Death by Government by R.J. Rummel

Rudolph Joseph Rummel (b. 21 October 1932 – d. 2 March 2014) was an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Hawaii. He spent his career researching violence and war and this book is a study on what is in effect murder and genocide committed by governments during the 20th century. He calls this “democide”.

Death by Government by R.J. Rummel

Professor Rummel mostly does not discuss the morality of the different types of government or even their actions. This is a study of data, of statistics, and he lets the figures speak for themselves. He does not claim the figures to be precisely accurate because it is practically impossible to collect and calculate precise figures. In many instances, he reports a range. Of course, assumptions, definitions and qualifications are important, and the author does discuss all this in the preface and first two chapters which includes the summary and conclusions of the overall study.

Not surprisingly, the author’s conclusion is basically this: “Power kills.” As governments increase in power (democratic >> authoritarian >> totalitarian), so does the number of democides.

To put it simply, democide is any action by government:

(1) designed to kill or cause the death of people
(2) that causes death by virtue of an intentionally or knowingly reckless and depraved disregard for life (which constitutes practical intentionality). [p.36]

For example, the author considers a judicial execution for what is internationally considered as a capital crime like murder to not be democide. But a judicial execution for what is internationally considered as a trivial matter like making an anti-government joke is. Civilians caught in the crossfire during times of war are not considered democide, and neither are civilian deaths from bombs due to genuine mistakes in navigation. But civilian deaths due to indiscriminate bombings are classified as democide.

What is interesting is that these qualifications are not simple to put in writing and one may assume to encounter that same difficulty when reviewing each case. However, the author states:

I have found that in the vast majority of events and episodes, democide is unambiguous. … Sad to say, most cases of government killing in this century are that clear. The number of deaths will be hazy for many of these cases; the perpetrators and intent will not. [Emphasis original.]

In chapter 3, the author briefly discusses pre-20th-century democide which he estimates to be over 133,147,000 murdered. This is probably the weakest chapter because the history is more difficult to trace, but it is not the focus of this book. From chapter 4 onwards, each chapter paints a general picture of the democide committed by a particular government during the 20th century. He only covers the worse culprits. These chapters are listed below.

4. 61,911,000 Murdered: The Soviet Gular State

5. 35,236,000 Murdered: The Communist Chinese Anthill

6. 20,946,000 Murdered: The Nazi Genocide State

7. 10,214,000 Murdered: The Depraved Nationalist Regime

8. 5,964,000 Murdered: Japan’s Savage Military

9. 2,035,000 Murdered: The Hell State: Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge

10. 1,883,000 Murdered: Turkey’s Genocidal Purges

11. 1,670,000 Murdered: The Vietnamese War State

12. 1,585,000 Murdered: Poland’s Ethnic Cleansing

13. 1,503,000 Murdered: The Pakistani Cutthroat State

14. 1,072,000 Murdered: Tito’s Slaughterhouse

15. 1,663,000 Murdered? Orwellian North Korea

16. 1,417,000 Murdered? Barbarous Mexico

17. 1,066,000 Murdered? Feudal Russia

On balance, this book is easy to read despite the subject matter. As a single-volume text intended to paint a general picture, it does just that. Perhaps the one other weakness is that it does not include democide committed by the US and UK. Although both countries, according to the definitions adopted by the author, are arguably statistical amateurs compared to some of the regimes listed above, both were nonetheless major powers in the timeframe of interest. The author does not neglect to mention the indiscriminate bombings by the Allies during WWII amongst other episodes of democide, but two chapters devoted to the US and UK would have made this book feel more complete.

Tables, graphs and charts are sporadically used in the text and there is a list of all tables and figures following the table of contents. Although incomplete, there is a comprehensive list of references at the end spanning over 70 pages.


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