Shut up safe in a fictional setting an evil genius can be a bit of fun. They might want to blow up London or New York, boil all the water in the seas or poison every pizza in Portugal, but they’re great as characters and all the best fictional heroes need one to take on. From Dr. Evil in Austin Powers to The Joker we’ve made cult anti-heroes of bad guys and gals with plenty of brainpower.
In real life though, these guys aren’t any fun at all though. Sadly, great intelligence or great ability doesn’t come with a guaranteed ticket to the side of good.
1 – Ted Kaczynski the Unabomber
The Unabomber really did have an extraordinary intellect and an IQ of 167. He was a child prodigy who was accepted by Harvard University at 16 and was an assistant professor in mathematics by the age of 25. He also ran a bombing campaign that killed three and injured more than 20.
Young Ted was studying in Massachusetts at the same time as Henry Murray was conducting some very dodgy psych experiments on students at the dawn of the 1960s. Some reckon these sessions, which involved insulting attacks on subjects’ beliefs and personality, may have had some effect on his future extreme conduct. He’d also endured childhood illnesses and very bad bullying at school. His mother put him into a study for autistic children.
While his academic career showed a fine mind and a remarkable dedication, when it came to teaching Ted was a flop. In 1969, just two years into his post, he resigned a professorship in California and moved home. Within a couple more years he had headed for the hills, building a cabin near Lincoln, Montana where he lived an apparently simple life.
He worked occasionally at relatively menial jobs and set about educating himself in the ways of the wild. Ted obviously loved the great outdoors and his first acts of violence were directed at encroachers on “his” wilderness. When a road was bulldozed through a particularly beautiful spot something flipped.
Ted’s self-education turned to sociology and politics. Unfortunately his final destination wasn’t the ballot box. He concluded that the only way to protect the environment was through the end of modern industrial civilization – It was too late for reform; time for destructive action.
So, in 1978, the Unabomber was born. His first bomb was sent to a materials professor. It wasn’t very sophisticated and caused minor injuries to a university policeman.
But Ted’s whole life had been one of learning and he was quick to improve. A 1979 bomb could have taken down the plane it was planted on had it not revealed its location by giving off smoke.
In 1985 he caused his first serious injuries and killed his first man. After that he stopped for six years.
The Unabomber came back to life in 1993. He nearly killed one academic and badly injured another. He also started sending threatening messages. Two more men were murdered in 1994 and 1995. Ted wrote to The New York Times claiming to represent a group called FC (Freedom Club) and explaining his attacks.
In 1995, Ted sent his Unabomber Manifesto – all 35,000 words of it –to the media. If you print it, I’ll stop, he said and Industrial Society and Its Future was duly published by the New York Times and The Washington Post in September 1995.
A $1 million reward brought the FBI case account. Ted’s brother David had had suspicions about his sibling but the manifesto convinced him. He used private investigators and lawyers to try and avoid an FBI raid he thought would leave his brother dead. A search warrant found everything else the Feds needed and the Unabomber’s career was over.
Ted got life in prison with no parole. He’s a published author though. Many of his personal possessions were sold off to fund compensation for his victims and Feral House published many of his writings under the title Technological Slavery.
2 – Adolf Hitler
Was the 20th century’s most reviled man a genius? We want our cleverest to be our best too, and our bad guys to be mumbling idiots.
He is commonly credited with bringing order to a Germany that was falling apart, but did so with an iron fist wrapped in a steel glove and at terrible cost to those he chose to blame for the country’s woes. He helped Germany to emerge from the Great Depression, but his economic and infrastructure programs were almost all designed to prepare the nation for the great war that followed.
Perhaps though, Hitler’s greatest claim to genius lies in his political skills and extraordinary personal drive. He took a going nowhere party from the fringes of German politics to government in not much more than a decade.
The great psychiatrist Carl Jung called Hitler the “first man to tell every German what he has been thinking and feeling all along in his unconscious about German fate, especially since the defeat in the World War.”
No politician in a modern western democracy speaks like Hitler now. His performances were extraordinary and inspired extraordinary reactions. The video below includes one of Hitler’s speeches with English subtitles:
Whether by some instinct or through personal study, Hitler seems to have had an incredibly powerful understanding of crowd psychology. It was his speaking ability that got him into the group that was to become the Nazi party in the first place. His speech to the German nation after he was first appointed Chancellor in 1933 is said to have inspired millions of Germans to apply to join the Nazi party.
Although in many ways he was a deeply unattractive personality, something about the personality that Hitler projected to people was capable of inspiring extraordinary devotion. Followers spoke of wanting to die for him, he was literally worshipped. The Nazi Party became the party of one man – he inspired a personality cult like no-one else in the 20th century.
This mastery of propaganda extended to adopting new technologies. The “Hitler over Germany” campaign is reckoned to be the first effective use of air transport by a politician. He used radio and film. Extraordinary Nazi rallies were orchestrated both as mass participation events and the subjects of powerful films that could be shown to millions.
The Nazis came not only with a fully worked out set of vile ideas, but an impressively unified visual identity too. There was a whole culture to this cult – the books, the magazines and newspapers, the uniforms, the youth movement…
Hitler was evil, but had he simply been evil we wouldn’t be discussing him now, there was a genius to his presentation and single-minded determination to get what he wanted.
3 – Stalin
The figures for those who died under Stalin’s regime are almost too big to make sense and impossible to get right – maybe 10 million in the 1932-33 famines; maybe 5 million in the Ukrainian Holodomor famine; perhaps 1 million German POWs in World War II; as many as 10 million dying in the Gulag prison camps.
Like Hitler, he came from an extremely unpromising start – the son of a drunken, abusive Georgian cobbler – to world power.
Stalin was a genius of political plotting, of personal power, of terror and surprisingly, of international diplomacy.
When Stalin did get control of things they tended to go wrong. His only answer to problems were show-trials, repression and mass executions.
He managed to convince Lenin, the father figure of Soviet communism, that he was an ally, and while in the ailing leader’s good books installed his own men in key positions. His target was Leon Trotsky, and he outlasted him.
When Lenin realized the truth about his friend he wrote a devastating testament criticizing Stalin’s excesses and even his manners. Stalin’s alliances kept it away from party members.
In power, Stalin turned his country into an enormous spy factory. Not only did Soviet spies set out around the world, they turned their eyes on their own people as Stalin unleashed murderous purges and terrors.
He also set about setting up a personality cult to match and then exceed those of the Tsars. The Revolution was personalized and history rewritten and photos retouched to make Stalin a gigantic central player.
Titles were showered on him – “Father of Nations,” “Brilliant Genius of Humanity,” and so on – and cities named after him. Statues showed this 5 ft. 4 in tiddler as a strapping giant.
It seemed to work. In times of great trouble – particularly in World War II – the Soviet people did take hope and strength from this seeming superman, who would have had them shot in a heartbeat. His own terrible lack of planning and the lack of anyone to question his lazy thinking could easily have cost the Soviet Union their victory over Germany, but many Soviet citizens believed Stalin had single-handedly won the war.
He won the peace too, winning the (apparently anti-Imperialist) Soviet Union a vast empire in Eastern Europe. His diplomatic performances at the great conferences at the end of World War II – alternately appallingly rude and smilingly correct – kept American and British delegations in a state of permanent tension, allowing Stalin to wring concessions.
Stalin was a monster. Perhaps his greatest genius was for not giving a flying blini about anything or anyone that stood in his way. Signing massive lists of death warrants in the late 1930s, sending tens of thousands to their deaths, he is reported to have said: “Who’s going to remember all this riff-raff in 10 or 20years time? No one. Who remembers the names now of the boyars Ivan the Terrible got rid of? No one.”