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Death GovernmentIt was in June 1996 that I picked up a book that, for all intents and purposes, changed my life: R.J. Rummel’s Death by Government (Transaction, 1994). After purchasing the book, I devoured it on a flight from Houston to Indianapolis. Every anti-Communist thought my mother had so rightly drilled into me as a child, every viewing of The Killing Fields (the work of art that inspired my entrance essay for and into the University of Notre Dame), and every Goldwater-esque aspect of my very soul seemed justified by the very existence of Death by Government. All my firms were confirmed.

Through this book, I came to what I regard as an inescapable but not well-accepted idea: state-sponsored murder is and was the primary fact of the twentieth century. Not the rise of democracy or the liberation of peoples as I was taught in high school, college, and graduate school, but the devastating horrors of the gulag, the holocaust, and the killing fields. Further, it gave truth to the proposition that no matter how bad war is, it’s not the greatest killer. Indeed, the bloody statistics of the twentieth century clearly bear this out. While war’s toll—of soldier killing soldier—is horrific, war only accounted for about twenty percent of the unnatural deaths of the previous century. Four times the number of persons were murdered by their governments than killed in warfare between 1914 and 1991. Of course, Rummel notes, it is not the actual “regime” that kills, but those making up the regime: “Saying that a state or regime is a murderer is a convenient personification of an abstraction.”

Death by GovernmentFilled with alarming but verifiable and solidly-researched statistics, Death By Government is not a book for the faint-hearted or those who want to try to remember the twentieth century with some aspect of pleasantness. Frankly, there has never been a century as horrific as the twentieth, and Rummel conclusively proves this with every gut-wrenching page. “The souls of this monstrous pile of dead have created a new land, a new nation, among us.” Taking the title from Shakespeare, Rummel continues, the new nation should be known as “The field of Golgotha.”

Interestingly and importantly, Rummel rejects both the notion and the employment of the word “genocide” as too tame. Instead, he uses the word “democide” to explain the killings of the twentieth century. Rummel defines democide as “the murder of any person or people by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder.” In other words, while all genocide is democide, not all democide is genocide.

Throughout the book—which is always peppered with statistics, charts, and other social sciency-elements—Death by Government compares the rates of democide prior to the twentieth century with those of the twentieth century. He also offers very detailed case studies, most only focusing on the more recent mass democidal regimes: the Soviet Union; Communist China; the Nazis; and Nationalist Chinese. Then, he looks at the lesser democidal regimes: militarized Japan; Cambodia; Turkey; Vietnam; Poland; Pakistan; North Korea; Mexico; and Yugoslavia.

Even twenty years later, the stories and numbers that animated the writing and the message of this book still sicken me. We humans, to be sure, are, at times, a rather insane lot—full of mischief, arrogance, and evil.

And yet, whatever moaning and wailing, whatever grinding of teeth from our many varied sins as a species, there are important lessons to be learned: not just what not to do but what we should do. “The results here clearly and decisively show that democracies commit less democide than other regimes. These results also well illustrate the principle underlying all my findings on war, collective violence, and democide: the less freedom people have, the greater the violence; the more freedom, the less the violence. I offer this proposition here as the Power Principle: power kills, and absolute power kills absolutely.”

berlin wall fallIn some ways, the book—though deeply depressing—has an air of optimism. After all, arriving in 1994, only five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Death By Government seems to be closing a wretched chapter in human history. Reading it in the summer of 1996, why wouldn’t I—and other readers—be optimistic. “Thank the Good Lord we made it through that phase of history,” I am sure I thought. I also, I must admit, felt utterly compelled to tell the story of ideological death after reading Rummel’s book. Every year in public lectures and in classes, I have made sure to repeat the stories and the statistics so that those who died become more than mere statistics. I have read about those who resisted fascism and communism, and who, more often than not, paid with their very lives for their opposition. And, I have tried to understand what animated those who perpetuated such horrific and terrible ideas.

Yet, looking over Death by Government again, twenty years later, I cannot help but realize that we really do live in a new stage of history. Democide has not proven as systematic in the twenty-first century as it did in the twentieth, but it’s certainly by no means no less fierce. It’s decentralized now and fiercely violent rather than broadly violent , as it was when directed from Moscow and Berlin.

Regardless, Death By Government, is an essential piece of the puzzle to understand the primary fact of the twentieth century. One should not, however, read it in isolation. Rummel’s numbers, after a while, become too numbing. Instead, the numbers must mix with story. Watch The Killing Fields again and reread Witness or The Gulag as a backdrop to Death By Government. Then, walk outside, smile at the sun, throw off your shoes, and lie down in the grass, reminding yourself that as bad as life can be at times, it can be much, much worse.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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24 replies to this post
  1. “Then, he looks at the lesser democidal regimes: militarized Japan; Cambodia; Turkey; Vietnam; Poland; Pakistan; North Korea; Mexico; and Yugoslavia.”

    I have never read this book, though I have heard of it, but when exactly or what exactly does the author of the book mean by lumping Poland into “democidal regimes”? Poland was the victim of democide, never the perpetrator . I would be shocked if the author actually tried to make the case otherwise.

  2. Shocked by the claims allegedly made in this book, I have checked what exactly their nature is here:

    https://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/NOTE1.HTM

    Regarding Poland one finds the following:

    “1,585,000 Murdered: Poland’s Ethnic Cleansing”

    This is not true. Poland never executed a policy of ethnic  cleansing. Not one single person  was the victim of “Poland’s  ethnic cleansing” – let alone one and  a  half  million people. I am shocked this got past any publisher.

    Next, I found this  elaboration:

    ” Part 3 presents in order the lesser-megamurders, those that have killed 1,000,000 to less than 10,000,000 citizens and foreigners. A chapter also is devoted to each. In some cases, as for Poland’s murder of ethnic Germans and Reichdeutsch, a whole series of events spanning several countries was covered. In this case Poland’s treatment of these Germans was part of a pattern of expulsion from Eastern Europe after World War II. ”

    This is wrong.

    A) The decision to  expand Poland’s  western border following the end of World War II was not made by Poland (neither the London government  in exile nor the Lublin committee  were participants  in the negotiations). The decision  was made by

    President  Franklin Delano Roosevelt
    Prime minister  Winston  Churchill 
    Marshal Joseph Stalin 

    If someone is  intent upon blaming anybody  for the fate of Germans inhabiting those territories ,  it would  be  worthwhile  to  begin from the Potsdam and Yalta powers, 2/3 of which consisted of Western states and not the Poles who had no role whatsoever  in the decision and who were later its victims insofar as millions of Poles were evicted from what became western Ukraine, Bielorus and Lithuania despite being the first country to stand up to Nazism.

    Even if we give credit to communist historians who suggest that Żymierski and the Lublin committee  ASKED Stalin for this solution ,  the decision  was not even made by Stalin, but by Churchill  and Roosevelt together with him.

    Why then is Poland listed as a perpetrator  of “democide” when it was England  and  the  United  States  which made the relevant  decisions  and  subsequently  betrayed Poland by giving 48% of it away to the Soviet  Union ?

    Why is it “ethnic cleansing” to resettle Germans according to Potsdam and Yalta but NOT ethnic cleanding to resettle Poles according to Potsdam and Yalta?

    And just where/who/how did 1.5 millon Germans as victims of “Poland’s ethnic cleansing” come from?

    B) Once the international  community  decided ,  without the participantion of either the Polish people  or any Polish  political  representatives  to cede half of Poland to the USSR and recompensate Poland with German lands, the new Polish Communist  government (which took power at the insistence  of Mr. Churchill  just as much as Mr. Stalin) was tasked with a vast resettlement program  executed  in cooperation  with  the  USSR.

    Millions of Poles living in formerly Eastern  Poland (and now Ukraine, Lithuanua and Belorus) were rounded  up  onto trains and relocated to the Western territories. The  millions of Germans living in those territories were rounded up and relocated  by train to East Germany.

    There was  no  program  of ethnic cleansing  of Germans and to say such  a  thing  reaks of NAZI propaganda  pure and simple.

    There was rape, looting ,  pillaging and all of the  general  tragedies associated  with  the  chaos of post-apocalypse.

    But the Polish People’s  Republic acted to restore  order and civilization  under odious conditions as a legal government created and supported by the United States of America, Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

    The resettlement program was not a Polish initiative, but a reaction to German agression and Soviet territorial claims supported by England and the USA.

    The  Germans, who were responsible for World War II ,  ought to be happy that they were allowed  to  live and that Russian and  Polish  trains transported  them to East German houses and not to concentration  camps and gas chambers as the German trains had been doing to Poles and Russians for 3 to 5 years prior.

    In Poland, these Western Lands were “The Wild West” for several years  and many terrible  things happened  there, but it is simply not true that  there was any ethnic  cleansing and to say so is to repeat modern NAZI propaganda and sanctify the claims of German groups working to retake these lands.

    C) As a point of history ,  the reclaimed lands (as they are known  in Poland) are lands where Poland first appeared  as a Christian nation in Europe in 966. Poznan, called “Posen” by the Germans, was – like all of the Piast lands – Polish land from which  Germans evicted Poles and which Germans had conquered.

    The entire  idea of redrawing Poland’s  post World War  II  borders as Stalin ,  Churchill  and Roosevelt concieved  it was to acknowledge  the  Belorussian ,  Ukranian and Lithuanian claims to their lands and to acknowledge  Polish claims to their lands. The justification  was given that Germany ,  by its initiation and conduct  in World War  II  had forgone any moral and  legal claims to these lands and that the resettlement  of  peoples was to prevent ethnic conflicts  and ethnic  cleansing  in the future.

    Judging by the  fact that  Poland’s  borders  are unchanged  still and that no ethnic  conflicts  have errupted since national homogenization  took place in Poland  – this  was the correct policy . 

    The  only  people in  Europe who do not see this are NAZI sympathizers  and anti-communists  so blinded by their hatred of Stalin that they refuse to accept the facts of  history and fall prey to NAZI revisionism.

    If the book “Death by government” makes such outlandish  and historically uninformed  claims about Poland, I begin to doubt its legitamicy with regard to any other country or historical  event.

    Judging from the fact that the above  article lists “Nazis” and “Poland” as “democidal  regimes” – this book unfortunately appears to follow the pattern of all post 1989 NAZI propaganda ,  which cleverly  leaves out any mention  of  the  nation that gave birth to Nazism (Germany) while likewise  always listing a PLACE where democide was perpetrated  by Germans as the perpetrator  of democide (“Poland”). The propaganda  effect is to absolve the German nation  of any responsibility for NAZI crimes and transplant those crimes in the public  mind onto the Polish people who were actually the victim of these crimes (and within “the Polish people” I include all citizens, German, Jewish, Ukranian, Lithuanian and Polish).

    Of course it is easy to make the general claim that no government ought to initiate programs of ethnic cleansing or mass resettlement, but if some people are guided by moral clarity and refuse to understand the political context, then please blame America, England and their ally – Stalin. Do not blame the original victims of democide who suffered more of it for a longer time and in a more systematic way than any other European country in World War II. Personally, insofar as my education in political science is worth anything, it is my personal view that the Polish government acted within the bounds of international law, in accordance with treates signed by the United States and Great Britain and executed the post-war plans of America, England and the USSR while also building a durable Polish state in Europe.

    “Death by government” is a convenient neutral title because it ignores the important question of whose government was doing the killing and which nation or people were doing the dying.

    • I am at best an amateur historian, yet I could find answers to several of your points through simple Google searches & that noted bastion of Nazi sympathizers – Wikipedia.

      According to those resources, the Allied triad did indeed change the borders of Poland at Potsdam without the consent or involvement of the (effectively Soviet puppet) Polish government. Agreement had already been reached granting the USSR a large chunk of eastern Poland, and in return, Poland was granted land which had been under German control, in addition to the land which had been Polish before the start of the war. In addition, Potsdam allowed for “… the transfer to Germany of German populations, or elements thereof, remaining in Poland …” – yet they specified that “… transfers that take place should be effected in an orderly and humane manner.”
      Actual execution of those transfers – both manner and completeness – were left up to the Provisional Government of National Unity.

      It should also be noted that the existence of “Wild Expulsions” – local non-governmental expulsions prior to Potsdam appears to be universally agreed upon. Numbers, of course, are pretty much wild guesses, but certainly in the tens of thousands were expelled.

      Poles who lived in the areas placed under Soviet control were either forced to emigrate, or were taken as forced labor by the Soviets, and in the same manner, the well over 3,000,000 Germans who lived in Poland (including the “new” Polish territories such as Upper Silesia) were often put in labor camps or forced to emigrate – none too gently. Many died in the labor camps, and many died during the harsh conditions of forced migration. A small percentage who had historical ties to Silesia or Poland were allowed to renounce their German heritage and become Polish citizens.

      The *lowest* estimate I have found of deaths specifically caused by forced emigration are 500,000 – 600,000, although some estimates (probably propagandistic) went as high as 2.5 million.

      In addition to those deaths are the deaths in the interment / labor camps – estimates of those numbers seem pretty consistent at around a million dead.

      All of what I found agrees reasonably well with Rummel’s documented / footnoted narrative available at https://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/SOD.CHAP7.ADDENDA.HTM#S2

      • Mr. Patterson,

        Mr. Rummel does not argue what you argue. Mr. Rummel argues that there was a policy of ethnic cleansing committed by the Polish government which amounted to democide. Mr. Rummel is both wrong on this count as a historian and takes the side of Nazi revisionists in terms of his political understanding.

        Mr. Rummel wrote a rather long piece clearly and forcefully arguing why Poland – the greatest victim of democide in human history – should be listed next to Nazi Germany or Cambodia as its perpetrator.

        This is both bad history and immorality.

        I will not spend too much time addressing point for point the failed arguments of Mr. Rummel who goes so far as to begin his history of World War II with this line:

        “On September 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland from the East, and as the Soviets had promised in a secretly signed agreement with Germany, on September 17 they invaded Poland from the West.”

        Am I really expected to refute a man who does not know geography, let alone history?

        Mr. Rummel – knowingly or not – is a Nazi propagandist.

  3. The problem here is that the book reviewed does nothing more than to follow the conservative mantra that says ‘big government‘ is the enemy. And what flies under the radar of this mantra is that the centralization of power, whether such is located in the public or private sector, is what poses the biggest threat. Deregulation is what led to the 1929 Stock Market crash as well as the economic collapse of 2008. In both, power was centralized in the private sector so that those with power became less and less accountable to others. Government had the authority to hold these people accountable in each situation, but those with wealth wielded power over those with authority and thus those with wealth had, and still have, the power to remain unaccountable for their actions.

    Government is like love in the sense that size doesn’t matter, fidelity does. And the historical instances of where we see government having gone awry is when government serves the interests of a few instead of all. And government’s size should be determined by the size of the realistic threats, both foreign and domestic, that the people face. Certainly government can also become a threat, but that is true only when the people let it be that way. Thus, what should concern us both in the private and public sectors is the accumulation of wealth because power and wealth often follow each other. Then we should start to react when those with great wealth convert that wealth into power and use that power to enrich themselves at the expense of others. When we use that kind of triage on our concerns, then we should note that government, which is the public sector, is not the only entity that can threaten our welfare.

    • Mr. Day, thank you for your comment, but I honestly don’t understand the critique. You seem to be reading my review in a very particular way, and you’re writing things I never wrote. I’m an Augustinian and quite distrustful of any large organization–government or private. Where do I suggest otherwise?

    • There’s a huge difference. When the private enterprise system malfunctions, people aren’t killed in the millions. By their own governments. I believe that was the point of the original article.

    • “Government is like love in the sense that size doesn’t matter”

      That’s a strange definition of love, and a stranger definition of government.

  4. I am not entirely certain how Mr. Day concludes that “the book reviewed does nothing more than to follow the conservative mantra that says ‘big government‘ is the enemy.” While it is true that the Soviet Union and China are both big regimes, places like Cambodia certainly are not. It is true that saying “big government is the enemy” is a mantra for many conservatives, but that is not the point of Mr. Birzer’s article at all. In fact, he points out that it is democracy— not size of government— that is the best antidote to the democides of the 20th century.

    With regard to one other assertion made by Mr. Day, that “Certainly government can also become a threat, but that is true only when the people let it be that way”—- I am wondering, isn’t it possible for government to become a threat even when people are not willing to “let it be that way”? What about a violent coup, the transformation of a government into a military state, where all of a sudden, it doesn’t matter if the majority of people don’t want it, because they simply don’t have the power of weaponry to resist?

  5. Gentleman ,

    The issue is not a minor error in Mr. Rummel’s research . Mr. Rummel accuses the nation which is the greatest victim of democide in human history of being a perpetrator of democide .

    Had Mr. Rummel included “Israel” in his list of democidal regimes , there would rightly be an uproar of indignation .

    But when Mr. Rummel includes Poland in his list of democidal regimes there is merely a reaction at the level of a minor possible error in his research ?

    As things stand, it would be better for Mr. Rummel if he actually were a NAZI, because the only other possible explanation is that he and those who edited his book are monumentally misinformed.

    It is an embarrassement of epic proportions to publish a book about democide where the greatest victim of democide in human history is accused of being a perpetrator of democide .

    This deserves more than a passing note of amazement.

    Mr. Rummel is no better than the Holocaust deniers.

    All men of decent morals should denounce his book with the same gravity with which we routinely denounce Holocaust deniers.

  6. Perhaps the first book to really expose the crimes of the left wing is “The Black Book of Communism”. It was actually written by a team of French lefties (who were probably ex-lefties by the time they’d finished writing the book). Anyway, it’s to their considerable credit that they were willing to honestly and objectively examine the vast evil committed under the ideology of Marxism, to the effect that they concluded that their best estimate of the death toll of all Marxist regimes was around 85 million.

  7. Regarding Mr. Day’s point, while I understand the idea that unlimited government kills in the same philosophical sense as “power corrupts” – it is indeed unhelpful to depart from historical reality when attempting to draw philosophical political conclusions from historical reality.

    Case in point, the Regained Lands Mr. Rummel wrongly locates the ethnic cleansing of 1.5 millon people in.

    Aside from the fact that no such event took place, there is one other problem:

    The chaos and all of the resulting humam tragedies which touched the Regained Lands were not the result of government, but of the lack thereof.

    Government in these lands was eradicated in an apocalyptic war. While there was no ethnic cleansing, there were bands that roamed these lands, rogue forces within larger military command structures, partisans and a general anarchy. The very thing Mr. Rummel accuses of commiting “ethnic cleansing” – namely the Polish government – did not exist in practice in these territories in 1945.

    A massive effort was made by the Polish authorities and the Polish people after their entire country had been destroyed and several million citizens killed to bring law and order to the regained lands.

    Only after government was re-established where it had previously been absent did a basic and decent society emerge.

    The whole phenomenon of XXth century democide was in large part the effect of revolutions and wars abolishing long established governments.

    This was particularly true of Poland, Bielorus and the Ukraine – the sight of lawlessness for the duration of the war.

    Due to many cities passing from German to Soviet to German and then back to Soviet hands in rapid succession, there was actually no government. In its place was a festering anarchy akin to what we see in the Middle East today, or what we saw in Iraq. Like the American army, the Germans also had their “green zones” outside of which they feared to tread.

    In the Soviet Union itself, where the fighting was the fiercst in recorded human history, some towns, like the Polish town of Ivieniec (now in Belorus but still Polish) got sick and tired of changing hands and declared themselves independent republics (like Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine today).

    Please recognize what this means: the people who, in the middle or such slaughter, declare a Republic, are a people yearning for government – not suffering it.

    One could argue that in the place of governments, ideological revolutionary structures arose and destroyed what was traditionally called government with – to use a term coined by the Nazis – The General Government.

    To really understand what happened it is imperative to stick to historical fact rather than over-generalize on the basis or morbid statistics.

  8. Brad,
    First, thank you for your response. For one thing, change the title of the article from Death By Government to Death By Big Organizations. Second, acknowledge that government’s main problem isn’t size, it is fidelity, or the lack of it, to its people. Governments become problems when they serve special interests. Third, acknowledge that government must be bigger than the biggest threat that face its people.

    Also, the claim that democracies commit less democide than other regimes is certainly challenged by the West. Western intervention in the Middle East, Israel’s Occupation and military incursions in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and America’s invasion of Vietnam all show that Democracies can keep up with other regimes in committing democide–especially if we consider the time period after WW II. In addition, Vietnam occurred during a time when we experienced more freedom than we do now.

    Finally, and this is especially for Eric, when governments engage in war at the behest of industries, corporations, or banks, then these private sector entities, at the very least, become accomplices if they are guilty of being godfathers who order the hits. You also might want to consider how the tobacco industry is responsible for many deaths due to cancer and, if things continue at their current pace, we have to consider the accountability certain businesses and corporations become if the climate change, which they have been denying and have used propaganda to persuade people to join their denial, causes massive deaths in the future.

    • “America’s invasion of Vietnam”

      America did no such thing. The North Vietnamese communists invaded (and eventually conquered) the peaceful nation of South Vietnam. We merely defended an ally against an aggressor.

      That’s a big problem with the left wing. They invariably distort history for self-serving purposes.

        • You did not address my point, which is that the Communists were the aggressors and America and South Vietnam were simply fighting for South Vietnam’s right to exist. But, like I said, left wingers distort history for self-serving ends.

  9. Ultimately, there won’t be true justice until the left wing is held morally accountable for all the murder and atrocities they have committed. Left wingers, like Pontius Pilate, have insisted on “Washing their hands” of the affair, but this blame shifting cannot last forever. The millions of murders under Lenin and Stalin, the tens of millions starved under Mao, the various Communist wars of aggression in Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, Africa and elsewhere, these crimes will eventually have to be accounted for. Left wingers have made a career of sneering at the history of America, the West, Christianity, etc., however, when a mirror is held up to their own moral record, I don’t think they will like what they see.

  10. Curt – I think I would add that it certainly makes sense to categorize big organizations into government, business, religious and civic. And, yes, government is the 20th century murderous champ of these categories. To say that government needs to be as big as the threat is fine until it is the biggest threat. That seems to be a problem with your argument.

    Since government polices itself, is it going to stop itself?

    So far, in the United States, it seems that the government will propose more problems that need solving with government as the only solution. My only real question is – are there ANY limiting principles of government? What problems should the government not solve? And why?

    • Chad,
      When big government is sponsored or directed to either take lives or put lives at risk by big business, then government alone does not deserve the credit.

      BTW, we should note why big gov’t kills more than big corporation. It is because one is allowed powerful weapons and the other is busy making profits. On the other hand, lives have been taken either deliberately or by neglect by big corporation and most often these lives are taken in the long-term. For example, how many lives is big tobacco responsible for?

    • Chad,
      If government is by the people, it is the people who stop govt’t. The Vietnam war protests and the Civil Rights movement answers your question about who stops government.

      • If you thought the Communist war of aggression in Vietnam was so great, then you should have moved to Hanoi, bought an AK 47, and enlisted in their army. The “Protestors” were basically scum who hated America while basking in our 1st Amendment protections. If they really had the courage of their so-called “Convictions”, they would have renounced their US citizenship and fought on the side of the Communists.

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