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History's monsters

By Simon Sebag Montefiore
Author of Monsters: History's Most Evil Men and Women

There is a special fascination in diabolical wickedness.

That is why in Paradise Lost, we identify with Satan despite all Milton's efforts. Or why we so enjoy the Godfather movies.

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler is the embodiment of a historical monster
But when I decided to write a book about the most evil characters in history, it was not merely to entertain.

As a historian, I believe that history is the best way to teach particularly younger generations about the values that our society needs such as responsibility, tolerance, decency, courage, freedom itself.

The best way to introduce these ideas is the excitement of character and biography.

These are characters we should all know, stories we should tell our children about.

One man's monster

My choice of monsters is naturally a subjective one. In many cases, they chose themselves: Hitler or Pol Pot for example.

In other cases, one man's monster is another man's hero: Mao killed 70 million but is still the reigning genius of the Peoples Republic of China today.

Stalin killed 20 million but in the Kremlin's new textbook, he is hailed as "the most successful Russian ruler of the 20th Century".

Many cases are interlinked. Hitler was encouraged to slaughter the Jews because he mused "who now remembers the Armenian massacres?"

Pol Pot
Pol Pot's regime killed one fifth of the Cambodian population
Some of these monsters may be included unjustly: Queen Jezebel of Israel or the Empress Livia, wife of Augustus, were probably not as murderous as their reputations suggest.

Some were just plain insane like Caligula or Ivan the Terrible.

Some are obvious - such as Nero, Torqemarda, Robespierre, Idi Amin, Papa Doc Duvalier or Kim Il-Sung.

Others will be less well-known - such as Nadir Shah of Persia, Enver Hoxha of Albania, Barbarossa and his brother Silver Arm the Ottoman pirate-admirals, Justinian Slitnose, or President Lopes of Paraguy.

Lastly some could almost be heroes: Genghis Khan, Tamurlane, Emperor Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, Nadir Shah, even Peter the Great of Russia, were brilliant generals and politicians yet monsters too.

In the end, I hoped to remind people of forgotten crimes and monstrous individuals so we can judge them again and remember their victims - and hopefully make history exciting again.

While the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao are well known, some tyrants have slipped through history with far less attention given to their monstrous regimes. Here are five of the worst - but let us know who you think should be included on the list using the form below.


Vlad the Impaler
Vlad was rumoured to drink his victims blood and eat their flesh
The inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula was in reality a bloodthirsty ruler of Wallachia (modern-day Romania) in the 15th Century.

Vlad's name comes from his preferred method of execution - victims were impaled on wooden stakes arranged in concentric circles around his castles, leading to a slow and excruciatingly painful death.

Thirty thousand merchants and noblemen met this and other gruesome fates on St Bartholomew's Day 1459, and another 10,000 a year later.

He was eventually deposed by the Ottoman army and imprisoned, but regained the throne 10 years later - only to be deposed again and beheaded.


Maximilien Robespierre
The springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror
Although considered by some a founding father of modern democracy, Robespierre - a senior politician during the French revolution - was responsible for countless deaths during the Reign of Terror (5 September 1793 - 28 July 1794).

Robespierre was a young lawyer at the start of the revolution, but quickly rose through the political ranks until finally playing a prominent role on the Committee of Public Safety, a body which had the power to order the execution of absolutely anyone without need for a trial.

Thousands of "enemies of the state" were sent to their deaths on Robespierre's orders, many to secure his own political position. In one horrific chapter of the revolution over 100,000 men, women and children were slaughtered in Lyon and Marseilles on Robespierre's orders.

Robespierre's grip on the revolutionary government eventually waned and he met the same fate as so many of his victims at the blade of the guillotine.

LEOPOLD II (1835-1909)

King Leopold II
I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake
Leopold II
The King of Belgium from 1865-1909 acquired large tracts of land along the Congo in central Africa for his own personally-owned colony.

A group of mercenaries, known as the Force Publique, brutally enforced law and order on Leopold's behalf and levied tax through forced labour.

Soldiers were ordered to cut off the right hand of anyone they had killed - so their superiors could check they were not wasting valuable ammunition on game shooting. But mercenaries circumvented the ban - and thousands of innocent Congolese had their hands cut off as a result.

The violent oppression led to the deaths of as many as 10 million people, half the population of the Congo.


Baron Ungern von Sternberg
After being captured by the Bolsheviks, Ungern was transported back to Russia in a cage and shot by firing squad
Von Sternberg was a warlord during the the Russian civil war (1918-1921) who invaded Mongolia and imposed a ruthless tyranny, under the delusion that he was the reincarnation of Genghis Khan.

The Bloody Baron's victims were mainly Communists and Jews, sadistically tortured and humiliated before meeting their death.

Execution methods included dismemberment, disembowelment, being torn apart by wild animals and being hunted through the streets by Cossacks.

Between 10 and 20 million people died as a result of the Russian civil war.

ANTE PAVELIC (1889-1959)

Ante Pavelic
Pavelic's regime murdered over 80% of the Jewish population in Croatia
Croatian Nationalist Ante Pavelic was the leader of a terrorist group known as the Ustase that campaigned for an independent and racially pure Croatia in the 1930s.

When World War II came to the Balkans, Yugoslavia collapsed and in 1941 Pavelic became the leader of a nominally independent Croatia, in reality a Nazi puppet state.

Pavelic set about realizing his dream of a racially pure Croatia, and under his four-year fascist regimem an estimated 700,000 Jews, Gypsies and Serbs were butchered.


Mengistu Haile Mariam
Mengistu's regime failed to react to the devastating famine of 1984-5, putting it down to 'enemy propoganda'
Mengistu Haile Mariam was a member of the Dergue, the group of Ethiopian army officers that in 1974 ousted president Haile Selassie in a bloody coup and took control of Ethiopia.

The Dergue ruled by violence and paranoia. During the "red terror", they murdered thousands of intellectuals, professionals and political opponents in an attempt to create a Soviet-style socialist utopia.

By 1977, Mengistu had seized complete control of the Dergue, ruthlessly suppressing opposition to his expansionist military plans - in one case killing political opponents in the Dergue himself with a machine gun.

Mengistu's regime held power until 1991 by which time bloody wars with neighbouring countries and a failure to deal with the drought of 1984-5 had cost the country millions of lives.

Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of Monsters - History's Most Evil Men and Women

Tell us your nomination for history's worst monster.

idi amin killed so many peaple during his regime of 1971 1979 in uganda
mbukeisaac, uganda kampala

Joe Stalin would have to be the bigest Monster [so far]
terry townsend

Historically " The Human Race " will prove to be the biggest Monster the world has endured, due to the devastation and destruction we have brought and continue to bring to our planet !
Judi Forman, Burton Pedwardine, Lincolnshire

George W. Bush without doubt is the worst monster so far this century.
mike garvin, st clement

My nomination for history's worst monster will be Countess Elisabeth Bathory Bloody Lady of Cachtice.
Judith, Maryland, USA

Slaughtered thousands for political dissent both in Russia and the old Soviet Union. Often overlooked becasue of the fascination with Adolf Hitler
Joseph Stalin, Durham, England

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