Before They Were Despots: Dictators and Their Old Jobs

In the dreary monotony of daily life, the best most of us can hope for is a promotion and a 3% raise. But a small subset of the human population dreams big – of bloody coups and secret torture chambers, personality cults and absolute power. Frankly, it’s enough to turn us off ambition entirely. Just imagine if Idi Amin had remained an assistant cook in the British colonial army. Or if these folks hadn’t thought to quit their day jobs.

1. Pol Pot, the Frustrated Teacher

Before he became a world-famous war criminal, Pol Pot was named Saloth Sar. As a young man, Sar studied carpentry and radio engineering, but proved a poor student so he became – what else? – a teacher. (And you thought your classrooms were scary.) From 1954 to 1963, Sar taught at a private school in Phnom Penh before being forced out because of ties to communism.

Ever fond of alliteration, Saloth Sar became Pol Pot and devoted himself full-time to Cambodia’s Communist Party, eventually becoming the party’s leader, and by 1975, his Khmer Rouge guerrilla army had overthrown the same government that once fired him.

In his four years of rule, Pot killed more than a million Cambodians. When the Vietnamese came to the rescue and invaded Cambodia in 1979, Pot retreated to the jungle, though he continued to orchestrate guerilla attacks until his arrest in 1997.

2. Hitler, the Frustrated Painter

As a child, Adolf Hitler attended a monastery school and harbored dreams of becoming a priest, but he dropped out after his father’s death in 1903.

By then, Hitler had a new career in mind: professional artist. And though the Führer’s precise but emotionless landscapes showed moderate promise, he was rejected twice from Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. Bitter, poor, and lonely, young Adolf moved between boardinghouses and hostels, earning a meager living painting postcards.

Oddly enough, he might have been just another failed artist had it not been for World War I. Turning in his paintbrush for a pistol, Hitler volunteered as a runner for the German army. Turns out he enjoyed that world war so much that, a few decades later, he decided to start another one.

3. Mussolini, the Frustrated Author

Many dictators were also authors. Stalin wrote scintillating screeds like Building Collective Farms; Mao’s Little Red Book is considered to be the second-best-selling book of all time; and Hitler’s Mein Kampf made him a millionaire. Even Saddam Hussein found a little time to pen two horrible bodice-rippers while performing his duties as president of Iraq.

But the most famous dictatorial romance is The Cardinal’s Mistress, written by Benito Mussolini. Before becoming the world’s first fascist dictator, Mussolini worked for a socialist paper, Il Popolo d’Italia, for which he wrote a serial later published as a novel.

The Cardinal’s Mistress tells the tragic story of, you guessed it, a 17th-century cardinal and his mistress. And boy is it bad. It’s the sort of book where “terrible groan[s] burst forth from” characters’ breasts, and characters ask one another to “cast a ray of your light into my darkened soul.” No wonder Il Duce gave up his day job.

4. Papa Doc, the Frustrated Doctor

Unlike Doc Holliday (brilliant gunfighter and amateur dentist) and Elmer Fudd (inept gunfighter known to Bugs Bunny as Doc), François “Papa Doc” Duvalier was, in fact, a doctor – although we can only imagine his bedside manner.

Favoring hypocrisy to the Hippocratic Oath, the dangerous dictator was first a physician in Port-au-Prince for nearly a decade before immersing himself in politics full-time in 1943.

Even more surprising, he actually rose to power in a legitimately democratic election. And though he was voted in as president in 1957, Duvalier promptly showed his gratitude to the Haitian nation by killing anyone who expressed the slightest opposition to his government. By the mid-1960s, Duvalier had established himself not only as President for Life but also as a quasi-divine manifestation of Haiti’s greatest (he claimed to have supernatural powers; Papa Doc even said he placed a curse on John F. Kennedy that resulted in Kennedy’s assassination).

Incidentally, his son, “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who ruled from Papa Doc’s death in 1971 until 1986, was not a doctor. Just a dictator.

5. Castro, the Angry Ballplayer?

Persistent rumors would have you believe that old Fidel was a talented baseball player who once tried out for a major-league team in America … which is completely untrue.

The fact is, Castro did play a little ball back in school: he seems to have been the losing pitcher in a 1946 intramural game between the University of Havana’s business and law schools. But the point there is that he was in law school not so much to win ball games as to study law.

Castro graduated and practiced in Havana between 1950 and 1952, when he failed miserably in his first attempted coup d’état. After a brief stint in prison and a few years exiled in Mexico and the United States, Castro and his family finally took control of Cuba in 1959. Just goes to show you, there’s more to life than sports!

From mental_floss' book Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits, published in Neatorama with permission.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog!


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The author, former U.S. Naval Intelligence Briefing Team Member, reveals information kept secret by our government since the 1940s. UFOs, the J.F.K.. assassination, the Secret Government, the war on drugs and more by the world's leading expert on UFOs.
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