Episode 42 – Pol Pot versus Erzsébet Báthory

Today, we head back to the Villains bracket where we feature the architect of the mass murder of millions of people in Cambodia, Pol Pot. His adversary is a woman, born into royalty whose depravity has made her a legend amongst the evilest beings in world history, Erzsébet Báthory. 

My sources for these two begins with The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979 by Ben Kiernan and Tyrants: History’s 100 Most Evil Despots and Dictators by Nigel Cawthorne. For Bathory, I used Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History by Tori Telfer and Infamous Lady: The True Story of Countess Erzsébet Báthory by Kimberly L. Craft.

Our first villain is a man born Saloth Sar in Cambodia, better known as Pol Pot. Here is a brief description of the life Sar was born into, according to author Ben Kiernan in his book, The Pol Pot Regime. “The story begins in a large red-tiled house on stilts overlooking a broad, brown river, downstream from the town of Kompong Thom. The river teemed with fish, its lush bans lined by coconut and mango trees. Behind the houses along the bank stretched large rice fields. A small Chinese shop sold a few consumables. 

Pol Pot
Pol Pot

On May 19, 1928, Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar, the youngest of seven children. His parents owned nine hectares of rice land, three of garden land, and six buffalo. Pol Pot’s father Saloth, with two sons and adopted nephews, harvested enough rice for about twenty people. In later years the family would have been ‘class enemies.’ But few villagers thought so then. Rich or poor, everyone tilled the fields, fished the river, cooked tasty soups, raised children, propitiated local spirits and French colonial officers, or thronged Buddhist festivities in Kompong Thom’s pagoda. In 1929, a French official described Kompong Thom people as ‘the most deeply Cambodian and the least susceptible to our influence.’”

So, what in this child’s life would create the monster that led a genocide that would take the lives of 1.7 million lives of his fellow Cambodian’s? Nothing that I could find. Yes, the French colonization of the country and their indifference to the people might be a contributing factor except that Pol Pot studied in France didn’t seem to object to living there. He did begin to join in on the communist movement there, but that didn’t seem to radicalize him to the extent that would lead to mass murder.

What does seem to have caused the young man, Saloth Sar t become Pol Pot had to do with the carpet bombing by the United States of his country during the Vietnam War. Although most of the bombings were done without the authorization of the US Congress, men like Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State under President Nixon, believed that the aerial assault was not only necessary but morally the right thing to do. Thousands of peasants and everyday people would die during the indiscriminate bombing. While arguments can be made for both sides of the conflict, what cannot be denied is the hatred that was created against the American’s and their allies from the Cambodian people.

After the French left Cambodia in 1954, Prince Norodom Sihanouk took power until his overthrow, backed by the US in 1970. The new leader was General Lon Nol. The pro-American military leader did not object to the bombing of his country which led to a growing insurgency with a guerilla war being launched by the opposition party, the Khmer Rouge. 

This Cambodian nationalist communist movement was supported by the North Vietnamese army, the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao. In 1975, they won the Cambodian Civil War and ousted General Lon Nol. They called their new country, Democratic Kampuchea. Immediately upon gaining control, they ordered all of the cities in Cambodia to be evacuated and anyone refusing to leave, executed.

To understand the mindset of the Khmer Rouge you just have to look at the three chapter titles of Part One: Wiping the Slate Clean of Ben Kiernan’s book on Pol Pot. They are Cleansing the Cities: The Quest for Total Power, Cleansing the Countryside: Race, Power, and the Party, 1973-63 and Cleansing the Frontiers: Neighbors, Friends, and Enemies, 1975-76.

Cleansing is a synonym for genocide. This was done by the Soviet’s post-Russian Revolution of 1917, by the Chinese under Mao Tse Tung during the Cultural Revolution and many other despotic rulers, from the left or the right. Cleansing is the politically correct way of justifying a mass execution of anyone who might threaten the regime. Threatening thoughts, words, gestures, and writing was what the Pol Pot regime was looking for. They even had anyone wearing glasses murdered as they believed that they would be more likely to be indoctrinated in anti-Khmer philosophies.  

The main idea of the cleansing and relocation projects was to try to make Cambodia go back in time when it was strictly an agrarian society. The way they would do this was to create a system of collective farms, something that everyone was forced to work in. Pol Pot’s utopian dream would make Cambodia, now named Kampuchea, an entirely self-sufficient country. Foreign goods were not available for purchase, and anyone caught with them could and likely would be executed.

Between the years of 1975 and 1979, the death toll of Cambodians would be around 20% of the population. Think about that for a second. If it were England today, that would mean the deaths of 13.2 million, US, 65 million and India, 272 million. The thought that someone would believe that killing over 1.7 million people, with some estimates as high as three million, could be justified staggers the imagination. While the middle and upper classes were the targets of the Khmer Rogue, over time, anyone, including their own supporters, was killed, most often with no trial.

Pol Pot’s animosity towards Vietnam and their communist government was to prove his downfall. In 1977, border clashes between the two countries began to intensify. Over the coming months and years, the Vietnam military gained victories over Pol Pot’s Khmer Rogue to the point that they were forced to head west towards the Thailand border. Despite getting supplies from the Chinese, Pol Pot could not hold on to power. 

The military government of Thailand used the Khmer Rogue as a buffer force to keep the Vietnamese away from the border, so they stayed as a threat for many years. Still, Pol Pot was so unpopular with his people that there was no chance he could regain control of Cambodia. He blamed his fall from grace on everyone but himself as shown by this interview with some of his followers: “He said that he knows that many people in the country hate him and think he’s responsible for the killings. He said that he knows many people died. When he said this, he nearly broke down and cried. He said he must accept responsibility because the line was too far to the left and because he didn’t keep proper track of what was going on. He said he was like the master in a house he didn’t know what the kids were up to, and that he trusted people too much. For example, he allowed [one person] to take care of central committee business for him, [another person] to take care of intellectuals, and [a third person] to take care of political education. […] These were the people to whom he felt very close, and he trusted them completely. Then in the end […] they made a mess of everything […] They would tell him things that were not true, that everything was fine, that this person or that was a traitor. In the end, they were the real traitors. The major problem had been cadres formed by the Vietnamese.”

In 1985, the Vietnamese had destroyed what was left of the Khmer Rouge bases causing Pol Pot to flee to Thailand where he stayed for the next six years. Ta Mok, one of Pot’s assistants, would later have him arrested. Before he could be put on trial though, Pol Pot died on April 15, 1998. Ta Mok later described the way he died: “He was sitting in his chair waiting for the car to come. But he felt tired. His wife asked him to take a rest. He laid down on his bed. His wife heard a gasp of air. It was the sound of dying. When she touched him, he had already died. It was at 10:15 last night”.

The man responsible for the killing fields of Cambodia never faced the families of the people he murdered. Today, Cambodia is still suffering from the aftermath of the horrific 1970s. While few remember the times, it still haunts the populace.

Erzsébet Báthory
Erzsébet Báthory

For our next contestant, most of you know her by her Anglicized name, Elizabeth, but for historical accuracy, I will be using her Hungarian and real name, Erzsébet. Bathory was born on one of her family’s estate in Nyírbátor, Kingdom of Hungary, on August 4, 1560. Her father was Baron George VI Báthory of the Ecsed branch of the family, while her mother was Baroness Anna Báthory. This marriage was somewhat incestuous as the two were cousins. There is speculation that this inbreeding was the cause of Erzsébet’s epilepsy as a child, but I have my doubts. What I do know, is that childhood epilepsy does lead, in many cases to violent behavior as an adolescent and many times as an adult. I know, because I have a child who went through this and at 22, is only now beginning to show signs of stopping her violent behavior.

Erzsébet, since she was the child of nobility, was very well educated, being taught at least four languages, Latin, German, Hungarian and Greek. She was probably also taught how to torture and punish enemies by her family. The Bathory’s were of the highest order of nobility in Hungary, Transylvania, and Slovakia during the 16th and 17th centuries. It is this noble upbringing that would shield Erzsébet from her crimes as you shall find out shortly.

An important aspect of medieval life of a noble girl was finding a suitable husband. The choice by the Bathory family was Ferenc Nádasdy, the son of Baron Tamás Nádasdy and Orsolya Kanizsay. The Nádasdy family was of a lower status than the Bathory’s so when the two got married, Erzsébet refused to change her surname causing her husband to adopt her name. They married when she was 15, and he was 19.

Ferenc Nádasdy was a very cruel man who loved war and combat but devoted to his wife. Unfortunately for the two of them, they would not see each other for much of their marriage as he was often out fighting the Ottoman Empire. It is here that Ferenc received his nickname as the “Black Hero of Hungary.” 

The two lived together in Castle Cséjthe, which in Hungarian is pronounced CHAY-tuh, but In Slovakian, it is pronounced CHAKH-teet-suh. Ferenc was away so much that they didn’t have their first child until they were married for ten years with the birth of a girl, Anna. They would have four more children, Orsolya, Katalin, Andras, and Paul. 

During the time they were together, they both showed each other their sadistic nature. They had a penchant for “disciplining” the peasant girls whom they recruited from the local villages surrounding their castles. 

To better understand this mutual evil behavior, let’s take a quote from the book Lady Killers by Tori Telfer. “Nádasdy taught his bride how to roll up a piece of oiled paper, place it between the toes of a disobedient servant, and then set the paper on fire – a fun game he called star kicking. He also reportedly bought Erzsébet a sort of clawed glove that she used to slash her servants’ flesh. Once, he allegedly covered a young girl with honey and forced her to stand outside so she would be incessantly stung by insects. In short, the Black Knight was a fount of inspiration for an impressionable young sociopath like Erzsébet. 

Their marriage would last for 29 years before Ferenc died in 1604. Before he passed away, he would ask for a pledge of protection for his wife from his best friend, György Thurzó, the Palatine of Hungary. Thurzó would become the chief investigator of Erzsébet’s crimes in the future.

Erzsébet Báthory was now the mistress of many castles and villages where she would commit some of the most heinous crimes any woman would ever perpetrate. During this period of European history, it was given that a noble person would not be charged or even accused of a crime by a peasant, something the highly educated Báthory would know.

Erzsébet was surrounded by an odd group of women along with one young man, none of whom could even dare to question anything their master did. These people included the “wild beast in female form,” Anna Darvolya. She would be at her master’s side for many of the murders and tortures of young girls. Other’s included Thorko, Ilona Jo, Katalin, and the young boy Ficzko.

Elizabeth, now in her 40’s, grew increasingly vain and she feared the thought of aging as she may lose her beauty. One day a servant girl accidentally pulled her hair while combing it. Elizabeth slapped the girl’s hand so hard she drew blood. The girl’s blood fell into Erzsébet hand, and she immediately thought that her skin took on the freshness of her young maid. She believed that she had found the secret of eternal youth. Elizabeth had her major-domo and Thorko strip the maid and then cut her and drain her blood into a huge vat. Erzsébet bathed in it to beautify her entire body. Her psychosis, either hereditary due to her inbreeding or learned from her husband, began to take hold. 

In doing my research on Erzsébet Bathory, I found eerie similarities to others like Rudolf Hoss, Joseph Mengele, and Shiro Ishii, where they really didn’t see their actions as those against human beings, but as lower-class animals. The German’s viewed Jews, Gypsy’s and Slavs like this, while Ishii did the same with the Chinese. Erzsébet saw the peasant girls she tortured and murdered the same way. 

Even though it was widely rumored that Bathory was murdering young peasant women, nothing could be done about it. The King of Hungary was so incredibly in debt to the Nadasdy-Bathory’s that he continuingly turned a blind eye to the goings on at the castles. That is until Erzsébet began to get careless. 

It is one thing to torture and kidnap a lowly peasant girl, but it is entirely a different type of crime when you target the daughters of nobles, something Bathory began to do in 1609 after the death of Anna Darvolya. Erzsébet opened a Gynaeceum for young women of noble standing to try to make some money which was beginning to dry up after her husband’s death. When they started to disappear, well, authorities had to act.  

György Thurzó was appointed by the King of Hungary, Matthias, to investigate the accusations. Despite swearing to her late husband that he would protect her, György had to do his job. Starting in February 1610, the evidence began to be gathered, and it was brutal and almost unbelievable. According to the transcripts of the investigation, there were at least 175-200 young women buried around the walls of the numerous castles, Erzsébet Bathory lived in. Thurzó was absolutely convinced that the Countess was guilty of countless heinous murders, but he was wary of putting her on trial.

Her own family begged Thurzó not to put her on trial lest it embarrasses the rest of the family. He agreed but still needed to make sure he was doing the right thing in accusing Erzsébet of these serious crimes. 

Let’s go back to Telfer’s book, Lady Killer’s for a final, longish quote. “By December, Thurzó was almost ready to act, but before he could arrest such a powerful woman, he had to be completely certain she was guilty. So, he invited himself and the king over to her castle for a Christmas Eve dinner. Erzsébet acted like a gracious hostess, but she was barely holding it together and ended the night by serving the men a mysterious gray cake she’d cooked up with her forest witch, Majorova. The cake was shaped like a pretzel and had a communion wafer in the middle. Once the men tasted it, they became sick – and, convinced she was trying to poison them, left right away.”

Afterward, the women of Erzsébet’s entourage began to chant for the death of the king and Thurzó, not knowing that Thurzó’s men were standing in the darkness listening. They sprang into action and arrested her when she went into the castle. Before finding Erzsébet, they stumbled on the body of a young, mutilated girl along with two other dying women. Screams were coming from another section of the castle which turned out to be a torture chamber. This led to Erzsébet’s imprisonment in a room within her own dungeon. 

According to the numerous witnesses in the hearings, numbers between 30 and 650 murders were bandied about. Whatever the real casualty list was, Erzsébet was condemned to a lifetime of imprisonment. She was by now, mad as a hatter, blaming everyone else, especially her servants for the evils she committed. As for Thurzó, he had this to say about the countess, “You, Erzsébet, are like a wild animal. You are in the last months of your life. You do not deserve to breathe the air on earth or to see the light of the Lord. You shall disappear from this world and shall never reappear in it again. As the shadows envelop you, may you find time to repent your bestial life.”

The question that some scholars have asked is, “was Erzsébet Bathory really that evil and did she really commit the crimes she was accused of?” King Matthias did have a motive to see her found guilty as he supposedly could right off the debt he owed her and her family, but that argument just doesn’t hold any water. According to the laws known as Tripartitum, you couldn’t just take away a noble families wealth if one member committed a crime, you had to find all of them guilty, something that never happened to the Bathory family. 

Now, was Erzsébet really the ghoul that future generations of storytellers would claim she was? The rumors of cannibalism, bathing in the blood of virgin girls and the like were just that, rumors. Did they occur? Unlikely, but still, possible. It really doesn’t matter what level of depraved torture and murder was committed by Erzsébet Bathory, she was by all accounts, a demented, psychopathic, serial killer, one of the worst in all of all time.

Countess Erzsébet Bathory died on August 22, 1614, and was eventually buried in the Bathory family crypt or was she. According to Telfer, “That crypt was opened in 1995. No trace of Erzsébet was found.”

Now to move on to our putting it into perspective segment of the podcast. During Erzsébet Bathory’s life, Moscow is burnt to the ground by the Crimean army, under Devlet Giray, Vilcabamba, Peru, the last independent remnant of the Inca Empire, is conquered by Spain, and Mary, Queen of Scots, is placed on treason trial at Fotheringhay Castle in England for complicity in the Babington Plot and sentenced to death.

Time to add up the scores.

The first fifteen points are given for the length of time the contestants were evil. Erzsébet Báthory began her life of debauchery, murder, and torture in 1585 and ended with her capture in 1609 for a total of 24 years.  

For Pol Pot, we begin his reign of terror started around 1972 when he began to use forced labor to raise money for his insurgency. In the year before he died in 1998, he had one of his allies, Son Sen, executed along with eleven members of his family showing that Pot was still as dangerous and evil in his last years as he was decades earlier. His reign of evil lasted 26 years. Pol Pot gets the full 15 points with Erzsébet receiving 14. 

Next up is the twenty points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. This one is a rout for the Cambodian leader. Pol Pot’s policies affected countries like the US, Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union along with his other neighbors like Laos and Thailand. Erzsébet Báthory, on the other hand, was focused more on those towns and villages around Hungary, so the full twenty goes to Pol Pot with Bathory receiving five points.

Time to give out the twenty-five points for their lasting effect on world history. This one is a hard one to give to either person as their long term effect in the case of Bathory, has faded over time and with Pol Pot, it will fade. Because of the number of people murdered by the Cambodian killer, I will give him the twenty-five with Bathory receiving 15.

Last up is the big prize for how bad or evil they were to their country for forty points. Being the head of a genocide that takes twenty percent of the population out is about as bad as it gets. Even if we take Erzsébet Báthory’s highest estimated kill total of 650, it pales in comparison to Pol Pot. For this reason, he gets the forty points while she receives 15.

The final total is Pol Pot 100 Erzsébet Báthory 49. The head of the Khmer Rogue moves on to the second round where he will face off against one of his idols, Joseph Stalin.

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