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.