Dictators: Terrible at human rights, really good at building stuff. 

When you think of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, the first thing that comes to mind is, understanably, the atrocities committed in World War II against 6 million jewish people, the international community, and  the German people themselves. What doesn’t necessarily come to mind is the infrastructure accomplishments of Hitler’s dictatorship. This isn’t just relevant to Hitler and the Nazis. It is relevant to the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro in Cuba, and many other dictators throughout human history. We remember dictatorships for their most despicable elements, and rightfully so. But we negatively reflect on these points of history so aggressively that we often forget the fact that these regimes committed other, less atrocious acts – acts such as creating infrastructure for their people.

Hitler’s rise to power and ensuing popularity in Germany was characterised by his creation of jobs. In a stagnating economy crippled by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I, Hitler was bringing employment back. His party had originally opposed the idea of building an interconnected highway system throughout the country, but after coming to power the Nazis embraced the concept, even going so far as to present it as Hitler’s own idea (it wasn’t, his predecessor has been planning it for years). They were even termed “Adolf Hitler’s roads.” The party thought that the autobahn would serve as a permanent monument to the third reich, a feat on par with ancient Egypt’s erection of the pyramids. The construction of the roads served as a major boost for employment opportunities in a country ravaged by widespread unemployment. 

In 1941, two years into the second world war and three years into the project, construction ceased on the autobahn so that more resources could be put into Germany’s military efforts. As of 2016, the autobahns of Germany combine to cover a total of 12,993 kms. When Hitler’s work on the autobahns ended, they spanned 3819.7 kms. The Nazi’s essentially laid the ground work for one of the best roads in the world – they did about 30% of the work for what is standing now, in the space of a measley three years. That’s nothing if not really, really efficient.

The Trans Siberian Railway which connects Moscow to far east Russia is the longest of its kind in the world. It covers 9,289 kms – take a look at the map below to get an idea of just how big that is. 

 

In 1917, Russia’s monarchic government was overthrown. Prior to this revolution, Russia had been run by a bloodline of emperors (or Tsars). Under the Tsar governments, all power and wealth was held and distributed by the lifelong and often brutal Tsar. Between 1891 and 1916, Tsar Alexander III and his son Tsar Nicholas II oversaw construction of the Trans Siberian railway. Due to the increasing economic and social connectivity of Moscow, the far east and Siberia, the railway became a necessity. It is estimated that more than 90,000 people worked on the railway, with many of them partaking in forced labour, and many dying in the process. Much like the autobahns of Germany, today the Trans Siberian railway  is of utmost importance to the economy and connectivity of Russia. The expansions to the line which connect Russia to Mongolia, China and North Korea are vital to trade and transportation in the region.

During the decades long Cold War between Russia and the USA that followed the conclusion of World War II, one little island off the coast of Florida became central to the global dialogue, and would later play host to one of the most important historical events, The Cuban Missile Crisis. I’m speaking of course of the home of the world’s best cigars; Cuba. After the Cuban revolution in 1959 which propelled communist dictator Fidel Castro to power, the Soviet Union saw its first chance to have a major ally in the western hemisphere, and one in immediate proximity to the USA. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and dictator Fidel Castro formed a close bond, and the Soviet Union provided military and economic support to the small country. This struck fear into the hearts of the US, who were increasingly nervous of a communist-sympathetic nation so close to home. In the space of 40 years, the CIA reportedly attempted to assassinate Castro no less than 638 times. 

*Fidel Castro & Nikita Khrushchev

 

Under Fidel Castro’s leadership, thousands of Cubans were executed for various crimes against the state, including being gay. With a long list of human right’s abuses beside his name, Castro is historically remembered as a pretty bad guy. But there are some within Cuba who still hold him in the highest of regards. Part of this is due to the fact that Castro was at the helm of revolutionary social infrastructure, like the universal healthcare he provided to all Cubans, which is still very much the envy of much of Latin America, and even the USA who still can’t seem to pass a functional healthcare bill in 2017. The government of Cuba operates a national healthcare system for which it assumes both financial and administrative responsibility. All hospitals and clinics in the country are government run. Much like other large swathes of the Cuban economy, health care suffered greatly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when subsidies contributed by the Soviets ceased. During their communist rule, Cuba performed better than many of its neighbours in the region on infant mortality, and life expectancy – though, as with all data released by a dictatorship, this information should be taken with a grain of salt.

Muammar Gaddafi ruled the African country of Libya from 1969 until 2011, when he was captured and killed during a people’s uprising, his regime overthrown. During his rule as the dictator of country, he was responsible both directly and indirectly for tens of thousands of deaths in the country. But he was also responsible for the construction of the world’s largest irrigation project, known as the Great Man-Made River. It is a network of underground pipes which supply water to the Sahara in Libya, from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System. Over 2,820 kms of pipes make up the system, it consists of more that 13,00 wells and supplies 6,500,000m3 of freshwater per day to the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirte and others. The scope of the project cannot be understated – but it did take over 30 years to complete, and Gaddafi’s assertion that it is “the eighth wonder of the world” might be somewhat overstating things.

 

The current president of the Phillipines, Rodrigo Duterte, has been branded a human rights violator (more than 7000 people have been killed in his current ‘war on drugs’), and some suggest that he is already brandishing the traits of a dictator. But he certainly isn’t the first for that part of the region. One of the worlds lesser known dictators, President Ferdinand E. Marcos, was one of the most brutal, and most accomplished in history. Marcos was president from 1965 to 1986, and he ruled as a dictator under martial law from 1972 until 1981. He, like most dictators, was eventually overthrown by his people – but his list of achievements during his tenure is truly staggering. In a twenty year period, he was responsible for constructing 20 power plants, and 9 bridges totalling 11,472m. He was also responsible for founding 48 universities, and was the chief architect behind multiple large scale social and economic achievements such as accessible health care, housing, energy self-reliance, and export development. Of course, Marcos was also responsible for a large array of atrocities, including over 35,000 torture cases, 70,000 incarcerations, 3,257 murders, and the disappearances of a further 50,000 people.

This article should not be read as a love letter to dictatorships – our primary responsibility as human beings should be to look after our fellow people, of which dictators have a historically poor record of doing. But perhaps what we can gleam from this is that history will look so unfavourably on dictators for their heinous acts that there more positive ones will slip far below the radar of discussion. Perhaps we can also gleam that under a dictatorship – wherein there is little input from the public on the decisions of the country, and rarely a parliament or a congress to negotiate these decisions – things can get done far more effectively. In a democracy, it can take years for a social or physical infrastructure project to come to fruition, due to it needing the approval of various branches of government, and the support of the people the government represents. Under a dictatorship, work can begin as soon as an idea is conceived, and ‘no’ is not taken for an answer.

While there is no doubt that Germany, the Soviet Union, Libya, the Phillipines and other countries who have suffered under a dictator would have been better off without them in the long run, they may also not have much of the infrastructure which shapes their societies and allows them to function the way they do today.