Genocide has taken the lives of tens of millions of people over the last two centuries. In our quest to ensure that more people do not fall victim to mass genocide, we must examine the factors that caused such atrocities in the past.
Historians have long posited explanations for mass extermination. They cite feelings of jealousy, greed, shame and fear; and have studied how people can develop hatred in response to a perceived threat to their ethnic group, culture or way of life. History books are full of institutionalized murders that have resulted from the pursuit of land and wealth.
But what about the intellectual work that inspired such killings? And, perhaps more importantly, what shared ideologies led to similarly tragic outcomes for entirely disparate events?
By looking closely at two instances of mass murder--the French Revolution, when 250,000 perished, and the Communist takeover of Cambodia, when 3 million of just 8 million total citizens were killed--an intellectual link begins to emerge. In both revolutions, a 1,300-word manifesto called “Manifesto of the Equals” encouraged the "underclasses" to rise up, to eliminate anyone who stood in their way, and to ensure the future of their revolution at any cost.
The Enlightenment Leads to Bloody Revolution
By the late 18th century, change was brewing all over Europe. An intellectual movement called the Enlightenment was taking hold. More and more people were talking, writing and thinking critically about concepts like the rights of man, class, government and free will. Democratic voices grew louder, and the elites at the top--the clergy, the monarchy and the aristocracy--began to lose their grip on power.
Conditions reached a tipping point in France during the financial crisis when price controls led to widespread famine. The King’s lavish wealth could no longer be tolerated by the public, French citizens rose up, and the royal family was executed.
Political clubs--what we would call parties today--emerged, wrestling for power. The Jacobins, the most powerful club, took over in 1793. Along with their infamous leader Maximilien Robespierre, they began to rid French society of the anti-revolutionaries whom they believed were holding their country back, executing thousands of people in the Reign of Terror. When in 1794 the Jacobins were guillotined, even more radical revolutionaries took their place.
Within this rich ecosystem of political theorists and change-seekers, those that remained of the ruling elite--the Directory--were desperate to restore some order in Paris. Hoping to keep the power out of the hands of the monarchy and clergy, they supported one group in particular despite its radical beliefs: The Conspiracy of Equals. This group was dedicated to extreme and utter equality.
In 1796, one of their members, Sylvaine Marechal, wrote a short essay titled “Manifesto of the Equals.” He intended to provoke Utopian Communism and Socialism in France, and to finally protect the common man. In fact, this essay and the Conspiracy of Equals movement later inspired Marx to write The Communist Manifesto.
Once it was ready and printed, the group circulated the “Manifesto of the Equals” everywhere, seeking to inspire the people to rise up with fiery prose, “The people marched over the bodies of kings and priests who were in league against it: it will do the same to the new tyrants, the new political Tartuffes seated in the place of the old.” But it would be another 150 years before the “Manifesto of the Equals” was used to successfully incite mass violence.
The Making of a Revolution in Cambodia
As the seat of the French empire, mid-20th-century Paris was teeming with intellectuals, artists and students from around the globe. Nguyễn Sinh Cung became radicalized in Paris at that time, and reinvented himself as the Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. And, in the early 1950s, this was also where eight privileged Cambodian students came to finish their studies.
Kim Trang, Khieu Samphan, Khieu Thirith, Khieu Ponnary, Hou Yuon, Son Sen, Hu Nim, Saloth Sar: their names would become synonymous with the mass murder of millions of defenseless people. One of them, Saloth Sar, became the leader of the Khmer Rouge and changed his name to Pol Pot.
The students knew each other through the elite network to which their families belonged in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. In Paris, feeling isolated from their school mates and friends back home, these eight young men and women bonded over their home, their culture and the change rippling through Southeast Asia.
In Paris, they studied Marxism and Leninism and joined the French Communist Party. But Marx’s Das Kapital was too wordy and incoherent to indoctrinate them, so their Stalinist mentors suggested a much shorter, older text to theme: “Manifesto of the Equals.”
Invigorated by Marechal’s fervent essay, the Cambodian students traveled to East Berlin to observe Communist student movements in action. When they returned to Paris, they were more determined than ever to bring change home to Cambodia. A few of them continued their studies, while others devoted themselves full-time to the struggle. Together, they developed a revolutionary plan for Cambodia that would place peasants and collective ownership of property at the center of society.
The Cambodian Tax Revolt of 1967
Cambodia’s King Sihanouk had declared his country’s independence from France on November 9, 1953. Upon returning to their newly-independent country, the Paris student group went quiet--some retreated into the jungle and others became political activists.
In April 1967, King Sihanouk began to enact socialist reforms on the people of Cambodia. First, he nationalized the agricultural industry: the state bought farmlands from small farmers, at rates far below the market. He justified this act by building a sugar refinery to boost exports. Then, he increased taxes to pay for his plans in the capital: ambitious building projects in the hands of the ruling elite. Finally, he placed price controls on the rice farmers selling to the government so that when he resold rice to the Vietnamese, he made a greater profit.
Terrified, most of Cambodia’s farmers paid the King, except for those in one heroic province in Samlaut. There, in one of history's most remarkable political events, the farmers refused to pay the doubling of their tax dollars (read more here). Sihanouk responded by sending 10,000 soldiers to collect the tax, and even seize property when necessary. The brave villagers fought back by seizing a government arsenal and killing several soldiers. Sihanouk eventually took his revenge and 10,000 villagers were massacred. Some villagers held out, refusing to pay and retreating into the jungle.
The Communist cell developed by the Paris students, and its carefully planted agents, co-opted the leaders of this limited government movement. Saloth Sar named himself Cambodia’s new leader and took on a new persona--that of Pol Pot. His aim was to defeat the monarchy and bring a full Communist state to Cambodia, like the Frenchmen 150 years before him had dreamed of creating in their country.
When the Americans began bombing Cambodia during the Vietnam War, thousands more were murdered in the Cambodian countryside. The Khmer Rouge knew it was their time. They leveraged this disaster in their favor.
The Cambodian revolution waged for eight and a half years. The Khmer Rouge grew a teenage army, filled with hate, thanks to the teachings of “Manifesto of the Equals” and other Communist literature such as Mao’s Red book and The Communist Manifesto. They were taught to kill without mercy, to let nothing stand in the way of revolution. Fighting against government forces on April 19, 1975, they took over the capital of Phnom Penh and began one of the worst mass genocides ever.
A Communist Revolution Takes Over
“We aspire to live and die equal, the way we were born: we want real equality or death; this is what we need.” - from the Manifesto of the Equals, by Sylvain Marechal
The first blow came at 8:30 in the morning, on April 30, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge disarmed the population. Then they ordered soldiers and employees of the state onto buses headed for the jungle, where they were told they would meet with the King. But, instead of being greeted by their King, the men found themselves surrounded by the Khmer Rouge’s teenage army. Within minutes, every one of them was massacred by machine gun.
Forced Mass Exodus from Cambodia’s Capital City
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s capital was taking its fair share of the fight. Every city dweller was forced out. No matter how old or infirm, everyone had to leave on foot. Ultimately, over 3.5 million people fled Phnom Penh under Khmer Rouge orders.
With no place to go, no water to drink and no food to eat, they were outcasts. They were called the “low people,” while the villagers and the rural population were named the “high people.” Soon, many of the “low people” were enslaved and murdered for resisting the revolution--a tactic alluded to in “Manifesto of the Equals” nearly 200 years before. What constituted “resistance” to the revolution was grotesque: wearing glasses, being tall, having a passport, or even having a secondary or college education would get you killed.
For those who survived the purge, life as a slave was horrible. Without means to support themselves, several million of the “low people” starved to death. Those without the skill or strength needed for agricultural work were beaten to death. School teachers, doctors, lawyers, small business owners, nurses all perished as the Khmer Rouge’s forced labor.
Ironically, eliminating the educated class standing in the way of the revolution, as recommended in “Manifesto of the Equals,” began to work against the Cambodian Communist leadership. It was not long before the average Cambodian was an uneducated Communist worker--and even they, in turn, were targeted as enemies of the revolution.
The Making of the Killing Fields
In a junior high school at the center of Phnom Penh--a building renamed S-21--the architecture of genocide was created. Every night between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge brought truckloads of people to S-21 to be processed. They arrived under the cover of plastic so that ordinary citizens had no idea this was taking place. The teenage guards documented each person with a photograph and then added the prisoner’s name in typed letters.
In 2012, I met one of the only survivors of S-21. Chum Mey was allowed to live because he fixed the typewriters that the prisoners needed to type their names. He wrote one of the greatest accounts of surviving genocide ever written. I encourage you to visit the Documentation Center of Cambodia to learn more about this history, and read my article about my visit with Mey.
One by one, S-21 prisoners were tied to a chair to be beaten until they confessed to being a CIA spy. They were held like animals in the school’s auditorium until it was their turn to be taken to the countryside and die in the killing fields. With loud music masking their screams, they were murdered in the dark of night with a blow to the back of the head. With their arms chained they fell into mass graves where their throats were cut and they were covered with lye so their bodies would not smell.
This was repeated seven days per week in over a hundred killing fields across Cambodia. In the end, after just 30 months, 3 million Cambodians were dead--an estimated 1 million from beatings and 2 million from starvation. All this suffering resulted from the Paris indoctrination of this elite club of young Cambodians--starting with “Manifesto of the Equals.”
There is no question that ideas matter, and the ideas used by the Khmer Rouge proved to be deadly. By looking closely at where those ideas originated, we can see that many such dangerous theories last forever and take root when the conditions are right. Look at those expressed in Mein Kampf to motivate the genocide of European Jews. Read Lenin's April Theses, which advocated the overthrow of a Democratic Russian government using violence. Read Mao’s Red Book, which advocated unlimited violence against landowners. Or Fanon’s The Wretched Of The Earth, which urged violence against white landowners.
What makes each of these intellectual movements dangerous is that they incite a desire for violence and control against other groups. The problem is that once people begin to use violence to gain financial and political power over others, tyranny and genocide ensues. Power corrupts. And, absolute power corrupts absolutely.