It’s easy, even comforting, to think of history’s tyrants as one-dimensional bad guys. That they may have had emotions and frailties as complex as our own threatens to muddy the narrative. But humanizing the inhuman can really drive home the terrifying reality of their despotic regimes, not to mention their sociopathic capacity for compartmentalization.
To that end, and in celebration of Valentine’s Day, here are ten of the most hated dictators’ most intimate love stories.
10. Robert Mugabe
While his first wife Sally was dying of cancer, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was grooming his young secretary Grace to replace her as First Lady. Even before Sally died in 1992, Grace had already given birth to the first of her three children with the President. Considering Sally’s only child with Mugabe had died in 1966 and she’d been unable to conceive another, this likely added insult to injury.
But Grace was not Mugabe’s only extramarital interest. Higher Education Minister Oppah Muchinguri also became pregnant with his child around the same time as Sally’s death. According to her former husband, Oppah was frequently picked up in the middle of the night for unexplained ‘meetings’ with the President. Grace remains suspicious of her rival to this day, at one point even dragging her into an airport catfight over a pair of earrings which, Grace believed, had been a gift from the dictator.
9. Mao Zedong
In his venereal diseased and drug-addled older years, Mao Zedong was notorious for bedding multiple young girls at once. His favorite was the 14-year-old Ms. Chen who, despite being the daughter of a consequently furious Communist Party member, was singled out for the Chairman’s exclusive enjoyment.
Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, a powerful Party official looking to succeed her husband when he died, became concerned about their closeness. Finally deciding to put an end to the arrangement, she had the young girl banished to the northeast, desolating the Great Helmsman and leaving him pining after his young lover for years. Although he managed to enjoy a brief tryst with Ms. Chen some time later, Mao tearfully explained that her fate was sealed. She was to be married off by his wife to a man in Nanjing.
8. Saddam Hussein
Recalling her first encounter with Saddam Hussein in the summer of ’68, Maria “Pari” Lampsos described his eyes as deep and golden, the eyes of “a real man.” She was just 16—to Saddam’s 31—when they met, and was nicknamed by her friends the ‘Princess of Baghdad’ for her good looks, wealthy background, and fashionable imported clothes. To Saddam, she became known simply as shaqra, or ‘the blonde’. During their tumultuous, decades-long affair, Lampsos was stalked, blackmailed, forced to spend time with the dictator, and even thrown in jail when she tried to escape. Despite finally making it out alive and moving to rural Sweden, she apparently still has a soft spot for those eyes.
Some call Lampsos’ story a wild fantasy, although photos have surfaced to back up her claim. In any case, Saddam’s penchant for blondes is well known: His naturally brunette first wife Sajida Talfah became increasingly blonde after they married, while Saddam’s favorite mistress-turned-second-wife, Samira Shahbandar, was also something of a blonde bombshell. So enamored with Samira was Saddam, in fact, that he bribed her husband to divorce her, had her brother murdered for criticizing their romance, and exiled his own son to Switzerland for jealously beating the pair’s messenger to death.
7. Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini was infamous for his prodigious womanizing. Yet by his own admission, he actually hated women, equating them all with prostitutes and finding most of them disgusting—especially postcoitus. Bragging of his conquests, he described an urge to beat women up and throw them on the floor after sex.
Of his myriad mistresses, many of whom bore his children, Il Duce only showed affection for one: Claretta Petacci, a woman 29 years his junior. As well as spending a great deal of time with Petacci (a dubious courtesy he denied even his wife), Mussolini took great care to appease her, soothing his mistress-in-chief’s feelings of jealousy even during times of great political upheaval. Towards the end of the Second World War, while his wife was attempting to flee Italy, Mussolini and Claretta were making a pact to stay together to the end. In April 1945, the two of them were shot dead and hung upside down over Piazzale Loreto in Milan.
6. Francisco Franco
Unusually for a dictator, Spain’s Francisco Franco was celibate for most of his life. According to his personal doctor, the loss of a testicle in battle and a serious phimosis (tight foreskin) would have made intercourse prohibitively difficult for the Generalísimo.
But he wasn’t much interested in sex. His marriage to Carmen Polo produced only one child, a daughter, and then not for three years after their wedding. According to biographers, Franco’s true love was always for his mother, to whom Carmen Polo bore some resemblance. Having suffered throughout his childhood at the hands of an alcoholic father—who called him marica, or ‘homo’, and broke his arm for masturbating—the young Francisco allegedly asked his mother to marry him. Such unresolved Oedipal frustrations may help to explain his brutal regime, widespread concentration camps, punitive torture, and fascist executions.
5. Nicolae Ceausescu
Despite her proclivity for amateur pornography, which she sourced from secret recordings of Party officials and her own alcoholic daughter having sex, Elena Ceausescu was the love of Nicolae’s life. The First Couple of Communist Romania met in 1939 through their shared political activities and, when Nicolae got out of prison in 1947, embarked on a marriage spanning more than four decades. Throughout this time, Nicolae only had eyes for Elena, doting on her with countless shoes, expensive gowns, and, bizarrely, a fraudulent PhD in chemistry.
Elena was far from a passive accessory to the Ceausescu regime. She was appointed Deputy Prime Minister by her husband and helped to enforce a harsh natalist policy that made contraception and abortion illegal, while also levying a tax on childlessness. On Christmas Day 1989, two days after the couple’s 42nd wedding anniversary, Nicolae and Elena were finally brought to trial for a range of charges, including the genocide of 60,000 people, undermining the national economy, and the subversion of state power. Nicolae was protective of his wife to the end, attempting throughout the rushed proceedings to keep her calm. As their hands were tied for immediate, televised execution, Elena could be heard making repeated and outraged demands to be shot at the same time as her husband.
4. Joseph Stalin
As a fugitive from Siberian exile before the Russian Revolution, Joseph Stalin holed up with his friends the Alliluyev family in St. Petersburg. Years earlier, he is said to have rescued their infant daughter from drowning in the Caspian Sea. Now a young woman of 16, Nadezhda “Nadya” Alliluyev listened to the 39-year-old revolutionary’s tales of adventure and intrigue with a keen and amorous interest, readily falling in love with the man who she and her sisters called Soso.
Against her mother’s advice Nadya married Stalin and made a home with him in Moscow. However, she never embraced the housewife role as she was expected to. An early feminist prone to dark moods, Nadya often quarreled with her husband about a woman’s rightful place, making several attempts to pursue a career. In response, Stalin purged her Party membership.
Nadya became especially critical of Stalin during the Soviet famine of 1932-33. Following a drunken row at a dinner party she shot herself in the night, which, according to her daughter, was a final means of protest. Despite their disagreements, the Man of Steel was broken by her death—like everyone else who knew her—and haunted right up until his own.
3. Kim Jong-il
The courtesans of Kim Jong-il—mostly young girls abducted from their parents—were split into three groups: the Haengbokjo (happiness team), the Gamujo (dancing and singing team), and the Manjokjo (satisfaction team). Together they formed the North Korean despot’s personal Pleasure Squad, or Joy Division, trained in camps from their teens to fulfil his every whim—from stripteases and boxing matches to violent, drunken orgies.
But the Dear Leader’s true affections lay elsewhere. Presumably bored with his official wife and various mistresses, Kim developed a crush on the secretive Japanese stage magician Tenko Hikita, also known as Princess Tenko. He opened a theater in her name, collected all of her Barbie dolls, and paid regular visits to her home in Tokyo during the 1980s. When she came to perform an underwater Houdini-style escape trick in the DPRK, Kim ordered that the tank be filled with Evian water to avoid making her sick with his own country’s water supply. He also refused to let her leave until she promised to return, keeping her under virtual house arrest throughout her stays in Pyongyang.
Even after she got back to Japan, Princess Tenko claimed that North Korean spies were watching her every move. According to some reports, Kim Jong-il had a deep-seated fear of abandonment, stemming from the early death of his mother.
2. Idi Amin
Comparable to King Henry VIII for his many wives with often grisly ends, Idi Amin had five First Ladies as the President of Uganda. The first of these, Malyamu, he divorced for a number of reasons including a dispute with her brother. In the same year, Malyamu was hospitalized following a suspicious car accident. He divorced his second wife, Kay Adroa, because she turned out to be his cousin. When her dismembered corpse appeared at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Amin took their children to see it.
Idi Amin’s favorite wife was his fifth, Sarah Kyolaba, who remained loyally complimentary of him right up until her death from cancer in 2015. He met her as a 19-year-old go-go dancer in the Revolutionary Suicide Mechanised Regiment Band of the Ugandan Army. The fact that she was already in a relationship with a musician, and pregnant with his child, served as no impediment for the besotted Big Daddy; he made the boyfriend disappear and declared the baby his own.
1. Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler’s 12-year relationship and 24-hour marriage to Eva Braun is well known, despite the paranoid Führer’s best efforts to keep it private. But ‘the unhappiest woman in Germany’ (as she was dubbed for her numerous suicide attempts) was not the only love of Hitler’s life. In fact, his obsession with his half-niece Geli Raubal far outweighed any romantic feeling he had for Braun.
The dark and mysteriously beautiful Geli enthralled her uncle for several years between the late 1920s and early 1930s. Not only did Hitler move her in with him in Munich, but he also paid for her singing lessons, took her to the opera, went for romantic drives into the countryside with her, and, each night, encouraged her to urinate and defecate on his face. As his infatuation grew, Hitler became increasingly controlling, keeping Geli under strict supervision and once remarking, “there is surely nothing finer than to educate a young thing for oneself.”
In 1931, aged just 23, Geli was found dead by a gunshot wound to the lung, her uncle’s pistol by her side and her nose bone fractured. The Nazi Party flew immediately into damage control mode, chalking her violent ‘suicide’ up to jitters over an upcoming music recital. They even went about selecting a replacement for Hitler, just in case the scandal finished his career. According to speculation in the press, Hitler had murdered Geli—or forced her to commit suicide—upon discovering her intention to marry a Jewish lover in Vienna. Whatever really happened, Geli’s untimely death weighed heavy on the future dictator, who at one point had to be forcibly restrained from shooting himself in the head. Wherever he slept thereafter Hitler surrounded himself with busts or paintings of his niece, and kept her Munich bedroom untouched except for the daily delivery of fresh chrysanthemums.