6 Key European Dictators From the Twentieth Century

Twentieth century Europe showed that history has not been a progression through to democracy as historians once liked to say because a series of dictatorships rose on the continent. Most emerged in the aftermath of World War One, and one triggered a second World War. Not all were defeated, in fact, half this list of the six main dictators stayed in charge until their natural deaths. Which, if you like the triumphal action view of modern history is rather depressing. The following are the major dictators of Europe’s recent history (but there have been more minor ones.)

Adolf Hitler (Germany)

Hitler holding the "Blood Flag" at the 1934 Reich Party Day
Grasping the "Blood Flag" in his hand, Adolf Hitler moves through the ranks of SA standard bearers at a 1934 Reichsparteitag (Reich Party Day) ceremony. (Sept. 4-10, 1934). (Photo courtesy USHMM)

Arguably the most (in)famous dictator of all, Hitler took power in Germany in 1933 (despite having been born Austrian) and ruled until his suicide in 1945, having in the meantime started and lost World War 2. Deeply racist, he imprisoned millions of "enemies" in camps before executing them, stamped down on "degenerate" art and literature and tried to reshape both Germany and Europe to conform to an Aryan ideal. His early success sowed the seeds of failure because he made political gambles which paid off but kept gambling until he'd lost everything, and then could only gamble destructively more.​

Vladimir Ilich Lenin (Soviet Union)

Lenin by Isaak Brodsky
Lenin by Isaak Brodsky. Wikimedia Commons

Leader and founder of the Bolshevik division of the Russian Communist Party, Lenin seized power in Russia during the October Revolution of 1917, thanks mostly to the actions of others. He then led the country through civil war, starting a regime called “War Communism” to deal with the problems of warfare. He was pragmatic though and stepped back from full communist aspirations by introducing the “New Economic Policy” to try and strengthen the economy. He died in 1924. He is often called the greatest modern revolutionary, and one of the twentieth century’s key figures, but there is no doubt he was a dictator who furthered brutal ideas which would allow Stalin.

Joseph Stalin (Soviet Union)

Stalin. Public Domain

Stalin rose from humble beginnings to command the vast Soviet empire largely by a masterful and cold-blooded manipulation of the bureaucratic system. He condemned millions to lethal work camps in bloody purges and controlled Russia tightly. In deciding the outcome of World War 2 and being instrumental in starting the Cold War, he perhaps affected the twentieth century more than any other man. Was he a malign genius or just the most elite bureaucrat in modern history?

Benito Mussolini (Italy)

Mussolini and Hitler (Hitler at the front)
Mussolini and Hitler (Hitler at the front). Wikimedia Commons

Having been expelled from schools for stabbing classmates, Mussolini became the youngest ever Italian Prime Minister in 1922 by organising a fascist organisation of "blackshirts" which literally attacked the political left of the country (having once been a socialist himself) He soon transformed the office into dictatorship before pursuing foreign expansion and allying with Hitler. He was wary of Hitler and feared a prolonged war, but entered into WW2 on the German side when Hitler was winning because he feared losing out on victory; this proved his downfall. With enemy troops approaching, he was caught and killed.

Francisco Franco (Spain)

Keystone / Getty Images
Franco. Keystone / Getty Images

Franco came to power in 1939 after leading the nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War. He executed tens of thousands of enemies but, despite negotiating with Hitler, stayed officially uncommitted in World War 2 and thus survived. He remained in control until his death in 1975, having laid plans for a restoration of the monarchy. He was a brutal leader, but one of the survivors of twentieth century politics.

Josip Tito (Yugoslavia)

Josip Tito
Dennis Jarvis/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Having commanded communist partisans against fascist occupation during World War 2, Tito created a communist Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia in the aftermath with support from Russia and Stalin. However, Tito soon broke from following Russia’s lead in both world and local affairs, carving his own niche of in Europe. He died, still in power, in 1980. Yugoslavia fragmented shortly after into bloody civil wars, giving Tito the air of a man who was once essential to keep an artificial state in being.

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Wilde, Robert. "6 Key European Dictators From the Twentieth Century." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/key-european-dictators-from-the-twentieth-century-1221600. Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). 6 Key European Dictators From the Twentieth Century. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/key-european-dictators-from-the-twentieth-century-1221600 Wilde, Robert. "6 Key European Dictators From the Twentieth Century." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/key-european-dictators-from-the-twentieth-century-1221600 (accessed May 31, 2023).