5 Tyrants Who Died Relatively Peaceful Deaths (and 5 Who Weren't So Lucky)


According to Herodotus, when the Athenian lawgiver Solon visited Croesus, the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia, Croesus -- showing off his riches and sumptuous palace -- asked Solon who the happiest man in the world was, arrogantly assuming Solon’s answer would be the king himself.

But the king was disappointed and angry when Solon named other men, explaining, “Croesus, I see that thou art wonderfully rich, and art the lord of many nations; but with respect to that whereon thou questionest me, I have no answer to give, until I hear that thou hast closed thy life happily. .. He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is, in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of ‘happy.’” Croesus only realized the wisdom of Solon’s words some years later, when he was about to be burned alive by his captor, the victorious Persian King Cyrus.

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Judging by this standard, or by pretty much any other standard you care to name, Muammar Qaddafi’s life did not end happily, a judgment that is confirmed by images of his battered, bloody body being dragged around after he was killed by angry Libyan rebels. Indeed, history shows that tyranny is a risky game. What follows are the stories of ten tyrants -- five “winners,” who met relatively peaceful ends, and five “losers,” who weren’t so lucky (suicide, being self-inflicted, doesn’t count as “losing” in this rubric).

The Winners

1. Mao Zedong (China)

One of the most prolific killers of the 20th century ended his days peacefully, enjoying absolute power to the very end of his life. After an arbitrary reign of terror that left anywhere from 30 million to 60 million Chinese dead, Mao died on September 9, 1976, at the age of 82.

Although there was no justice for Mao, happily his death led to the downfall of the notorious “Gang of Four,” a clique of radical officials led by his wife Jiang Qing, who were responsible for many of the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. After his death, Mao was given a Soviet-style embalming treatment so his body could be viewed (and worshipped) as a kind of living god… except, dead. In 1978, as the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution subsided, Deng Xiaoping took the reins of government and launched China on a course of reform and rapid economic growth that continues today.

2. Pol Pot (Cambodia)

The Khmer Rouge have to be one of the craziest, most murderous political movements that ever existed -- and that’s saying something. Marxists who paradoxically declared war on modernity, these fanatics were intent on turning Cambodia into a simple agricultural utopia. This involved decreeing the mass murder of city dwellers, merchants, teachers and other “intellectuals,” which in practice could mean anyone guilty of wearing glasses. Ultimately the Khmer Rouge slaughtered about two million of their fellow Cambodians from 1975-1979, urged on in their bloody work by Saloth Sar, a.k.a. “Brother No. 1,” a.k.a. Pol Pot (the nom de guerre probably came from the French politique potentielle, or “political potential,” of which he actually possessed very little). His potential for violence, on the other hand, was nearly limitless. An ill-advised invasion of Vietnam provoked a Vietnamese counter-invasion in 1978-1979, toppling Pol Pot and forcing the Khmer Rouge to retreat to the jungles of western Cambodia along the Thai border.

Pol Pot survived a mutiny and defection among his followers in 1996, only to be put under house arrest following an internal Khmer Rouge show trial in 1997. However he lived in peace and died of a heart attack on April 15, 1998, at the age of 77; his death saved him the indignity of a planned trial for genocide in front of the Hague War Crimes Tribunal.

3. Idi Amin (Uganda)

True, he wasn’t in the catbird seat until the very end, but the crazed Ugandan dictator still managed to have a fairly pleasant post-dictating retirement. After seizing power in 1971, Amin would be responsible for persecuting tens of thousands of South Asian immigrants (many of whom were driven out of the country after having their property seized) and also unleashed massacres against rival African ethnic groups, whom he accused of collaborating with Western imperialist spies, ultimately murdering about 300,000 people. He also tried to give safe harbor to Palestinian hijackers who forced an Air France plane land at Entebbe, Uganda, provoking a bloody commando operation by Israeli special forces to free scores of Israeli hostages. Oh, and he murdered and dismembered his wife and was also accused of being a cannibal for good measure.

Despite all this, Amin lived the good life after being toppled by a Tanzanian invasion (actually, a counter-invasion) in 1978, first hanging out with Qaddafi before jetting on to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where the Saudi royal family bankrolled a luxurious life in exile in return for (mostly) staying out of trouble.

4. Francisco Franco (Spain)

While he may rank somewhat lower on the brutal-o-meter than other dictators, Franco was nobody’s idea of a nice guy (favored means of extra-judicial murder: the garrote) and the Spanish dictator got off scot free. After winning the Spanish Civil War, when he shared responsibility for the infamous bombing of Guernica, Franco ruled from 1936-1975, during which time a further 30,000 political dissidents were probably executed at his order. His staunch anti-Communism also made him a natural, if uncomfortable, U.S. ally in the Cold War.

In his old age, Franco developed health problems including Parkinson’s, finally falling into a coma and dying on November 20, 1975, at the age of 82. But once again this story has a happy ending: in his final years Franco carefully laid the groundwork for a restoration of constitutional monarchy after his death, with King Juan Carlos serving as head of state for a democratic Spain.

5. Augusto Pinochet (Chile)

Like Franco, Augusto Pinochet steered clear of genocide but still managed to earn a well-deserved reputation as a vicious tyrant. After the CIA helped orchestrate the assassination of the commander-in-chief of the Chilean armed forces in 1970, Col. Pinochet took the top spot, where he was ideally positioned to overthrow the leftist president Salvador Allende and seize power in 1973. From 1973-1990, the Chilean dictator was probably responsible for the murder of some 3,197 leftist political opponents, most of them during a surge of violence immediately after the 1973 coup d’etat.

Pinochet stepped down as head of state in 1990 but continued to serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces until 1998, whereupon he became a lifetime member of the Chilean Senate, which served (for a time) to guarantee immunity from prosecution. Later, multiple attempts to prosecute him for crimes including murder, torture, tax evasion and corruption ultimately came to nothing: Pinochet died under house arrest on December 10, 2006, at the age of 91.

The Losers

1. Benito Mussolini (Italy)

The inventor of Fascism was actually a fairly weak ruler, as dictators go. After building a distinctly second-rate empire and foolishly plunging Italy into the Second World War on the side of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler’s BFF was humiliatingly deposed by his own Fascist Grand Council in July 1943, following the Allied invasion of Sicily. Mussolini would have been well-advised to sit the rest of the war out, but Hitler had other ideas: freed from captivity by a crack S.S. unit in a daring glider raid on his mountaintop prison in September 1943, Mussolini was reinstalled as dictator of the much-reduced Italian Social Republic, now under German domination.

But the tide of war had turned against the Axis, and the “Sawdust Caesar” had unquestionably worn out his welcome with the Italian people: on April 27, 1945, Italian partisans caught Mussolini and his mistress as they attempted to flee approaching Allied forces. The next day they were shot and their bodies hung upside down, on meat hooks, from a lamppost in the town square of Milan.

2. Saddam Hussein (Iraq)

© INA/Handout/Reuters/Corbis

Hussein was abundantly hated at home and abroad. At home, his vicious Mukhabarat secret police (just one of several organs of repression maintained by the paranoid dictator, who modeled himself on Stalin) killed tens of thousands of political dissidents and hapless victims who happened to run afoul of the regime. He also used nerve gas to kill at least 100,000 Kurds and Shiites during the Anfal genocide in 1986-1989, and slaughtered a similar number of Shiites during the rebellions against his regime in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Abroad, the Iraqi invasions of Iran and Kuwait earned him a reputation as a bloodthirsty serial aggressor (leaving up to one million Iranians dead in the Iran-Iraq war alone). He also tried to have President George H.W. Bush assassinated.

No surprise, then, that Hussein’s days were numbered after the second President Bush ordered the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003. After evading U.S. forces for almost nine months, Hussein was captured on December 13, 2003, then tried by an Iraqi court on charges of genocide relating to the murder in 1982 of 148 Iraqi Shiites. He was found guilty on November 5, 2006, and executed on December 30 of that year. Thanks to lax security, an Iraqi observer was able to surreptitiously record the execution with a camera phone; the snuff film of Hussein’s hanging became a macabre viral hit on the Internet.

3. Hideki Tojo (Japan)

A general in the Imperial Army of Japan, Tojo first rose to become Army Minister, where he helped engineer the disastrous alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and played a key role in furthering Japanese aggression against China and French Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). In October 1941, he was appointed Prime Minister by Emperor Hirohito, which made him squarely responsible for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 of that year, as well as the numerous war crimes which followed, including (but not limited to) the Bataan Death March of U.S. prisoners of war in the Philippines, the enslavement of “comfort women,” and countless massacres of unarmed civilians and prisoners of war throughout Japanese-occupied territories in Asia and the Pacific.

Unsurprisingly, Tojo was high on the “to hang” list compiled by Allied forces, meeting his fate on December 23, 1948. During the downtime between the end of the war in 1945 and his execution three years later, an unusual extra bit of punishment was meted out by his American military dentist.

“Remember Pearl Harbor” was etched in Morse code on the back of Tojo’s dentures as a constant reminder of his misdeeds.

4. Vidkun Quisling (Norway)

When your last name ranks alongside Benedict Arnold’s as a synonym for traitor, you would be well-advised (like the Revolutionary turncoat) to steer well clear of the people you betrayed. The Norwegian traitor Vidkun Quisling learned this the hard way.

The leader of an authoritarian, Fascist-style movement in a country with little love for such things, Quisling remained a minor political figure until his big moment came in 1940, courtesy of the Nazi German invasion of his homeland in April 1940. Cravenly selling out Norwegian political independence, Quisling maneuvered to make himself the Nazi-backed dictator of Norway, earning the undying hatred of his countrymen, who continued to resist German occupation to the end of the Second World War. Quisling was arrested by Norwegian partisans in May 1945, tried in August, sentenced to death in September (despite attempts to distance himself from his Nazi backers and pleas of ill health) and executed by firing squad on October 24.

5. Nicolae Ceausescu (Romania)

To be the most-hated dictator in the former Warsaw Pact, beating out even the leaders of the former East Germany, is no small accomplishment. That honor goes to the Romanian Communist Nicolae Ceausescu, with an assist from his wife Elena, who was possibly hated even more than her husband.

The bizarre, arbitrary nature of their rule leaves little question why they were so hated: the 60,000-member Securitate secret police was rumored to eavesdrop on every household in Romania, while the paranoid couple moved between a network of luxurious palaces, where Elena kept hidden a vast collection of pornography, and Nicolae stockpiled literally thousands of tailored suits (each worn just once, then burned, out of fear his clothes might be used to poison him).

With Soviet power in Eastern Europe crumbling, in December 1989 the Ceausescus were finally overthrown in a bloody popular uprising, followed by a quick trial and execution to prevent their rescue by diehard supporters. Their crumpled bodies were shown on a national TV broadcast to reassure the Romanian public they were really dead. Several hundred soldiers had reportedly competed for the honor of serving in the firing squad.