Three decades and five thousand miles separate two photographs.
The first shows a city in ruins. In the foreground, amidst the rubble, the outlines of what once were buildings are clearly discernible. In the distance lies a vast area of complete desolation, an ominous wasteland devoid even of rubble. Amidst this desolation, nothing remains of the unprepossessing plaza which once served as a gateway to hell. A huge oval, it had been partly surrounded by buildings with roads running into it like streams into a pond. With its perimeter fenced off, there was space enough within for up to eight thousand victims at a time.
The second, more recent, photograph shows a city mysteriously abandoned. Unlike in the first image, every building in this metropolis remains intact; everything appears as it was when the city was suddenly deserted. There are few signs of violence, save the smashed up vehicles that line the streets. The clearest signs of decay are the weeds run amok and the cows that roam the once busy streets. Amidst the stillness, however, one of the city’s high schools was still in use. Its three story buildings surrounded a grass courtyard, their white paint peeling under the blistering sun. The anguished screams that emanated from the neat rows of class-rooms were the only sounds that remained to disturb the deserted city’s silence.
These images, of Warsaw and the Umschlagplatz from where three hundred thousand Jews were deported to the Nazi death camps, and Phnom Penh and the Tuol Sleng torture centre, bear silent witness to two of the worst man-made catastrophes of modern times. The depravities they depict, and the millions of inhabitants from each city whose lives were needlessly taken, conjure up images of Armageddon. For the architects of their destruction – Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot – these are visions of dreams come true.
T.S. Eliot’s epic poem Wasteland opens with the words ‘April is the cruellest month…’ And this month does contain more than its share of cruel anniversaries. It was the month in which Hitler was born, and the month in which both he and Pol Pot died. It was also a month of tragedy for Warsaw and Phnom Penh. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on April 19 1943, when the last of Warsaw’s Jews chose to fight and die with dignity, rather than submit passively to their fate in the death factory at Treblinka. And on April 17 1975, Phnom Penh fell to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, marking the beginning of Cambodia’s descent into the barbarism of the killing fields. April is a month that reminds us that fools shape much of history.
Adolf Hitler was worse than a fool. Like Pol Pot, and many other historical and present day tyrants, he was psychologically disordered. Hitler exhibited both psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder. Psychopathy is characterised by an absence of love, empathy or concern; narcissistic personality disorder by excessive self-importance. Hitler exhibited another characteristic feature of personality disorder – an astonishing rigidity of thinking. Throughout his entire adult life there was no development, no maturing in Hitler’s character or beliefs.
The arrested development of this single pathological mind sealed the fate of tens of millions of people and altered the course of history in Europe. To understand how, consider one childhood fantasy and two unalterable convictions.
First, the fantasy. The Europe of Hitler’s childhood was a continent of great imperial powers, all in permanent rivalry and constant readiness for war. In this land of Emperors of seemingly unlimited power, the young Hitler could readily dream of becoming the all powerful ruler of Europe. This childhood fantasy drove him all his life, before finally driving him to suicide.
While fighting as a soldier in World War One, Hitler was furious at what he viewed as the premature ending of that war. He passionately wished to resume the conflict and secure Germany’s victory. In 1926, in Mein Kampf, he laid out his plan to do so. France was to be eliminated first; Russia though was to be the main prize. Once conquered it would become ‘Germany’s India’ – a colony which would provide the slave labour and living space that was rightfully due the German race. Britain and the rest of Europe, his plan envisaged, would either actively support the German cause, or stand passively by. Over a decade later, this became Hitler’s blueprint for the Second World War.
Now consider Hitler’s two unalterable convictions. First, Hitler believed that the laws of nature prescribe that races must fight one another to the death. Any race that defeats another thereby proves its superiority and has a duty to annihilate the vanquished. In order to prepare itself for victory, a nation must purify itself, by eliminating the weak and by selective breeding to improve the strong. ‘A state which, in an age of racial poisoning, devotes itself to the cultivation of its best racial elements’, Hitler wrote, ‘must one day become the master of the earth.’ The ultimate end of the struggle between nations is the total victory of a single race. And for Hitler, of course, it was Germany which must ‘necessarily gain the position due to it on this earth’.
Hitler’s second unalterable conviction was that the Jews were spoiling this natural order. They were doing so, Hitler believed, because the Jews did not belong to a single nation. Instead they had spread themselves across many different countries, poisoning racial purity and undermining every nation’s ability to fight. Even worse, with their internationalism and pacifism, their global capitalism, and their international communism, the Jews were actively seeking to prevent nations from waging war against one another.
Were the Jews to be successful, humanity would no longer be purified by war, with devastating consequences for the fate of the human race. In order to restore the rules of the natural order, all nations must unite against them. The annihilation of the Jews, Hitler believed, was essential for the health of mankind.
Pol Pot’s Dream
Thirty years after Hitler’s suicide in Berlin on 30 April 1945, and half a world away, Pol Pot too had a dream.
He wished to see an independent Cambodia which was strong enough to defend itself against its powerful neighbours, Vietnam and Thailand, and able to resist interference from the great powers, China and the United States. He wished to see his poverty stricken country develop economically, but he rejected the policies pursued by Soviet Communists, which placed a priority on technology, factories, and urbanization. Instead, inspired partly by Mao, he saw Cambodia’s development as being rooted in the development of agriculture.
Pol Pot also wished to see a country of equals – equals that is apart from him and his ruling elite. He wished to eliminate the huge disparities that existed in wealth and living standards between Cambodia’s cities and the rural peasantry. If that equality was to be based on the deprivation of all, so be it. And he believed that he alone had the grand design that would achieve these goals.
Pol Pot’s dream, like that of Hitler, soon became the stuff of nightmare. In the four years that followed the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia would suffer the loss of the highest proportion of its population at the hands of its own leaders of any country in modern history.
As was the case with Hitler, violence without mercy was the primary means that Pol Pot’s psychopathic regime used to enact the leader’s vision. As the tyrant declared ‘… the Party leadership must exercise it leading role by use of cutting edge violence… This is the most important factor, the decisive factor, which is the power that drives things forward.’
The suffering of others – even suffering on a monumental scale – is of zero consequence to psychopaths. This inhuman instrumentalism was evident in Cambodia in the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, and all the other towns and cities in Cambodia, in which tens of thousands of people died. It was evident in the system of forced slave labour that the regime imposed on the entire population. It was evident in the systematic recruitment of children as soldiers, who were taught techniques of torture and execution before they were taught to read and write. And it was tragically evident in the estimated two million deaths that the regime inflicted during its brief spell in power.
Like Hitler’s Nazi regime, paranoia was also a key feature of Pol Pot’s reign. The Khmer Rouge quickly established a national network of institutions designed to cleanse Cambodia of the enemies within. Tuol Sleng, or S-21, a former high school, became the regime’s torture centre in Phnom Penh. It was one of around 200 such centres established across Cambodia. Each centre had its accompanying execution ground where prisoners were taken after torture and interrogation to be executed. Many of the Khmer Rouge torturers and executioners were children.
Today Poland and Cambodia are both stained by sites of mass execution – the death camps of Hitler and the Killing Fields of Pol Pot. Seen by us today as places of unspeakable horror, they were viewed in the minds of their psychopathic creators as places of purification, where society was being cleansed of parasites.
In Cheong Ek, the killing field outside Phnom Penh, there is a tree against which Pol Pot’s teenage executioners would smash the heads of infants before tossing their shattered bodies into a mass grave. In Warsaw, at the Umschlagplatz, German soldiers too murdered children, seizing them by their legs and swinging their heads violently against walls. That is what the cleansing of parasites means to the psychopathic mind.
A new word is needed to describe the type of murderous visionary that psychopaths can be. The phrase uttered by a survivor in Phnom Penh on the day that Pol Pot and the other Khmer Rouge leaders ran away in the face of the Vietnamese advance, suggests itself – ‘Band of cretins!’
Today Warsaw and Phnom Penh are both phoenix cities – bustling capitals risen from the ashes.
Warsaw’s Old Town Square, the remnants of which are seen in the foreground of the photograph from decades ago, has been painstakingly rebuilt and is lined with bustling cafes once again.
The area of complete desolation – seen in the background of the old photograph – was once the Warsaw Ghetto. It is now home to the city’s premier hotels and nightclubs, and the Stalinesque skyscraper which has become the city’s icon. The Umschlagplatz, the point of departure for Treblinka, is now marked by a cold marble monument on a nondescript roadside, its suburban surroundings conveying little of the terror and chaos that happened there.
Phnom Penh’s central Wat Bottom Square too is bustling with life once again. As evening falls, groups gather in the square in front of loudspeakers to meet with friends and to dance. A group of older women move gracefully to the sounds of traditional Khmer songs, another younger group bops along to Asian pop ballads. In yet another group, lines of teenagers can be seen dancing in unison to the sounds of Miley Cyrus, every child moving in perfect synch. Tuol Sleng, now a museum, is hidden among the chaos of Phnom Penh’s teaming traffic.
Poland and Cambodia have both taken steps to defend themselves from ever again falling prey to the predators that ravaged their societies. Since its independence from Soviet influence in 1989, Poland has built strong institutions of social democracy, including a multiparty system, free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary. It has joined the European Union and has signed all of the major United Nations and European human rights treaties that protect its citizens from discrimination on the grounds of religion, race and gender.
Cambodia too is making progress, even if it still has much farther to go. Its elections in 2013 are widely seen as having been rigged in favour of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for almost three decades. Ongoing street demonstrations, however, attest to growing civil society demands for greater protection for individual rights and freedoms.
Despite the appearances of relative normality, however, the ghosts of Hitler and Pol Pot still stalk the streets of the two nation’s capitals.
Revellers today in the Panorama Bar on the 40th floor of the Marriott Hotel in Warsaw are largely unaware that they are looking down on the former streets of the ghetto into which more than three hundred thousand innocents were herded, starved and bundled off to their deaths. Most of the tourists relaxing in the rooftop bar of the King Grand Hotel on Wat Bottom Square in Phnom Penh are ignorant of the fact that the stunning Royal Palace, whose golden roofs they are gazing over, was once the place where Pol Pot plotted Cambodia’s descent into hell.
The psychological conditions from which Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot suffered – psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder – are not rare. In fact psychologists estimate that at least one person in twenty suffers from one or more of these conditions.
In peacetime, people with these disorders are restrained by the rule of law and the norms of civilised culture. When societies begin to crumble under the forces of social or economic upheaval, the violent new conditions provide an outlet for this disordered minority to reveal their formidable hidden talents. As society becomes more and more stratified on the basis of psychological deformity, the descent into hell gathers pace.
Were this to happen again, the future camp guards and torturers, the legions of secret police, the designers and builders of the death camps and torture centres, the propagandists and the cheerleaders of hate, would leave their current jobs as waiters, and doctors, and lawyers, right across Warsaw and Phnom Penh, and assume their new deadly roles.
On these sunny April days, it may be hard to remember atrocities past, but it is also a folly to forget. The story of Warsaw and Phnom Penh is not simply a tale of two cities. It is potentially the fate of every city on earth.
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