Friday, February 25, 2011


Chris Beneke

And the LORD hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. (Numbers 21:3)

Estimating mass deaths requires an accounting in which the sums are always grievous. For the twentieth century, the numbers are so terribly large that the researcher could be tempted to discount the meaning, and the value, of each one. For those who study other times, the scale of the twentieth century’s killing is both humbling and edifying . In the early hours of April 19, 1775, eight provincials were killed on Lexington Green; in the spring and early summer of 1994, eight hundred thousand Tutsis were killed in Rwanda. We’re certain about the number killed in Lexington on that morning. We’ll probably never know how many Rwandans were killed in those grim months. The lives lost in the former were no more dear than the lives lost in the latter. But proximity, collective memory, and relative connection to transformative events can easily obscure that moral truth. As Yale Historian Timothy Snyder puts it:

Discussion of numbers can blunt our sense of the horrific personal character of each killing and the irreducible tragedy of each death. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the difference between zero and one is an infinity. Though we have a harder time grasping this, the same is true for the difference between, say, 780,862 and 780,863—which happens to be the best estimate of the number of people murdered at Treblinka. Large numbers matter because they are an accumulation of small numbers: that is, precious individual lives.

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.


Unknown said...

You make a good point, Chris, that we need to find effective ways of helping people understand both the magnitude of these numbers, and the fact that they're all individual people.

On the magnitude side, I was looking at US population, trying to understand the revised GLF death toll of 45 million. Turns out, it is roughly equal to the total population of the three largest US States in 1960, NY, CA, and PA. Or the 30 smallest US states and DC.

Randall said...

The numbers can be so overwhelming.

I was speaking to a friend of mine who is working on a PHD in religion and Asian history. He pointed out that the scale is so different in the East. The Taiping Rebellion (1850–64) produced 20 million deaths.

hcr said...

I like the idea that the difference between zero and one is infinity, if the observer knows the person who dies. That is, indeed, a fact that gets lost when we talk about huge numbers. I once had a conversation with a middle-school student about the dead in Lexington. He dismissed the battle, and said that eight dead "wasn't that many." I happened to know the names of many of his classmates. So I said: "Okay. That's Hannah's dad. That's Alex's dad. That's...." I didn't have to get all the way to eight before he was horrified. Once the people were real and not just numbers, eight seemed like an awful lot.