Sunday, July 16, 2017

Death by government

One difficulty in teaching middle class Midwestern adolescents about 20th century history was convincing them how much difference there is among types of government in the degree of evil. They had no frame of reference. Dictatorships are different and those that justify their actions by a utopian vision are very different. I intentionally spent time teaching about the purges, planned famines, and the Holocaust because otherwise there was a tendency to assume an equivalency of guilt among types of governments and regimes. Although the wars of the last century resulted in massive numbers of dead, even more people were murdered by the governments that ruled over them.

In the 20th century the selected governments below, within their own countries, quite apart from war, killed their own subjects in massive numbers:
USSR between 1917 and 1987 — 61,911,000
People’s Republic of China between 1949 and 1987 — 35,326,000
Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945 — 20,946,000
Nationalist China between 1928 and 1949 — 10,075,000
169 million in total were killed by the government ruling them in the last century. 37.4 million more were killed in wars —- some started by these regimes.
Those statistics come from R.J. Rummel's Death by Government published in 1994 (revised in 1997), another of the books I kept. Rummel, who was a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, authored a number of books about genocide including China's Bloody Century: Genocide and Mass Murder since 1900, Democide: Nazi Genocide and Mass Murder, and Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder since 1917. Each of the books includes an attempt to assess the quantity of killing by these regimes on the people they ruled over, i.e. "death by government," not war. The book, Death by Government, pulls together much of that material and adds to it mass murder by other regimes. The chart below is an example of the material he has compiled:

 These statistics, of course, are a bit dated. There are more recent murderous regimes. ISIS comes immediately to mind.
I think one of the reasons many think war is more deadly than bloodthirsty governments is that war is so much more destructive of the physical environment. Governments can simply transport people somewhere else and then murder them. I recall descriptions of empty cities in Cambodia after Pol Pot ordered everyone out. The deaths occurred somewhere else, the buildings remained.

R.J. Rummel, Death by Government, 1997

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