What Makes a Ruler a Dictator? Definition and List of Dictators

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in Munich, Germany September 1937.
Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in Munich, Germany September 1937.

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A dictator is a political leader who rules over a country with absolute and unlimited power. Countries ruled by dictators are called dictatorships. First applied to magistrates of the ancient Roman Republic who were granted extraordinary powers temporarily to deal with emergencies, modern dictators from Adolf Hitler to Kim Jong-un, are considered some of the most ruthless and dangerous rulers in history. 

Key Takeaways: Dictator Definition

  • A dictator is a government leader who rules with unquestioned and unlimited power. 
  • Today, the term “dictator” is associated with cruel and oppressive rulers who violate human rights and maintain their power by jailing and executing their opponents. 
  • Dictators typically come to power through the use of military force or political deceit and systematically limit or deny basic civil liberties.

Dictator Definition: What Makes a ‘Ruler’ a ‘Dictator?’ 

Similar to “tyrant” and “autocrat,” the term “dictator” has come to refer to rulers who exercise oppressive, cruel, even abusive power over the people. In this sense, dictators should not be confused with constitutional monarchs like kings and queens who come to power through a hereditary line of succession. 

Holding complete power over the armed forces, dictators eliminate all opposition to their rule. Dictators typically use military force or political deceit to gain power, which they maintain through terror, coercion, and the elimination of basic civil liberties. Often charismatic by nature, dictators tend to employ techniques such as gaslighting and bombastic mass propaganda to stir cult-like feelings of support and nationalism among the people. 

While dictators may hold strong political views and be supported by organized political movements, like communism, they may also be apolitical, motivated only by personal ambition or greed. 

Dictators Throughout History 

As it was first used in the ancient city-state of Rome, the term “dictator” was not derogatory as it is now. The early Roman dictators were revered judges or “magistrates” who were given absolute power for a limited time to deal with social or political emergencies. Modern dictators are compared more to the many tyrants who ruled Ancient Greece and Sparta during the 12th–9th centuries BCE. 

As the prevalence of monarchies declined during the 19th and 20th centuries, dictatorships and constitutional democracies became the predominant forms of government worldwide. Similarly, the role and methods of dictators changed over time. During the 19th century, various dictators came to power in Latin American countries as they became independent of Spain. These dictators, like Antonio López de Santa Anna in Mexico and Juan Manuel de Rosas in Argentina, typically raised private armies to take power from weak new national governments. 

Characterized by Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany and Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, the totalitarian and fascist dictators who rose to power during the first half of the 20th century were significantly different from the authoritarian rulers of postcolonial Latin America. These modern dictators tended to be charismatic individuals who rallied the people to support the ideology of a single political party like the Nazi or communist parties. Using fear and propaganda to stifle public dissent, they harnessed modern technology to direct their country’s economy to build ever-more-powerful military forces.

After World War II, the weakened governments of several countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa fell to Soviet-style communist dictators. Some of these dictators posed as hastily “elected” presidents or prime ministers who established autocratic single-party rule by quashing all opposition. Others simply used brute force to established military dictatorships. Marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991, most of these communist dictatorships had fallen by the end of the 20th century.

Throughout history, even some fully constitutional governments have temporarily granted their executives extraordinary dictator-like powers during times of crisis. The dictatorships of Adolph Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy began under proclamations of emergency rule. During World War II, both the United States and Great Britain granted their executives extensive extra-constitutional emergency powers that were terminated with the declaration of peace. 

List of Dictators 

While thousands of dictators have come and gone, these notable dictators are best-known for their cruelty, unflinching authority, and strict suppression of opposition. 

Adolf Hitler

Creator and leader of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler was chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945 and Führer of Nazi Germany from 1934 to 1945. As the imperialistic dictator of Nazi Germany, Hitler was primarily responsible for World War II in Europe and ordered the Holocaust, which resulted in the mass murder of some six million European Jews between 1941 and 1945.

Benito Mussolini

World War II ally of Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini ruled Italy as prime minister from 1922 until 1943. In 1925, Mussolini vacated the Italian constitution, eliminated all forms of democracy, and declared himself “Il Duce,” the legal fascist dictator of Italy. A law passed in 1925 changed Mussolini’s formal title from “President of the Council of Ministers” to “Head of the Government,” and removed virtually all limitations on his power, making him the de-facto dictator of Italy.

Joseph Stalin 

Joseph Stalin served as secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and premier of the Soviet state from 1922 to 1953. During his quarter century of dictatorial rule, Stalin turned the Soviet Union into one of the world’s superpowers by seizing and exercising perhaps the greatest political power of any other political leader in history.

Augusto Pinochet

On September 11, 1973, Chilean general Augusto Pinochet, with the backing of the United States, led a military coup d’état that replaced the socialist government of President Salvador Allende. Pinochet went on to head Chile’s military government until 1990. During his dictatorial reign, over 3,000 of Pinochet’s opponents were executed and thousands more tortured.

Francisco Franco

General Francisco Franco ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. After winning the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939), Franco established a fascist military dictatorship, proclaimed himself Head of State, and outlawed all other political parties. Using forced labor and tens of thousands of executions, Franco ruthlessly repressed his political opponents. 

Fulgencio Batista

Fulgencio Batista ruled Cuba twice—from 1933 to 1944 as an effective elected president, and from 1952 to 1959 as a brutal dictator. After taking control of the Congress, the press, and the university system, Batista jailed and executed thousands of his opponents, and embezzled a fortune for himself and his allies. Though Cuba held “free” presidential elections in 1954 and 1958, Batista was the only candidate. He was ousted in December 1958 in the Cuban Revolution by rebel forces under Fidel Castro.

Idi Amin

Idi “Big Daddy” Amin was the third president of Uganda, ruling from 1971 to 1979. His dictatorial reign was marked by the persecution and genocide of certain ethnic groups and political opponents. International human rights groups have estimated that as many as 500,000 people were killed by his regime, earning Idi Amin the nickname “The Butcher of Uganda.” 

Saddam Hussein

Known as “The Butcher of Baghdad,” Saddam Hussein was the president of Iraq from 1979 to 2003. Condemned for his extreme brutality in suppressing opposition, Hussein’s security forces killed an estimated 250,000 Iraqis in various purges and genocides. After being ousted by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in April 2003, Hussein was tried and found guilty of crimes against humanity by an international court. He was executed by hanging on December 30, 2006.

Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong-un became the unelected supreme leader of North Korea in 2011, succeeding his equally dictatorial father Kim Jong-il. While Kim Jong-un has implemented minor economic and social reforms, reports of human rights violations and brutal treatment of his opponents have marked his reign. In December 2013, Kim had his uncle and suspected coup d’état threat Jang Song-Thaek publicly executed, stating that he had “removed the scum” from the Korean Workers’ Party. Kim has also expanded North Korea’s nuclear weapons program despite international objections. Since coming to power, he has broken all diplomatic ties with South Korea and threatened nuclear war against his neighbors and the United States. 

Sources and Further Reference