Mankind’s Most Brutal Century – Why?

By Walter E. Williams
January 5, 2000

This year marks the last year of the 20th century. The century will be remembered for unprecedented technical progress, advance of knowledge and improvements in living standards.

It will be also remembered as mankind’s most brutal century. International and civil wars have yielded a death toll of roughly 50 million lives. As tragic as that number is, it’s small in comparison to the number of people murdered by their own government.

R. J. Rummel, professor of political science at the University of Hawaii and author of “Death by Government,” estimates that since the beginning of this century governments have murdered 170 million of their own citizens.

Top government murderers are: the former Soviet Union, who between 1917 and 1987 murdered 62 million of their own citizens, and the People’s Republic of China, who between 1949 and 1987 murdered 35 million of its citizens. In a distant third place were the Nazis, who murdered about 21 million Jews, Slavs, Serbs, Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians and others deemed misfits such as homosexuals and the mentally ill.

Less well known murdering governments include Turkey, who between 1909 and 1918 murdered close to 2 million Armenians. Two million Cambodians lost their lives under the Khmer Rouge; Pakistan’s government murdered 1.5 million people; and Tito’s Yugoslavian government murdered a million citizens. Our southern neighbor, Mexico, murdered about 1.5 million of its citizens between 1900 and 1920. Professor Rummel estimates that prior to the 20th century, government murder, from the Christian Crusades and slavery of Africans to witch hunts and other episodes, totaled about 133 million.

We might ask why the 20th century was so barbaric. Surely, there were barbarians during earlier ages. Part of the answer is that during earlier times there wasn’t the kind of concentration of power that emerged during the 20th century. Had Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler been around in the 18th century, they could not have engineered the murder of millions of people. They wouldn’t have had the authority. There was considerable dispersion of jealously guarded political power in the forms of heads of provincial governments and principalities, nobility and church leaders whose political power within their spheres was often just as strong as the monarch’s.

In the case of Germany, when Hitler came to power, he inherited decades of consolidation by Bismarck and later the Weimar Republic that weakened local jurisdictions. Through the Enabling Act in 1933, Hitler destroyed any remaining local autonomy. The decent Germans, who made Hitler’s terror possible, would have never supported his territorial designs and atrocities.

Decent Americans are paving the road for tyranny just as Germans did. In the name of one social objective or another, we are creating what the Constitution’s Framers feared — concentration of power in Washington and the creation of a superstate. The Framers envisioned a republic. They guaranteed it in Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution, making an individual state’s authority competitive with, and in most matters exceeding, federal authority. Now it’s precisely the reverse. In the pursuit of lofty ideals like health care, fighting crime and improving education, we Americans have given up one of our most effective protections against tyranny — dispersion of political power.

Try this thought experiment. Pretend you’re a tyrant. Among your many liberty-destroying objectives are extermination of blacks, Jews and Catholics. Which would you prefer, a United States with political power centralized in Washington, powerful government agencies with detailed information on Americans and compliant states or power widely dispersed over 50 states, thousands of local jurisdictions and a limited federal government?

You say, “Williams, what happened in Germany could never happen here.” I’m betting that Germans who lived prior to the end of the Weimer Republic would have said the same thing.