What was the greatest cause of mass death in the 20th century? It wasn’t natural disasters, disease, famine or war. These tragic body counts cannot compare to the number of humans intentionally slaughtered by their own governments.
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, as we say “never again,” we must attend to the root causes of political evil to halt its present and future existence.
Unnatural death occurs overwhelmingly as a result of ideologically motivated domestic policies enacted with murderous intent or with reckless disregard for human life. After intentional state murder, massive death, poverty and famine result primarily as the unintended consequences of bad policy decisions. But the guilt of regimes often goes unassessed and important historical lessons unlearned.
While many humanitarian activists correctly decry the horrors of war, too little attention is given to the fact that governments are far more dangerous and violent towards their own citizens than to foreign civilians, troops or states. During the 20th century, around 40 million people died in international and civil wars. Yet nearly 200 million, about five times as many, were killed by their own government for their race, religion, imputed political dissent, to fill a murder quota for no reason at all.
Most people are little aware of the prevalence of government mass murder, except for the Nazi genocide of six million Jews. Yet even this somber memorial vastly underestimates the violence of the regime, which murdered over three times that many human beings—nearly 21 million in total, excluding war dead.
The Soviet death toll is even more grisly. Nearly 62 million died as the living were sacrificed for the unborn to build a future Marxist utopia. Millions upon millions were shot, starved, tortured and worked to death for the sake of realizing an ideology.
The massacre of demonstrators in Beijing at Tianenmen Square came as a shock to the Western intelligentsia who had cheered Mao as the “Great Helmsman.” But purging dissent through murder was among the main preoccupations of the Chinese Communist Party. Top party official Zhou Enlai reported that 830,000 “enemies of the people” were destroyed in three years. Mao himself bragged of killing tens of thousands of scholars and executing over 800,000 landlords during the 1950s. Another high-level administrative report stated that nine million peasants were executed during one two-year period and 15 million Chinese were intentionally exterminated in another three-year period. A conservative estimate places all the murders under Mao at 35 million, although various experts, refugees and communist officials place the number closer to 100 million. These numbers count only the intentional executions, omitting the world-record famine created unintentionally when land was collectivized, leaving (as a conservative estimate) over 27 million dead from starvation.
Although the communists and their nationalist predecessors under Chiang Kai-shek considered their parties to be fiercely opposed, their practice of exterminating dissent and enforcing a unitary party line made them equally brutal enemies of the people. Nationalists killed well over 10 million Chinese before the communists took their place, slaughtering and starving far more.
During the last century, governments murdered millions more of their own innocent citizens in Japan, Cambodia, Turkey, Vietnam, Poland, Pakistan, Yugoslavia, North Korea and Mexico. Perhaps the purest expression of a bloody Marxist revolution took place during a few years in the 1970s, when Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge exterminated 2.5 million of their 7 million souls. Over one-third of the population was intentionally murdered—and this number excludes the 1.5 million more killed in war or rebellion.
Tragically, most of these slaughters are only visible in retrospect due to the opacity and isolation of these regimes during their rule. Thus, we should be watchful for contemporary states that are masking dangerous usurpations of political power, such as in Venezuela, Zimbabwe, China, Turkmenistan, Sudan and Mauritania, to name a few. Recent regimes in Uganda, Burundi and Indonesia have murdered hundreds of thousands of their own citizens.
The common theme among all of these is that they begin when a militant state or utopian ideology is valued and empowered over and above the dignity of the individual. What is often overlooked is the disregard for human life and inherent violence that necessarily accompany Marxist revolution—as dissenters and bourgeois are continually purged, communist ideology was actually realized, not neglected, under Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot. As a politics of somber memory, the “liberalism of fear” memorializes those who died to serve someone else’s ideology. These wrenching human tragedies, both past and present, come about when political power reigns without clear and visible limits. What is most urgently needed are comprehensive and accessible property rights to protect citizens from their governments and prevent the political regimes from annexing the economy, making citizens dependent upon political whim for their health and sustenance. Secondarily, political openness through free press and democracy serve as further protections from dangerous ideologies and misinformed legislation.
As we memorialize the tragedy of the Holocaust, let us remember the hundreds of millions sacrificed to predatory politics. We need to develop a constant skepticism toward arbitrary or swollen political power. This will help protect all persons from seemingly benign but potentially fatal encroachments on liberty.
Richard T. Halvorson ’03 is a philosophy and government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.