Government and the Black Plague of the 20th Century

By Dennis Behreandt

People seem infatuated with the “miracle” of government, and their infatuation grows if their government calls itself a “democracy.” As a result of their infatuation, people far too often believe romantic notions about its benevolence. In the United States, the last two years have seen high-profile examples of this. When the economy fell apart, many clamored for the government to “do something.” Similarly, a goodly number of people have been complaining that the health care system is not as good as it should be. Again, the call was for government to “do something.”

On the back of this notion that government should magically fix perceived problems, voters swept the Obama government into office on the basis that we needed “change we could believe in.” In other words, the old government needed to be reworked so the new government, with Obama at the head, could “do something.” It did. We got TARP and health care reform. Favored big business and big banks got billions from taxpayers, and taxpayers got a health care overhaul, the consequences of which are still not widely understood.

The problem at the root of all these things, and many others, is the general romantic infatuation so many people have with the idea of government as the solution to all problems. Realists, on the other hand, who understand history, know that not only is government not the solution to many problems, it is at the root of most of them. Comparisons can sometimes bring clarity. Let’s consider the Black Death, the awful plague that decimated Europe, and much of the rest of the world, in the 14th century.

The plague, in this instance, reached Europe in the 1340s. It proceeded to wipe out an estimated 25 million people. In the Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio gave a first-hand description of the results of the terrible disease. “Dead bodies filled every corner,” he wrote. “Such was the multitude of corpses brought to the churches every day and almost every hour that there was not enough consecrated ground to give them burial….” Instead, the dead were disposed in mass graves. “Here they stowed them away like bales in the hold of a ship and covered them with a little earth, until the whole trench was full,” Boccaccio reported.

This was the worst disaster to strike civilization until the 20th century, when a new plague was let loose. This new plague, though, was not an impersonal disease like the Black Death, but was something novel — the plague of total government. In one hundred years, this new societal pathogen killed far more people than the Black Death.

One of the principal researchers into this new disease is University of Hawaii professor emeritus R.J. Rummel. He’s dedicated his career to chronicling, recording and analyzing the massive catastrophe that befell the 20th century. He calls this new plague “democide,” and its terrible toll is truly shocking.

Rummel maintains a Website at the University of Hawaii where he presents the facts and figures from his research. In a table, he lists the numbers from what he calls the 20th century “mortacracies.” Included among what he describes as the “Deka-Megamurders,” he lists the following governments:

  • China (PRC), years 1949-1987, 76.7 million killed;
  • USSR, years 1917-1987, 61.9 million killed;
  • German, years 1933-1945, 20.9 million killed;
  • China (Kuomintang), years 1928-1949, 10 million killed

Incredibly, this amounts to 170 million deaths by governments in 100 years. And this number does not include combatants killed in wars. This grisly sum accounts for deaths by genocide. And, big as it is, it’s not even close to the total. These are just the really big genocides. Not included in the 170 million is the Khmer Rouge death toll in Cambodia, or genocides in Turkey or Vietnam. In fact, if you add up the sum total of all democides in the 20th century you get, according to Rummel, a total death count of 262 million people.

These, of course, are extreme events, and government apologists will say that the so-called liberal democracies of the West are more respectful of their citizens and don’t go on massive killing sprees.

There are a couple of responses to such criticisms. First, many of the nations that are on the list have long traditions of civilization or were themselves liberal democracies immediately prior to their respective genocides. Germany is the classic example. The Weimar Republic was a liberal democracy that succumbed to the machinations of the Nazis, who immediately led a nation previously known for its literary, scientific and philosophical accomplishments into one of the bloodiest of genocides. China, also, had for millennia been one of the world’s leading civilizations. Incomprehensibly, it nonetheless lurched into the world’s bloodiest genocide. A long and civilized cultural tradition or the prior existence of a so-called liberal democracy is no guarantee that a government won’t turn to democide.

Another response is that power, and its abuse, are endemic to government and that it only remains to see how extensively that power is used or abused. The ultimate expression of the abuse of power, obviously, is genocide. But there are other problems that government can cause, and abuse of government power can be used to stoke the fires of a variety of ills.

Next week:  In Part II, signs that point to a government that has gotten out of control.


Self-Educated American associate editor, Dennis Behreandt, is the Founder and Editor In Chief of the American Daily Herald, and former long-time contributor, serving both as Senior and Managing Editor, to The New American magazine, writing hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from natural theology to history and from science and technology to philosophy. Mr. Behreandt’s research interests include the period of late antiquity in European history as well as Medieval and Renaissance history.