Andrew Roberts: How Dictators Die

Historian Andrew Roberts's latest book, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, was published in the U.S. in May. His previous books include Masters and Commanders and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. Dr. Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

When on Monday, April 30, 1945, Winston Churchill learned from Radio Hamburg that Adolf Hitler had died fighting against the Russians in Berlin, he told his private secretary, Jock Colville, “Well, I think he was perfectly right to die like that.” It was only later that he discovered that the fuhrer had in fact committed suicide in the Reich Chancellery bunker, taking his wife of one day, Eva Braun, with him, and thus denying the world the 20th century's most justified execution at Nuremberg.

The shade of Churchill would have been similarly impressed with the death of Col. Muammar Gaddafi Thursday, after holding out for over seven months against NATO and the National Transitional Council.

Usually dictators do not actually die on their feet, weapon in hand, as Gaddafi appears to have done. All too often they escape from the countries they brutalized, or are captured and not executed, or (most often) they die in office, full of honors, surrounded by sycophants and only loosening their grip on power when their hands go cold. For Gaddafi to have fought to the last, not escaping to Chad or Niger, but believing in his diseased mind that the silent majority of Libyans still loved him, is quite exceptional for dictators.

When Benito Mussolini’s tiny pro-Nazi Republic of Salo collapsed, he tried to escape across the Swiss border disguised as a private, but was captured by Italian partisans and instantly  recognized. On April 28, 1945, he and his mistress Clara Petacci were executed by machine gun in front of a low stone wall by the gates of a villa outside a village on Lake Como. If it seems rather un-Italian to execute a mistress, at least the shooting on Christmas Day 1989 of Romania’s dictator-couple Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu was fully deserved by her, not least because as vice president she had fully shared in his crimes over 37 years. Yet unlike Gaddafi, both Mussolini and the Ceausescus had surrendered, rather than fighting to the death....

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