I recently finished reading Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror, by Walter R. Newell, and I highly recommend it to the student of history. Newell takes the reader on a curated journey through the history of Western tyranny (with the occasional detour to the East), treating in turn the ancient world, the birth of the modern state, and the revolutionary terror that that has reared its ugly head ever since the French Revolution. Along the way, Newell identifies three primary types of tyrants: the garden variety, the reformer, and (most salient of all) the millenarian.
The garden-variety tyrant is what perhaps springs immediately to mind when most people think of a tyrant: a ruler who wields absolute (or near-absolute) power for his own benefit, caring only about the good of the nation insofar as it contributes to his personal schemes. Examples include tyrants of early Greece (though some of these were perhaps constrained by the knowledge that ambitious fellow chieftains might try to dethrone them should they rule too immoderately), and some of the Roman emperors.
The reforming tyrant wields power with a Machiavellian cunning and crushes dissent with the best of the garden-variety tyrants, but rather than enriching himself at the expense of all else, he genuinely improves his domain. Roads, bridges, and schools are built at his behest, and the state transforms under his guidance. Examples include Henry VIII, who transformed England into the modern state, Louis XIV, and Peter the Great, who dragged Russia into modernity.
Finally, there is the millenarian tyrant. Newell’s analysis of this topic alone is worth reading the book, in my opinion. Newell traces this type of tyranny from its origins in the French Revolution through the blood-soaked regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and the Khmer Rouge to its modern incarnation in ISIS and other jihadist movements. The millenarian, generally speaking, is animated by a desire to return society to an idealized, mythical, primitive state of natural bliss. The millenarian often believes that humanity existed in this state in the very beginning, before the corruptions of society began eating away at him. The millenarian seeks to force society back to this state, generally through terror and bloodshed (for the ultimate good of the world, of course), and there is a general fascination with a 1,000 year timeframe (hence the term millenarian; think of Hitler’s thousand-year reich). His followers often act with the fervor of true believers, suppressing whatever qualms they feel about their bloody task in order to hasten the return of the long-lost golden era. In order to return to this fanciful state of nature, a defined group of people must generally be purged from the earth through genocide (for Hitler, it was the Jews; for Stalin, the Kulaks).
I have deliberately only scratched the surface of Newell’s arguments and analysis. My purpose is merely to pique my readers’ interest, as I hope not to provide a replacement for Newell’s work, but rather an inspiration for others to delve into it. His insight is well worth reading and considering.