Preposterous Universe

Wednesday, May 25, 2005
A million is a statistic

An interesting mention in the Straight Dope last week about the Armenian genocides earlier in this century. Just one of those incomprehensibly horrific tragedies that numb the sensibilities by the scope of their devastation. Our emotions simply lack the dynamic range to really appreciate what it means to have over a million people -- the population of Detroit, Michigan -- be killed by their fellow humans.

Here is a list of the human-initiated events of the twentieth century that left over one million people dead. Wars, genocides, and famines are all lumped together, for what it's worth. The numbers are very much up for debate; I've taken these from the much more comprehensive discussion by Matthew White. Talking about such a subject is difficult, because it immediately veers off into quibbling about the numbers and pointless comparisons about whose tragedy is worse or more shamefully neglected. All of these events are unique and horrible, and the reason they are worth remembering is to prevent their like from ever happening again.
  1. Congo Free State, 1886-1908: 8,000,000 deaths. From disease and colonial atrocities. Some things, sadly, never change.

  2. Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920: 1,000,000 deaths. The only 20th-century war to reach mainland American soil.

  3. First World War, 1914-1918: 15,000,000 deaths. About 8,500,000 military deaths; of these, Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia each suffered over one million military deaths. The rest were civilians; both Russia and Turkey witnessed over two million civilian deaths, although the figure for Turkey is mixed in with the Armenian genocides.

  4. Armenian Massacres, 1915-1923: 1,500,000 deaths. Suppression of the Christian minority by the Turkish government, relatively ignored in the West due to Turkey's position as a crucial ally against Russia.

  5. Russian Civil War, 1917-22: 9,000,000 deaths. Many (perhaps seven million) from famine and disease.

  6. Stalin's terror, 1924-1953: 20,000,000 deaths. Estimates vary widely, from fifteen to fifty million.

  7. Nationalist China, 1928-1937: 3,100,000 deaths. Government led by Chiang Kai-Shek.

  8. Second World War, 1937-45: 55,000,000 deaths. Approximately twenty million military deaths, the rest civilians. USSR with twenty million deaths, China with ten million. Hitler personally was responsible for about fifteen million deaths (not including indirectly the entire war), including of course six million Jewish deaths in the Holocaust.

  9. Explusion of Germans from Eastern Europe, 1945-1947: 2,100,000 deaths. Mostly expelled from Poland.

  10. Chinese Civil War, 1945-49: 2,500,000 deaths. Another hotly debated number, with estimates ranging from about one million to over six million.

  11. North Korea, 1948 onward: 1,500,000 deaths. Highly uncertain figure.

  12. Mao's regime, 1949-1975: 40,000,000 deaths. Mostly famine-related deaths resulting from the "Great Leap Forward."

  13. Korean War, 1950-1953: 2,800,000 deaths. About half were North Korean deaths, mostly civilians.

  14. Rwanda and Burundi, 1959-95: 1,350,000 deaths. Hutu and Tutsi back-and-forth genocides.

  15. Indochina, 1960-75: 3,500,000 deaths. This is the wider conflict that includes the Vietnam War that the U.S. was involved in, but also includes civil wars in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

  16. Ethiopia, 1962-92: 1,400,000 deaths. Two civil wars in the same country.

  17. Nigeria, 1966-1970: 1,000,000 deaths. Post-colonial civil war.

  18. Bangladesh, 1971: 1,250,000 deaths. Another highly uncertain figure.

  19. Khmer Rouge, 1975-1978: 1,650,000 deaths. Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia.

  20. Mozambique, 1975-1992: 1,000,000 deaths. Fighting and famine devastated the country after independence in 1975, exacerbated by struggles in neighboring Zimbabwe and South Africa.

  21. Afghanistan, 1979-2001: 1,800,000 deaths. The Soviet Union doesn't want to lose its empire, and the U.S. and other countries funnel weapons to the Mujahideen.

  22. Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988: 1,000,000 deaths. The war in which Iranian volunteers were encouraged to wear white, in order to make their bloody martyrdom more telegenic.

  23. Sudan, 1983-2005: 1,900,000 deaths. Fighting and famine. A comprehensive peace treaty was signed in January 2005.

  24. Democratic Republic of Congo, 1998 onward: 3,300,000 deaths. Civil war, fueled by factions from neighboring countries.
I suppose there is some comfort in the fact that the total number of deaths was lower in the second half of the century than in the first. Not much.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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