The Worst Autocrats of the 20th Century
An autocracy is a system of government controlled by one person with absolute power. Our founding fathers designed a unique form of democratic government with built-in safeguards that significantly distinguishes it from an autocracy. For example, countries with democratic governments are less likely to preemptively make war, but invading another country isn’t unusual when an authoritarian ruler rises to a position of absolute power. The dangerous rise of autocracy in the war riddled 20th Century is a great example.
Hitler in Germany, Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mussolini in Italy all rose to supremacy in the years preceding World War ll, reflecting the nationalist instincts of their citizens. Once they established total control of their respective governments, they spread havoc and devastation around the world. At the same time, Hirohito, Emperor of Japan was a de facto absolute ruler. With his approval and consent, the militaristic government of Japan went to war. It was not a democratic country that invaded China or attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor.
Other 20th Century Autocrats
The principle holds true for countries around the world, regardless of size. Here is a partial list of countries in the last century that were in the grip of men who wielded unrestricted power.
Africa: Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe; Idi Amin, Uganda.
Asia: Mao Tse Tung and Chiang Kei Shek of a divided China; Kim Il Sung, North Korea; Ferdinand Marcos, Philippines; Pol Pot, Cambodia; Ho Chi Min, Vietnam; Yahya Khan, Pakistan.
Middle East: Saddam Hussein, Iraq; Enver Pasha, Ottoman Empire; Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran; Hafez al Assad, Syria; Hosni Mubarak, Egypt.
Europe: Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia; Francisco Franco, Spain; Josep Tito, Yugoslavia; Nicolae Ceaușescu, Rumania.
South America: Augusto Pinochet, Chile; Juan Peron, Argentina.
Caribbean: Fidel Castro, Cuba
The names of these infamous despots are familiar. They did not tolerate criticism. They demonstrated no reluctance to attack a neighboring country and/or oppress their own people. Consumed with their insatiable obsession for power, the safety, betterment and preservation of the world is never taken into consideration. The lessons of history are writ large, but too often people are short-sighted and don’t recognize when countries that once were, or might have been, democracies evolve into autocracies. It’s happening today, all over the world.
Vladimir Putin – Russia
Russia is the screaming poster child. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was hope that Russia, its largest successor country, would turn toward democracy. But in spite of the appearance of free elections, Russia has evolved into an autocracy with Vladimir Putin at its head.
Like the dictators that came before him, Putin has attacked, seized and occupied Russia’s neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine. Russian citizens foolish enough to oppose him often fall prey to “accidents,” like a knife in the chest, a bullet to the head, poisoning or falling from a balcony. And to flex his muscle and make his disdain for democracies obvious, he blatantly interferes in democratic elections, giving a boost to the candidate he prefers.
Ali Khamenei – Iran
But Putin is an equal opportunity disrupter. He intervened in Syria, an autocratically ruled country, as the protector of Bashar al Assad who simply assumed the role from his deceased father. Putin has also joined forces in that region with the current supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, an autocrat in religious garb.
As Supreme Leader, Khamenei uses Shiite militias and the Republican Guard to instigate trouble in neighboring countries. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen bear the scars of his meddling in their affairs. Israel’s active resistance reveals Khamenei’s attempts at using others to attack it. Internally in Iran, Khamenei uses the Republican Guard to stifle any form of public opposition.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – Turkey
Putin, meanwhile, has taken on a lot to become the dominant player in Syria and increase his influence in the Middle East. To keep the peace, Putin must now mediate disputes between his Syrian client state’s despot, Assad, and another autocrat, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Erdoğan’s forces now occupy northern Syria. He opposes Assad’s attacks on the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria, fearing another massive refugee invasion of Turkey. Though Turkey is a member of NATO, Erdoğan’s cozying up to Putin does not bode well for Turkey and its future relationship with NATO. Cementing his authority as an autocrat, Erdoğan has no qualms in attacking his own citizens, purging, suspending and arresting thousands of judges, prosecutors, government workers and military personnel he blames for an attempted coup in 2016.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi- Egypt
With limited exceptions and a form of government that includes elections, autocrats control other countries in the Middle East. Egyptians vote for a president and parliament, but its autocratic President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi controls the government with an iron fist. Changes in Egypt’s constitution approved in 2019 give him even more power and the right to remain President until 2030. He tolerates no criticism and arrests and prosecutes opponents on fabricated charges of terrorism.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman – Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman presents himself as a progressive bringing his country into the 21st Century. Yet he apparently felt no constraints when he ordered his most vocal critic, Jamal Khashoggi, killed and dismembered. There are no consequences for autocrats—unless they are overthrown by another autocrat or their own citizens.
Kim il Sung – North Korea
In North Korea the Kim Family oppression is deeply entrenched and carried on by its current autocratic leader, Kim il Sung. Having control of an inventory of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them make him a very formidable force. Although using them would result in his own country’s destruction, they are a powerful deterrent against offensive actions by other countries. No one expects Kim to tolerate criticism or opposition in any form, and he doesn’t.
Poland and Hungary
Though Poland and Hungary are ostensibly democratic countries, their respective leaders—Viktor Orban in Hungary and Andrzej Duda in Poland have transformed their governments into autocracies where the law is increasingly what they deem it to be. Behind the shield of nationalism, they’ve extended control over the judiciary, repressed the media and sealed their borders from unwanted immigration. Their active opposition to European Union principles of integration, cooperation, and common values is a serious threat to the unity of that organization. Yet the EU has limited tools to sanction either country since any member can veto sanctions against any other. Thus, Hungary and Poland are able to defend each other.
Rodrigo Duterte – Philippines
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte leads a campaign of extra judicial killing of drug traffickers, curtailing press freedom, arresting opponents of his anti-drug campaign on fabricated charges and instructing police to shoot activists of international and domestic human rights organizations if they are “obstructing justice.” He was reelected in 2019 and took control of the senate, which effectively eliminated any check on his power.
Nicolas Maduro – Venezuela
The tradition of previous South American dictators lives on in the current claimant of the Venezuelan Presidency, Nicolas Maduro. He became President in 2013 after the death of the popular president Hugo Chavez for whom he served as Vice President. Using the typical tools of the autocrat, he arrested opposition critics, initiated emergency laws giving himself more power and stacked the judiciary with loyalists. Though the opposition took control of the National Assembly, Maduro essentially ignores it and its leader, Juan Guaido. Though several countries have recognized Guaido as President, Maduro claims otherwise and has been able to retain power with the support of the Venezuelan military.
Xi Jinping – China
The biggest and ultimately, perhaps, worst threat of all those in the malevolent league of autocracy is China’s President, Xi Jinping. Xi has apparently amassed sufficient power to exercise virtual control over the ruling party and, through it, the government itself. Some liken it to the control exercised by Mao Tse-tung, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. In the course of achieving that power he purged existing and potential rivals and, like his counterparts elsewhere, does not tolerate any opposition.
But the real threat was reported in 2019 by the U.S. Department of Defense. “China is increasingly willing to project its military power, grow its armed forces and develop military technology, all with growing negative perceptions of the United States.” And only one man holds that decision in his hand.
Narendra Modi – India
The democratically elected Parliament of India recently passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, so perhaps it’s not fair to include Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in this compilation of unsavory autocrats. But it’s Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that secured passage of this amendment, which marks the first time in Indian law that religion has been overtly used as a criterion for citizenship. The amendment provides Indian citizenship to immigrants from three neighboring countries, but not if they are Muslim. As might be expected, it’s been widely criticized as discriminatory.
India is a democracy, but there is reason to call attention to Modi now. History tells us that many of the worst despots on the above list were elected in what were then democratic countries. Of particular note, many of these autocrats climbed to positions of power with a call to nationalism. A 1920 post-World War l map would indicate that the defeated authoritarian empires had collapsed. Most remaining European countries were more or less democratic. But as their leaders gained power, they increasingly governed as authoritarians. By the 1930’s, Fascism had taken hold and war loomed on the horizon again.
The world has once again become a dangerous place where one autocrat’s miscalculation can ignite another inferno.
The Nature and Danger of Autocracy
We all take for granted that in a democracy, citizens can speak out and try to persuade their countrymen to join together to oppose and ultimately change their government’s policies. That is not an option in an autocracy. There is no loyal opposition, no dissent, no marches or investigative journalism. People are motivated by fear, not ideals or opposing viewpoints. Independent ideas are crushed along with their proponents.
That is the nature of autocracy and the authoritarianism it imposes on its country. Given the right political climate, it is the natural sequence of events when one individual, unrestrained by any form of checks or balances, is empowered to make unilateral decisions. Those conditions developed in the 1930’s as Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito and Stalin dragged the world into a conflagration unmatched in human history. And that is why now, early in the 21st Century, we should be cognizant of the dangerous rise in autocracy in the world around us.
In ordinary times we could expect the leader of one country to step out and lead the world away from this dangerous path. But these are not ordinary times. Our country, the United States, has a president who views himself as a ruler with absolute power, and acts accordingly. He is undeterred by our laws, our shared values, our system of checks and balances, ethics or tradition. He feels empowered to do the outrageous, flaunt corruption and act with only his personal benefit in mind. Moving forward on this path to autocracy is a clear and present danger to the future security and welfare of the United States.
More on this next month.