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Social influences played an enormous role in the rise of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party, the Nazis, and played a major role, but with very different dynamics, in the case of the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the policies brutally enforced by the followers of Pol Pot.
The role of social influences in determining human behavior been a serious topic of study since the rise and fall of Hitler. The physical devastation resulting from World War II and the revelation of the full scale of the horrors known as the Holocaust forced many people, mainly in the West, to confront the causes of the movement known in Germany as National Socialism. This movement, which swept along with it millions of Germans – in the most technologically advanced country in Europe – and persuaded them of the need to move in a direction that resulted in their own demise along with that of tens of millions of others, owed a great deal of its “success” to the skills of Hitler and his top propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, in formulating and advancing a marketing campaign that appealed to the basest instincts of their people. By exploiting the German people’s anger with post-World War I dictates imposed on them by Britain, France, Belgium and other victors from that war, and by presenting them with an easily identifiable and historically distrusted minority, the Jews, Hitler and Goebbels were able to convince virtually an entire nation (with some exceptions) to follow their lead.
The rise of National Socialism was a textbook case of the role of social influences on human behavior writ large. As the propaganda campaign targeted against the outside world and the simultaneous campaign aimed at isolating and eliminating the Jewish presence in Europe spread, it took on a life of its own, with previously rational, educated human beings convinced of the legitimacy of Hitler’s actions in their name.
The rise of the Khmer Rouge movement in Cambodia, as mentioned, owed its existence in no small measure to the role of social influences, but in a different way than with Hitler and Germany. Pol Pot’s totalitarian utopian visions, which led to the death of around one-and-a-half million Cambodians, were inspired by the Marxist-Leninist ideology that had taken root in China and that had influenced the communist leaders in neighboring Vietnam. Pol Pot, however, went well beyond the brutal policies of even those communist movements. He succeeded in fomenting a revolutionary movement that used as one of its mottos “To destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain.”
Whereas the Khmer Rouge succeeded in becoming a sizable movement, it in no way had the wide-spread effect on Cambodians that National Socialism had on Germans – the far more technologically advanced people. While Hitler and the Nazis sought to build a modern nation, albeit for essentially evil ends, the Khmer Rouge ideology was entirely nihilistic. Furthermore, it was far more random in who it victimized. The average German had nothing to fear from the racist policies of the Nazis. The average Cambodian was precisely the target of Khmer Rouge brutality. Consequently, to the extent that social influences played a role in the rise of the Khmer Rouge, they were largely limited to members of that movement. Everyone else was suspect.
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