In late November, closing arguments were presented in the case of the international community and the Cambodian people versus Kaing Guek Eav. Better known as "Duch," this 67-year-old former Khmer Rouge official was the commandant of the most notorious prison and torture house in Phnom Penh. The verdict in this spectacular trial is expected soon. When the judges in Phnom Penh pronounce it and, as expected, Duch is sentenced to several decades in prison, justice will have been served. The offender will be locked away, and a chapter in Cambodian history will be closed.
But does the Duch trial honestly represent a reasonable settling of accounts for the country's past, which saw almost a quarter of its population fall victim to genocide in the horrific period between April 1975 and January 1979? Likewise, are there similarities to be found among the men who order others to commit genocide, a core of absolute evil that can be identified in their characters and careers? If so, can crimes against humanity be dissected and classified so as to prevent their recurrence?
Duch, who was at times submissive and at times provocative during his trial in Phnom Penh, seems depressingly ordinary. But if you take a closer look, it becomes clear that the one thing he is not is unique. In fact, Duch resembles a Nazi henchman put on trial in Jerusalem in the early 1960s for his role in the deaths of six million Jews. Indeed, in a way, Duch is a second Adolf Eichmann.
The life of this Khmer Rouge official, the crimes he committed, methodically and completely devoid of pity, his maneuvering during the trial between expressing regret for the victims and attempting to evade responsibility by claiming that he was nothing more than a "cog in the wheel" -- all of this is highly reminiscent of Eichmann's behavior. And like the 1961 trial of the SS lieutenant colonel -- which, despite the best intentions of the prosecutors and the great attention it generated among those affected -- proved to be a failed historic opportunity, the Phnom Penh trial of Duch in 2009 also threatens to end in failure.
Kaing Guek Eav, the son of a farmer, was always a model student. He valued precision and logic; his favorite subject was mathematics. To him, the clear distinction that Khmer Rouge ideologues made between a life that was useful and one that merited destruction made perfect sense.
A generation earlier, Adolf Eichmann exhibited similar character traits. The son of an accountant from the western German city of Solingen, Eichmann was no intellectual. In fact, he left school early and then dropped out of an apprenticeship to become a mechanic. Still, he was shrewd enough to understand that his rise to power depended on an institution -- "his" Nazi Party -- that looked after him and to which he, in turn, devoted himself unconditionally.
Neither Eichmann nor Duch ever met their respective supreme leaders. Duch never met Pol Pot, or "Brother Number One," and Eichmann never met Hitler. They worked their way up into positions that carried responsibility. Duch rose from junior administrative positions to become commandant of Tuol Sleng Prison, the main Khmer Rouge prison and torture facility after 1975. Eichmann began his career as a clerk for Jewish affairs, then rose through the ranks to record the minutes at the 1942 Wannsee Conference and, finally, became the technical administrator of the "final solution" in Hungary. Nowhere in the meticulous records kept by both men is there a shred of evidence that they ever harbored doubts about their actions. Indeed, they were both certain they were doing their duty.
The parallels between the two men are uncanny. Even when their respective worlds fell apart, they continued to behave as they had done while committing mass murder: cold-bloodedly, emotionlessly and systematically weighing their options.
In January 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and ended the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, Duch barely managed to escape capture. Then, he disappeared and converted to Christianity. Still, it seems rather unlikely that he was truly committed to his new faith. In fact, it seems more plausible that he was merely using his conversion as a way to disorient any judges he came upon in this world.
In any case, Duch never considered the possibility of turning himself in to the authorities. In 1999, a journalist discovered the former commandant quite by accident. Confronted with evidence from his past, Duch knew that the game was up. Still, even in the moments when his true identity was revealed, he was already laying the groundwork for his defense strategy. He said: "I wanted to be nothing but a good communist." Then Duch became a model prisoner. It would take another decade before Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former member of the Khmer Rouge himself, would pave the way for a UN-backed trial.
In 1945, Eichmann escaped from an American internment camp and, under a false identity, worked as a lumberjack in the Lüneburg Heath region of northern Germany. With the help of Catholic priests, he managed to escape along the so-called "ratline" to Argentina. There was no doubt that the Vatican knew who it was helping. For Eichmann, merely the thought of turning himself in must have seemed absurd. Israeli agents eventually tracked him down in 1960 in Buenos Aires, where he had been working as a welder for Mercedes-Benz. In a daring undercover operation, they kidnapped him and secreted him away to Israel.
Family Men and Monsters
In his own words, Eichmann described what an evening with work colleagues was like in 1944: "We ate a modest meal, drank a glass of Hungarian wine with our food and, in the course of the conversation, I told them that Himmler would like to see the Jews in Budapest put in ghettos and then taken to Auschwitz."
Likewise, thanks to surveillance records by Israeli spies, we know what an evening at home with Eichmann in Argentina looked like. The man who had sent hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths with the stroke of a pen became a father once again. His fourth child was a son, whom he apparently spoiled. "He lifted up the little boy, twirled him around and crawled next to him on all fours. Both of them laughed," says Peter Malkin, a former agent of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, who was involved in the mission. Eichmann was able to separate things very precisely: At one moment, he could be a caring family man; in the next, a Jew-annihilating machine.
Duch also has four children. His youngest daughter was born in 1978 -- just as her father was ordering the last of the 14,000 Tuol Sleng prisoners to be executed in Cambodia's killing fields. Small children were hurled head first against trees, while adults were beaten to death with iron bars. Duch wanted to save bullets.
His everyday working life was similar to Eichmann's, too, although Duch came into closer contact with his victims and would even shut his windows to drown out the screams of people being tortured. And Duch's job responsibilities, like Eichmann's, involved a considerable amount of paperwork -- cataloguing the names of his would-be victims and writing the command "exterminate" in red on the margins of each prisoner's file.
What were Duch's evenings at home with his family like? One day he ordered Nhem En, the concentration camp photographer, to make a record of how happy his family was after the birth of his daughter. Duch's wife worked in a hospital near the prison, where her job was to save lives. Her husband's job as the director of a torture facility was to end them. If Nhem En's account is to be believed, the couple spent their -- eerily cozy -- evenings together tending to the children.
Parallels in the Dock
Nothing is more revealing than the behavior of the two men in court. Both only admitted things that couldn't be denied. Both defined their culpability as marginal at best, arguing -- through their lawyers -- that they were merely bureaucrats who had acted on orders from above, orders that were imposed upon them like some law of nature. Both men were unwilling and unable to admit to having blood on their hands.
"I never killed a Jew, or a non-Jew, for that matter -- I never killed any human being All our work was paperwork I had to obey," Eichmann said during his testimony, sitting in a glass enclosure in a Jerusalem courtroom, where he pleaded "not guilty" on all charges brought against him. Of course, the court transcripts also mention that he witnessed executions in Minsk -- and was even slightly appalled. But he did not process the experience. Indeed, the middle manager of mass extermination denied any responsibility for the Holocaust, claiming that it was the responsibility of others, of those at the top of the chain of command, and that he was only doing his job. "Regrets do not do any good. Regretting things is pointless. Regrets are for little children," he said on cross-examination. He offered to hang himself in public, and noted -- in a somewhat macabre tone -- that this would be "a greater act of atonement." To prevent diehard Nazis from making Eichmann's grave into a pilgrimage site, the Israelis scattered his ashes over the Mediterranean on June 1, 1962.
Duch's behavior before the Phnom Penh tribunal in the recent trial was no more illuminating. Saying that he "deeply regretted" the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, he would occasionally wipe tears from his eyes while begging for forgiveness. He even sought to curry favor with a witness, Bou Meng, who was one of the fewer than 10 Tuol Sleng survivors and who had lost his wife in the prison, when he said: "I send my respects to the spirit of your wife." Speaking almost casually, he invited the families of his victims to visit him in prison and get to know the "real me." He was apparently not even aware of how outrageous his proposal must have sounded to the victims' families. He was asking them to confirm what he believed about himself: that he had become a cleansed person. "I received orders to clean up the party -- evil devours even evil," he told the court. Eichmann, the model of mediocrity, would have been pleased to hear Duch say: "I was an instrument of the Khmer Rouge leadership, as devoted to my superiors as a German Shepherd dog to his master." In his final statement to the tribunal, Duch asked to be released.
Searching for the Roots of Evil
How can a person become as cold-blooded as Duch, who wrote seven lines in his diary to express his regret at the unintentional killing of a few chickens but only wrote two lines to acknowledge the torturing 14 prisoners to death? Likewise, what made a man like Eichmann so insensitive to the suffering of his fellow human beings? None of the established explanatory models apply to the two men: They were not neglected during childhood, nor were they exposed to social injustices in their younger years that might have destroyed their concepts of morality. Eichmann received a Christian education in a middle-class environment, while Duch's simple but upright parents taught him Buddhist ideals, such as non-violence and altruism.
From time immemorial, everyone from god-fearing philosophers to agnostic scientists has tried to fathom the roots of evil. In the fourth century AD, the theologian Augustine argued that evil arose as a result of man's free will. Nowadays, neuroscientists are searching for a signature of evil in the brain. Some believe that similar peculiarities found in the brains of some violent criminals could serve as evidence of the inevitability of a criminal career. In other words, murderers could be exonerated to a certain degree by their genetics.
No one really knows if any of these theories are valid. Nevertheless, in the cases of Eichmann and Duch, there's no way that their inability to express humanity, their complete lack of empathy and their violation of all ethical standards can be attributed to some genetic defect that affected their frontal lobes. They both adopted a dominant ideology as their own. In the case of Eichmann, it was the Nazis' verdict against "subhumans"; for Duch, it was the Khmer Rouge's plans to create a "new man." One can hardly accuse them of having conformed, just as many villians did in their time. But the fact that these bookkeepers of death did everything they could to ensure that the machinery of death would operate as effectively as possible -- and managed to advance their own careers in the process -- is unforgivable. For Adolf Eichmann and Kaing Guek Eav, evil was a model of success above all else. It was the Holocaust as a career.
Blind, but Creative Obedience
Thus, there is no merit to Duch's argument in court that he, as a henchman of the system, had no choice but to do the things he did. Duch knew that the party felt that "regime opponents" were lurking everywhere and that it wanted him to supply the proof it needed. Granted, if he had released many of the suspects imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, he may have been executed himself. But in his rush to obey orders, the calculating Duch exceeded his quota and even drafted a proposal to the party leader on how the "cleansing bloodbath" could be intensified. In an unmistakable reference to the Nazis' "Final Solution," he entitled his pamphlet "The Final Plan."
In Eichmann's case, arguing that he was merely a small cog in the wheel of those with real power was also unsuccessful. The court in Jerusalem was able to prove that he had interpreted his orders as broadly -- and as gruesomely -- as possible. The historian Raul Hilberg describes the special role of the everyday bureaucrat in the implementation of the Nazi genocide: "The process could not have been brought to its conclusion if everyone would have had to wait for instructions. Nothing was so crucial as the requirement that the bureaucrat had to understand opportunities and 'necessities,' that he should act in accordance with perceived imperatives." This applies both to Eichmann and Duch. Blind obedience is a basic requirement for genocide; but, in senior positions, it was meant to be a creative form of blind obedience.
Confronting the Diabolical
As an explanatory model for the unfathomable, does this leave us with what Hannah Arendt called the "banality of evil"? While reporting on the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, Arendt -- a philosopher who barely escaped the gas chambers herself -- coined one of the catchiest, most controversial and most misunderstood phrases of all time. Israeli politicians were beside themselves with rage the moment Arendt's story was published. Even today, many vilify Arendt (who died in 1975) as an anti-Semitic Jew -- though this can also be attributed somewhat to the romantic affair she had with her teacher Martin Heidegger, a philosopher who had close ties with the Nazi regime.
Some have rehashed the old claims positing that Arendt was trying to downplay the Holocaust. In reality, though, she understood more than her critics did, namely, that it is misguided to interpret the genocide of the Jews as some kind of metaphysical event and to transform Eichmann into some inhuman demon. She recognized that a person could commit monstrous crimes without being a Satanic Übermensch and that, accordingly, even the unspeakable crime against the Jews has a political and historical context.
It is difficult for the relatives of victims to accept that frighteningly normal people can commit such horrifyingly perverse crimes. When the most gruesome of crimes are committed -- unchecked by any sense of morality, faith or civilization -- everything seems to lose its meaning. But those -- like Arendt -- who see totalitarian rule as an assault on human nature will not be surprised to find that, although the Shoah will not be repeated, new variations of genocide can occur over and over again. That death isn't (just) a German specialty does not absolve us from the legacy of the Nazi era, nor does it lessen those crimes. However, it might be able to help us to "confront the diabolical with a cool head," as the Dresden-based historian Klaus-Dietmar Henke puts it -- and to develop tools that help prevent genocide.
In the opinion of Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset, Israel' parliament, a nation that claimed to be both the heir and the embodiment of the victims should not have allowed itself to assume the role of judge in the Eichmann case. Burg would have preferred a court with international jurisdiction, but it was clearly something that wasn't going to happen. "The State of Israel wanted to take revenge and to educate the world We understood the Shoah as affecting us exclusively, and we nationalized and monopolized it," Burg says, rather harshly, in retrospect. But even Burg admits that there was a liberating aspect to the trial. "For the first time," he says, "adults could openly talk about the things they had experienced again and again in their nightmares."
Punishing, Stalling and Rehabilitating
In moral terms, by ruling out the option of imposing the death penalty, the tribunal in Cambodia has elevated itself above the culprits and their killing spree. But there are other drawbacks to the "Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia," as the tribunal is called. Corrupt Phnom Penh officials serving on the tribunal have attempted to limit any accounting for Cambodia's past to a handful of cases, thereby diverting attention away from the fact that former members of the Khmer Rouge still hold government offices in Phnom Penh today. Likewise, there is now some doubt as to whether the now-elderly senior Khmer Rouge leaders will ever be tried. These include Nuon Chea, the regime's former second-in-command, former President Khieu Samphan (1976-1979) and former ministers Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith.
After some initial hesitancy, the Cambodian people have now started showing interest in the Duch trial. More than 50 witnesses have testified in it; close to 25,000 people have watched the hearings in the public gallery of the tribunal; and millions have listened to radio broadcasts of courtroom proceedings. "For me," says a Cambodian woman who lost many relatives during the dark years, "it was a triumph to see this former official -- once so arrogant and all-powerful -- sitting helplessly in the dock." She added that she would like to see Duch "rot" in prison and die behind bars.
But that outcome is not entirely guaranteed. A court-ordered psychiatric evaluation of Duch, which was seen by SPIEGEL, arrives at astonishing conclusions. According to the report, Duch was indeed responsible for his actions; he was "meticulous, conscientious and control-oriented"; but, nevertheless, he managed to "compose powerful defense mechanisms on his own, particularly through the selective perception of facts." Still, the experts also arrive at a disturbing conclusion: From the psychologists' point of view, the former commandant of Tuol Sleng can one day be re-socialized and reintegrated into society. But whether he is released, the report continues, "depends, of course, on more than just medical considerations."