For those who value human life and value some version of the Golden (or Silver) Rule or the non-aggression principle, the continuous wars of the 21st century are rightly to be condemned. Interventions, pre-emptive war, regime change, expansion of empire – none of these are justifiable under any moral code, yet for these reasons hundreds of thousands of non-combatants and otherwise innocent people have been murdered in the last fifteen years.
I often remind myself that – relatively speaking and certainly not for those trapped in today’s violence – the world is relatively peaceful today…despite the worst efforts of the empire builders. Nothing in our current time comes close to the horrors inflicted on large swaths of the world’s people in the 20th century.
According to one estimate, some 231 million people died in the 20th century due to “human decision.” Some of the lowlights of the century include:
- World War I: between 13 and 15 million
- The Armenian Genocide (1915): 1 million
- The Russian Civil War and subsequent Polish-Soviet conflict (1918-1922): 12.5 million
- The Mexican Revolution (1909-1916): 1 million
- The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939): 600 thousand
- Various colonial and other pre-1914 wars: 1.5 million
- World War 2: between 65 and 75 million (including German and Japanese concentration camps)
- Wars and conflicts between 1945 and 2000: 41 million
- USSR forced starvations, labor and concentration camps: 35 million
- North Korea: 2.4 million
- Various campaigns in China (1949-1975): 47 million
- Forcible enslavement in Congo (1900-1908): 4 million
The application of the term “human decision” is interesting. To be clear, these estimates do not include deaths from run-of-the-mill “human” decisions of murders by your run-of-the-mill criminal or the occasional car ploughing through pedestrians on the sidewalk. No school-shootings. These deaths are attributable to the decisions made by humans sitting in seats of government authority.
Death by government; death by the state. Talk about a failed model.
Each item on the list above offers a situation of unimaginable misery for those poor unfortunates who were trapped in impossible circumstances. Armenian fathers taken out and killed, women, children and the elderly forced to march into the desert – most to their deaths; the Bolshevik Revolution; the Spanish Civil War, with fascists fighting communists (what a choice); anything associated with living in the USSR or Communist China – talk about no way out; the Great War, unimaginably overshadowed by World War Two within about two decades.
What do you do when virtually every choice likely ends in death?
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder
This post is about one subset of this horror – not so much an event, but a place: Central and Eastern Europe. On the list of most miserable places to have lived in the 20thcentury, very few parts of the world would rank higher (lower?) on the list than this region – beginning before World War One and ending not until some years after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Snyder’s book is about one subset of this history – the time beginning with Stalin in the 1930s and ending with the end of the Second World War in Europe; certainly a horrendous time, but different only slightly in degree to the time during Great War, Bolshevik Revolution and somewhat more in degree during the time following the Second World War and Stalin’s death.
It is an ugly-enough period of fifteen years, more than enough violence and bloodshed for one book: the deliberate starvation of Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union, Stalin’s Great Terror, Polish citizens executed by Soviet secret police, Stalingrad under siege by the Germans, Jews and other minorities systematically purged by Hitler, enemy prisoners starved, forced relocations of Germans to the west and Russians to the east.
Snyder estimates some 14 million civilian deaths during this time and in this place – not soldiers on active duty, just civilians. More than half of these died because they were denied food. A “history of political mass murder.”
Snyder breaks down these bloodlands into eleven chapters, for example: The Soviet Famines, Class Terror, Final Solution, The Nazi Death Factories.