Ranking Mass Murder..

Ian Johnson in the NYRB asks the question: Who killed more? and does it matter? 


The people on the list are Mao, Stalin and Hitler. Obviously Pol Pot does not make it because there were not enough Cambodians to qualify. Some Indians will complain that Churchill is missing, though I personally think that while he was involved, at times peripherally, in some really bad affairs (Bengal famine is the one most mentioned), he honestly does not belong in this particular list. But that is easier said than proven; which is the point of this post; that this question turns out to be more difficult the more you think about it.. 

Partisans of various groups are very confident in their choices of villains and heroes, but to anyone trying to sincerely consider all objections and caveats, the matter can seem insanely complicated. Mostly as an exercise for myself, I tried to think about this and offer some tentative ideas, awaiting comments and rethinking..

So let’s say all mass murderers are evil sons of bitches, but can they be ranked further in order of evil based on a few things? I try to offer some suggestions..

1. Intent. It doesn’t matter to the dead that you meant well, but it still matters to me. Hitler clearly wanted to kill the Jews. Stalin and Mao wanted to kill a lot of people too, but their targets for mass murder were not as unequivocally defined as Hitlers. And most of those they actually ended up killing (e.g. Russian peasants, Chinese peasants) were not necessarily the ones they personally wanted dead (class enemies?)
Then both Mao and Stalin also carried out a later purge of their own comrades. This second mass killing (which included the killing of many actors involved in the first round of killings of class enemies and creation of famine), this seems a separate category, almost unique; Hitler for example never killed half of his own second tier leadership like Stalin did. Mao’s purge was not as bureaucratically efficient (or as uniformly fatal) as Stalin’s (the numbers are similar, the methods are not; most of the cultural revolution dead were not signed off at the top, they were killed in a decentralized “purge from below”; many of the very top people suffered insults, injuries and exile, but survived and came back with Deng).  Does that matter?

2. Deviation from contemporary “civilized” standards of behavior. e.g. All colonial power were responsible for thousands of deaths. To their victims, their guilt was clear. But is there something special about going “above and beyond” the current norm? clearly Hitler, Lenin-Stalin and Mao all went beyond what the other “civilized” powers considered part and parcel of life. You can see where I am going with this (this is part of why I am not putting Churchill in the list; I don’t really expect human beings to do much better than contemporary standards), even by contemporary (murderous) standards, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China were exceptionally murderous (some people just don’t know the numbers killed, others don’t think this framing is accurate, all part of why this issue is complicated). Should that count?

3. Gratuitous cruelty.. which is a very subjective thing, but we do have these feelings.. for example, I was reading about Stalin’s terror and the way Stalin sometimes got old comrades (and even husbands, wives, siblings etc) to sit in judgement against their friends and family in patently false and ridiculous show trials.  Half of the military high command were made members of the court that tried the other half on ridiculous trumped up charges; these judges all participated in calling their own erstwhile  revolutionary comrades “fascist whores and scum” and signed off on charges they knew to be trumped up and confessions they knew were obtained by torture. In other cases, Stalin got someone who had been a favored subordinate to personally arrest, beat and torture his past boss. In some cases, to execute them personally. And then his regime ended up executing most of the executioners. Does this sort of sadism seem worth some extra points? or can it be seen as proof the quasi-religious nature of the event (akin to Witch hunts and other purges of heretics) where a kind of collective madness descends on a society, but which also means that such extreme cruelties can begin to seem almost beyond the control of individual actors, participants in a deranged human drama in which no one is clearly culpable or responsible? 

What do you think?

PS: (as I should have expected perhaps), a Hindu Nationalist on twitter asked me why Mohammed is not included in the list. This prompts me (irrespective of the merits of the case against Islam, which I think are in any case not as obvious and uncomplicated to most observers as they are to the gentleman who asked the question) to add another “not as easy as it looks at first” point: Do we credit mass murder committed by followers of X to X’s account?

I think not, I think every person deserves to be evaluated for his or her own crimes, not what was committed in their name by later followers. But it can get tricky. For example, some people say that Lenin should be “credited” with some of Stalin’s enormous crimes (there can be a separate discussion of Lenin’s OWN use of terror, but in this case we are talking about what his successors did) because he set the system and ideology in motion and his choices and ideological pronouncements certainly played a role in making those later crimes possible. To some extent, they certainly did. But to what extent? I think there is so much argument possible here that my “no posthumous credit” stance is the correct one. Others, I am sure, will disagree.

Published by

Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
P. Rao
P. Rao
6 years ago

The people on the list are Mao, Stalin and Hitler. At least the writer should have attempted to give the top ten perpetrators of 20th century to include either persons or countries like Japan. I really like to see Churchill’s name (vis-a-vis Bengal famine) in there for what he is. No more Mr. Nice Guy when it comes to judging colonial powers.

6 years ago

You are clearly coming from a very neo-liberal/americanized view of these leaders. US Presidents such as Andrew Jackson have killed more than any you mention. King Leopold, Winston Churchill, President George W Bush, President Obama , President Harry Truman, etc killed far more people purposely than mao or stalin ever did. the victors write history so obviously they will blame any deaths in the country on these leaders that were clear enemies to america and capitalism. no one ever blamed andrew jackson for the entire genocide of a race (native americans) what about the deaths attributed to transatlantic slavery? how come people don’t attribute the deaths from that under each western leader who allowed it and partook in it? Because brown and black lives are worth less even asians are looked down upon. You have been brainwashed, the attributed deaths to stalin and mao are deaths that no one ever attributes to leaders in america. starvation in 3rd world countries during process of industrialization should not be contributed to the death count. Hitler is a facist and outlined his plant to genocide. He is in a separate category from Stalin and Mao zedong who only tried their best to implement the policies of communist. Most of their policies worked and enriched their countries, boosted the mortality rate, the literacy rate, the standard of living. It’s clear these two leaders pushed their countries into the modern age, industrialization comes at a price. Western nations just got a headstart, Winston Churchill can be condemned for purposefully causing genocide in India. He even described brown people as “rats.” It’s clear your views are regressive, you have a narrow perspective on the world. This is coming from a fellow Muslim from Pakistan.

6 years ago
Reply to  Musa

Musa the accusation that Churchill is primarily responsible for the Bengal famine, versus tangentially responsible (which he was), is bad sloppy scholarship. What deaths are you accusing Churchill of?

The reason for the preface is because I don’t want any distractions from what I think is the main and most important critique of Churchill. Churchill was bigoted towards people of British Indian heritage. Maybe against others too; but I have no evidence of that and don’t like making accusations without evidence.

In 1945 Churchill should have gone to India, fallen on his knees and cried. Churchill should have thanked British India for saving the UK and the Allies in WWII. Without the Indian Army, England would likely have been invaded in WWII. Without the Indian Army Tojo and Hitler would have likely won WWII. Some say the greatest sin in the universe is ingratitude. Churchill is guilty of ingratitude. There is no excuse for Churchill’s ingratitude.
What people did Obama kill? Was Obama born in Kenya? Is part of the anger against Obama because he has African ancestry?
GW Bush and the international community were right to ally with the Northern Alliance in 2001; and with the GIRoA 2001-2018. Anyone who has an issue with this in practice has an issue with the Northern Alliance and GIRoA. But Musa, I give you a pass for this, since most Pakistanis feel threatened by the Northern Alliance and GiRoA.

You can only blame GW Bush for some Iraqi deaths between 2003 and June 2004. In June 2004 a fully sovereign legitimate GoI ruled Iraq. If you have an issue with GoI, many Iraqis will take you on. I will take you on too. Its game on if you want.
Post Modernists and Marxists (both are closely linked) killed over 100 million homo sapien sapien moderns. If you want to have this discussion, it is game on.
I am not defending King Leopold.
How many deaths are you accusing President Andrew Jackson of committing? 10,000? Higher number?

P. Rao
P. Rao
6 years ago
Reply to  AnAn

Winston Churchill’s role in the Bengal famine where 4.3 million people lost their lives due to starvation is recounted by Shashi Tharoor in the following link starting at 12.4 min. According to this account backed by historical evidence, Churchill had a personal role in this carnage.


PS: The link is the full video, part of which was posted by Zachary Latif under Shashi Tharoor on Kashmir post a little while ago.

6 years ago
Reply to  P. Rao

P. Roa, Shashi Tharoor is trusting the scholarship of existing scholars. I have no beef with Sashi on this issue.

The question of causation of the Bengal Famine should in my opinion only by analyzed by people with a strong economics or math background. I don’t mean credentials, which I value little. Today a nine year old girl can teach herself graduate economics, differential/vector calculus, matrix algebra calculus, econometrics and graduate statistics through the internet.

The question is with respect to Churchill, not the English. Churchill diverted considerable food from the war effort to Bengal; but less quickly than could have happened because of insufficient information and inaccurate forecasts.

The Bengal famine was caused by major East Bengal structural economic problems that built up over generations. For which the English “SHOULD” be blamed. I am discussing blaming Churchill, not blaming the English. I think Churchill should be blamed for an awful lot. I don’t want the main criticisms of Churchill–of which I have many that might be discussed in a future lengthy article–to be side tracked by academic papers written by economists on the Bengal Famine. That is a side intra-economist discussion that should happen in academic journals.

Brown Pundits