Bizarre Obsessions of Dangerous Dictators

The stone cold fact about being a dictator is that you get to be obsessed with whatever you want. Many strongmen have applied this to personal wealth, stockpiling vast hordes of cash, luxury goods, and homes. But sometimes dictators become fixated on things that are more unique. Often it's extremely unusual, but sometimes, it's as mundane as some food they like.

Fidel Castro was obsessed with ice cream and milk. Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin had a fixation with Scotland that bordered on demented. And Joseph Stalin spent the last years of his life doodling cryptic comments and jokes on classical nude drawings. Kim Jong Un reportedly has gorged himself on Swiss cheese to the point of crippling physical illness. Why did any of these dictators do these things? Because they could, of course.

Here are some of the most bizarre obsessions of dictators of the last century.

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  • Fidel Castro: Dairy Products
    Photo: Unknown (Mondadori Publishers) / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The former dictator of Cuba was obsessed with dairy products, in particular milk and ice cream. His entire history as a revolutionary and later as the leader of Cuba is studded with stories about his obnoxious love of milk, conspicuous consumption of ice cream, and efforts to make Cuba a world leader in dairy production.

    Biographers tell stories of El Presidente eating dozens of scoops of ice cream in one sitting. His chocolate milkshake habit was such that the CIA planned to poison one with botulinium toxin. He was devoted to Howard Johnson's ice cream to the point of ordering his Canadian ambassador to ship him 28 containers of the stuff, one of each flavor. Then, unsatisfied with Cuba's products, he had a city-block sized ice cream parlor built in Havana, and kept it running from 10 until 2 AM.

    Beyond that, Castro involved himself in cheesemaking and cattle buying importing Canadian cows to create a Cuban version of the famous Holstein milking cow. Cuba's climate was terrible for the cows, who failed to make much milk. So Castro ordered genetic engineering in the form of breeding super Cuban cows. One success story made so much milk that when she died, her eggs were saved for cloning. He then tried to breed mini-cows that every Cuban family could have in their home. The effort failed.
  • Muammar al-Gaddafi: Condoleezza Rice
    Photo: Stevan Kragujević / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    The late Libyan strongman was obsessed with beautiful African women in general, keeping a posse of them around as bodyguards, and paying hundreds of others to attend his lectures. But his roving eye fell hard on one particular woman: Condoleezza Rice.

    "Yes, Leezza, Leezza, Leezza... I love her very much," the dictator told Al Jazeera in 2007. And he meant it. Gaddafi kept a fully updated picture book of her, and referred to her as his “darling Black African woman.” When she visited him in Tripoli, he showered her with $212,000 worth of gifts that included a lute, a massive ring, an autographed copy of his book, and a locket with his picture inside. Oh, and he commissioned a Libyan composer to write a song about her, called "Black Flower in the White House." Rice reportedly found the obsession a little creepy, but wasn't put off enough to not have dinner with the strongman.

  • For six weeks during Autumn, 2014, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un vanished from the public eye. While the state said only that he had an "uncomfortable physical condition," a North Korean defector who'd been Kim's personal chef revealed the cause to be massive weight gain from the dictator's obsession with eating Swiss cheese, as he gorged on it daily in an effort to put on weight and look more like his father.

    Sources said Kim is so addicted that he has it imported in bulk and binges on it in everything from sandwiches to fondue. He's also said to be unhappy with the country's cheese-makers as they've struggled to make an Emmenthaller cheese as good as what he could get in Switzerland as a student. Whatever the case, Kim was thought to have gained so much weight that he'd ballooned over 300 pounds, had fractured one or both of his ankles, and was suffering from severe stomach problems and gout.

    When he returned to the public eye in October 2014, he walked with a limp and was noticeably larger.

  • Joseph Stalin: Defacing Classical Drawings Of Men
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Uncle Joe had a number of obsessions, everything from "Soviet style" film and architecture to masterminding bizarre ways for his enemies to be killed (he ordered one foe to be dispatched with "an axe wrapped in a wet, quilted jacket" for example). But he also really liked defacing classical drawings of nude men with crude notes or comments.

    Some scholars claim his schoolboy sense of humor was being demonstrated in the comments he'd leave on prints by 19th-century artists. Others believe he disdained this style of art, and found it unacceptable for Communist eyes. All of the comments were left in pen and were on sketches of men Stalin didn't know. And they ranged from simple doodles to veiled shots at enemies he'd already purged, such as one comment written on the leg of a nude man that read "Ginger b*stard Radek, if he had not p*ssed against the wind, if he had not been angry, he would still be alive." It's almost certain that "Radek" was Karl Radek, a compatriot of Stalin who had fallen out with the dictator, and been killed in prison.

    Others were admonitions that the drawing subject touched themselves too much, needed underpants, or was too thin. A few were singled out for praise, with one being called a "Soviet David." It appears from the writing style that the defacements were made in the last years of Stalin's life, and were secret until being sold to a private collector and shown in 2009.

  • Adolf Hitler: Karl May's American Western Novels
    Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H1216-0500-002 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

    Hitler had numerous obsessions, throwing himself into everything from Disney films (Snow White was a favorite, while Mickey Mouse was derided as degenerate) to lusting after young girls. But the obsession that did more to shape the Fuhrer's childhood was the western novels of hugely-popular 19th Century German writer Karl May.

    May wrote adventure stories set all over the world, from Asia to the Middle East. But he was best known for his hugely popular tales set in the American Old West, featuring the brave heroes Winnetou, a fictional Apache chief, and Old Shatterhand, Winnetou's German blood brother (who May claimed was based on himself).

    If an Austrian kid obsessing about a German's depiction of an Apache warrior's adventures in America sounds unbelievable, just listen to Hitler's own words in Mein Kampf: "The first Karl May that I read was The Ride Across the Desert. I was overwhelmed! I threw myself into him immediately which resulted in a noticeable decline in my grades."

    While May was more or less a fraud, whose purported alter ego of Old Shatterhand was a fiction (indeed, May never went west of Buffalo in America), Hitler's May obsession continued into World War II. He ordered German children to read the books, and army officers to study them in preparation to fight the Russians. He extolled Winnetou's bravery and Old Shatterhand's cunning. And even as Allied bombing made paper scarce, Hitler ordered hundreds of thousands of May books printed, even as late as 1945. Even when May's fraud was revealed, Hitler praised him, saying his imagination was boundless.

    Shockingly, May's books are STILL popular in Germany, and even had a film series made from them in the 1960s.

  • Nicolae Ceaușescu: Keeping Suits In A Locked Repository
    Photo: not credited / Wikimedia Commons / Attribution

    The Romanian strongman was typical of Cold War era Eastern Bloc dictators. He plundered his nation while ruthlessly repressing both his people and his enemies, who were usually the same. But Ceausescu was unique in the sheer level of his paranoia. He jealously protected his food supply, and the care he took in protecting his clothing bordered on total insanity.

    He feared that his enemies were trying to kill him by poisoning his clothing, which led him to wear a different suit each day. The once-worn suit would then be burned, and a new one picked out from his stockpile of suits, which was kept in a locked repository. His staff were assigned to protect his clothing from radiation and bacteria, and his family employed its own engineer just to scan clothes and food for chemical, biological, or radiological hazards. Eventually the dictator and his equally clothing-obsessed wife were brought to heel by the Romanian people and shot by a firing squad.