The history of the 20th century is in many ways obsessed with Hitler and the NAZIs and the Holocaust. But of course the NAZIs were not the only mass murders in history nor the most deadly in terms of body count. It is instructive to look at other historical instances of mass murder. While the 20th century has been the most deadly, other mass killings have occurred in many other centuries as well. In all of these historical events, there are no precise records of slaughter and estimates vary widely as to the number of people, almost always primarily innocent civilians, actually killed. In each of these instances there were also profound social consequences. In many instances, especially with the eralier events, the full extent of those consequences is not yet fully researched.
Chinese history is not well studied in the West which focuses primarily on European history. China is one of the oldest civilizations on earth. Civilization appeared in China about 3,000 BC in the Yellow River valley. Chinese emperors are among the rulers that have pursued killing on a massive scale. Mao is only the latest in a long history. The early emperors are legendary figures. But a great deal is known about many early emperors. Some Chimese emperors conducted extremely large mass killings. The total numbers of deaths is unknown. Some estimates exceed 35 million. But here we need to list speciifuc emperors. The great emperor who first unified China and even bequeth its name --Qin (pronounced Chin) Shihuang is noted for buring alive 346 scholars in order to put an end to opposition. This practice of burying people alive was a commonly employed tactic of Chinese emperors. When the ruler of the Wei kingdom (Zaozao) conquered Xuzhou, he reportedly buried alive thousands of civilians. Transitions from one dynasty to another commonly involved massive loss of life. This involved war, mass murder, famine, disease, and other factors. Details are often scetchy and population estimates inconsistent. Despite the statistical probel, there were clearly very substantial population declines. The transition from the Han Dynasty tothe Qin Dynasty took 8 years (221-207 BC). Some reports suggest that the population declined from 20 million to 10 million people.
The transition from the Dong (Eastern) to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) appears to have resulted in a massive decline in population. One source suggests 50 million. The rise of the Three Kingdom period (222-589 AD) left China with a population of 7 million. The transition from the Sui Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty (618), the population declined from 50 million to about 35 million. The population during the Song Dynasty peaked at about 100 million (960-1279). When the Qing Dystany began, the population had declined to only 14 million (1655). Much of this decline occurred just before the Qing seized power (1626-55). The population is belieced to have plummeted from 52 million to 14 million.
The Assyrian Empire’s root-and branch depredations were early instances of mass killing.
The Romans were masters of war in the ancient world and as a result amassed one of the greatest empires of all time. Europe was to a large degree shaped by Roman wars. We have no estimates of the number of people killed by the Romans. Populations, especially in Europe were smaller at the time than was the case in our modern world. And the Romans while undeniably brutal were not mindless killers. One of the benefits of war was to turn defeated soldiers as well as conquered peoples into slaves, a valuale commodity at the time. For Rome, slavery was essentil to the economy. Even so, killing was an aspect of Roman subjecation of the areas added to the Empire. Rome began its outreach from the Italian peninsula with the Punic Wars. One historian had described the destruction of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War (149–146 BC) as "The First Genocide". [Kiernan] It almost certainly was not the first, but it was an early one. The great campaigns of Rome in North Africa, Spain, Gaul, Dacia, England, and others involved mass killing. The Great Revolt of the Jews against Rome (66 AD) let to virtual destruction of the Jewish people. The subsequent Roman reconquest of Judea and the destruction of the second Temple effectively snuffed out Jewish opposition. An estimated 1.5 million Jews were killed and the survivors were dispersed as slaves. The sum total of Riman killing has to be very substantial, but we do not yet have an estimate.
For nearly 50 years they both served the Romans as allies as well as wared with them. The Huns were the most dangerous barbarian people that the Romans came
into contact with. Unlike the Germans, the Huns steadfastly refused to Romanize. They refused to learn Latin and settle down and farm the land. Hunic attacks were especially desvesting. Whole regioimns were devestated. We do not yet have an estimate of the number of people that they may have killed. We believe it was in the millions, but the limited period of time in which the Huns were dominant limited the total.
Many historic accounts focus on the Goths abnd other Germanic tribes over running the Western Empire. A more limited, but historically important Germanic invasion took place in the north, the invasion of Roman Britain. The invasions took place after the last Roman garison withdrew from Britain (407 AD) abd was largely accomplished by the time St Augustine arrived (end of the 6th century). The Germanic invasions significantly changed the democraphic and ethnic pattern of Britain, especially what we now call England. The make up of the population, language, political structure, and other institutions were fundamentally changed. The Germanic invaders replaced the Romanized Celts who might be called the British. Historians have differed over the interactions between Germanic invaders and British. The disappearance of Latin and Celtic suggested that the Germanic invaders did not absorbe the Celts, but rather conducted a war of extinction. Modern DNA studies tends to confirm this. Not only did Germanic dialects (which evolved into Old English) replace Latin and Celtic, but loose knit and often feuding hereditary kingships replaced the more centrally governed system of provinces left by the Romans. [Myres] Urban life desintegrated and the Roman cities were largely abandoned. The problem for historians is that the victors were the Germanic tribes or Anglo-Saxons who were not literate at the time and thus there are no surviving contemprary written accounts. The earliest accounts of the conquest come several centuries later. Available sources suggest that the British (Roman-Celtic) authorities after the departure of the Legions had increasing duifficulty resisting the depredations of the northern tribes. They apparently hired a Germanic warlord and his men as mercenaries (mid-15th century). Relations soon desintegrated andthe Germans not only revolted, but invited kinsmen to join them. The Germanic tribes soon controlled much of low-land Britain. The stuggle of the Romanized Celts and Germanic tribes appears to to be the genesis of the Arthurian legend. While the Britons apprarentlt held out for some time, they were eventually driven into the mountaneous western areas and survived as the Welsh people. At the time Saint Augustine arrived, the Anglo Saxons controlled most of southern Engkland and were expanding north and west (late 6th century). It is not all together clear who the Germanic invaders were. The Britons tended to call them Saxons. The name England of course comes from the Anglii, another Germanic tribe. And to further confuse the issue, the Germanic dialect most cloesly related to Old English appears to be Frissian.
Pope Urban II in an effort to direct intercine European warfare abroad helped launch the Crusades to free the Holy Land (1095). While the number of people killed by the Crusaders is small in comparison to the other mass killings listed here, the ferocity of the killing merits mentions. The Crusaders, the Knights of God, routinely put the civilians in captured cities, including women and children, to the sword in the process of sacking and looting the town. The crusaders may have butchered over 1 million people.
The Mongols burst out of the Asian steppe in the 13th century when Temujin united the various klans and was proclaimed Genghis Khan or Very Mighty King 1206). Genghis and his descendents conquered China, India, the Middle East, and Russia. Genghis himself after defeating the Poles was about to move further into Western Europe when he died (1227). The Mongols than retreated back to Asia, conquering Bulgaria, Moldavia, and Wallachia on the way. Mongol military campaigns were nothing short of horific. Tthe Mongol horsemen were ruthless killers who destroyed whole nations leaving nothing but charred ruins. They may have killed over 30 million people.
Slavdery did not begin ijn Africa with the coming of the Europeans, but the demand for slaves in first Caribbean sugar islands and later Brazilian and North American plantations fueled an almost industrial plundering of the African people. Despite the potential value of the economic slaves, the sklave trade was a tremendously bloody undertaking. Many historians believe that over 15 million Africans were killed in the process.
The Spanish and Portuguese Conquistadores encountered many vibrant Native American civilizations. Their conquest of the Aztecs, Mayas, Incas, and other civilizations using modern weapoinry was brutal. The virtual enslavement of the population resulting in even more deaths through over work and lack of care. But the most deadly killer was European diseases to which Native Americans had no immunity. More killings occurred by the British and Americams in North America. In all perhaps 15 million Native Americans may have perished.
The Thirty Years War was the most bloody and destructive war ever fought in Europe until the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. It was actually a series of wars involving most European countries, but fought primarily in Germany. The war was exceedingly brutal, in part because of the religious passions of the Reformation. The struggle was between Catholic and Protestant princes aided by non-German coregilionalists. While initially a religious war, the fighting was complicated by dynastic rivalries and the desire of the Sweeds and French to curb the power of the German Holy Roman Empire dominated by the Hapsburgs. It is believed that about 6 million civilians, mostly Germans, perished in the conflict.
Historians often comment on a shift in war from the restrained 18th century battles to the more bloody battles of the French Revolution and Napoleonic era. This is probably an exageration, but the conscription introduced by the French Revolution made for much larger armies which escalated casualties. Napoleon himself was an undisputed military genius. He was unable, however, to find a diplomatic sollution with the powers that opposed him. His only policy was constant warfare. The result of this and the clash of massive armies resulted in enormous casusalties. The Napoleonic Wars as distinguished from the battles of the French Revolution are usually dated 1799-1815. There are no precise statistics on casualties. Historians have tried to estimate then approximate numbers killed. As a general rule about half were killed in battle and half died due to disease and other factors such as starvation abnd the cold during the Rusian campaign (1812-13). French and French allies experienced conservatively an estimated at 1.0-1.5 million men killed. The great proportion were French. French allies were mostly Germans who after the defeat of Austria, Prussia, and the otther German states were forced to fight with the French Army. Allied armies fighting the French probably experienced about 1.5-2.0 million men killed, again conservatively estimated. Civilian casualties are even more diffiult to estimate. Some historians suggest that civilian casualties would have about approximately equaled the number killed. Here we are not talking about mass murder, but civilians were caught in the crossfire of military actions, duied during siges, had their crops destoyed or livestock taken resulting in famine, died from diseases, and perished in other ways connected with the wars. Deaths may have occurred months after the warring armies had passed throughh an area. Thus actual estimtes vary widely from about 0.7-3.5 million civilians. In fact, no one really knows. The civilian casualties would have been mostly non-French (primarily German, Russian, and Spanish) because most of the batles were fought beyond French borders. The overall death totals thus range from about 3-7 million people during the Napoleonic Wars. That estimate should be put in the context of smaller European populations than is mow the case.
More than a million mostly Christian Armenians were murdered by Ottoman authorities during World War I. Clara Barton led the first Red Cross relief effort conducted outside the United States. While most of the killings occurred during the War, Ottoman actions against the Armenians began in the 1890s. Western newspapers carried articles about "barbaric Mohammedans" murdering Christian martyrs during 1894-96. The killings provoked wide-spread international contamination, but no country intervened to stop the killings. Another series of pogroms occurred in 1909. The Ottomans entered World war I on the side of the Central Power (Germany and Austria-Hungary) in late 1914. The wide-spread, organized genocide against the Armenians began in 1915. Accounts on the numbers of Armenians vary. The estimate of 1.0 million is often used,but some accounts are as high as 1.5 million. [Balakian] The Ottomans used World war I as the NAZIs used World War II as a cover for the killings. The Turkish Government denied at the time and Turkish Governments even today continue to deny that the killings took place and were coordinated by Turkish authorities.
The Bolsheviks who seized power in Russian in 1917 may be resonsible for the greatest number of deaths of any group. Estimates exceed 60 million, but are highly controversial. Lenin ovrsaw the creation of concentration camps for political opponent. Trials were dispensed with as hopelessly Bourgeois. It was Stalin who greatly expanded the camp system, creating the Gulag. Stalin saw the Gulag as aay of developing Soviet resources that was difficult to so with free labor. Stalin also pusue wholesale slaughter. Arrests were made in unprecedated numbers. Many were simply shot. Those not shot were committed to the Gulag. Some of this was done on an individual basis. The Great Purges are a classical example of the use of terror. Other actions were taken against whole national groups. Stalin generated a famine in the Ukraine to destroy resistance. Other groups tarheted were the Baltic peoples, Chechans, Poles, Tatars, Volga Germans, and many others. At the time of his death, Stalin was planning a major action against the Jews.
Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang fought the War Lords for control of China. Subsequently he fought the Communists before and after the Japanese invasion. His efforts to suppress the Communists involved mnassuive killings of civilians. Some estimate as many as 10 million people were killed.
The NAZI engineered Holocaust of the Jews is the best documented example of mass murder in history. This is because the NAZIs lost the World War II and the copious records they took along with the testimony of individuals conducting the Holocust and their surviving victims have left us with a chilling historical record. The NAZI Holocaust succeeded in killing about 6 million Jews. This was not the largest instance of mass murder in history, but is perhaps the most horific because of the way the SS industrialized the killing process. Less well understood is the fsct tht if the NAZIs had succedded in would have been only the first chapter in a terrifying rengineering of the Human race. High on the NAZI list of untermench were the Slavs of Eastern Rurope. The NAZIs killed many more people than Jews in their preliminary efforts to build a new German empire in the Occupied East. There was also the Lebensborn program aimed at children. In all the NAZIs probably killed more than 20 million people. The NAZI penchant for killing was such that they killed millions of people who could have assisted in their war effort. And as a result, before the Allies destroyed German industry in the strategic bombing campaign, there was a severe labor shortage in the Reich.
Japan began empire building by seizing Taiwan (Formosa) from China (1895). Korea was made a colony and Korean nationalism and language brutally suppressed (1905). Large-scale killings began when Japan seized Manchuria (1931) and even mokre so when they invaded China (1937). It is in China where most of the Japanese killings took place. The most noted example was the Rape of Nanking (1937) and the reprisals after the Dolittle Raid (1942). In addition to shootings and other executions, the Japanese used germ warfare on the Chinese. After the attack on Pearl Harbor (1941) the Japanese seized most of Southeast Asia and their brutal rule was accompanied with many attrocities and civilian deaths. The most glaring example was the use of civilan and POW slave labor which because of mistreatment and starvation diets resulted in great loss of life. There wee also many attrocities perpetrated in civilians by the Japanese during the War outside of china. The most galring exampl here was tge Rape of Manila (1945). Estimates vary as to number of people killed by the Japanese, but the total may exceed 10 million.
The Communists in China were responsible for killings of massive numbers of people. Here Mao was primarily responsibe. Economic mismanagement and resulting famine as a result of the Great Leap Forward was one of the principle causes of death. The Great People's Prolatarian Cultural Revolution was the final episode in this sad chapter. Esrumates range to over 35 million deaths.
Many of the largest mass killings of the 20th century were conducted by Communists. There is one mass killing in which the Communists were the primary targets. The killing occurred during the rise to power of General Suharto. Suharto seized control of the military (1965). He ruled Indonesia for the next 32 years. The Indonesian Army went on a killing spree targetting the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). The chain of events surrounding the killings are highly controversial. The Army claims that the PKI was preparing a nation-wide uprising in which President Sukarmo was participsting. The uprising was called the September 30th Movement. The 30th of September Movement was real, but it was no a massive attempt by the PKI's 3 million members to seize power. The attempted coup was actually launched October 1. The Army quickly suppressed the coup. They then proceeded on a killing spree designed to destroy the PKI. The killing eventully extended far beyond members of the PKI and its supporters The killing continued over several months and on a lesser scale for a few months longer. The killing took on an ethnic chsracter as the Army was particular suspicious of ethnic Chinese which was largely non-Muslim. There are reports the American CIA assisted Suharto and the Indinesia military. There are no precise statistics on the number of people killed. The Government reported less than 0.1 million. There are, however, creditable estimates pf over 1 million deaths.
It was the most horrific mass slaughter in Southeast Asiary after the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia (1970s) and comparable to what the Communists did in Vietnam after their victory (1975). Curiously this is one of the least well studied mass killings of the 20th century.
The Awami League which swept elections in East Pakistan and demanded autonomy. This was unacceptable to the Pakestani Army. The Army launched a massive attack (March 25, 1971). The Bengali supporters of the Awami League were largely unarmed and unprepared for an attack by what was essentially their own Army. The Pakistani Army launched a massive campaign including massacres and other acts of terror designed to coerce the civilian population. The indescriminate killing that followed including large numbers of women and children. Part of the campaign was aimed at killing Hindus and driving the surbibors out of the country. Priprity targets were Awami League activists, university students, professionals, businessmen, and other individuals seen to represent thecleadership of Bengali nationalism. The Army campaign including the destruction of villages, looting, rape, and other attricities on an unbelievable level. The Army set up torture and extermination centers. When Bengali resistance developed, the Army carried out with collective retailiation, including the destruction of whole villages and the people livingb in those villages, There were also attacks by the majority Bengalis ob Hindus and Biharis. The terrible slaughter did not end until the Indian Armyibntervened (December 16). By that time mass graves existe throughoy the country. Therecis no precise accounting of the killing. We note estimates of 1.5-3.0 million people.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, after years of struggle, defeated the Cambodian military and seized the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. What
followed was one of the most sinister and senseless acts of genocide ever committed by a government on its own people. The Khmer Rouge's first step was to force all the inhabitants of Phnom Penh no matter what their age or health into the country to work in labour camps. Their goal was to create a Cambodian state of pure
communism. One step to achieve that goal was to eliminate all class enemies, meaning virtually every Cambodian with any kind of education. Not only were the adults killed, but also their children. Some were killed outright in infamous prisons and the work camps. Others died of starvation and overwork. The Khmer Rouge
killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians, 30 percent of the country's population. The Khmer Rouge closed all the normal institutions of a modern country, including banks, hospitals, schools, and stores. Temples and any exercise of religion was banned. Everyone had to work in the fields for 12-14 hours daily. Children were
separated from their parents so that they could be better indoctrinated. The children were recruited as soldiers or worked in mobile work gangs.
The anti-War movement in the United States made the killing during the Vietnam War a major issue. They focused on the civilians they claimed were being killed by American and South Vietnamese forces (ARVN). Much less emphasis was given to the killing by the Viet Cong and North Vienamese. The United States signed a treaty with North Vietnam--the Paris Accord (1973) and then withdrew its forces. After Congress ended assistance to South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese Army conquered South Viernam (1975). The groups which expressed concern about the killing during the War were virtually silent as to what the North Vietnamese did before the War and then after their victory. Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam Labor Party, later the Communist Party, after defeating the French, carried out what they called a land reform program. It involved wholesale slaughter. There is no precise body count, but the estimates range from 0.2-0.9 million people.
The North Vietnamese after their victory in South Vietnam arested hundreds of thousands of individuals, including businessmen, landowners, priesrs, government officials, and particularly ARVN officers. They were held under very harsh conditions in "reeducation" camps. Tens of thousands were killed outright or persished because of iltreatment. Large numbers of people fled the country, perhaps as many as 2 million people. The only realistic way out was by boat. Many attempted to escape on any craft they could find, including primitive rafts that were not seaworthy. Large numbers of the boat people perished at sea.
Rwanda's Hutu majority in 1994 organized and carried out the mass murder of the Tutsi minority. The Hutis in only 100 days, slaughtered 0.8 million Tutsis and moderate Hutu political opponents. Incredibly the Hutus slaughtered the Tutsis at a faster pace than the NAZIs murdered the Jews in World War II. The Hutu massacres seem even more unfathomanable than the NAZI genocide. One journalist reports, "... how do you account for the evil we saw in the green hills of that nation in 1994, when one day we saw a mother with a baby tied to her back gleefully using a machete to hack up another woman also carrying an infant?" [Hartley] A U.N. peace keeping force in the country was unable to protect Tutsis seeking sanctuary. Finally as the Hutu massacres intensified, the U.N. withdrew its force, completely abandoning Tutsi refugees to their grisly fate. Only a Tutsi rebel force defeating the Hutu dominated Rwandan Army finally ended the killing. France had strong contacts woth the Hutu Government and had good inteligence on what was transpiring. A small French force toa ssist the U.N. Peace Keepers might have prevented the killing. France did send troops, but only to evacuate its own nationals. America also failed to act, paralized by the 1993 debacle of the humanitarian relief effort in Somalia.
The Sudanese Government is engaged in a genocide against the Darfur people, Black Muslims of the western Sudan. There appear to be two elements involved. One is the racial element. The Khartoum Government lookss down on the Black Darfurs. Two the Darfurs do not accept the strict shihira code promoted Law promoted by the Khartoum Government. The numbers of people being killed in military actions by the Khartoum Government is substantial. Even more significant is the efforts by the Khartoum Government to deny relief shipments. Some reports suggest that as of mid-2004 about 30,000 people have been killed. Human rights groups estimate that 0.3-0.5 million may die if Sudan succeeds in preventing relief supplies reaching these beleagered peoples. There is virtually no coverage of this in the Arab press or satellite news like Al Jazeera. Here is not just the Arabs that covering up the genocide. Nor has the United Nations been willing to address this outrage.
The four most deadly regimes in world history were the 20th century totalitatrians (Soviets, NAZIs, Japanese militarists, and Chinese Communists). The Soviets and NAZIs industrialized the killing process. The killing was carried out by a suprising small numbers of individuals giving the body count. While we often do not know a great deal about the killers in genocidal programs before the 20th century, we do know a great deal about the killers during the 20th century. A Russian reader offers an insightful description. "I think both Stalin and Hitler looked for absolutely controllable, obedient professional staffers for their ideas. If Beria hadn't been a good performer, then Stalin would have removed him, as he did many before him. If Eichmann hadc demured in carrying out his assignment, than Hitler and Himmler would have found another Eichmann. These people didn't ask questions, they clicked their heels and said, "Yes, sir." They used all their talents and energy to perform ANY tasks the Leader assigned with maximum quality and effectiveness. They were not monsters, but ideal clerks. They equally good could have organized planting trees and flowers in some park or killing millions of people in some pit." We think our reader has succintly described many if not most of the killers. We do think, however, that not all of the killers were clerks and in this semce see some differences between the NAZIs and Soviets.
Balakian, Peter. The Burning Tigris (Harper Collins: 2003), 475p.
Kiernan, Ben. Yale University
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