4. One of the Cold War’s Most Horrible Figures Began as a Beloved Professor
Cambodian communist revolutionary Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge into seizing power in 1975. The country was then transformed into a nightmarish dystopia, as depicted in the 1984 movie, The Killing Fields. Pol Pot and his followers carried out a genocide that killed a quarter of Cambodia’s population. In an insane attempt at social engineering, cities were evacuated, and the urban masses were forcibly converted into peasants, to toil on poorly run collective farms. Roughly three million were murdered or starved to death before the nightmare ended when the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979.
There was little in Pol Pot’s background to indicate the monster he would become. Born Saloth Sar into a prosperous family, he had received an elite education in Cambodia’s best schools, before moving to Paris, France, where he joined the French Communist Party. Upon returning to Cambodia, he became a college professor who frequently spoke about kindness and humanity. He was beloved by his students, who remembered him as “calm, self-assured, smooth featured, honest, and persuasive, even hypnotic when speaking to small groups“. Many of those students followed him into the Khmer Rouge, and became the most ruthless executioners of what came to be known as the Cambodian Genocide.