Sometimes hell freezes over just long enough for bad men to do good things. History is filled with evil dictators who ruled through fear and violence. But in the list below, we take look at some of them who managed to do one right thing.
He started the biggest irrigation project in the world.
Muammar Gaddafi took power in a bloodless coup in 1969. Sadly, the rest of his time in power would be rather less bloodless. Libya became a nightmarish police state, where enemies of the regime were regularly imprisoned and murdered. Even fleeing overseas didn’t help, as Gaddafi became known for sending assassins after Libyan dissidents living abroad. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of terrorism. Most notoriously, Libyan agents were blamed for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie in Scotland, killing 270 people. He was violently overthrown in 2011, leaving a country ravaged by civil war.
But Gaddafi could boast at least one genuinely impressive project. Libya is one of the driest countries in the world, dependent on sparse rainfall along the coast, underground aquifers, and expensive desalination projects. When Gaddafi took power in 1969, many coastal aquifers had been polluted by seawater. The city of Benghazi was virtually without drinkable water. So Gaddafi developed the Great Man-Made River Project, a hugely ambitious plan to pump water from giant aquifers in the isolated south to the populated north of the country.
The first two phases of the project were completed in the ’90s, bringing a reliable supply of fresh water to 70 percent of Libya’s population. This required a network of 1,300 wells and 5,000 kilometers (3,000 mi) of pipes. The system is capable of pumping five million cubic meters of water per day and the aquifers are large enough to supply water for the next 1,000 years. There were plans for the system to be expanded “turn the desert green” and create large farms in previously unproductive areas. However, work slowed in the ’90s due to sanctions imposed after the Lockerbie bombing and stopped entirely during the Libyan civil war of 2011, when NATO bombing destroyed a key factory.
He introduced laws and religious freedom
What is there to say about Genghis Khan that hasn’t already been said about the bubonic plague? Erupting from the Mongolian steppe, his forces raced across Eurasia, destroying ancient empires and killing an estimated 40 million people (around 11 percent of the global population). According to Julia Pongratz of the Carnegie Institution For Science, the slaughter Genghis unleashed removed 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere. That’s right, Genghis Khan killed so many people that it noticeably effected the carbon output of the Earth.
But Genghis wasn’t just a destructive maniac—he was intent on building a Mongol nation. In 1208, he captured a Uygur scribe named Tatar-Tonga, who adapted the Uygur alphabet to create the first alphabet for writing the Mongol language. Genghis also created a legal code and applied it throughout his empire. Astonishingly, Genghis insisted that these laws should apply to himself as well as his subjects. In a world where monarchs were considered to be above the law, this was an incredible step (his heirs dropped it almost immediately). Genghis even made his adopted brother supreme judge and encouraged him to keep a record of all legal decisions.
The Khan also granted religious freedom to everyone within his empire and gave tax exempt status to places of worship. He was known to be very spiritual himself, often praying before campaigns, and enjoyed discussing religion and philosophy with scholars like the Taoist Qiu Chuji.
He led one of the first anti-smoking campaign
Introducing a health program that saved the lives of 20,000 women would be a huge achievement for any politician. Well, unless that politician was Adolf Hitler, a man who infamously ordered the mass murder of at least 11 million people he considered undesirable, including Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, communists, and the disabled. A mere 20,000 really does pale in comparison.
The health program in question was actually one of the earliest government anti-smoking campaigns. Hitler was obsessed with the idea of an Aryan “master race” and viewed smoking as a threat to the health of the German people. He often boasted that he had quit smoking in 1919 and appeared on anti-smoking leaflets warning that “every German is responsible to the whole people for all his deeds and omissions, and does not have the right to damage his body with drugs.”
Meanwhile, Nazi scientists were encouraged to research the dangers of smoking. In 1939, Franz Muller produced the first epidemiological study linking cigarettes to cancer. By 1943, German researchers had conclusively shown that smoking causes lung cancer. Sadly, the studies were forgotten in the chaos that followed the war and it took another decade before American researchers started to reach the same conclusions. Still, the Nazi anti-smoking campaign is estimated to have saved the lives of at least 20,000 women (who were targeted more than men, often with “police force”). Which, again, rather pales considering that many of the same doctors who led the anti-smoking program also organized a euthanasia program that killed at least 200,000.
He pioneered the French legal code
Hero to some, devil to others, Napoleon led France through some of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts since the Thirty Years’ War. An estimated two million people died as a direct result of his wars, while another million civilians were probably indirect casualties of the campaigns. The fighting was particularly brutal in Spain, where Napoleon’s forces carried out widespread executions of suspected guerillas.
Despite such brutality, Napoleon was at least a semi-fan of enlightenment principles. For example, he promoted the system of laws known as the Napoleonic code, which is now considered one of the most influential documents in world history. The Code entrenched the principle that all male citizens should be considered equal, without hereditary class privileges, and outlined the rights and duties of citizens in society. It also established religious freedom and guaranteed that the government would respect private property. Variations of the code were eventually adopted by most countries in Europe and South America, and it was a huge influence for reformers in Asia as well.
However, the Code did have its flaws. Among other things, it ruled that women should not share equal rights, but rather should be considered subordinate to their husbands. These aspects of the code had to be fought by early women’s rights campaigners across the world.