There are some people throughout history who have wielded a tremendous amount of power or influence. Sometimes they come from nobility, sometimes from vast wealth, and sometimes from just working their way up from nothing or starting a revolution. While many of them were kings and emperors, there was also a few people who used gobs of money as a lever for control. Some of them even controlled the entire known world at the time.
They rule over financial or political empires and generally are very difficult to get rid of. There are people like Augustus Caesar who ruled Rome with absolute power for 40 years at the height of the Roman Empire or, for a more recent example, Vladimir Putin who may secretly be the richest man on the planet and may have secretly manipulated the US elections.
Then there are those who rose to great heights, only to fall back into nothing. The super-rich who became bankrupt or kings and emperors that lost their empires — and their lives. Some of them even reached their lofty dreams only to have them snatched away. So here’s a list of 15 of the most powerful people in the world who lost it all.
15. Adolf Hitler
Easily the most infamous person on this list. Hitler’s rise to power came on the heels of the outcome of the first World War which ruined Germany’s economy. He ignored the Versailles Treaty and invaded nearby countries and easily dominated a huge portion of Europe.
How He Lost it All: Germany lost World War II in 1945 but Hitler lost it much earlier after making a few critical errors early in the war. He delayed destroying the Allies at Dunkirk allowing the British and their allies to escape. He decided to bomb London in retaliation to Churchill bombing Berlin instead of defeating the RAF, and he delayed invading Russia by five weeks. By all accounts, he could have won the war had he not made those critical errors.
14. Muammar Gaddafi
For over forty years Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya. He successfully seized power of the country in a revolutionary coup d’etat in 1969 and secretly became the wealthiest person on the planet with a net worth of over $200 billion.
How He Lost it All: When Gaddafi overthrew the previous monarchy, he began to consolidate power by dismantling parliament and turning the country into a police state. His dictatorship violated the human rights of his own people and he financed global terrorism. In the end, his people had enough and overthrew his government during the Libyan Civil War. Gaddafi was captured and tortured to death in 2011.
13. Kenneth Lay
Kenneth Lay founded one of the world’s most successful electricity, natural gas, communications, and paper companies. It pulled in $101 billion in revenue in the year 2000 alone. Most of his cash was tied into the company and his net worth peaked at $420 million in February of 2001.
How He Lost it All: That company’s name was Enron and it defrauded California out of billions of dollars. When it fell, it caused multiple large-scale blackouts across the Western seaboard. Lay was found guilty of six counts of conspiracy and fraud along with four additional counts of fraud and making false statements. In the end, he died before he could go to jail with a net worth of negative $250,000.
12. Pablo Escobar
One of the biggest drug lords of all time has to be Pablo Escobar. His cartel supplied a whopping 80% of the cocaine found in the United States and his personal income totalled $21.9 billion per year. He had so much influence he practically brought Columbia to its knees with his own personal drug war.
How He Lost it All: To give you an idea of just how close he came to ruining the country, at one point he had been elected to Columbia’s Congress before being expelled for his connections to the drug trade. He also once offered to pay off Columbia’s entire debt of $10 billion in exchange for the country not to extradite him to the US. He died broke in Medellín after he was killed during a vicious shootout with the police.
11. Thomas Jefferson
Founding father of the United States of America. Third president of the country. Founder of the University of Virginia. Principal author of the Declaration of Independence. As far as historical figures go, Thomas Jefferson is a tough man to beat.
How He Lost it All: Jefferson was such a huge connoisseur of wine that he had it shipped to him in bottles from Europe rather than barrels to make sure they weren’t being watered down. Adjusted for inflation, he spent anywhere between $1 million and $2 million a year importing the stuff. His taste for the finer things in life along with the first major American financial crisis ultimately put him deep into debt and he died broke. His assets were liquidated but even that wasn’t enough to pay off what he owed. His grandson Jefferson Randolph spent the rest of his life paying off his grandfather’s debts.
10. Richard Nixon
Ah, Tricky Dicky. Nixon was, of course, elected the President of the United States of America in 1968 and then again in one of the largest landslide victories in American history in 1972, winning every single state except Massachusetts and D.C.
How He Lost it All: Watergate. It turned out that Nixon relied upon dirty tricks which included bugging political opponents’ offices and harassing his opponents. The key turning point was when five men were caught in the DNC offices at Watergate who were then linked to the president. Nixon resigned in 1974, was disbarred from the state of New York, and his political career was in ashes. After his spectacular fall from grace, it is reported that at one time during 1975 he had only $500 in savings.
9. Hosni Mubarak
Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years from 1981 to 2011 and was said to be worth anywhere between $40 billion and $70 billion. Despite leading a corrupt administration, he was re-elected four times. The first three times he was nominated by Parliament without opposition but the fourth time he did face opposition. That election, as you can imagine, was rigged.
How He Lost it All: He resigned after the events of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The most surprising thing about Mubarak’s downfall was that he went from controlling an entire country to resigning in just 18 days sparked by minor riots in Tunisia and had all his assets frozen. It was one of the swiftest collapses of a government from absolute power to nothing.
8. King Louis XVI
Louis XVI was the King of France and Navarre from 1774 to 1791. By all accounts, he tried to help the poor, encourage education, and promote the freedom of speech. He also supported the United States during the American Revolutionary War.
How He Lost it All: Louis XVI was the last King before the French Revolution. His reign was marred by debt and financial crises which led to the middle and lower classes overthrowing his government. Ironically, he was beheaded along with his wife Marie Antoinette after he had abolished the death penalty. So he lost his wealth, his country, his dynasty, and his head.
China is the world’s longest, continuous civilization lasting well over 3,500 years. For 2,000 of them, the country was ruled by an Emperor starting with Qin Shi Huang in 221 B.C.E. and lasted all the way to Puyi, the final Emperor in 1912.
How He Lost it All: Puyi was six when he lost control of the entire Empire of China before briefly being reinstated for a few days in 1917. He was then the Japanese puppet Emperor of Manchukuo from 1932 until the end of World War II in 1945. After the war, he was captured by the Communists and languished in jail for a decade. When he finally resurfaced, he supported the Communists and ended up working first at the Beijing Botanical Gardens and then as the editor for the literary department of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. His monthly pay check for working there was about $0.40 USD per month.
6. Napoleon Bonaparte
After Louis XVI lost his head, a man of minor nobility from a modest family named Napoleon Bonaparte rose through the military ranks. He became a general at the age of 24 and the Emperor of France by the time he was 35. His campaign of war against the rest of Europe resulted in an extremely large empire that encompassed Spain, Prussia, and Italy.
How He Lost it All: As Hitler would later learn, never enter into a land war in Asia. Napoleon tried to expand his empire into Russia in 1812 with disastrous results and was forced into exile to the island of Elba two years late. He briefly returned to power in 1815 but was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. He sought asylum from the British who exiled him to the island of Saint Helena where he died living in a dilapidated farmhouse.
5. Alexander the Great
There’s a reason Alexander of Macedon has been dubbed Alexander the Great. He attempted to craft the largest empire the world had ever seen in an effort to be the greatest emperor in the world — and then he succeeded in conquering everything from the Mediterranean Sea all the way to India.
How He Lost it All: Unlike many other people on this list, Alexander the Great died the wealthiest and most powerful man in the world. However, you’ll never find a single record of the Alexandrian Empire. By conquering so much and not declaring an heir, he never established a dynasty and his empire died with him as it shattered into pieces from infighting.
4. Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson
Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson was a former soccer player and the second person in Icelandic history to become a billionaire. He did it first by investing in the beverage business and then by owning the West Ham United Football Club as well as being Chairman of Icelandic bank Landsbanki. In March 2008, Forbes listed him as one of the richest men in the world.
How He Lost it All: Gudmundsson was a key figure in the Icelandic economic disaster that almost toppled the entire banking system in the country. By December 2008, just ten months after making the list as one of the richest men in the world, Forbes listed his net worth at $0. It was one of the biggest personal bankruptcies in the world.
3. Tsar Nicholas II
Russia had been ruled by the Tsars (an adaptation of the word “Caesar”) for well over 300 years and grew the size of the country by about the size of the Netherlands every year from 1551 to 1700. By the time World War I reared its ugly head, the Romanov dynasty had been in power for most of the Russian Empire’s history.
How He Lost it All: The toll World War I had on Russia was astronomical. 15 million men were forcibly conscripted and prices for goods soared. The people protested, the military turned on the Tsar, and the entire country catastrophically imploded into riots and rebellions. In the end, Nicholas II and his entire family — which included his wife and five children — were executed at gunpoint in a basement and Communism took root over the entire country.
Vortigern was the king of England in 440 C.E. and he had a problem. The Scots and Picts were raiding his country while his men were ineffectual at stopping them. So he devised a solution to his problem: he would outsource it to the fierce warrior tribes of the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes by hiring them as mercenaries.
How He Lost it All: Vortigern lost his kingdom by outsourcing the defense of his country to the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. Once the Germanic tribes landed in England they quickly realized they were the only real army force to be reckoned with on the Island. So they did what any powerful warriors would do, they revolted and conquered Vortigern’s kingdom.
1. Ala ad-Din Muhammad
The Great Khwarazmian Empire reigned in Persia from 1077 C.E. until 1231 C.E with a population of 5 million people. The last emperor or Shah of the dynasty was Ala ad-Din Muhammad who ruled it during a period known as the Islamic Golden Age.
How He Lost it All: He pissed off Genghis Khan. The Shah was suspicious of the Khan’s attempts at establishing trade and had all of the Mongols in a caravan arrested on suspicion of them being spies when they arrived on his soil. Genghis then sent Ambassadors to have his men freed but Ala ad-Din Muhammad had them beheaded, sent back to Mongolia, and executed the members of the caravan instead. Three years later, the Khan sent his forces and destroyed the empire and most of the population was either killed or enslaved.
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