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Book Review: Death by Government

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Death by Government
by R. J. Rummel (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1994) 496 pages, $49.95.

In 1900, when the 20th century was about to begin, practically all political commentators, social analysts, and newspaper editorialists were sure that the new century would bring greater economic prosperity, more personal liberty and human freedom, and fewer wars and conflicts around the world. Democratic and constitutional government, political and economic liberalism, and the rule of law in both domestic and international affairs were the legacy of the 19th century, it was believed, that would blossom and expand in the 20th century. Unfortunately, the era of classical liberalism, we now know, was at its end. The era of collectivism and the socialist-interventionist-redistributivist state was arriving.

In 1900, the British were fighting the Boers in South Africa (and introducing the first modern use of concentration camps). The American Army was brutally subjugating the Philippine Islanders to U. S. rule in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War (during which American forces behaved so violently that all news dispatches back to the States were either heavily censored or banned). And an international force of American, British, German, Austrian, French, Italian, and Japanese forces were crushing the Boxer Rebellion around Peking, China (indiscriminately killing perhaps as many as 25,000 Chinese in the process). Nevertheless, even though the century began with these conflicts around the world, seemingly no one imagined or predicted the degree of violence, mass murder, and totalitarian tyranny that has been experienced during the past ten decades. Only a handful of older classical liberals was warning of the dangers that would arise if socialism and collectivism were triumphant.

How many people, in fact, have been killed by government violence in the 20th century? Not deaths in wars and civil wars among military combatants, but mass murder of civilians and innocent victims with either the approval or planning of governments — the intentional killings of their own subjects and citizens or people under their political control? The answer is: 169,198,000. If the deaths of military combatants are added to this figure, governments have killed 203,000,000 in the 20th century.

The world population in 1991 is estimated to have been approximately 5,423,000,000. In 1991, Europe’s population was about 502,000,000. The United States in 1990 had a population of about 249,000,000. This means that governments killed about 3.7 percent of the human race in this century, or an equivalent of over 40 percent of all the people in Europe, or a number equal to over 80 percent of all the people in the U.S.

For over ten years, University of Hawaii political science professor R. J. Rummel has been researching the lethal effects of government upon society. During this time he has published a series of books based on his studies. These books include Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder since 1917 (1990), Democide: Nazi Genocide and Mass Murder (1991), and China’s Bloody Century: Genocide and Mass Murder since 1900 (1991). These have detailed governmental mass murder in three of the leading totalitarian states in the 20th century. Now in his latest book, Death by Government, Professor Rummel summarizes government’s deadly effect on the world in our century. He has supplied the statistics about global mass murder by the state.

In his new work, Professor Rummel focuses in detail on those governments around the world which have killed 1,000,000 or more people. In the companion volume, Statistics of Democide: Estimates, Sources, and Calculations on 20th Century Genocide and Mass Murder, he presents the evidence on all of this century’s governmental mass murders, great and small — even those involving the killing of a “mere” 250,000 people here and 500,000 people there.

The megamurdering states of the 20th century have been: the U.S.S.R. (1917-1987), 61,911,000; Communist China (1949-1987), 35,236,000; Nazi Germany (1933-1945), 20,946,000; and Nationalist (or Kuomintang) China (1928-1949), 10,076,000. These are followed by the “lesser” megamurdering states: Japan (1936-1945), 5,964,000; Cambodia (1975-1979), 2,035,000; Turkey (1909-1918), 1,883,000; Vietnam (1945-1987), 1,678,000; North Korea (1948-1987), 1,663,000; Poland (1945-1948), 1,585,000; Pakistan (1958-1987), 1,503,000; Mexico (1900-1920), 1,417,000; Yugoslavia (1944-1987), 1,072,000; Czarist Russia (1900-1917), 1,066,000.

While the Soviet Union and Communist China have been the super mass-murdering states of the century, they have not been the most lethally dangerous, relative to the populations over which they have ruled. During the 70-year period of Soviet history analyzed by Professor Rummel, the state killed the equivalent of 29.64 percent of the U.S.S.R.’s population, while the Communist Chinese (because of the vastness of China’s population) only killed, during the 38 years in his study, the equivalent of 4.49 percent of the people of China. The Nazis killed about 6.46 percent of the peoples under their control in Europe between 1933-1945. On the other hand, during the short four years of its rule in Cambodia, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge government killed about 31.25 percent of the entire Cambodian population.

Professor Rummel’s book is not a mere counting of victims. Each of the chapters on one of these megamurdering governments is a historical narrative of the people, policies, and procedures for implementing mass murder. The most chilling aspect of his exposition is the directness and openness with which many of the participants in these killings have spoken of their deeds. For example, in 1915, during the Turkish massacre of Armenians, the American ambassador reported that the Turkish War Minister “treated the whole matter more or less casually; he could discuss the fate of a race in a parenthesis, and refer to the massacre of children as nonchalantly as we would speak of the weather.” The ambassador recounted that this Turkish Minister requested the name of any Armenians who had taken out life insurance policies with American companies. “They are practically all dead now and have left no heirs to collect the money,” the Turkish official said. “It of course all escheats to the State. The Government is the beneficiary now.” And during the massacre of East Pakistanis by the West Pakistan government in 1971, one of the senior West Pakistani military officers said: “We are determined to cleanse East Pakistan once and for all . . . even if it means killing two million people and ruling the province as a colony for 30 years.” And a West Pakistani captain stated: “We can kill anyone for anything. We are accountable to no one.”

What has motivated governments and their followers and agents to commit murder on this scale against tens of millions of innocent, usually unarmed, victims — men, women and children, young and old? The leading motivations have been ideology (the making of a new socialist man), race (the purifying of or domination by a “superior” racial group), wealth (plundering the most prosperous for the benefit of a select group), or plain cruelty (the imposing of fear and terror to gain control over and obedience from others).

To cover all these motivations under one heading, Professor Rummel suggests the term “democide,” from the Greek word demos (people) and the Latin word caedere (to kill). “Democide’s necessary and sufficient meaning is the intentional government killing of an unarmed person or people,” he says.

The lesson that Professor Rummel wishes to convey from his research is stated clearly and unequivocally by him:

Power kills; absolute Power kills absolutely. . . . The more power a government has, the more it can act arbitrarily according to the whims and desires of the elite, and the more it will make war on others and murder its foreign and domestic subjects. The more constrained the power of governments, the more power is diffused, checked, and balanced, the less it will aggress on others and commit democide.

He argues that all the historical evidence shows that “as the arbitrary power of a regime increases, that is, as we move from democratic through authoritarian to totalitarian regimes, the amount of killing jumps by huge multiples. . . . The empirical and theoretical conclusion is this: The way to end war and virtually eliminate democide appears to be through restricting and checking Power, i.e., through fostering democratic freedom, ” by which Professor Rummel means individual liberty; limited, constitutional government; and social tolerance of difference and diversity among the peoples in a society.

Unless this lesson is learned, the 21st century could be as politically dangerous and lethal as the one that is just ending.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the recently appointed BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).