Snyder’s essay in the latest New York Review of Books (“Hitler vs. Stalin: Who Killed More?”) focuses on death tolls but also addresses moral culpability. In some cases, as when the Nazis gassed Jews or the Stalinists shot dissidents, the evil and its sources are transparent. On this ledger, the Germans were directly responsible for the death of 11 to 12 million noncombatants (depending on the measure), and the Soviets 6 to 9 million. But these figures do not include the millions who died on the battlefield, nor the millions who starved as a result of invasion, collectivization, and murderous indifference. Snyder’s striking point here and in the bestselling book from which the essay is derived is that the “most fundamental proximity of the [Hitler and Stalin] regimes … is not ideological but geographical.” In the great mass of land between Berlin and Moscow, where colossal armies clashed in both World War I and II “we must take seriously the possibility that some of the death and destruction wrought in the lands between was their mutual responsibility.” Killing there was multiplicative, rather than merely additive.
Moving from west to east, Roderick MacFarquhar’s review of Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 (NYRB, Feb. 10) presents some chilling tallies as well. According to Dikötter, the longstanding estimate of 30 million deaths attributed to China’s Great Leap Forward needs to be revised upward to “a minimum of 45 million.” These deaths resulted primarily from food shortages, rather that secret police forces, mobs, machine guns, or forced labor camps. At the same time, MacFarquhar observes, the “exploitation of the peasantry during the GLF and into the famine was so unprecedently excessive that provinces were left with virtually no food for the people who had produced it.” As with the terror unleashed by the Nazis and the Stalinists, the relative degree of culpability may be in dispute, but the fact of incalculable loss is not.