From The Emperor Who Ate His Victims To The Tyrant Who Killed His Fa

By Simon Sebag Montefiore

Daily Mail
34/From-emperor-ate-victims-tyrant-killed-family-n ew-book-reveals-historys-murderous-villains.html
O ct 30 2008

When Caligula ordered a killing, he used to say: ‘Make him feel
he’s dying.’

When Empress Irene of Byzantium overthrew her son, she had him blinded
in the room where she had given birth to him.

Vlad the Impaler didn’t just impale his enemies, he also burned to
death all the vagrants, disabled and mentally-ill people he could find.

When Empress Irene of Byzantium overthrew her son, she had him blinded
in the room where she had given birth to him.

Vlad the Impaler didn’t just impale his enemies, he also burned to
death all the vagrants, disabled and mentally-ill people he could find.

‘Mistress of poison’: The Italian Lucrezia Borgia was the ultimate
femme fatale

While Himmler played with his children downstairs, his study upstairs
was furnished with tables made from human hips and lampshades of
human skin. Soviet secret police chief Beria sent out his bodyguards
to kidnap girls for him to rape.

The dictators of Uganda and Central Africa, Idi Amin and Bokassa,
both ate their enemies, while Colonel Mengistu of Ethiopia personally
purged his own cabinet with a machine-gun.

It is hard not to agree with the great historian Edward Gibbon, who
wrote that ‘history is little more than the register of the crimes,
follies and misfortunes of mankind’.

Of course, Gibbon was partly playing to the gallery with his cynicism:
history is also a register of heroism and courage.

But the horrific stories of villainous leaders over the ages still
have the power to warn us of the dangers of power.

Gibbon, whose Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire revels in the
depravity of the emperors, was only too aware that monsters are
usually more exciting than the heroes.

Anyone who has read Milton’s masterpiece, Paradise Lost, will know that
despite the brilliant poet’s best efforts, Satan is his most compelling
character. And so it is with my own list of monsters through the ages.

Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the great villains
of history and in my new book, Monsters, I have selected those I
consider to be the worst.

This begs a number of questions: How did I choose them? What makes a
monster? And what if my idea of a monster is someone else’s idea of
a hero?

Of course, the list is highly subjective, but there is no escaping the
most obvious candidates. One could argue that there were mitigating
circumstances for many early villains.

It was not until the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century –
in which reason was advocated as the basis of Western culture and
philosophy – that many countries began to consider the concept of
human rights.

But by the 20th century, human rights were the moral foundations of
civilised nations.

Hitler and his gang – Himmler, Heydrich, Mengele and Hoess – are
well-known, but almost forgotten today are their collaborators.

People such as the vile Ante Pavelic of Croatia, who killed 600,000
innocent Jews and Serbs in a frenzy of slaughter. Or Marshal Antonescu
of Romania, who murdered 380,000 Jews in Odessa.

The Nazi slaughter of six million Jews remains the most wicked act of
human history because of its rational execution, its cold-heartedness
and its aim to destroy an entire race.

But Hitler also qualifies because he started the most brutal war in
history: 27 million Russians perished on the Eastern Front alone,
and 70 million died during World War II.

The 20th century was also the age when modern technology and pervasive
state power combined to make killing possible on a gargantuan
scale. Technology enabled Soviet dictators Lenin and Stalin to carry
out more than 20 million killings; the Chinese Chairman, Mao Zedong,
managed 70 million.

It is easy to dismiss the world’s monsters as insane, but this simply
excuses them of their depravity.

Admittedly, there were some true madmen, such as Idi Amin and the
Roman Emperors Caligula and Elagabalus, the first and only tyrannical
transsexual – while Ivan the Terrible and Herod the Great both
ultimately became clinically insane.

And there was Baron Ungern von Sternberg, a warlord in the Russian
Civil War, who in 1920 believed himself to be the reborn Genghis
Khan, conquered Mongolia and ruled there for several months in a
reign of terror.

His favourite way of killing was to tie the victim’s limbs to two
trees which had been bent back to the ground. He would then release
the trees, and the man’s body would be torn in half.

Saddam Hussein: The dictator ruled Iraq with an iron fist, killing
countless thousands The real tragedy is that men such as Hitler, Mao
and Stalin weren’t mad – they were extremely competent and intelligent
politicians, however psychopathic, ruthless and evil. The same must
apply to Osama bin Laden.

And this is why we need to know the real-life stories of these monsters
and to understand how they rose to power. Because to treat them simply
as cardboard ghouls we learn nothing.

Most of the great monsters of my book – from Saddam Hussein and
Bin Laden to Nebuchadnezzar and Vlad the Impaler, from Al Capone to
the Colombian drugs baron Pablo Escobar – share one common feature:
a messianic belief in their own unique destiny.

Some had unhappy childhoods – Stalin, Hitler and Saddam Hussein had
drunken, violent fathers and strong mothers – but others, such as
Lenin and Mao, had happy upbringings. All were avid self-dramatists,
believing themselves to be the chief actors in a holy theatre of

Take Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, who renamed himself The Genius Of
The Carpathians. Or the lunatic butcher of Equatorial Guinea Macias
Nguema, who insisted on being called The Unique Miracle.

But perhaps the most extraordinary rebranding was that of President
Mobutu of Zaire, who changed his name to The Warrior Who Knows No
Defeat Because Of His Endurance And Inflexible Will, The Cockerel
Who Goes From Hen To Hen, Conquest To Conquest.

One of the most self-regarding monsters was surely Niyazov, the
obsessional dictator of oil-rich Turkmenistan until his death two
years ago, who renamed the months and weekdays after himself and his
mother, and dubbed himself Turkmenbashi, Father of the Turkmen.

But there are many monstrous women in my book, too. Look at the
6th-century Byzantine empress Theodora, who earned her way as a live
sex act until she married the Emperor Justinian the Great and became
a most ruthless politician.

Or the 16th-century Queen of France Catherine de Medici, whose hatred
of Protestants knew no bounds, and who ordered the Massacre of St
Bartholomew in which thousands of Huguenots were killed.

That beautiful Italian mistress of poison, Lucrezia Borgia, was
the ultimate femme fatale. Yet few diabolical hussies can equal
the 10th-century ‘whore of the papacy’, Maurozia, who was mistress,
murderess, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother of Popes in a
Vatican that resembled and sometimes served as a brothel.

Another common feature, in addition to this unbending faith in
their own ability, is a belief in the panacea of a Utopian ideology,
whether religion or Marxism or Nazism.

This terrifying conviction in their total virtue permits the most
terrifying crimes.

The Crusaders, for example, were religious fanatics every bit as
disgusting as the suicide bombers of Al Qaeda.

When Godfrey of Bouillon and his Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099,
they slaughtered every Muslim and Jew – 70,000 men, women and children
– in a single frenzied day.

Religious fanatics from Savaronola – the 15th-century Italian ascetic
who ‘purified’ Florence from corruption, burning books and works of
art in his infamous Bonfire Of The Vanities – to Torquemada of the
Spanish Inquisition share much in common with Nazi racial theorists and
Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, which killed half the population of Cambodia.

In their zealotry, these monsters believed human life was almost
worthless: all that mattered was history.

Stalin, who often expressed such thoughts with a frank gallows humour,
thought that killing was one of the most useful political tools. ‘One
man, one problem,’ he used to say. ‘No man, no problem.’ Stalin once
explained to a colleague: ‘The advantage of the Soviet model is that
it solves problems quickly – by shedding blood.’ One of the tragic
truths of examining the most awful people in history is that the
bigger the lie, the more credible it seems.

The Holocaust is a classic example: even the Jews who arrived
for selection by Dr Joseph Mengele at the railway station at
Auschwitz could not believe any regime would carry out something so
diabolical. Naturally, they wanted to believe they were going into
showers which were, in fact, gas chambers.

The big lie and gigantic crime are equally relevant in the Soviet
Union where Stalin himself put it famously: ‘One death is a tragedy,
a million is a statistic.’ Many Western Leftists so hated their
own free cultures and American power that they chose, and in some
cases still choose, to ignore the overwhelming evidence from Russia
and Maoist China of slaughter on a colossal scale. But this does not
apply only to the totalitarian monsters of the mid-20th century.

King Leopold II of Belgium owned the biggest private estate in the
world – the Congo – which he ran as dystopian murder factory to
terrorise the locals, turn them into slaves and maximise his profits.

Reinhard Heydrich: One of Hitler’s henchmen, he was nicknamed ‘The
Butcher of Prague’ No one believed it until some brave writers
exposed the horror that inspired Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart Of
Darkness. Colonel Kurtz, who was Americanised and put in Vietnam
in the movie Apocalypse Now, was based on King Leopold’s barbaric
warlord Leon Rom, who collected the ears of his enemies.

The real inventor of modern genocide was the German Lothar von
Trotha, governor of German South-West Africa (now Namibia) in the
first years of the 20th century, who declared about the country’s
Herero people: ‘All Herero will be shot – all are exterminated. That
is my decision for the Herero peoples.’ All of this is still horribly
relevant. History matters because old crimes justify new ones.

Until recently, the Armenian Massacres – the murder of two million
Armenians by Talaat Pasha and the Ottoman regime of the Three Pashas
during World War I – had been famously ignored.

This fact encouraged Hitler when he was thinking about the
Holocaust. ‘Who now remembers the Armenians?’ he mused over dinner.

But statesmen are hard to categorise morally, because even the most
admirable can make decisions that cost innocent lives.

Hence one man’s monster may be another’s hero: the People’s Republic
of China is still ruled by Mao’s Communist Party; indeed he is still
revered as he lies in his mausoleum – even as the country revels in
its capitalistic prosperity.

Lenin enjoyed the greatest whitewash in history, hailed as a cuddly
father whose Revolution was based on decency and equality.

When Stalin was denounced in 1956, many gullible Western liberals
believed what Khrushchev told them: that Stalin’s brutality was a
distortion of Leninism.

But the opening of Lenin’s archives recently revealed his frenzied
barbarism in the name of Marxism. He and Stalin were one and the same.

Yet today, even Stalin is being rehabilitated in Russia: President
Putin recently unveiled a new history textbook in which he was hailed
as ‘the most successful Russian leader of the 20th century’.

This is because, until recently, success was the only test of a great
ruler, however brutal.

Genghis Khan and Tamurlane, the two great Mongol conquerors, left a
trail of killing as they built empires – yet both were political and
military geniuses, not unlike Napoleon or Basil the Bulgar-Slayer,
one of the greatest Byzantine emperors.

We regard Alexander of Macedon as the Great, but Zoroastrian priests
in Iran saw him as a monster because he persecuted them.

There are many autocrats who could have appeared as monsters, from
Napoleon to Rameses the Great, from Suleiman the Magnificent to
Ataturk. Yet they could also be regarded by many as heroes.

I regard Henry VIII as a monster: his story is so over-familiar that
we almost forget that he killed two young wives on trumped-up charges –
though at least he spared his children.

Of course, killing one’s wives or children or parents is definitely
the sign of a monster.

Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great both killed their eldest
sons. Constantine the Great, who was made an Orthodox saint for
converting the Roman Empire to Christianity, was a murderous tyrant
who killed his own wife and a son.

But the King of Judaea, the half-Jewish, half-Arab Herod the Great,
wins this contest: he killed his favourite wife and three of his

The Roman Emperor Nero runs him a close second after killing his
mother and then his wife, Popea, by kicking her in the stomach.

Such a survey of historical monsters is not just indulging in a
ghoulish banquet of slaughter and torment – there are many lessons
in these stories.

Some are obvious. Absolute power corrupts. Monopolists of virtue such
as Robespierre, dogmatic theocrats such as Bin Laden or Torquemada
or the mullahs in Iran, and fanatical Utopians such as Lenin or Pol
Pot always lead to terrible oppression and suffering – as do racial
supremacists such as Hitler.

Some lessons are less obvious: many of these leaders, especially in
modern times, were superb play-actors about whom warnings were ignored;
others were saliva-flecked demagogues who warned frankly of their
extremism – as the Nazis and Bolsheviks did – but no one believed them.

But the lesson they teach us above all is that lives matter: once one
crosses a line where it is morally acceptable to kill a few enemies,
then killing can quickly become a routine part of policy.

I am often asked who is the worst monster: was it Hitler, Stalin or
Mao – as if we can name the worst killer and forgive the others. But
this is to put a price and number on murdered individuals.

All we can conclude is that one murder is a crime, never mind
millions. Such crimes should be first punished – and then
remembered. Sometimes that is all we can do for the victims of history.

Adapted from Monsters: History’s Most Evil Men And Women by Simon
Sebag Montefiore, published by Quercus at £20. Copyright Simon Sebag
Montefiore 2008. To order a copy at £18 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.


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