Meet history’s most eccentrically evil dictators

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

The most eccentric dictator in history was an 18th century Russian empress, according to the author of a new anthology of tyrants.

“Anna of Russia was an artistic virtuoso when it came to devising fiendish schemes for punishing those who displeased her – forcing them to impersonate animals and imprisoning them in cages, for example,” Gilbert Alter-Gilbert told The Daily Caller in an interview about his new book, “The Desktop Digest of Despots & Dictators: An A-Z of Tyranny.”

According to Alter-Gilbert, 19th century Turkish sultan Abdul Assiz also ranks high on the eccentricity charts.

“Where Anna had a mean streak, Turkish sultan Abdul Assiz was a study in unbridled paranoia, rigging his palace with booby-traps and hidden firearms deployed so that they would be triggered by would-be intruders,” he said.

Alter-Gilbert said he decided to focus a book on dictators because dictators are inherently intriguing — much more so than heroes.

“Dictatorship is a juicy subject dripping with all the perverse and lurid appeal exuded by sheer evil,” he said.  “Villains are nearly always more alluring, more intriguing than heroes.”

See TheDC’s interview with Alter-Gilbert on his book below.

Why did you decide to write the book?    

Dictatorship is a juicy subject dripping with all the perverse and lurid appeal exuded by sheer evil. Villains are nearly always more alluring, more intriguing than heroes. For another thing, the sordid saga of dictatorship is an epic soap opera fraught with characters who are larger than life, and part and parcel of universal folklore. As a discipline, history is fuzzy and woefully unscientific. History is part gossip, part propaganda, part hearsay, and part theory, often supported by unsubstantiated attribution or outright fabrication. The process of historical formation and filtration is like a daisy chain of whispered “pass it ons”:  by the time a slice of the historical record has gone through several iterations, it’s been transmogrified from “the sky is blue” to “a guy she knew.” What we call history is frequently myth and rumor is more fun than fact…

 What did you learn studying dictators? What motivates them? 

Greed, envy, vanity. One common denominator found in low-level bureaucrats all the way to the top of the social control food chain is the craving for power over others that seems to stem from innate psychological deficits such as a sense of oppression or inferiority, or a craving for vindication of an injury or injustice. What’s really unnerving is that despots often consider themselves necessary and even beneficial and what’s still more chilling is the fact that many seem genuinely possessed, in the supernatural and demonological sense. The constant is the paradigm of an individual ego exalted above the interests of entire nations.

Who was the most ruthless dictator most people have not heard of?

Perhaps that would be Chang Hsien-Chung, the seventeenth century Chinese terror who massacred an estimated 40,000,000 people during a five-year killing spree. Although familiar to students of Chinese history, he remains otherwise obscure.

Who was the most eccentric dictator you included in the book? What made him so eccentric?

Actually, it was a female who might take the title in the quirkiness championship. Anna of Russia was an artistic virtuoso when it came to devising fiendish schemes for punishing those who displeased her – forcing them to impersonate animals and imprisoning them in cages, for example.  Where Anna had a mean streak, Turkish sultan Abdul Assiz was a study in unbridled paranoia, rigging his palace with booby-traps and hidden firearms deployed so that they would be triggered by would-be intruders. Then there was James I of Trinidad, who laid claim to a barren, guano-encrusted volcanic island, declared himself king, printed his own currency and hired an army of mercenaries to wage war against England in a sovereignty dispute.

Are there any dictators you included who you found were generally sympathetic figures? Or were they all fundamentally evil?

Maximilian of Mexico was a tragic figure who approached the office of leadership with sound intentions but did not accurately grasp the compass of the position into which he had been thrust.  He was cut down by a firing squad still baffled that he wasn’t loved and appreciated by his constituency.   Fellow Mexican dictator Santa Anna ruthlessly slaughtered the defenders of the Alamo, although he spared their wives and children. Was he fundamentally evil? Let’s say that the darker side of his nature had the upper hand.  Was his fundamentally evil nature tempered by a modicum of compassion and decency?  Perhaps…

Is there any difference between theocratic dictators and secular dictators? 

Only in the differing colors of their respective hypocrisies…

What characteristics do dictators generally share? 

The conviction that they are somehow qualified to “govern” others;  that they are superior;  that they are “chosen” or  “elect”; the tendency to get drunk on power and the refusal to relinquish it; subscription to the notion that might makes right; the prerogative of standing above laws which apply only to others and which are designed to herd and control subjugated populations.

What is the most interesting anecdote or anecdotes you discovered while researching the book?

The case of the contemporary African dictator who acceded to power while in his twenties, was deposed, and currently lives with his mother, subsisting on welfare checks.

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