Why you should care
You might be surprised to learn how some of history’s vilest characters lived in relative obscurity in the days before they lived in infamy.
For history buffs, the fact that an aspiring artist named Adolf Hitler was, as a young man, rejected by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts is a stark reminder of the tantalizing contingency of historical events.
But would Hitler’s dangerous ambitions have been contained, or his malevolence deflected, had he become an accomplished artist? As history reminds us time and time again, the road to evil often contains some rather surprising detours along the way. And, as the following cases show, a nascent megalomaniac may try on many — unexpected — hats before donning the service cap and shades of a despot or mass murderer.
1. Pol Pot, Parisian Student
Three decades before his anti-intellectual regime imposed a monolingual, agrarian socialism on the people of Cambodia and claimed the lives of more than 1 million people, Pol Pot was a bilingual foreign student and bon vivant living in the City of Light. In 1949, the 24-year-old future dictator earned a scholarship to study radio electronics in Paris, where, like many student activists, he enjoyed dancing and discussing politics over vin rouge in his Latin Quarter apartment. His study-abroad experience ended after he failed his course three years in a row, forcing him to return to Cambodia in 1953, the same year that the former French colony became independent.
2. Jim Jones, Human Rights Crusader
Jim Jones, the charismatic American religious leader and founder of the People’s Temple, is best known for his role in the group’s cult murder/suicide at Jonestown in 1978, including the poisoning of more than 300 children. But prior to becoming a cult leader, Jones was an avid community organizer and integrationist who was appointed director of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission in 1961. That same year, when an ulcer-suffering Jones was mistakenly placed in the Black ward of a local hospital (because his doctor was Black), he refused to move, and his subsequent agitating led to the integration of the hospital.
3. Idi Amin, Heavyweight Champion
Nelson Mandela was not the only former big-name African leader to have spent a great deal of time in the ring as a young man. Just a decade before he staged a 1971 coup to seize power in Uganda, a 6-foot-4-inch, 270-pound Idi Amin was the nation’s heavyweight boxing champion for more than eight years. A former officer in the British Colonial Army before turning tyrant, Amin was also a capable rugby player, though not the sharpest tool in the scrum. Army officials observed of Amin — who would later be responsible for the deaths of up to half a million of his people — that he was “a splendid type and a good (rugby) player … but … virtually bone from the neck up, and needs things explained in words of one letter.”
4. Ayatollah Khomeini, Philosopher and Poet
For most of his adult life, Ruhollah Ayatollah Khomeini was a teacher and lecturer, primarily of Islamic mysticism and philosophy. Prior to embarking on his mission to turn Iran into an Islamic theocracy, Khomeini, influenced by Aristotle and Sufi mystics, penned at least 25 books and treatises, and even some original poems. One poem, published in an Iranian newspaper just four months after Khomeini issued a fatwā against author Salman Rushdie in 1989, begins:
I have become imprisoned, O beloved, by the mole on your lip! / I saw your ailing eyes and became ill through love.
While it appears the Ayatollah is adopting a poetic persona to express a more mystical love of God, his ardent words are not what you’d expect from your average mullah, or from someone whose regime murdered as many as 20,000 political prisoners.
5. Timothy McVeigh, Decorated Veteran
Four years before the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that killed 168 and left hundreds more injured, terrorist Timothy McVeigh was a uniformed member of the U.S. Army participating in Operation Desert Storm. On the second day of fighting, McVeigh decapitated one Iraqi soldier and killed another, firing from more than a mile away, actions that earned him a Bronze Star. In 1997, after McVeigh was sentenced to death for his crimes, President Bill Clinton signed special legislation to prevent McVeigh from receiving the military burial and honors concomitant with his service.
The good news — and there is some — is that, according to Harvard’s Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, recent declines in levels of human violence suggest that the correlative journey from artist, poet or scholar to mass murderer is not as achievable a career goal as it once was thanks to the growing number of social, moral and political obstacles in its path.
Still, even today, we might want to keep an eye on a former ophthalmology trainee (Bashar Assad) or a Jesuit-trained secondary school teacher (Robert Mugabe), among many others. You just never know what they may want to do when they grow up.