Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Who Killed More: Communism Or Naziism?

With the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall upon us, various folks are popping up with all kinds of arguments, including in the 11/2 Washington Post, one Paul Hollander, an emeritus sociology prof once at U-Mass-Amherst, now at the Cato Institute, and a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian uprising writing on "Murderous Idealism." He resurrects the argument that the Communists killed more than the Nazis, indeed, a lot more: "There is little public awareness of the large-scale atrocities, killings and human rights violations that occurred in communist states, especially compared with awareness of the Holocaust and Nazism [sic] (which led to far fewer deaths)."

Now, I will agree that there is more awareness of the deaths caused by the Nazis than by the Communists. However, this meme that the Communists "killed" many more has been increasingly pushed since it appeared in the 1990s in works by R.J. Rummel and the The Black Book of Communism by Stephane Courtois. The former claims over 140 million, the latter around 100 million, their main difference being an extra 39 million or so Rummel claims died on the way to or in the gulag that Courtois and others do not accept. These are large numbers and are indeed larger than any that anybody attributes to the Nazis. But, this argument has some serious problems in the way it gets mentioned by people like Hollander.

In particular, starting from Courtois's 100 million, about 55 million of those are famine deaths, the largest single number being from the Great Leap Forward disaster in China at the end of the 1950s, with the other biggies being 1921 and the early 1930s in the USSR. This still leaves a really huge number, although if one focuses on people specifically killed on orders of leaders, the remaining number gets much smaller, although still well up into the millions. I am sorry, but while one can blame "the system" for the famines, I do not buy the argument some make (especially some Ukrainian nationalists about the 1930s famine in the USSR) that the Soviet and Chinese leaders actively wanted these deaths rather than having them happen due to bungling and errors.

So, what are the Nazi numbers? Well, Courtois claims something like 20 million roughly killed by them in World War II. I am not sure where he got those numbers, but I just looked at Wikipedia's accounting of deaths in that war. I went through the countries of Europe where the Germans and Italians fought (and, I do think the Nazis must be held responsible for WW II, not the Soviets, despite the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact), and I got a figure of about 43 million, with more than half of those (26 million) coming out of the Soviet Union. Now, of course, one can argue that many of those 43 million were killed by Allied soldiers or bombings. But these would not have occurred if the Nazis had not sought to conquer the world and invaded their neighbors. With the 6 million from the Holocaust, that puts the dead due to the Nazis at around 49 million by my count, arguably slightly ahead of the dead due to the Communists if one does not count famine deaths, and over a much shorter period of time and a much larger population ruled.

So, I find this ongoing effort to claim that the "large-scale atrocities [famines?], killings and human rights violations" by the Communists werre far greater in scale than those killed by the Nazis to be a pretty clear exaggeration.


Shag from Brookline said...

Were the Nazis or Communists the worst killers? Each was so bad, let's call it a tie.

While we're at it, why don't we tally the killings brought about by colonialism? Might such a tally on a comparative basis compete with the Nazis and the Communists?

Anonymous said...

Seriously, Prof. Rosser. When Mao learned that collectivization was causing mass starvation, what was his response?

a) Decelerate collectivization
b) Stop collectivization
c) Come up with a more humane, less deadly collectivization plan
d) Accelerate collectivization, i.e. The Great Leap Forward

Anonymous said...

Actually, the holocaust was 11 million. 6 million were Jewish, and another five million non-Jewish people died in the camps.

Primo Levi made the best distinction between the two - the Nazis applied industrial production methods to their killing and actively sought to completely eradicate specific groups of people. There was an endemic sadism that also didn't exist with the gulags, etc. no matter how horrific they may have been.

Anonymous said...

Communism? Naziizm? Why not focus the analysis on pure and simple statism? Certainly societies can be led, under any banner, to commit such atrocities as would sicken the gods themselves.

That might lead us to the conclusion that the greatest danger to humanity, in any period or any place, is its own government.

In my experience, people, not ideologies, kill people. Perhaps, there is research that proves this assumption wrong.

But if we are handing out awards for such things, we might begin the body count much, much earlier, and include all of the collateral casualties.

Anonymous said...

Research has shown that both famines, the Ukraine famine and the Great Leap Forward were deliberately engineered by their respective Communist governments.

Rummel's cocnlusions can also by accessed via Marginal Revolution at:


What I found most interesting was the following comparisons:

So, the famine was intentional. What was its human cost? I had estimated that 27,000,000 Chinese starved to death or died from associated diseases. Others estimated the toll to be as high as 40,000,000. Chang and Halliday put it at 38,000,000, and given their sources, I will accept that. Now, I have to change all the world democide totals that populate my websites, blogs, and publications. The total for the communist democide before and after Mao took over the mainland is thus 3,446,000 + 35,226,000 + 38,000,000 = 76,692,000, or to round off, 77,000,000 murdered. This is now in line with the 65 million toll estimated for China in the Black Book of Communism, and Chang and Halliday's estimate of "well over 70 million." This exceeds the 61,911,000 murdered by the Soviet Union 1917-1987, with Hitler far behind at 20,946,000 wiped out 1933-1945.

Discountng the 3,446,000 killed in the Sino-Japanese war prior to the start of Mao's rule, the Maoist PRC (with these new numbers for the deliberate, man-made famine during the Great Leap Forward) killed over 73,000,000 people. Over the 38 years of Maoist rule, this comes to an average of about 1.92 million per year.

The democide rate of Hitler's 12 year Reich was about 1.75 million per year. The democide rate of the 70 year Stalinist USSR was about 0.88 million per year (about half that of the Third Reich). Stalin's (and the Stalinist system's) much greater total was the result of its much greater longevity. Hitler's democide rate was smaller, but still comparable to Mao's.

The figures for the democide caused by Mao's man-made famine have a further bearing on the question of whether or not the Nazi plans to depopulate a defeated USSR in preparation for Germanic colonization (liebensraum) were feasible. Mao's deliberate famine killed 38 million people over 3 years, achieving a democide rate of 12.66 million people per year. This is a figure comparable to the estimated 10.00 million dead per year resulting from the Bolshevik's man-made Ukrainian famine of the 1920s.

Given the superior technical capablitlity of the Germans compared to either the Russians or the Chinese, a democide rate from man-made famine in a defeated Russia would have achieved democide rates at least as high and probably higher than that of the other two famines. 15.00 million people dead per year is quite feasibile by comparison. Given a starting population of Poland and European Russia of about 120 million, complete democide of the native Slave populations would have been accomplished in only 8 years.

Jack said...

Shag has a good point. Granted that colonialism works its effect at a slower pace, but often persists for a longer time as well.
What of capitalism of which colonialism is often a subcategory.
Granted that the debilitory effects are, again, more slow acting, but also more long term. And what forms of communism are we talking about? Are all governments, proclaiming to follow a certain economic structure, equal in their level of totalitarianism? Are they equally heinous? Are there no malignant forms of free market capitalist governments that count in this discussion?

Martin Langeland said...

What of the deaths attributable to the policies of the IMF, World Bank and WTO? When countries are forced to shift social spending to debt repayment, the poor die. When subsidies to local farmers are eliminated while intellectual property rights are enforced and migration is limited, poor people die.

Anonymous said...

So yes Martin, for decades now, global class war has been waged under the banner of neoliberalism and has killed in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions.

It has been a world war.


Min said...

Protestantism, Catholicism, islam, Judaism -- even Buddhism.

But they have had more time. ;)

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...


Yes, this is my point. Looks pretty much like a draw, in contrast to the line being spouted by Hollander in this column.

To many others,

Sure, there have been mass deaths due to capitalism, colonialism, religious wars, and even ancient slaughters by the likes of Assurbinipal and Chingiss Khan, not to mention anonymous racial massacres like that by the Anglo-Saxons in England during the 6th century of the Brythonic-Welsh speakers who had followed the historical Romanized King Arthur around 500 C.E. trying to resist their invasion of England.

We have another proliferation of "Anonymous," (thanks to juan for identifying himself). I shall only reply to commenter #5 who went on at length quoting Rummel.

I suggest to anybody really interested in this to go check out Matthew White's summary of numbers on 20th century "hemoclysms" at http://erols.com/mwhite28/warstat1.htm, which I found by googling "Mao death toll," if this link does not work. He provides wide ranges of estimates from many sources.

I see no evidence that Mao intended for millions to die in the GLF (possible range of dead? 20-40 million). There was pull back starting almost immediately in 1958, although it was not fully shut down until 1961, after when Mao apologized for "errors." Looks to me like the Soviet bungling of the early 1930s, based on idealistic renderings of some of Marx's views in the Soviet case, with extra emphasis due to the peasant base of the revolution in China. Sorry, "Anonymous," although perhaps Chung says otherwise. Not credible.

Certainly Mao killed many, albeit out of the largest population base in the world, with the estimates ranging from 40 million to over 70 million. The other really big item besides the GLF famine deaths is labor camps, 20-27 million. The most directly intentional ones were purges, which were in the millions, although less than 10M, still pretty horrific. Definitely a mass murderer, although if one excludes famines, the numbers are down more in Nazi range.

Regarding Hitler, White shows lots of numbers, mostly ranging from 20-25 million (roughly Courtois' estimates). However, at the end he says the following: "NOTE: These numbers include only outright murders, but keep in mind that some 28M civilians and 14M soldiers died in the European War. That's 42,000,000 [I said 43M], which can probably be blamed on Hitler to one extent or another."

So, bottom line remains the same. Take out famines and include wars, and one has roughly a draw, in contrast to this meme pushed by Hollander and others that "many fewer deaths" were due to the Nazis than to the Communists.

Anonymous said...

There are far too many variants of communism to allow an opinion on this. Who's idea of communism is to be indicted here?

Marx? (He was dead, and never advocated forced collectivization when alive)

Lenin? (He was dead as well)

Trotsky? (Fled into exile. Later murdered.)

Bukharin? (Shot, I believe.)

Stalin? (Well he was there, and led the action. But was his view of communism that of the above persons?)

Others include (According to the Wiki) Anarcho-communism, Christian communism, Primitive communism, the Diggers, Babeufism, Owenites, and so on...

Do we add Stalin plus Mao plus Kim Il Sung. Do we make each responsible for their own actions or count them all as one bloc?

Suffern AC said...

I thought the proper measure for this mess of a pi$$ing competition is deaths per capita, but honestly I couldn't care less about the answer. I'm more troubled by the pernicious nature of the question. Honestly, if your political views lead you to measuring fatalities, you are probably morally wanting. X had some good ideas, but just went too far where X = Hitler or Stalin or Franco or Robspiere or Peron or Tito is really not saying much. X killing fewer people than Y does not make me believe that whatever X is is worth considering any more than Y.

I'm joining the Pirate party. The current lefty/righty discussion is inane and can't get over the cold war.

Jack said...

This is a rather strange conversation, trying to pin a recognition award on the most evil doers in recent history. Granted that the recognition is of a very negative sort, but it is recognition none the less. Also, the effort to differentiate between types of government in regards to degree of tyrannical behavior of the leaders of those governments seems misplaced. A tyrant is devastating to the people, but in no way that relates to the structure of the government or the kind of economic system that dominates that government. Tyrants come in many ideological flavors. A trannical totalitarian state is prone to evil. That's one of the ways we recognize such a state. So why focus on national socialism or communism? Why not include totalitarian capitalism? Weren't many of the South American dictators of the last century of this kind? Castro heads a communist regime and before him Batista was a good capitalist. Are the people of Cuba any worse off?

Peter H said...

In the interests of clarity, can the various anonymous commenters make some effort to identify themselves? Isn't there some psuedonym that you guys can take on?


-Peter H, The Weiner

gordon said...

I suppose there is some sort of political agenda behind the Nazis/Communists competition, but I'm blowed if I can make it out.

Brenda Rosser said...

From the viewpoint of many there has been no true 'communism'. Such systems have mostly tended to manifest as forms of state capitalism. Nazism was a form of capitalism.

But when we look at the alarming history of overkill in the 20th (and now the 21st) Century most of it was facilitated by the change in the technologies of war and the ready availability of energy rich fossil fuels.

Juan said:
corporatism: a vertically organized partnering of state, capital and labor--it is not not-capitalism ....

socialism in the former USSR: vertically-organised partnering of state-capital, and labour--it is state capitalism.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

gordon and Jack,

I am responding to people who do seem to have a political agenda. This trope of "Communism killed more than Naziism" has been floating around now for some time in certain circles to the point that it has become almost a cliche, something one does not even question if one is in those circles. So, I am poking at it, although this is not the circle that it should be heard in.

Anonymous and Brenda,

Yeah, there are all kinds of definitional problems. Without question this discussion lumps everybody together under "Communism," leaving out all the harmless utopians and others who have never held power. I do not list Nazis as socialists (they did not nationalize any of the means of production, a core element), although Austrians and others do call them that, noting the command nature of how they ran the German economy and the fact that "Socialist" appears in the name of their party (even though the genuinely socialist faction was purged almost immediately after they came to power).

Regardingn the terms "socialism" and "communism," it must be noted that no "actually existing socialist economy" ever labeled itself as being "communist," although many (not all) were ruled by parties that had that word in their name (certainly the USSR and China, the biggies on the death counts). Marx distinguished between the "lower" and "higher" forms of "communism," without making any distinction between the "lower" form and "socialism."

The sharper distinction came after 1917 when socialist and communist parties split, but the communist parties bought into Marx's description of the "higher" form as what they were pursuing, but realized they had not achieved, that condition when the state "withers away" (anarchism?) and allocation is done by "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" (from the Critique of the Gotha Program).

Returning to the numbers, I must disabuse the most recent Anonymous on his letting Lenin off the hook. On the list of Mathews and Courtois and others, Lenin gets about 9 million to his credit, between war, famine, purges, pogroms (over 100,000 Jews killed), and other fun stuff, with the usual famine number at around 4-5 million, and Rummel assigning him 5 million "democides" (of which half are famine).

The other biggies after Mao and Stalin and Lenin are Kim Il Sung at around 2 million and Pol Pot also at around 2 million. Supposedly in all of Eastern Europe (outside the USSR) from 1945 on, the number is around 1 million. But the variability of numbers for both Mao (40-70+ million) and Stalin (20-50 million) exceeds the usual range of numbers given for Hitler (20-25 million), keeping in mind that the Hitler number does not include most of the WW II dead.

Ironically, the book that has gotten the most attention in this argument, Courtois' Black Book of Communism, actually does assign more dead to Hitler than to Stalin: 25 million to 20 million, given that Courtois does not buy into the ridiculous numbers pushed by the likes of Rummel on how many died on the way to the gulag (39 million!). This latter number is simply not remotely consistent with overall population data for the USSR, and clearly reflects wacko ideologues just making up wild numbers out of thin air.

Anonymous said...

This like one of those questions:

If Jesus fought the Hulk, who would win?

little john said...

I wouldn't call the majority of deaths from the GLF the result of "bungling and errors". Investigate Peng Dehuai at Lushan in July 1959. The Defense Minister understood the "bungling and errors" and offered some remedies. Alas the Central Committee wasn't a place to be critical of Mao. Peng eventually died in prison and Mao's utopian fantasies expanded until even he realised he had gone too far and offered a minor, opaque self-criticism. Once Deng Xiaopeng cleaned up the mess it was time for the Cultural Revolution. The point is the GLF could have been reigned in before the majority of damage was done (1958 was a record year for grain production in the PRC)but once it became a display of power the GLF turned into a domestic political weapon for Mao's use. (Almost exatcly what we would see later with the Great Proletariet Cultural revolution) That's not exactly ordering murders but it is a willful disregard for the welfare of the people in pursuit of absolute power.

Barkley Rosser said...

little john,

If pursuing a "utopian fantasy" is not an "error" if not "bungling" then what is? Of course, Mao was slow to respond because he was a dictator, and it takes time to get dictators to change their minds, if it can be done at all. You yourself in the end agree with my description of what happened: that Mao did eventually change his mind and even admitted that he had made a mistake, if not very happily. You even agree that this "is not exactly ordering murders," although that is what gets implied in much of this "who killed more" literature, with some of these characters like Rummel lumping this sort of thing in as morally equivalent to a premeditated mass murder such as the Holocaust.

Bruce Webb said...

Who killed more people: Spanish colonialists in the Americas? British colonialists in the Amercas? Stalinists reorganizing the economics of Central Asia in disasterous ways? Maoists sending urban populations to rural areas? Okay the Spanish deployed measles and the British turned Americans smallpox (and not always by accident), and the Stalinists and Maoists introduced a mixture of retail and wholesale murder. There is plenty of guilt to pass around.

But only the Germans and the Cambodians institutionalized and festishized the process. There is something evil about Extermination Camps and Killing Fields that was not matched by the worst excesses of colonialism, manifest destiny, five year plans, and great leaps forward.

That there may be a continuum of evil between Columbus and Hitler doesn't mean we can't draw some lines or at least establish some weighting. Stalin killed millions, Hitler harvested them. Or you can draw the line somewhere else. But that doesn't mean we can just say "people died" The fact that more people may have died from poison gas supplied by Phillip-Morris in cigarettes than actually died in Hitler's gas chambers does not make them morally equivilent, and that even though the tobacco companies continued to sell a deadly product while hiding its danger. Maybe I am just drawing a distinction without a difference, but I am not willing to agree that you can't separate conscious evil from incidental evil

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...


There is another subtext here besides keeping the "Commies killed a lot more than Nazis" gang in line. It is on the other side, the apologists for Stalin, who are back in force again and playing their games, most significantly in Russia. Polls show a majority of Russians condemn the the Great Purge of the late 1930s, although that produced relatively smaller numbers than some of the other things (unless one buys into the wacky Rummel figure of 39 million dying on the way to the Gulag). But many still praise Stalin for his role in WW II.

Current President Medvedev recently spoke against Stalin's political repression, particular in the purge (note: if one counts only those Stalin personally ordered executed, that is less than a million, around 700,000). OTOH, Premier Putin has been pushing the Stalin rehabilitation for some time as a nationalist hero/leader (like Putin himself fashions himself to be, and not worrying about dumping democracy or human rights). The latest sign of this was that about a month ago words from the old Soviet anthem praising Stalin by name were carved into marble in one of the metro stops in Moscow. Fun and games.

So, both the "Stalin not so bad" and "Nazis not so bad" gangs need to be kept in line, and while there are new books coming out denouncing Mao, he has never been fully denounced in a China still ruled by the Communist Party and where his body still lies in state in a mausoleum for public viewing on Tienanman Square, like Lenin's in Red Square in Moscow.

A final tidbit on Stalin. After his death he was installed next to Lenin in the Mausoleum on Red Square. When Khrushchev de-Stalinized in 1956, Stalin's body was secretly spirited out at night and buried in an obscure location. Some time after Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev, Stalin's body was brought back to Red Square, and he was installed with a bust on a column over his grave immediately behind the Lenin Mausoleum, along with about 20 other second tier top Soviet leaders, such as Brezhnev (but not Khrushchev, who is at Novodevichey). In 2001 we visited there, and I took our daughter Sasha (whose mother is Russian) and who was almost 12 to view Lenin's body. After one does so, one walks out past this row of busts. Sasha got to see a WW II veteran, covered medals, bowing deeply before the bust of Stalin.

Emma said...

Let's say Hollander's claim is right, that nazism was a lesser evil than communism.

That would lead to the conclusion that Britain and the US chose the wrong ally in WWII.

If nazism was the lesser evil then Britain, the US and everybody else should have joined forces with Hitler in his fight against communism. Would Hollander have preferred that?

Anonymous said...

Putting aside the ideological rants, I recently read that the on-going war in the Congo since 2000 has the highest death toll (5.4 million) for any war since WWII !

Barkley Rosser said...


You are probably right. I think that 5.4 million includes ones before 2000, but it beats the 2.5 million in Sudan, which may be its closest rival.