The Most Brutal Ruler In History, According To 46% Of People

There have been lots of horrible people throughout history, so choosing the most brutal ruler ever can be a little tricky. Mad monarchs, military megalomaniacs, and dictators: Some might have been bad at their job, but others will go down in history as among the most ruthless people the world has ever seen.

Our resident historians asked hundreds of people to pick the worst of the worst among six cruel rulers: Vlad the Impaler, Henry VIII, Genghis Khan, Caligula, Hitler, and Ivan the Terrible. Quite the lineup, if we say so ourselves.

Grunge polled hundreds on this very topic — 597, to be exact — and now the results are in. As winners and losers go, this is one competition where being at the bottom of the list is actually a good thing. That's not to say the last guy on the list was any better — and certainly not somebody you would want to hang out with for a relaxing evening.

It begins with terrible news

Not that Ivan the Terrible wasn't, well, terrible. Ivan IV was the reigning tsar of Russia in the 1500s and during his early years as the ruling monarch, things were actually quite peaceful. Then his wife died (possibly poisoned) and his dear friend Prince Kurbsky betrayed him, and Ivan became a little insane (per History).

He first started torturing and murdering his political rivals. Then he created his own group of elite soldiers, the Oprichniki, and sent them out to terrorize villagers, confiscate land, and conduct public executions. The Oprichniki executed anybody Ivan pointed a finger to as disloyal — and their methods weren't exactly humane. They would boil or roast people alive (sometimes in specially constructed frying pans), impale enemies or have their limbs torn apart by pulling horses (via History). According to On This Day, Ivan even killed his own son — after assaulting his daughter-in-law — by striking him on the head with his scepter. For all that, Ivan took sixth place, with 4.36% of the votes.

In fifth place, with 7% of the votes, is England's King Henry VIII, proving that rulers really aren't necessarily the nicest people. Henry is probably best known for marrying six times and beheading two of his wives. But he also executed close to 60,000 of his people for participating in uprisings against his court or denying him as Head of the English church he established. He also executed many people for witchcraft and heresy, either by hanging or burning at the stake (per History).

Things just keep getting worse from there

When it comes to doing awful things, our responders think Vlad the Impaler and Caligula were equally horrible, both earning 10% of votes.

Legend goes Prince Vlad Dracul III was the inspiration behind Bram Stocker's Dracula. Vlad lived in Transylvania in the 1400s and was known for impaling his enemies (including much of the Ottoman army, women, and children) on stakes, not to mention skinning them alive, decapitating, or disembowelling them (per Britannica).

Caligula, emperor of Ancient Rome, had an equally bad reputation. His life was a mix of depraved sex parties, excessive luxury, and all-around madness. He executed enemies and members of the court with little reason. According to History Today, he once sent an entire section of spectators into the gladiators' arena to be eaten by animals because there weren't enough criminals to be used that day.

In second place as the most brutal ruler in history is Emperor Genghis Khan, with 22% of the votes. It's a place well earned, as he was responsible for the deaths of as many as 40 million people during the Mongol conquests, through famine and mass extermination. In fact, historians believe he might have killed the equivalent to 11% of the world's population during his lifetime (via History). Because the Khan army often catapulted infected corpses into towns as part of an attack, they might have also played a role in the spread of the plague in the 14th century, according to an article in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases (posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

The most brutal ruler in history is likely not a surprise

According to 46% of the people surveyed, Adolf Hitler takes the top spot. Hitler was the mastermind behind the "final solution," the code name for the genocide plan to annihilate all Jews during World War II. The massive killing operation was authorized by Hitler himself sometime in 1941 and resulted in the construction of extermination camps where six million men, women and children were ultimately killed during the Holocaust. According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, the Nazis killed nearly two out of every three European Jews by 1945.

But while Jews were the primary target victims of the Nazis, Hitler's idea of "cleansing" Europe went beyond that. He also killed about 200,000 Roma, and sent at least two million Soviet prisoners of war to their deaths in labor camps, where they succumbed to starvation or disease. He also ordered the prosecution and killing of homosexuals and certain religious groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses.

In 1939, long before he directed the construction of concentration camps, Hitler also ordered the creation of a euthanasia program called T4. The program focused on killing mentally and physically disabled patients, the incurably ill, and the elderly. According to Britannica, at least 200,000 people were killed under T4 through starvation, lethal injection, and eventually the gas chamber. The program included a child euthanasia division that targeted disabled children, where at least 5,000 disabled babies and children were also killed (per Holocaust Encyclopedia).