Holocaust as Career The Khmer Rouge, the Nazis and the Banality of Evil

Hannah Arendt used the phrase 'the banality of evil' to describe Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who hastened millions to their deaths. SPIEGEL columnist Erich Follath points out the striking similarities between Eichmann and "Duch," the Khmer Rouge official now on trial, which indicates just how universal the propensity for evil really is.


By Erich Follath

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.

Early Parallels

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.


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