Skip to content

COLUMN: In search of new dictators

There are many tyrannical dictators today, but there is a fixation on one from 20th-century history

Here’s a quick spot quiz. Answer the following question with the first name that comes to mind.

Name a tyrannical dictator, known for cruelty and brutality...

That wasn’t too hard.

It’s likely many people would answer with the most recognizable name from the Second World War, someone associated with the worst genocide in recorded history. If that name isn’t given, the second choice might be the head of the former Soviet Union before, during and after the Second World War.

But the question isn’t finished.

Name a tyrannical dictator, known for cruelty and brutality, who has been in power recently, or is still in power today.

If that question was more difficult to answer, it is not because of a lack of dictatorships or authoritarian governments. 

There are more than 50 countries classified as dictatorships or authoritarian regimes. These include Afghanistan, North Korea, China, Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, Libya and others. 

Hibatullah Akhundzada, whose title is Supreme Leader of Afghanistan, assumed leadership of that country in August, 2021. He is religiously ultraconservative and the laws in his country are some of the most repressive anywhere.

Kim Jong Un, who has been supreme leader of North Korea since 2011, is also known for heavy-handed authoritarian leadership. 

Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria since 2000, is also known for his totalitarian leadership, human rights violations and repression.

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are also known for heavy-handed control in their countries. 

If these names are not enough, there are also some who have wielded power in recent decades.

Idi Amin, president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, was known for his persecution of ethnic groups and political dissidents and for human rights abuses in his country. During his reign, between 100,000 and 500,000 people were killed. 

Pol Pot, the leader of Cambodia from 1976 to 1979, was responsible for killing 1.5 to two million people, or around one-quarter of the population of his country at that time.

Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe from 1987 until 2017, was known for corruption, human rights abuses, genocide and more. During his time as president, Zimbabwe’s economy declined significantly.

Other names from relatively recent history include Saddam Hussein in Iraq and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

And yet, when there are complaints about a leader, a government, a political party or an ideology, the go-to comparison inevitably tends to be one leader from the Second World War. 

Within the past two weeks, I have heard such comparisons made about one political figure and one political organization. And within the past year, I have heard such comparisons about multiple figures, organizations and ideologies. In every case, the comparison falls flat.

But I cannot remember hearing any person or organization compared to Afghanistan’s present Taliban government, the former Cambodian dictatorship, the leadership in Syria today or the government of Uganda in the 1970s. 

The fixation remains on one leader whose time in power ended nearly 80 years ago.

The world today is not the same as it was in the first half of the 20th century, and dictators do not all follow the same tactics, in the same way and for the same reasons.

The Second World War needs to be studied and remembered for what it was. This is why events such as Remembrance Day in November, VE Day in May and D-Day commemorations in early June are important. 

The most destructive war in recorded history must not become a metaphor for a disliked person or idea.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

John Arendt

About the Author: John Arendt

John Arendt has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years. He has a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Journalism degree from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute.
Read more