First of all, I must apologize for my bad English as it is not my first language. So first, a bit of background. I'm doing a project on J. Stalin, A. Hitler, P. Pot and M. Zedong and why did these people become so cruel. Why, when presented with the opportunity, did they order the deaths of millions of innocent people. The project is based on the assumption that the huge majority of people if given absolute power, would not start a genocide even if deep down they would want to, that there is something not allowing us to commit such crimes. So why could these four people do it so casually? So the question is - Is there some major event or turning point in the lives of any of these men that could be pinpointed as the start of their madness? Are there any similarities between these 4 men in this regard?

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    Start by looking up the Milgram experiment (and yes, flaws and all). That might cause you to revisit your assumption about what "the huge majority of people" would or wouldn't do.
    – Meir
    Jan 22 at 18:24
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    I'm not sure this is a question of history. It seems more about psychology to me. But I think the other thing to consider is that these men weren't as unique as we'd like to think. It's easy to think of other figures who were just as callous with life, but had less opportunity for mass scale. (For instance, Robespierre) Jan 22 at 18:53
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    If its a question of history combined with social psycology. I think our last (very tenative) word on this kind of thing was that we were allowing it if it at least touches on History, until such time as there's a Sociology.SE. Same with other nearby topics like Anthropology and Archeology. But stuff on the margins like this will indisputably attract more close votes than stuff that's more clear-cut history.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 22 at 19:03
  • @Meir The Milgram experiment is irrelevant here as it was about ordinary people submitting to their superiors to perform unethical deeds. The 4 people here had no superiors. Understanding their own decision-making (as opposed to the society following it as in Ted's answer) probably runs more into studies of sociopathy. Jan 22 at 19:40
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica - The individual exemplars are so rare that its tough to say. But I think it may be most reasonable to assume, unless shown otherwise, that the leaders in question have gone down much the same mental highway to hell as the rest of the society under them (which they after all most likely sprang from themselves)
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 22 at 23:03

I have a book in my library a book on this subject: Becoming Evil, How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, by James Waller. Its the hardest read I own, but I understand it has become one of the (if not the) standard texts on the subject.

It starts by establishing a couple of things that I think would be useful to you. First off, one person didn't kill millions. It takes an entire society to actually perform that large of a mass murder. That means it requires lots of "ordinary people" to willingly join in the evil. He quotes estimates of up to half a million Germans participating actively in Final Solution, and 150,000 Hutus participating in the Rwandan Genocide.

So this isn't something just one person does, and it isn't something that only crazies do. What he calls "extraordinary evil" is in fact a basic part of human nature, lurking in the hearts of normal everyday men and women, waiting to be unleashed.

The book then proceeds to work up a model for the social conditions that exist in societies that have historically contributed to this unleashing. Its a shockingly dry PowerPoint-style slide for such an infernal topic.

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The basic gist is that we are inherently tribal creatures, so the trick is to get people thinking tribally, get them thinking of people in the out group as less than human, as obstacles, and best yet to get them thinking that they in fact are the ones under attack (and thus the killings are really justified self-defense)

The implication of course is that if you don't want your country to be the next Killing Fields, or o Holocausto silencioso, or Black Wall Street, these are the things you have to work against.

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    Yup. I think the core of the answer is that this is the wrong way to think about it: "...of millions of innocent people." Those men either did not consider them "innocent" or did not consider them "people". Jan 22 at 19:06
  • Can't help but think this actually an answer to a slighty different (if related) question. This seems to be answering why societies follow and support these tyrants, while the question was why these tyrants became what they were. Jan 23 at 21:18
  • @KillingTime - Its why people in general do that kind of thing. The dudes at the top are people, just like everyone else (and it flat out can't be done w/o everyone else).
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 23 at 23:21

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