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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 my introduction on the uncertainty of atrocity statistics, and my footnote on the morality of atrocity statistics, if you haven't already.)

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.

Recurring Sources:

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 selected sources:



"... 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 start?

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.

Simple, scientific.

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 number (2).

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 ...



"... 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 [], 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:


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Last updated Oct. 2010

Copyright © 1999-2010 Matthew White