A couple of weeks ago I suggested who might be the greatest leader of the 20th century. But what about the worst?
I think most of us humans have a prurient interest in evil. Whether it’s the crime of the century or the latest installment of CSI or Law and Order, evil captures our attention and perhaps imagination. While I am drawn as much as anyone to a good crime drama or mystery story, nothing is as stunning as real life. And real life is at its worst when tyrannical, violent so-called “leaders” get control of a nation and the lives (and deaths) of its people. So my own macabre curiosity is drawn to dictators.
I was born just 6 years after Hitler’s death, so his actions have always played a central role in the stories and histories I learned, whether in the classroom, in the movies, or at one of the disquieting Holocaust Museums like the big one in Washington. Less known by most of us, perhaps because of America’s efforts to avoid war with them, were the two who killed far more people than Hitler: Russia’s Stalin and China’s Mao. But none did more damage to their own people than Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge which ruled Cambodia in the 1970s. In only three years, one in five of his “subjects” perished due to his ideas, ideals, and policies.
How can such a thing possibly come about? Why was it not stopped?
Pol Pot began life (under a different name) as a privileged young man – he even went to school with Cambodian royalty like future Prince Sihanouk. He was lucky to get a scholarship to study electrical engineering in Paris. By the time he arrived there, the vogue of the French philosophers was socialism or the even more radical Communism, and the young man caught the bug. But he and his hero Mao carried their ideal of life on earth further than other disciples of Marx and Lenin.
If you have seen the excellent film The Killing Fields, you know part of the story. But to really understand evil, to understand how someone who wants to ban the word “I” and destroy individualism and love amongst members of a family, you have to read the excellent biography Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, by Philip Short (Henry Holt, 2005). This fascinating and thorough biography, by the author of Mao: A Life, gets deeper into Pol Pot’s story than any other book.
Given the secrecy of the Khmer Rouge – when Pol Pot first took power western spies did not even realize who he was – and the way things ended – it took not the US but the neighboring Vietnamese Communists to say “enough is enough” and throw out Pol Pot – learning about him and his life took a great deal of digging. It’s all here in this book. Learn about why sports and children’s toys were banned; and in some areas laughing and singing were illegal — all being seen as too individualistic. Temples were destroyed and Buddhist monks defrocked. Learn how Prince Sihanouk played both sides of the fence — make that all sides of the fences — and outlived most of his contemporaries.
No matter how much you study this man Pol Pot – or any of the others listed above – it still boggles the mind as to how such things come about, and how to avoid them happening in the future. Suffice it to say, for starters, to be very wary of “leaders” who begin to shut down the opposition press, as is going on in Iran and Venezuela right now, or who try to make sure only they and their friends have all the weapons.