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Saturday, July 1, 1995

Death By Government

Absolute Power Kills Absolutely

The line, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you,” takes on new meaning after reading R.J. Rummel’s devastating Death By Government. This century, estimates the University of Hawaii political scientist, the State has killed almost 170 million people.

The numbers are so horrifying, so unfathomable, so unbelievable–it is tempting to dismiss them as meaningless statistics. But consider: this century, politicians have killed, for matters of ideology and policy, the equivalent of the entire population of Russia. With the slaughter averaging roughly 1.8 million people a year, in effect every resident of Houston or Philadelphia has been buried year in and year out.

Rummel calls these murders “democide” rather than “genocide,” because the latter focuses on the elimination of specific ethnic groups, while the former includes mass killings for any number of other reasons. He readily acknowledges the difficulty in developing an accurate death toll, but no one has done better: Rummel offers 72 pages of references. The basic problem, he explains, is power. Writes Rummel: “Power kills; absolute Power kills absolutely.” Of course, this problem is not new. Rummel estimates that some 133 million people were murdered over the first several thousand years of human life. China’s emperors were particularly brutal, killing 33.5 million; the Mongols ran a close second at 30 million.

While the State long ago demonstrated its democidal nature, the political experiment has, unfortunately, taken a much deadlier turn this century. Indeed, the twentieth century demonstrates the utterly disastrous results of what historian Paul Johnson calls the Age of Politics. Unique to this century has been the marriage of sinful men, all-powerful governments, and technological progress. As a result, 20 death states have killed 170 million human beings.

The greatest system of mass murder belongs to the Soviet Union–the “Soviet Gulag State,” as Rummel refers to it. Some 62 million, “Old and young, healthy and sick, men and women, even infants and the infirm, were killed in cold blood.” What makes this slaughter particularly mystifying is the fact that most of these victims were, as Rummel puts it, “guilty of … nothing.”

Anyone who has read Robert Conquest knows the details of Joseph Stalin’s persecutions, but even Rummel’s much shorter account provides more than enough information to turn anyone’s stomach. There was genocide, such as the slaughter of the Don Cossacks, Ukrainian peasants, and Estonians. There were the mass purges of the Communist Party. And there were killings to fulfill quotas. At least the other murders fulfilled a horrific, perverse logic. But these? Explains Rummel:


[M]urder and arrest quotas did not work well. Where to find the “enemies of the people” they were to shoot was a particularly acute problem for the local NKVD, which had been diligent in uncovering “plots.” They had to resort to shooting those arrested for the most minor civil crimes, those previously arrested and released, and even mothers and wives who appeared at NKVD headquarters for information about their arrested loved ones.

Who can doubt that this was, as Ronald Reagan opined, an evil empire?

Then there are the Communist rulers of China, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and company, who were long feted in the West. Their victims roll was modest only when compared to that of the Soviet Union: 35 million. Given such a record, Rummel asks, why was anyone surprised at the murder of students and workers in Tiananmen square?

China’s history is, in many ways, more tragic than that of Russia. Rummel figures that various emperors killed 33.5 million people. Nearly a million died at the hands of warlords early this century. Chiang Kaishek’s nationalists, backed so enthusiastically by many Westerners, slaughtered ten million, putting Chiang in fourth place behind Adolf Hitler in the pantheon of megamurderers. And then came the Communists.

As revolutionaries, Mao Zedong’s forces killed millions under their control. Once in power throughout China, the new regime liquidated millions more opponents. The “Great Leap Forward” resulted in a famine that left as many as 27 million dead from starvation. Millions more were murdered during the Cultural Revolution. Almost as inconceivable as this endless slaughter was the fact that so many Western leftists could have promoted so vile a system for so long.

Mass murderer number three was Hitler, along with his criminal gang of anti-Semites, misfits, misanthropes, and racists. Rummel numbers the Third Reich’s victims at 21 million. Germany’s killings were heavily weighted toward genocide–of Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies, for instance, though few people escaped the Nazi jackboot. Hitler also deserves blame for igniting the worst war in history, with generous help from Stalin and others.

Rummel goes on to chronicle more modest killers, like Japan, Cambodia, Turkey, Vietnam, Poland, Yugoslavia, North Korea, and Mexico. What makes his analysis particularly useful is its impartiality. His book forces us to remember mass killing by the supposed good guys in World War II.

Even Great Britain and the U.S. come under criticism for their terror bombings of civilian populations during the same conflict. Rummel goes so far as to list Britain as a “Centi-Kilomurderer,” responsible for an estimated 816,000 deaths, primarily from its World War II aerial campaign, which exceeded anything attempted by Nazi Germany,

Death By Government is a depressing, unnerving book. For this very reason, it should be read in history classes not just across America, but around the world. The problem of power, as Rummel terms it, remains with us today–just ask residents of Angola, Bosnia, Chechnya, Georgia, and Rwanda, among many, many other lands. Only if we learn from the past can we ever hope to end state-sanctioned murder. The case for human liberty and limited government has never been made more effectively than by this fearsome book. []

Mr. Bandow, a Freeman columnist, is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Envy; Statism as Theology.