A dictator’s death: how Stalin, Hitler, Mao and other self-styled strongmen met their ends

History shows that dictatorships usually end at best in ignominious fashion. And unlike the most successful democratically elected leaders, dictators are rarely mourned except by a few extremists. Historian Frank Dikötter considers the deaths of the leaders at the helm of those regimes that shaped 20th-century history…

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini give a fascist salute

Please note: This article contains images some readers may find distressing

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Strongmen who seize power rarely end their days lying peacefully in their beds surrounded by family and friends. Even the likes of Stalin and Mao, who met their deaths through natural causes, were lonely figures plagued by paranoia, especially near the end. History shows that dictators who seize power through violence invariably have to maintain power through even more violence – which in turn creates yet more enemies who must be eliminated. And if a dictator can take power, others can too, raising the prospect of a stab in the back. There are always rivals, often just as ruthless, waiting to step up. Since a competitor can appear from a dictator’s own entourage, a dictator must constantly purge the ranks. It helps if he – and most dictators have been men – can eliminate his friends even before he tackles his foes.

A culture of fear

In many cases paranoia is sets in, as dictators see real and imaginary enemies everywhere. As secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin made sure that more than 1.5 million people were ensnared by the secret police, interrogated, tortured and in many cases summarily executed between 1934 and 1939 alone. He continued to see plots everywhere, as millions more were shot or sent to labour camps in the following decades.
But the culture of fear around Stalin also had an impact on the manner of his own death. On 1 March 1953 he was found lying on the floor, soaked in his own urine. A blood vessel had burst in his brain, but no one had dared to disturb him in his bedroom. Medical help, too, was delayed, as the leader’s entourage was petrified of making the wrong call. Stalin died on 5 March.

Soviet Communist leader Josef Stalin lies in state following his death
Soviet Communist leader Josef Stalin lies in state following his death. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

A similar paranoia gripped Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Communist Party. During the last decade of his life, he became so suspicious that he launched the Cultural Revolution, pitting people against each other as they were forced to prove their undying loyalty to him and him alone by denouncing family members, friends and colleagues. The campaign ruined the lives of tens of millions of people. When his close associate Zhou Enlai was diagnosed with cancer, Mao refused to approve treatment until it was too late and Zhou died in January 1976. Mao’s own death came eight months later, on 9 September 1976.

The body of Mao Zedong lies in state
The body of Mao Zedong lies in state as workers file past, 1976. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Humiliating demises

Stalin and Mao died of natural causes, but not all dictators managed to stay the course. After the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, the Grand Council of Fascists turned against Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini. In July, King Victor Emmanuel III ordered the army to place Mussolini under arrest. Not a single party member rebelled, despite having taken solemn oaths to protect their leader to the death. Mussolini was imprisoned on the Isle of Ponza, off the Italian coast.

Mussolini had one friend left, however. The humiliating demise of a close ally was an unbearable reminder that strongmen can be ousted from power, and Adolf Hitler organised a daring rescue operation, sending a group of commandoes to free the Duce. The operation was a success, allowing Mussolini to form a new Fascist administration in the north of Italy.

The Duce’s end did not come until two years later, when he and several of his followers were captured by anti-fascist partisans near the Lake Como. On 28 April 1945, he was summarily shot, his body piled into a van and taken to Milan, where it was hung upside down from a girder.

The bodies of Benito Mussolini and followers
The bodies of Benito Mussolini and followers were hung from a girder following their death. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mussolini’s ally was also to meet a violent end – but not at the hands of his enemies. During the last months of the war, Hitler withdrew into his bunker in Berlin, built underneath the new chancellery. It was “the last station in his flight from reality”, wrote Albert Speer, the Führer’s favoured architect.

Determined to bring death and destruction to a Germany that he thought did not deserve him, Hitler ordered the fight to continue. On 20 April 1945, Hitler’s 56th birthday, the first enemy shell hit Berlin. Days later nothing but smoking rubble was left around the bunker.

Hitler ordered that his remains be incinerated to prevent any desecration

Having heard of the undignified treatment of Mussolini’s body, Hitler ordered that his remains be incinerated to prevent any desecration. On 30 April 1945, Hitler committed suicide by shooting himself. Both Hitler’s body and that of Eva Braun, his long-term mistress whom he had married a day earlier and who had herself committed suicide by taking cyanide, were dragged out of the bunker, doused in petrol and set alight.

Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun
After their deaths, the bodies of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun were dragged out of the bunker and set alight. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Crumbling symbols

In 1961, a concrete barrier was built, a mere 100m away from the site of Hitler’s bunker. The Berlin Wall was East Germany’s solution to the mass haemorrhaging of its citizens to the west across the open border of West Berlin at the height of the Cold War. After the wall fell in November 1989, countless statues of dictators also came crashing down.

Across eastern Europe, people dismantled statues of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, attacking them with hammers or decapitating them. Lenin’s followers also fell from grace. It was a sea change that took many observers by surprise. Dictators, or so the thinking went, were unshakable. They had captured the souls of their subjects and moulded their thinking. They had cast a spell on them, it was said. But there never was a spell. There was fear, and when it evaporated the entire edifice collapsed.

The head of a destroyed statue of Vladimir Lenin.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, many across eastern Europe dismantled statues of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. (Photo by Patrick PIEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

In the case of Nicolae Ceauşescu, Communist dictator of Romania between 1965 and 1989, the moment he faltered can be pinned down almost to the minute. On 21 December 1989, he appeared on the balcony of the party headquarters in the centre of Bucharest to address a mass rally organised in support of the regime. Just four days earlier, on 17 December, Ceauşescu had ordered his security forces to fire on anti-government demonstrators in the city of Timișoara. While the dictator’s secret police had rigidly controlled free speech and the media for decades, discontent with his regime was rising.

Within minutes of Ceauşescu beginning to speak, people at the back of the crowd began whistling and jeering

Within minutes of Ceauşescu beginning to speak, people at the back of the crowd began whistling and jeering. The leader raised his hand, demanding silence, repeatedly tapping the microphone, but the unrest continued. Ceauşescu looked stunned. His wife, Elena, leaned forward, lecturing the crowd: “Stay quiet! What is wrong with you?” Ceauşescu decided to plough on with his speech. In a hoarse, frail voice he tried to placate the demonstrators by offering to increase the minimum wage. But he was visibly shaken. With the fear gone, the rally turned into a riot, forcing the leader and his wife to flee by helicopter. They were hunted down a few days later and summarily tried.

Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena
Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena during a state visit to Britain. (Photo by Steve Burton/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

After the death sentence was delivered, the couple were led into a freezing courtyard next to a toilet block. Ceauşescu sang the ‘Internationale’ [a left-wing song adopted by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the new state anthem]. Elena was less restrained, reportedly screaming “F*** you” as they were shot by firing squad.

Days of reckoning

Dictators sometimes manage to postpone the day of reckoning beyond death. Spain’s dictator, General Franco, for example, was initially interred at the Valle de los Caídos, a colossal memorial constructed at Franco’s behest to honour the dead of both sides in the Spanish Civil War. Franco was apparently unconcerned that political prisoners were used as slave labourers on the project. But in September 2019 Franco’s body was exhumed and placed in a more modest family plot. Similarly, Stalin was embalmed and laid to rest next to Lenin. After Nikita Khrushchev denounced his erstwhile master and the reign of terror that he had overseen, Stalin’s body was dragged out of the mausoleum on Red Square in 1962.

Valle de los Caídos, Franco's grand mausoleum
Valle de los Caídos, Franco’s grand mausoleum. (Photo by Eric Schaal/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The collapse of the Soviet Union signalled one wave of revolution against dictators across the world. Another one came with the Arab Spring, as several regimes were toppled or severely battered in 2011.

By all accounts, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was one of the vilest dictators around, and after more than 40 years in power he met a vile death in 2011. Gaddafi allegedly became trapped after crawling into a culvert trying to escape from rebel fighters. He begged for his life. They beat him, stripped him bare and abused his body before shooting him several times.

In a few cases, tyrants succeeded in installing their own offspring, indirectly prolonging their reign. François Duvalier, otherwise known as Papa Doc, was president of Haiti for an unprecedented 14 years – also declaring himself “president for life”. He was first buried in the National Cemetery in Haiti when he died in April 1971, but later transferred to a grandiose mausoleum erected by the son who succeeded him as president, Jean-Claude Duvalier. But when ‘Baby Doc’ himself fell from power in 1986 an angry crowd demolished his father’s final resting place.

North Korea is no doubt the most successful example of a family dynasty, as Kim Jong-un keeps a watchful eye over the giant mausoleum where his grandfather the ‘Great Leader’ and his father, the ‘Dear Leader’, rest inside glass coffins. Across the country, monuments known as ‘eternal life towers’ remind the population that Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are “eternally with us”. It’s a small comfort but, if the historical record is anything to go by, their legacy too will meet an ignominious end.

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Frank Dikötter is Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He has published a dozen books on modern China, including The Discourse of Race in Modern China (1992) and China before Mao: The Age of Openness (2008). His latest book How To Be A Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century (Bloomsbury, 2019) is out now.