Nations Kill a Lot of People
By Richard A. Koenigsberg
Reviewing the history of the 20th century, nation-states have something in common: they killed millions upon millions of human beings. Do we wish to say that each event—each instance of death by government—had a unique, idiosyncratic cause? This mode of explanation violates the principle of parsimony.

Although tens of millions of people were murdered by governments in the 20th century, we’d prefer not to consider the possibility that killing or slaughter is one of the basic functions of the nation-state.
Based on a lifetime of research on democide (see previous LSS Newsletter), Rudy Rummel calculates that—for the period of 1900-1999—a total of 262 million human beings were murdered by governments. This figure excludes deaths that occurred based on clashes between armies (direct military conflict).

The typical figure for First World War casualties is 9 million dead, and it is estimated that 56 million died during the Second World War. If we factor in other wars during the 20th century, perhaps a minimum of 325 million human beings were killed as a result of collective forms of violence generated by nation-states (we omit here discussion of the “wounded”).

Whatever the exact figure—and whatever descriptive words we use (genocide or war or mass murder or democide), a salient fact of the 20th century is that hundreds of millions of people were killed based on actions undertaken by governments. Based on his research, Rummel concludes that the “preeminent fact about government” is that “some murder millions in cold blood.”

Historians study specific cases of war or genocide or mass murder. The search for “causes” focuses on the origins of—the factors leading up to—the occurrence of this or that event. A shibboleth of anthropological and historical research (and of post-modernism) is that each event is unique—and can be properly studied only within a particular cultural context.

Still, reviewing the history of the 20th century, nation-states have something in common: they took actions that led to the deaths of millions upon millions of human beings. Do we really wish to argue that each instance of death by generated by a government had a unique, idiosyncratic cause? Is this mode of explanation consistent with the principle of parsimony?

The orbit of Mercury around the sun differs from the orbit of the earth and that of Jupiter. Yet the path of each planet is governed by the Law of Universal Gravitation. We don’t yet have a law or principle allowing us to generalize about state (collective forms of) violence. Still, we can begin to pay attention to—focus our awareness upon—the fact that nation-states kill a lot of people.

Discussing his bibliography on democide approximately 20 years ago, Rummel explains that he teaches a university course, “Introduction to Political Science,” and each semester reviews and considers books for an introductory text (the best measure of the state of a particular academic discipline, he says) to use for his course.

Rummel “shakes his head” at what he finds in these political science textbooks. The concepts and views presented in these standard texts appear “grossly unrealistic.” They do not fit or explain—and are even contradictory to—the existence of a “hell-State like Pol Pot’s Cambodia and a Gulag-state like Stalin’s Soviet Union, or a Genocide State like Hitler’s Germany.”

One textbook, Rummel says, spent a chapter describing the functions of government. Among these were “law and order, individual security, cultural maintenance, and social welfare.” Political scientists write like this even though we have numerous examples of governments that “kill millions of their own people, and enslave the rest.”

Presented through the lens of these standard textbooks, politics is a matter of “inputs and outputs, citizen inputs, aggregation by political parties, government determining policy, and bureaucracies implementing it.” There is especially the “common and fundamental justification of government—that it exists to protect citizens against the anarchic jungle that would otherwise threaten their lives and property.”

Such archaic or sterile views, Rummel says, show “no appreciation of democide’s existence and all its related horrors and suffering.” Rummel concludes that we have “no concept for murder as an aim of public policy, determined by discussion among the government elite in the highest councils, and imposed through government bureaucracy.” What is needed is a reconceptualization of government and politics consistent with what we now know about democide. New concepts have to be invented.

It is true that the field of “comparative genocide” has recently emerged. Political scientists and historians have begun to recognize that the Holocaust was only one instance of genocide. There are other cases of governments intentionally murdering hundreds of thousands, even millions, of human beings.

In examining textbooks on political science and government, however, Rummel says that he found in the indexes of these books “barely a single reference to genocide, mass-murder, killed, dead, executed or massacred.” Most of these texts even omit index references to “concentration camps or labor camps or gulags” (although they may have a paragraph or two on these topics).

Reiterating Rummel’s conclusion, it is fair to state that a preeminent fact about governments (focusing especially on the 20th century) is that many of them “murdered millions in cold blood.” What’s more, tens of millions of additional human beings were slaughtered by governments as a result of foreign aggression and intervention (“war”).

One might say: why spoil the minds of young people—contaminate them—by conveying unpalatable facts in introductory texts? Which is a way of raising a broader question: why be concerned with seeking to discover and to convey the truth?

There is an abundance of “history books” studying events that resulted in the deaths of millions of human beings. The First and Second World Wars and the Holocaust are popular topics. More recently, books on mass-murder by communist states (the Soviet Union, China and Cambodia) have become more common.

Still, we prefer not to make generalizations. We’d like to maintain our belief in or fantasy about the “goodness” of nation-states. We live in a state of denial—preferring to maintain our illusions.

What would happen if we adopted a posture of looking at the truth rather than one of denial? What benefits would accrue?

With regards,
Richard Koenigsberg

PS: I began this inquiry exploring “security studies,” a field that—beginning with Hobbes’ concept of the “state of nature”—proposes (Barry Buzan) that states come into being in the pursuit of “freedom from threats”. The idea or image of a “state of nature” where “unbearable chaos” reigns—gives rise to states as a mechanism to “achieve adequate levels of security” against threats. Governments and the state are born when individuals are willing to “sacrifice some freedom in order to improve levels of security.”

There is no evidence for the existence of a “state of nature.” The theory is pure conjecture, if not fantasy. As for the proposition that states provide “security”—based on the evidence presented here—the less said, the better.