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.