break out. About 90,000 soldiers escaped the trapnand embarked on a long march to the north of China. This Long March becamenlegendary although less than 20,000 of those who took part survived the march.

However, from the middle of 1947, the Communists were winning the war. Then in Novembern1948-January 1949, the Communists won a victory at Huai-Hai. After that, the Kuomintang position swiftly collapsed. The Communists took Beijing in January 1949. In April they took Nanjing and in May Shanghai. The remaining Kuomintang then fled to Taiwan and in October Mao Tse Tung declared the Peoples Republic of China in Beijing.

Under Mao industry was nationalized. The peasants were made to pool their resources and form their small farms into co-operatives. Any opposition to the Communist regime was ruthlessly suppressed. n In 1958 Mao launched an attempt to greatly increase the output of farming and industry. It was called The Great Leap Forward. Agricultural co-operatives were joined together to form larger units called communes. Creches and nurseries were set up so women could work.

Communes were encouraged to make steel in their own makeshift furnaces. Many peasants were forced to work on water conservation works. However, the Great Leap Forward proved to be a disaster. Most of the steel was of very poor quality and could not be used. n

Worse farm output greatly declined and there was a terrible famine in China in 1959-62. Far too much labor was diverted to making steel or building projects leaving not enough for the harvests which in some areas were left to rot. Worse crops fell prey to locusts. In 1958 Mao launched a campaign to kill sparrows (because they ate grain seeds).

However, sparrows also ate locusts and other insects. Huge numbers of sparrows were killed and without natural predators the number of locusts greatly increased, making the famine worse. Bad weather in 1959 and 1960 made the famine worse still.

Yet even though there was a famine and people were starving China continued to export grain. An estimated 36 million people in China died in the famine. Not all died of starvation. Starving people were executed for stealing food. It was the worst man-made famine in history. However, Mao was unmoved by the famine. He said ‘To distribute resources evenly will only ruin the Great Leap Forward. It is better to let half the people die so that the other half can eat their fill’.

The Great Leap Forward was a failure and it had to be abandoned. Afterward, Mao lost some of his authority. In 1966 to reassert his authority Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. Students began to call themselves the Red Guard and they held rallies in Beijing. Soon a movement began to root out old habits, beliefs, and attitudes and cause a cultural revolution.

The Red Guard began to attack intellectuals and also officials. In 1967 they forced the mayor and other officials in Shanghai to resign. The same thing happened in other cities as well. Many party officials were purged and removed from power.

During the Cultural Revolution religion was persecuted in China. Many places of worship were destroyed. (Mao like all Marxists was an atheist and he detested religion).

However in 1968 Mao realized that things were going too far. The Red Guard was disrupting industry and agriculture. Mao ordered them to disband. Mao Tse Tung died on 18 September 1976.


Nicolae Ceausescu was a tyrant who ruled Romania. Ceausescu was born in 1918 into a Romanian peasant family. When he was 15 he joined the Communist Party. He was imprisoned twice, in 1936 for 2 years and in 1940 for 4 years. Meanwhile, in 1940 he married Elena.In June 1941 under Antonescu Romania joined the German invasion of Russia. However, on 23 August 1944, Romania changed sides and declared war on Germany.

However after the war Russian troops were stationed in Romania, which made a Communist takeover inevitable. In February 1948 other left-wing parties merged with the Communist Party and a totalitarian regime was introduced in Romania. Industries were nationalized.

In 1965 Ceausescu became Secretary-General of the Romanian Communist Party. In 1967 he became President of the State Council. He now held 2 powerful positions. Finally in 1974 Ceausescu became president of Romania. Ceausescu made Romania independent of the Soviet Union, unlike other Eastern European states. When Czechoslovakia was invaded by other Communist states in 1968 Ceausescu denounced them. His refusal to submit to the Soviet Union made him popular in the west and President Nixon visited Romania in 1969.

However at home Ceausescu ran a repressive regime. He also, like other Communist dictators created a cult of personality. In the 1980s Ceausescu built a huge and extremely expensive palace now called the Palace of Parliament. Many houses churches and synagogues were demolished to make way for the gigantic new structure, which was to be a private residence for Ceausescu and his wife.

Meanwhile Ceausescu was determined to build up heavy industry in Romania but his policies simply led to a fall in living standards for ordinary people in the 1980s. At first, Ceausescu borrowed heavily to finance industrialization but later decided to repay the debts. Much of Romania’s industrial and agricultural output was used to repay them and the result was severe shortages. Any dissent was crushed by the feared secret police, the Securitate.

However, the Communist regime in Romania suddenly collapsed in 1989. In December demonstrations took place in Timisoara. On 21 December Ceausescu was booed by a crowd in Bucharest and demonstrations followed. The next day Ceausescu appeared on the balcony of the Central Committee Building but he was forced to escape by helicopter. Ceausescu’s fellow Communists deserted him and he was arrested. He and his wife were shot on 25 December 1989.


In January 1971 when Prime Minister Milton Obote was in Singapore attending a meeting Idi Amin staged a coup in Uganda. Amin turned out to be one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century. The number of people he murdered was at least 100,000 and possibly many more. Apart from those Ugandans who were shot others were tortured to death or bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers or iron bars.

Amin also decided to help himself to the Asian’s wealth. There were about 70,000 Asians in Uganda in 1972 many of them shopkeepers and businessmen. Amin gave them 90 days to leave the country. They were forced to leave most of their property behind and it was shared among Amin’s cronies.

However as a result of the loss of the Asian’s skills and the murders of many professional Ugandans the economy collapsed. Infrastructure such as roads and water supply deteriorated.

In order to distract attention from the terrible economic situation, Amin decided to invade Tanzania on 30 October 1978. However, the war turned into a disaster for Amin. Early in 1979, the Tanzanians invaded Uganda and Amin’s forces fled. Unfortunately, Amin was never brought to justice for his terrible crimes. He fled abroad and died in 2003.


In 1975 a horrific and tragic era of Cambodian history began the reign of the Khmer Rouge. They were led by Pol Pot (or Saloth Sar) also known as ‘Brother Number One’. How many people were killed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge is not known for certain but it was probably at least 1.5 million and it may have been as many as 3 million. Pol Pot declared that history would begin again in Cambodia. The first year of the revolution was now the first year of history.

In 1975 Cambodia was a mainly agricultural country. Pol Pot decided it should be completely agricultural. This meant all the people from the towns and cities were forced to move to the countryside. Pol Pot also decided that agricultural output should double in 4 years (a totally unrealistic target). Private property was banned and collective farms were formed. They were supposed to grow 3 tonnes of rice per hectare (again a completely unrealistic target). People were made to work very long hours to try and grow the extra rice. They were given insufficient food and many fell ill and died from a combination of exhaustion and malnutrition.

That was not all. Religion was banned (people caught practicing Buddhism were executed). Family relationships were banned (on the grounds that parents exploited their children). Furthermore, the smallest infringement of the rules resulted in execution. Although they were half-starved people caught foraging for food were executed. People were also executed for being lazy. Needless to say, anyone who complained was executed.

Furthermore, the Khmer Rouge murdered intellectuals. Soon people who could speak a foreign language or who wore glasses were executed. This nightmarish situation was only ended by a war with Vietnam. The Vietnamese invaded in December 1978 and quickly prevailed. Unfortunately, Pol Pot escaped and he did not die until 1998.

Last revised 2024

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