[May 12, 2020] One of the most challenging questions asked of me was what defines “evil.” Evil, and what it means and does not mean, has been a subject of human thinking since the beginning of our species. Today, I’ll address who I believe is the cruelest leader in the twentieth century, and in doing so, incorporate my thinking on what is evil.
For now, I will leave my brief discussion of evil at the end of this article. But, I must begin with the premise that evil does exist and there examples throughout our world supporting this idea. I admit that defining evil is not a simple task and is fraught with many obstacles and no two people will use the same definition of evil.
My choice of the cruelest leader in the twentieth century will be controversial. My pick? Pol Pot is the cruelest, most evil leader of the twentieth century. His competition is stiff; Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao. They all have something in common, other than killing large numbers of people.
Pol Pot was the leader of the communist Khmer Rouge (1963-1997) and the Prime Minister of Cambodia (1975-1979). During his rule, he was responsible for the deaths of up to 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians through starvation, execution, disease, or overwork.1 This is about one-third of the total population. Bodies buried in mass graves became known as the “killing fields.” The phrase later became the title of a movie about the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime.
Pol Pot’s ambition was to build a socialist utopia. Soon after taking power, he began evacuating cities and moving inhabitants to the countryside. His citizens would now work in collective farms and on collective labor projects. Pol Pot also implemented a new concept known as Year Zero, which meant destroying all Cambodian culture and tradition, starting again from scratch. History would begin again, this time molded by Pol Pot’s hand.
Pol Pot’s new country was to be a peasant society based on his rules. Those from the city were not useful and, over time, were to be eliminated. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, and anyone with an education was subject to arrest, torture, and execution. Even wearing glasses, having soft hands, or speaking a foreign language would mark you for death.
The regime’s philosophy was made clear in a state-controlled radio broadcast that stated the new society would need only one or two million people would be necessary to build the new socialist utopia. The message to the rest was clear, “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”
Some have suggested in my leadership forum that Nazi Adolf Hitler or Communist Joseph Stalin should have this “honor.” My other choice would have been Communist Mao Zedong. Evil, in my thinking, is not just measured by the number of deaths tallied or the inhuman conditions under which others are subjugated but also by the brutality, malice, and vindictiveness meted out to those unfortunate victims.2
- My ideas of “evil” have been influenced by many philosophers who have written about the idea. Hanna Arendt gives a good description and her analysis worth reading. A summary can be found in the following link: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/concept-evil/