Source List and Detailed Death Tolls
for Man-made Multicides throughout History
If you consider it rude to reduce human suffering to cold statistics, you
don't have to. Turn away now.
On the other hand, if you believe that numbers matter, then you'll probably
want to know the correct numbers [n.1]. On these pages, I
have collected a variety of body counts for all the major atrocities of the 20th
Century and set them out for you to examine. I have tried to keep commentary to
a minimum, although I would have to be a robot to avoid passing occasional
judgement on the accuracy of some of these estimates. (You might want to read
introduction on the uncertainty of atrocity
statistics, and my
footnote on the morality of atrocity statistics, if you
Some of these sources inspire more confidence than others. Often the least
authoritative sources (such as dilettantes like me or partisan propagandists)
are the most accessible, while the most authoritative (serious scholars with no
vested interest) are the most obscure, but I have generally accorded all sources
equal weight. My intention here is not to dictate that you believe one chosen
number; instead, I'm more interested in letting you see the limits of the debate
-- the upper and lower estimates and the spectrum that runs between them. A
useful rule of thumb is that if you are faced with a wide
spread of differing estimates, it's safer to believe one from the cluster in the
middle than one alone at the upper or lower edge. [n.2]
To be honest, though, I'm sometimes embarrassed by where I have been forced
to find my statistics, but beggars can't be choosers. Very few historians have
the cold, calculating, body-count mentality that I do. They prefer describing
the quality of suffering rather than the quantity of it. Often, the only place
to find numbers is in a newspaper article, almanac, chronicle or encyclopedia
which needs to summarize major events into a few short sentences or into one
scary number, and occasionally I get the feeling that some writers use numbers
as pure rhetorical flourishes. To them, "over a million" does not
mean ">106"; it's just synonymous with "a lot".
On the other hand, I sometimes prefer secondary sources over primary. The
way I see it, original scholarship which gets down to the primary source
material is like an attorney in a lawsuit -- it's selective with the facts, out
to prove a point and untested by criticism. Secondary sources (like, say, the
Encyclopedia Britannica) are the jury -- they listen to all sides and cast their
vote for the most convincing.
To make it easier for an American (like myself) to keep these numbers in
perspective, I have divided these wars into several categories based on the
magnitude of the event. Select one in order to get the detailed source list.
Within each category, the wars are arranged by date.
I've used some sources so frequently that I can't give a full bibliography
each time I mention it, so I only refer to the author. Here are the details for
- M. D. Aletheia, The Rationalist's Manual (1897): In a chapter
entitled "The Fruits of Christianism", he calculates that Christianity
has been responsible for 56 million deaths. Keep in mind that this book is over
a hundred years old, and later research has challenged and modified these
numbers, or see my more detailed criticism. [http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/m_d_aletheia/rationalists_manual.html#1.1.25]
- AWM: Australian War Memorial Fact Sheet [http://www.awm.gov.au/research/infosheets/19_aust_war_casualties.htm]
- Jacob Bercovitch and Richard Jackson, International Conflict : A
Chronological Encyclopedia of Conflicts and Their Management 1945-1995
- Probably the most thorough list of all wars since the Big One. Each entry
usually includes a couple of paragraphs describing the cause, course and outcome
of the war, including estimated total deaths.
- Bodart, Gaston, Losses of Life in Modern Wars (1916)
- Good, detailed compilation of recorded casualty statistics for the Austrian
and French armies over the centuries.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, 1992 printing
- Brzezinski, Zbigniew,
Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the Twenty-first Century
(1993). The relevant chapter is posted at [http://www.mcad.edu/classrooms/POLITPROP/palace/library/outofcontrol2.html]
- The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Africa (1981)
- The Cambridge History of Africa (1986), ed. J. D. Fage and R.
- The Center for Defense Information, specifically, The Defense Monitor,
"The World At War: January 1, 1998". The column in the chart is
labeled "casualties" (which semantically should include wounded), but
it's clear in the introduction that only deaths are counted. [It was
at http://www.cdi.org/dm/issue1/index.html, but that's
disappeared. It's been replaced by http://www.cdi.org/dm/1998/issue1.pdf,
but the equivalent chart (#3) has much less detail now.]
- Chirot, Daniel: Modern Tyrants : the power and prevalence of evil in
our age (1994)
- A dozen or so case studies about how tyrants have come to power, stayed in
power and exercised power. Just as importantly, he also tries to pinpoint why
tyrants have not come to power in some likely venues.
- Chomsky, Noam
- Probably the favorite atrocitologist of the American far left. I don't
mean that as either a slur or a recommendation. I'm just saying, if you're
trying to convince right-wingers, don't cite Chomsky because they'll instantly
recoil. On the other hand, Chomsky's numbers are always based on an identified
source (such as a government report, newspaper or humanitarian organization.) so
you can't ignore him and claim to be complete.
- The Chomsky Reader (1987)
- Deterring Democracy (1991)
- Clodfelter, Michael
- Warfare and Armed Conflict: A Statistical Reference to Casualty and
Other Figures, 1618-1991: Well, if I had known that this book existed back
when I started my research, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. In
fact, I could have turned my energies toward a more wholesome research project
instead, like bunnies. In any case, here are all the statistics of all wars for
the past four hundred years.
- One notable aspect this book is that most of these estimates seem to be
original, rather than a continuation of the Main Sequence
- Sometimes for the various Indochina conflicts, I will specifically cite to
Clodfelter's Vietnam in Military Statistics (1995).
- Compton's Encyclopedia Online v.2.0 (1997)
- Correlates of War Project at the University of Michigan [http://www.correlatesofwar.org/]:
Online summaries for
wars after 1816. This project was originated by Joel David
- Official bibliographic citation: Sarkees, Meredith Reid (2000). "The
Correlates of War Data on War: An Update to 1997," Conflict Management and
Peace Science, 18/1: 123-144.
- This is probably the most widely respected academic database of war
statistics out there. On the other hand, they don't seem to have a consistant
definition of "deaths". Sometimes they only count those killed in
battle; sometimes they count soldiers who died of disease as well; sometimes
they include civilians. We aren't told where the numbers came from, but you'll
notice that in a lot of cases, Eckhardt's "military"
is the same as COWP's "state", to which they add Eckhardt's "civilian"
in order to get their "total".
- They are part of the Main Sequence.
- Courtois, Stephane, Le Livre Noir du Communism
(The Black Book of Communism, 1997)
- An anthology of communist horrors that calculates that Communism has been
responsible for a total of 85-100 million deaths. [n.3]
- Davies, Norman, Europe A History (1998)
- Dictionary of Twentieth Century World History, by Jan Palmowski
- Dictionary of Wars, by George Childs Kohn (Facts on File, 1999)
- DoD: United States Department of Defense [http://web1.whs.osd.mil/mmid/m01/SMS223R.HTM]
- Dumas, Samuel, and K.O. Vedel-Petersen, Losses of Life Caused By War
- War-by-war analysis of recorded casualty statistics from the 18th, 19th and
early 20th Centuries.
- A Quick and Dirty Guide to War (1991)
- William Eckhardt is one of the most quoted but elusive atrocity collectors
around. I've seen his work mentioned by many authorities, but I couldn't find
any of the cited journals in any of the 3 university libraries in my hometown.
Finally, I found a 3-page table of his war statistics printed in World
Military and Social Expenditures 1987-88 (12th ed., 1987) by Ruth Leger
Sivard, which lists every war since 1700.
- These war statistics include "civilian as well as military fatalities,
massacres, political violence, and famines associated with the conflicts."
- He's part of the Main Sequence.
- The main problem with Eckhart's data is that a lot seems to be based on
guesswork, without being labelled as such. He often takes another authority's
estimate of battle dead (usually Small & Singer's) and
assumes that civilian deaths are some arbitrary proportion of military deaths.
He might split the death toll in halves (see
the Huk Rebellion) or thirds (Colombia) or double it (Biafra, Sudan,
Spain) or triple it (Philippines,
6-Day War and after). He might assume that
civilians died even when there's no evidence of substantial civilian deaths
whatsoever (see the Texan War). Sometimes,
he'll take only one side's casualties and report these as the full total (Algeria or South
Africa). This is not necessarily a problem if you're just trying to
estimate an overall total or trends over time (like, say, the 19th Century
versus the 20th Century), but it makes some of his estimates unreliable on a
case by case basis.
- Edgerton, Robert B, Africa's armies: from honor to infamy: a history
from 1791 to the present (2002)
- FAS 2000
- Federation of American Scientists, The World at War (2000) [http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/ops/war/index.html]
- Gilbert, Martin, A History of the Twentieth Century (1997) See
also my 1998 review.
- Global Security: Individual conflicts can be accessed through The World At
- Grenville, J. A. S., A History of the World in the Twentieth Century
- Hammond Atlas of the 20th Century (1996)
- Harff, Barbara & Gurr, Ted Robert:
- "Toward an Empirical Theory of Genocides and Politicides", 32
International Studies Quarterly 359 (1988). Has a table of 44 genocides
committed between 1945 and 1988.
- Hartman, T.,
A World Atlas of Military History 1945-1984 (1984)
- Henige, David, Numbers From Nowhere, (1998)
- This book doesn't deal with the 20th Century, but if you want a good
discussion of the reliability of commonly quoted statistics of earlier wars and
atrocities, check it out.
- Johnson, Paul,
- In a Twentieth Century context, if I cite "Johnson" as a source
without further description, I mean Paul Johnson, Modern Times (1983).
- Occasionally, I will also cite more specifically to Paul Johnson's A
History of the Jews (1987)
- Kuper, Leo, Genocide: its political uses in the Twentieth Century
- Levy, Jack, War in the Modern Great Power System (1983)
- This book analyses statistics of multinational wars from 1495 onward.
- He seems to be part of the Main Sequence. He seems
to draw most of his numbers from Small & Singer after
1815 and Sorokin before that. He appears to be the source of many of
Eckhardt's statistics for the 18th Century and earlier.
- The main thing to keep in mind is that Levy has often taken Sorokin's
estimated "losses" (i.e. killed and wounded) and reported them as "battle
deaths". Sure it's sleight of hand, but considering that Sorokin's numbers
are just educated guesses to begin with, Levy is not entirely out on
limb here. Once you adjust Sorokin downward to count only deaths, and then
adjust him upward again to account for disease, you could easily end up back
where you started anyway.
- Main Sequence
- There's a string of authorities who seem to build their research on each
other's earlier guesstimates: Sorokin, Small
Rummel, the Correlates of War Project,
etc. Most mainstream statistical analysis of war is based on these authorities;
however, if you look at the individual authorities on the Main Sequence, you'll
see that some have specific problems that carry over as they borrow from one
another. See the wars in
South Africa for examples of how the Main
Sequence agrees with itself and not with historians of the specific war.
- Marley, David, Wars of the Americas (1998)
- Complete chronology since 1492
- Obermeyer, Ziad, Christopher J. L. Murray, and Emmanuela Gakidou. “Fifty Years of Violent War
Deaths from Vietnam to Bosnia: Analysis of Data from the World Health Survey Programme.”
British Medical Journal 336 (2008), p. 1482. Covers the years 1955 to 2002. [http://www.bmj.com/content/336/7659/1482.full]
- Our Times: The Illustrated History of the 20th Century (Turner
- Stuart and Doris Flexner, The Pessimist's Guide to History (1992,
- Project Ploughshares, Armed Conflicts Report 2000 [http://www.ploughshares.ca/content/ACR/ACR00/ACR00.html]
or whichever year is handy.
- Porter, Jack Nusan, Genocide and Human Rights (1982)
- Rosenbaum, Alan S., Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on
comparative genocide (1996)
- If you've frequented any of the history newsgroups on Usenet -- or even the
movie or science fiction or quilting newsgroups, for that matter -- then you've
probably seen one of those angry "my atrocity is bigger than your atrocity"
arguments at some point. If you've ever actually participated in one
of these arguments, then this book is for you. Pick up a copy, and see how
professionals do it.
- Rummel, Rudolph J.
- Probably the favorite atrocitologist of the libertarian right wing. The
best thing about Rummel is that he explains in detail how he arrived at his
numbers. [n.4 (The unbest thing...)]
- Rummel's primary concern is democide -- his word for politically and
ethnically motivated mass murder by governments. His principle books are:
- China's Bloody Century : Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900
(1991), Calculates the lives lost in 20th Century China.
- Lethal Politics : Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917
(1990), Does the same for the Soviet Union.
- Democide : Nazi Genocide and Mass Murder (1992), The German rampage
- Death By Government (1994), The full treatment for atrocities
committed worldwide during the 20th Century.
- Also, have a look at his excellent website at
- S&S, see Singer
- Sheina, Robert L., Latin America's Wars: The Age of the Caudillo,
- Melvin Small & Joel David Singer, Resort to Arms : International
and Civil Wars 1816-1980 (1982)
- If you're into statistical analysis of wars, this is the book for you. It
analyzes the frequency, duration and severity of wars since Napoleon, and tries
to uncover patterns in such things as cause and timing.
- This book is a major part of the Main Sequence.
- Ostensibly, Small & Singer only tabulate the number of battle deaths,
but in practice, I've noticed that they sometimes (unwittingly?) include
military deaths from other causes such as disease (American
Civil War or Crimean War), as well as the
occasional civilian death toll (Bangladesh
- This is an update of an earlier book doing much the same thing: The
Wages of War. 1816-1965 (1972). These books have probably been superseded
by the Correlates of War Project.
- SIPRI [year]
- SIPRI Yearbook: compiled by the Stockholm International Peace
- They seem to be part of the Main Sequence.
- Skidmore, Thomas E. (and Peter H. Smith), Modern Latin America, 4th
- Unless otherwise noted, "Smith" means Dan Smith, The State of
War and Peace Atlas (1997)
- Other relevant books by Dan Smith:
- The New State of War and Peace (1991); co-authored with Michael
- The War Atlas (1983); co-authored with Michael Kidron
- Sorokin, Pitirim, Social and Cultural Dynamics,
vol.3 (1937, 1962)
- Any study of war deaths before the 20th Century has to begin with this
book. Sorokin realized that in the absence of hard numbers, we could at least
arrive at a rough order of magnitude for old wars by multiplying four variables:
- The average size of the armies involved. (e.g. 10,000)
- The intensity of the fighting as shown by whatever statistics on individual
battles have been passed down to us. (e.g. an average of 10% casualties x
our army of 10,000 = 1,000 losses)
- The number of active theaters of operation. (e.g. 2 fronts x our
estimate of 1,000 lost per army = 2,000)
- The length of the war. (e.g. 4 years x our estimate of 2,000 lost
per year = 8,000)
- Sure, it's maddeningly imprecise, but at least it gives us a frame of
reference and an anchor which keeps our estimates from drifting too far off the
mark. After all, it's reasonable to assume that small armies fighting a short
war will kill fewer soldiers than large armies fighting a long war.
- Sorokin calculates "losses" rather than deaths. Usually this
means killed+wounded (which means that battle deaths alone would be 1/4 to 1/3
Sorokin's estimate), but sometimes (particularly in the edged-weapon wars of the
ancient and medieval eras) it looks like he's only calculating deaths. My guess
is that this derives from the fact that  in edged-weapon warfare (where
you're face-to-face with the enemy and unable to stagger to safety), more wounds
would lead to death, and [B] ancient records rarely bothered to count wounds. I
would suggest that with modern wars, start with the 1/4 to 1/3 fraction, and as
we go farther back in time, scale back to 1/2, and eventually, count all "losses"
- Sorokin does not calculate civilian deaths nor military deaths by disease.
- Sorokin often sticks to his methodology, even when there are better
statistics available. While this allows him to easily and directly compare all
wars to each other (because all his estimates are based on the same criteria),
it might not be a good idea to accept his estimates over others which are based
directly on aggregate casualty data, such as we find for well-recorded modern
- He seems to be the originator of the Main Sequence.
- Timeframe (a series by Time-Life):
- Timeframe AD 1900-1925 The World In Arms
- Timeframe AD 1925-1950 Shadow of the Dictators
- Timeframe AD 1950-1990 Nuclear Age
- Totten, Samuel, ed., Century of Genocide: Eyewitness Accounts and
Critical Views (1997)
- Urlanis, Boris, Wars and Population (1971)
- A hard-to-find translation and abridgement of Voiny i
narodonasyelyeniye. Because Urlanis was a Soviet scholar, he relies on many
sources that have been overlooked by English-language authorities, and he
approaches the subject with a set of biases that is very different from those
that most Americans bring to the subject. One problem with this translation is
that it trims many of the calculations for wars before the 20th Century, so we
pretty much have to take his pre-1900 estimates as given, without knowing how he
arrived at them.
- David Wallechinsky's Twentieth Century : History With the Boring Parts
Left Out (1995). Oddly, it's a lot more accurate than you'd suspect.
- War Annual
- A series of books by John Laffin. The full exact title varies from year to
year, but it's usually something like The World in Conflict [year] War
Annual [number]. The series so far goes 1986 (1), 1987 (2), 1989 (3), 1990
(4), 1991 (5), 1994 (6), 199? (7), 1997 (8), so it's not strictly an annual.
Each book is a very detailed description of all the fighting which has occurred
in the past year, worldwide, with maps and background information as well.
- Wertham, Fredric
- A Sign For Cain : An Exploration of Human Violence (1966)
- The World Handbook of Political and Social Indicators by Charles
Lewis Taylor: The 1st (1972) edition tallies "Deaths from Domestic
Violence" year-by-year from 1948 to 1967. The 3rd (1983) edition counts "Deaths
from Political Violence" for the years 1968-1977. If I cite a number from
this series without further description, then it falls into these categories.
The book also has a table counting "Political Executions" for the same
year, but if I've taken a number from this category, I'll say it.
- Generally, the numbers in the WHPSI represent the minimum
verifiable body counts, and they are usually a bit lower than other estimates.
They include only the actual inhabitants of the country who were killed (i.e.
not foreign intervention forces), and only those killed in group conflicts (i.e.
- Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page]
- The Internet's free, collaborative encyclopedia. Because it's a collective
effort, it usually represents conventional wisdom -- right or wrong -- but since
the content of Wikipedia is constantly changing, there's no guarantee from one
day to the next that it will still say what I said it said.
- For example, I once linked to their explanation of "falsifiability".
Back then, their article was direct, succinct and easy to understand. Now,
this one article has expanded to the size of a post-graduate philosophy textbook
that's incomprehensible to anyone who didn't major in philosophy. Next week,
- In general, I wouldn't use them except as a last resort because they rarely
cite sources, and any durn fool can jump in and rewrite. I certainly have.
Then some other durn fool came in right after me and changed it again.
- World Political Almanac, 3rd Ed. (Facts on File: 1995) by Chris
"... numbers matter ... correct numbers."
This sentence is fraught with complications.
Firstly, the numbers only matter in a sociological, scientific sense; they
certainly don't matter in any meaningful moral sense. For example, the American
Revolution killed anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 people, which is many, many
orders of magnitude higher than the number of people that were dying under the
British tyranny the colonials were so upset about. Was it worth 50,000 lives to
create an independent United States rather than to peacefully evolve into a
bigger Canada? The answer to that question, of course, has to be decided on the
basis of intangible principles, rather than a simple mathematical formula of
comparative body counts.
Secondly, as to the concept of "correct numbers"... where to
Although we all know that a butcher is a butcher whether he murders a
thousand or a million, as a practical matter we are often forced to chose the
lesser of two evils -- Hitler vs. Stalin, Mao vs. Chiang, Castro vs. Batista,
Sandanista vs. Contra. We can argue the intangibles all day long and still not
decide, so sooner or later someone is going to get the bright idea that numbers
are objective, so let's just compare body counts.
The problem is that the numbers aren't objective. As long as the
moral meaning of an event is in dispute, the numbers will be in dispute. Until
we agree on the interpretation of the event, we won't agree on the death toll.
For example, it was quite easy for me to find the number of soldiers killed
in the First World War. The first encyclopedia I opened had all the casualty
statistics right there in the W's. So did the second one I checked -- the exact
same numbers. The first history of World War One I checked also had the same
numbers, as did the next four sources I checked.
Why the unanimity? Probably because everyone agrees on the moral
significance of the First World War -- it was a colossal, bloody blunder.
Because the accepted death toll confirms that interpretation, no one has ever
felt the need to go back and recalculate. On the other hand, if someday our
interpretation of the war's significance changes (let's say, to "a glorious
crusade against evil"), then a new generation of historians might feel that
the old numbers are getting in the way of the new interpretation, and they'll
take a second look.
And when they take that second look, they'll find that the statistics are a
lot messier than the agreed numbers imply. This was, after all, the war that
created the tomb of the unknown soldier. People were simply blown into
oblivion. Hell, entire nations were blown into oblivion -- Austria-Hungary, the
Ottoman Empire -- who could keep keep track of all this mayhem? There are huge
gaps in the data that have to be filled by guesswork, and that guesswork is
tilted by the historian's preconceptions.
Similarly, the death toll for the Congo Crisis of the 1960s is remarkably
similar in most of the sources I've checked -- 100,000 -- a suspiciously round
number. It's as if somebody somewhere took a wild guess at the order of
magnitude, and since this is the only number available, everyone else just
accepts it. Since there is, as yet, no vast body of American scholarship on the
Congo, there's no dissenting opinion. So here again we see that everyone agrees
on the body count because they all agree on moral significance. In this case,
however, the moral interpretation of the event is "who cares?".
Contrast this with the death toll attributed to the Castro regime in Cuba.
It runs from 2,000 to 97,000. Why? Because we can't agree whether Castro is an
excessively severe reformer or a psychopathic tyrant. A researcher who is
predisposed to being extremely anti-Communist is going to look under every rock
for hidden horrors, and interpret every statistical inconsistency as a hint of
some dark evil. Faced with the need to fill in gaps in the data with guesses,
he will always assume the worst. Meanwhile, the less anti-Communist (no one
admits to being pro-Communist nowadays) will set a higher burden of proof --
perhaps stubbornly insisting that every accusation be proven beyond a reasonable
doubt, even though historians routinely make judgements based on evidence that
would get tossed out at a jury trial.
Ironically, these disputes sometimes spill over and infect the estimates of
unrelated atrocities. The death toll of the Duvalier regime in Haiti runs from
2,000 to 60,000, and I suspect that the number you pick depends less on your
opinion of Duvalier himself (everyone agrees he was a brutal kleptocrat) and
more on whether you want to label Duvalier or Castro as the bloodiest thug of
the 20th Century Caribbean.
Take a look at three major histories of the Spanish Civil War and try to
find which side was responsible for more political executions: Gabriel Jackson
said it was the Right Wing with 200,000 killings, compared to 20,000 by the
Left. Hugh Thomas agreed that it was the Right Wing, but his ratio was more
balanced, 75,000 to 55,000. Stanley Payne put the heavier guilt on the
Leftists: 72,000, compared to 35,000 killed by the Right. Which side should
the world have supported? Which side was the lesser of two evils? Beats the
heck out of me, but whichever side you prefer, I've just given you the numbers
to back it up.
I sometimes wonder if the only solution to this endless bickering is either
to admit that all death tolls are subjective, or else to decide that morality is
not mathematical so it really doesn't matter who killed more than whom.
Each of these solutions, however, creates uncomfortable philosophical
implications. The first implies that death tolls exist merely as quantum
probabilities that only collapse into certainties when we agree. This means
that if we, as a society, decide that a certain horror never happened, then it
really, absolutely never happened. Taken a few steps further, this
implies that the past has no independent, absolute existence beyond our memories
and interpretations of it, and that it's all myth.
I suspect that most of us would lean towards the second solution. After
all, very few of us would have a problem consigning both Adolf Hitler (15
million murders) and Idi Amin (300 thousand murders) to the same circle of Hell
despite the 50:1 ratio in their death tolls. But if we're willing to ignore a
50:1 ratio to make Hitler and Amin moral equals, then we can just as easily find
a moral equivalence between 300,000 deaths and 6,000. Pretty soon, we've
removed the shear scale of the crimes from consideration, and because every
ruler, no matter how benign, is probably responsible for at least one unjust or
unnecessary death, we're claiming a moral equivalence between, say, Winston
Churchill and Adolf Hitler (which -- and do I really need to say this? -- there
isn't). Not only does this foul Churchill with Hitler crimes, but it also
whitewashes Hitler with Churchill's virtues. After all, if two people begin as
moral equals, then it doesn't take much to tilt the balance and make one of them
(either of them) morally superior. Maybe even Hitler.
So this footnote has come full circle, and we still have no answer.
"A useful rule of thumb ..."
Mathematically, I'm talking about the median, the number that is
lower than half the others, and higher than the other half. I find this to be a
more useful average than the mean (the per-unit average, the sum of all
the numbers divided by the count), which can be dragged off-center by one
eccentric entry. If the spread runs 1,2,2,2,18, then the median is a nice
reasonable 2, while the mean is 5, which is far higher than most of our numbers.
Even worse than the mean is the range. By saying that our numbers
range from 1 to 18 (strictly true), the impression is that the true average
falls midway, at 9.5. Thus, by using the range, we are focusing on the two most
eccentric numbers (1 and 18), instead of focusing on the central, most typical
Another problem with using either the range or the mean is that a simple
typographical error (say, writing 80,000 as 8,000) or misunderstanding
(reporting 100,000 casualties as 100,000
killed) will drag the estimate way off center, whereas a median is usually not
effected by one wild mistake.
A few other rules of thumb (and really boring rules of thumb at
that, so you might want to escape now while you can)
would be ...
- You're free to ignore any one estimate on each list, no questions
asked. If I could only find one source, then maybe no one else is able to
corroborate the body count, so you can legitimately ignore it and leave a big
question mark beside the atrocity. If I could only find two estimates, then you
can pick whichever one you want. On the other hand, if ignoring one estimate
still leaves a half dozen others, then you're just being mule-headed if you
refuse to believe the general order of magnitude.
- Watch for sleight of hand, and don't be afraid to ask, "Didn't we
count that already?" If different writers describe a death toll as "100,000
people starved", "100,000 war dead", or "100,000 children
died", don't automatically add them all together. Although strictly
speaking, these are all different categories, the various writers might be
talking about the same 100,000 labeled differently. We can't tell from these
descriptions how distinct each count is or how much overlap exists between them.
It might have started with an estimate that "100,000 people, mostly
children, died in the war, often from malnutrition," and subsequent writers
interpreted and rewrote that estimate with slight, but significant, differences.
Similarly, "50,000 prisoners executed" may or may not be included
among the "200,000 deaths in forced labor camps".
- Don't be afraid to ask, "If this [regime, dictator, massacre,
whatever] was so bad, why has no one else mentioned it?"
- Writers usually focus on the biggest, most impressive totals they can get
their hands on, so when one says, for example, "5,000 prisoners were
executed in the first year of the new regime", he is probably calling
attention to the first year because he considers this to be the peak. If
another historian says that "45,000 were executed in the first five years",
you can't just reconcile them by saying, "OK. 5,000 were killed in the
first year, and 10,000 per year after that," because, after all, why would
the first writer focus on the first year alone if the killing actually
intensified? Sometimes different authorities are just irreconcilable.
"... 85-100 million deaths."
Two of the contributors (Werth and Margolin) have disassociated themselves
from the grand total and philosophic conclusions put forth in the introduction.
For a discussion of the controversy, see The 20 Dec 1999 New Republic [http://www.tnr.com/122099/scammell122099.html],
or the 30 Nov. 1997 Manchester Guardian Weekly, or the 10 Nov. 1997
[London] Times, or the 10 Nov. 1997 Daily Telegraph.
"... the best thing about Rummel ..."
The unbest thing about Rummel's numbers is that they fit his theories just a
little too neatly, so you might want to approach with caution. Here are a few
dangers to be aware of:
- He generally goes high on the numbers killed by Totalitarian regimes. If
the range of estimates for the number of deaths under a communist like Stalin
run from 15 to 60 million, Rummel will usually pick a number near the top.
Thus, his estimate for the total number of unnatural deaths under Communism even
exceeds the number set forth in
The Black Book of Communism.
- At the same time, he often goes low on the numbers killed by Authoritarian
regimes. For instance, his estimate for the number of democides in the Congo
Free State is the lowest of
eight authorities I consulted.
- During eras of widespread civil war, Rummel sees a proliferation of local
governments rather than an absence of central government. By calling every
bandit hideout a quasi-government, he can fit killings by Chinese warlords,
Lebanese militias, lynch mobs, paramilitary death squads and corporate security
forces into the death-by-government pigeonhole, rather than tallying these as
examples of death by the lack of government. Therefore, "Government"
gets blamed coming and going.
- Some of his conclusions seem rather tautological. For example, his
assertion that citizens of democracies are far less likely to die at the hands
of their own governments is not surprising when we remember that not killing
huge numbers of your own people is already included in the definition of
- Based on Rummel's calculations, it has become customary on the Internet to
accuse Government of 170 million murders during the 20th Century. The small
print, however, is still important:
- Of Rummel's 169 million democides, 118 million (or 70%) were victims of
just three regimes -- the USSR, Communist China and Nazi Germany. That means
that if the world were a single village of 1000 people, we would be basing
complex socio-political theories of governing on the behavior of just three
guys, the last of whom died a quarter century ago.
- The margin of error for these three regimes can
dramatically alter the total, and more importantly, it can alter the
conclusions we draw from it. For instance, I estimate that these 3 nations
committed 45 million murders, which by itself would
reduce Rummel's total by 73M. With Rummel's original total, democide is far and
away the leading cause of preventable death in the modern world.
My numbers would put it at about the same
level as smoking.
- In table 16A.1 of
Statistics of Democide, Rummel lists 218 pretty nasty regimes, but only
142 of these were sovereign states, and the median number of democides committed
by these regimes is 33,000. Sure, that's a lot. It's more people than I've
killed; it's almost 3 dozen Titanics, but even so, it means that the
average member of this 20th Century rogue's gallery killed about the same number
of people as a couple of years of drunk driving in America (32,000
alcohol-related fatalities in 1999-2000).
- Rummel accuses quasi-governments of some 6,681,000 democides, which may not
seem like a big slice of the overall 170M, but it actually indicates that
lack-of-government might be more dangerous than government. The 24
quasi-governments on Rummel's list racked up a median death toll of 100,000,
which means that, on average, quasi-governments are three times bloodier than
- And most importantly: Governments don't kill people; people kill people.
to Table of Contents
Last updated Oct. 2010
Copyright © 1999-2010 Matthew White