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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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See Evil; Hear Evil; Do Evil: The Downfall of Corrupt Leaders Throughout History

Imagine watching a favorite movie from childhood. The villain is most likely consumed by greed and ambition. At some point in the movie, it is probably revealed that this antagonist had some type of tragic backstory or horrific event in their past that leads them to accumulate power in order to compensate for their loss. Nonetheless, good conquers evil and the hero is ultimately able to defeat the villain. This storyline is congruent to the lives of many powerful and/or evil leaders in the past. The overactive ambition of many powerful or evil leaders throughout the course of history ultimately led to their downfall. This ambition is often due to mental instability or an attempt to fill a void that resulted from a tragic event in that leader’s past.

On December 15th, 37 C.E., Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus was born into a power struggle within the royal family, which later led to his blind ambition and at last to his disgrace. His mother Agrippina was desperate to see her son on a throne. Agrippina married her uncle Claudius and convinced him to make her son his heir. She later poisoned him along with his son using mushrooms (Wishnia). Nero immediately replaced Claudius as emperor of Rome at the age of seventeen (Nardo). At the beginning of his rule, Nero was fair and gained the faith of his people. Author Steven Wishnia describes how Nero “reduced taxes, regularly distributed grain to the people, and staged massive spectacles to entertain the Romans”. However, a darker side of the ruler was revealed after the sun fell. On various occasions, Nero and his friends began to steal items from Roman citizens and assault them in the streets for their own entertainment. As Nero’s rule progressed, it became apparent that he had inherited his mother’s blind ambition. When Nero’s mother refused to permit him to divorce Octavia, his first wife, he ironically had her killed (Wishnia). He continued this spree and condemned Octavia, his second wife Poppaea, and his step brother to death. Nero’s adviser, Seneca, warned the leader to be wary of his own actions. Nero ignored him and later forced Seneca to kill himself (Nardo). Additionally, Nero had spoken of overzealous plans to expand his palace and reconstruct a large part of Rome (Wishnia). In the summer of 64 C.E., two-thirds of the city burned to the ground. Many were suspicious that Nero was to blame because of his construction plans and began to lose faith in the emperor. Although Nero blamed the incident on the Christians of Rome, tension between the impulsive ruler and his subjects mounted over the next four years (Nardo).  It had become apparent that Nero’s thirst for power had overcome him. Two assassination attempts were organized but ultimately failed. In 68 C.E., Nero’s troops saw the corruption in their leader and believed their military commanders were better suited to rule the empire. That same year, the Roman Senate declared Nero an “enemy of the people” (Nardo). Panicked by the Senate’s decree, Nero fled to the North of Rome with soldiers following behind stealthily. When the disgraced emperor noticed the soldiers, he committed suicide, shouting, “What an artist dies in me!” (Wishnia). This statement suggests Nero felt no remorse for his actions and thought very highly of himself. It was this mindset of superiority that contributed to Nero’s ambitious method of governing his people, and eventually his downfall. However, leaders such as Ivan the Terrible would live to recognize the error in their ways.

In 1528, the boy that would grow up to become the first tsar of Russia and allow his violent upbringing to dictate his reckless methods of rule was born. At age five, Ivan lost his father. Five years later, his mother died as well. Many people within the palace where Ivan grew up fought for control of the Russian government by killing and capturing their enemies. The young Ivan mimicked the violent behavior he witnessed by beginning to throw animals off of roofs at age 12. At age 15, Ivan began throwing people. The following year, Ivan IV was crowned tsar (Yurganov). Ivan proved to be a ruthless leader. He was so fixated on power he directed all blame of wrongdoing onto those around him. His actions would eventually earn him the title “Ivan the Terrible”. When the Russian army lost battles, Ivan would blame others and have them killed or forced to leave the country in order to secure his power. As his sovereignty progressed, Ivan became reckless when exiling officials. In 1564, Ivan threatened to abdicate the throne if he was not granted more political power and allowed to administer harsher punishment. The country was divided into Oprichnina, areas under Ivan’s complete control, and Zemshchina, areas under control of nobles. Oprichniki were officials that carried out torture and execution in Ivan’s name, while nobles that controlled Zemshchina were the Boyar Duma. Ivan used his newfound power to torture and execute his own cousins (Yurganov). This is similar to how his family members turned against each other after the death of Ivan’s parents. His ambition was fed by gaining more and more control over Russian citizens. Many nobles were tortured and killed. By eliminating the majority of the higher class, Ivan’s power became even more concentrated. Many Russians became fearful of Ivan’s wrath, creating folk songs including lyrics such as, "Wherever Ivan the Terrible went, there the cocks don't crow" (Yurganov). This is symbolic of the fear that froze the people of Russia, preventing them from carrying out normal activities. When Russia was attacked by Poland and Sweden in 1583, the divided country was too weak to defend itself. The country lost a substantial amount of land to their attackers. Ivan later admitted his mistakes to his heir before accidentally killing him. Along with his power, Ivan’s physical health began to deteriorate. He had saline deposits surrounding his spinal cord that led to pain and weakness. Fortune tellers predicted Ivan would die on March 18, 1584. They were proven right when the tsar mysteriously stopped breathing, possibly due to poison (Yurganov). Although Ivan eventually realized his wrongdoing, violence similar to the actions Ivan witnessed as a child had already been inflicted upon his people as a result of his aggressive leadership.

Like Ivan the Terrible, tragic events witnessed during his youth most likely led Hitler to his ambitious ways and hatred of Jews that eventually motivated his own self destruction. Adolf’s mother, Klara Hitler, was unsuccessfully treated for breast cancer by Jewish doctor Eduard Blochy. Hitler’s father was born out of wedlock with a Jewish father. However, it is most likely the loss of his mother that solidified Hitler’s hatred for Jewish people. Additionally, Hitler was rejected twice by the Fine Arts Academy in Austria (“Origins of Evil”). It is likely that Hitler carried his bitterness with him later in life because he was not skilled enough to fulfill his dreams of becoming an artist. Later, Hitler fought for Germany in World War I, then blamed Germany’s loss on the Jews.  After the war, Hitler moved to Munich, Germany. There, he embraced extreme nationalism and joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party or Nazi Party. The Nazi Party began to gain political momentum by promising economic reforms. The Nazis also hoped to reject the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty was created following World War One in an attempt to limit Germany’s military and economic power. Once Hitler was elected into office, a secret German police force known as the Gestapo enforced principles of Nazi ideology. One of the objectives of the Gestapo was to rearm the military, therefore violating the Treaty of Versailles. After gaining control of Germany, Hitler’s ambition drove him to expand his power throughout Europe. The Nazis conquered Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1939. However, when the Nazi army invaded Poland, England and France became involved in the conflict and World War II began. By 1940, Hitler's army had conquered a large portion of Europe. The following year, he attempted to take control of Russia, but to no avail. Russia became very involved in the war.  The United States joined World War Two in 1941. Hitler feared he would be unsuccessful and ordered the extermination of Jews in concentration camps in what he called “The Final Solution” (“Adolf Hitler”).

Shortly after, many German military officials realized Hitler had been overcome by ambition and had become reckless. They planned to eliminate the maddened leader. An assassination attempt failed, angering Hitler even further. His paranoia led him to execute five thousand of his own men. Afterwards, Hitler spent much of 1945 in a bunker in Berlin. During this time, Russians took control of the city (“Adolf Hitler”). Fritz Gerlich observed that Hitler most likely suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and Giant Cell Arteritis towards the end of his life (“Origins of Evil”). The deterioration of Hitler’s health is comparable to that of Ivan the Terrible during his downfall from power in Russia hundreds of years previous. While in the bunker, Hitler married Eva Braun. Then on April 30, 1945, Hitler committed suicide by shooting himself, while Eva purposefully ingested poison (“Adolf Hitler”). Unwilling to face the world plagued by his own atrocity, Hitler’s ambitious way of life came to a screeching halt at his own hand.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth demonstrates many parallels with the life of the Roman emperor Nero. It was predicted that Macbeth would become king of Scotland. Although he was skeptical, Lady Macbeth manipulated his thoughts. This relates to the deceptive actions of Nero’s mother, Agrippina, towards Emperor Claudius. Ambition eventually overtook Macbeth. Accompanied by his wife, Macbeth murdered the king and took his place on the Scottish throne. Nero also came to power when the previous ruler was murdered. In order to maintain power, Macbeth was forced to continue his murderous spree. Nero shared his thirst for blood. The victims of Macbeth’s tyrannous rule include Banquo and the family of Macduff. The overly ambitious leader met his end when confronted by an army led by the vengeful Macduff. In a similar series of events, the emperor Nero was driven from his home by the Roman army and later ended his life. Although Macbeth is fictional, his life is uncannily similar to that of Nero. Both rulers came to power as a result of their ambition and the ambition of those around them. However, this desire for power grew out of hand and ended in ruin.

In Antigone, a play by Sophocles, a struggle for power within the royal family ultimately ended in tragedy. Creon turned against his family when they made his people doubt his authority. This mirrors the conflict within the Russian royal family when Ivan was a child. Antigone’s brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, fought for the throne of Thebes. Both men perished in the battle and Creon became king. However, he declared that Eteocles was to be buried honorably, while Polyneices would be left to decay in disgrace. When Antigone buried her brother in spite of her uncle Creon’s decree, she was condemned to die. He was infuriated when Antigone challenged his authority and became reckless. Likewise, many nobles would murder each other over the throne in Russia following the death of Ivan’s parents. The families of Ivan and Antigone demonstrate how ambition can destroy relationships as well as lives.

Various characters and situations in literature mirror those of history. Although it was displayed on a much smaller scale, the ambition of Madame Defarge in Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities is not unlike that of Adolf Hitler. Hitler witnessed the death of his mother from cancer. He blamed her doctor for being unable to provide effective treatment. Since that doctor was a Jew, Hitler took it upon himself to exterminate the Jewish race in order to exact his revenge. Similarly, Madame Defarge witnessed the death of her family by the Evremonde brothers’ hands as a girl. She then was consumed by her need to eliminate the entire Evremonde family. Ultimately, their lives were both ended at gunpoint when their thirst for revenge became too extreme. Revenge motivated both Hitler and Madame Defarge, yet their excessive ambition and violent actions led to their failure.

In summary, powerful and evil leaders have historically endured emotional trauma or witnessed the destructive behavior of others in the past. These events most likely left the psychological wounds that said leaders attempted to heal by demonstrating cruel behavior and grasping for power throughout their lives. This ambitious struggle to gain control fundamentally became their weakness and caused their descent from authority. Nero and Ivan both observed those around them going to extreme lengths in order to obtain influence over their countries. On the other hand, Hitler’s desire to avenge the death of his mother compelled him to attempt to exterminate an entire ethnicity.

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