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25 May 2008



I agree with this analysis. Though was the Twentieth Century the bloodiest if we adjust for the level of civilization of the population of the world at the time? I offer no good measure of "level of civilization", but I think the perception that /contextually/ the Twentieth Century was the bloodiest ever might be accurate.

Barnaby Dawson

Its certainly the case that the trend in warfare is not as clear a progressive trend as many other trends (science, technology, average life expectancy). This may partly be due to warfare deaths following some form of power law.

The standards by which we judge war morality have advanced hugely since the 13th century but the leathality of war is very much the same. So in that sense we feal that warfare hasn't gotten better. But I think progress must be judged against a fixed ruler. At the end of the day if the likelyhood of a new born baby being killed in warfare has reduced by 5 (or more) times since tribal times that must count as progress.

Harald Helfgott

We would be better off asking a specialist to comment on this, but I am not convinced by the methods used to calculate the death toll of the An Shi Rebellion. Apparently somebody just took the difference between the results of two censuses. Surely - in the absence of actual genocidal measures - it could be caused at least in part by gross disruption in the (previously very well-developed) civil service used to conduct the census?

I suppose one of the main reasons that 20th century slaughter is used to question a belief in progress (and why, for example, WWI did cause a large shift in attitudes in this respect) is that slaughter in the 20th century was of a kind that would have been very difficult without the technological advances that it used. Of course, at least in so far as wars are concerned, this is hardly anything other than a difference of degree - technology has been involved in warfare for as long as anybody can trace these things. Still, technological progress came to be seen as a major destructive force during and immediately after the Great War, and it is important to at least remark on this shift in attitudes.

As for genocide in WWII: it started in a fairly disorganised fashion, with massacres carried out by firearm; still, both what came before and what came after that period - namely, racial laws and "industrialised" slaughter - were remarkable both for their insistence on classification and the way in which they used the processes of modern industry and the modern state in order to classify, dehumanise, mechanise and sterlisise a process that had become a little too much, at an instinctive level, for some of the people who had been involved in it from the beginning.

As for famines: this is a side issue, but I do not see how the Ukranian famine of the early 1930s is terribly different from either the Irish potato famine or the Bengal famine from the early 1940s. In all of these cases you had natural phenomena giving rise to a much larger dearth than they physically necessitated - a dearth that was then treated with a mixture of callousness and incompetence by those in power. (In all three cases, the people affected and some of their descendants tend to see evidence of planning where there may or may not have been some.) Of course, avoidable famines can also exist in precapitalist societies, not only in an industrial-age capitalist system, a colonial/feudal/capitalist system, or a planned Soviet economy; if some of the examples mentioned most often of great famines with little or no total food availability decline happen to be modern, it may be because we have better data for modern society, or because gross total food availability decline may happen more often in societies that are not technologically modern.

Harald Helfgott

I should make one last comment: we are living in a universe in which, in part by chance, thermonuclear warfare did not happen. At no previous moment in history was the actual disappearance of humanity a serious possibility. It became a serious possibility because of the conjunction of advanced technology and stone-age instincts.

It may be, of course, that, in a nuclear war, the disappearance of humanity would have been much less likely than, say, the destruction of about one fourth of all living individuals, plus that of most major cities. If we count human lives alone, this is about the proportion of people in Europe killed by the black plague, and the black plague was caused by the lack of proper sanitation. Had sanitation been kept merely at Roman levels, the black plague may have been impossible.

David B.

Try counting again, or better yet, reference an acknowledged expert. 250,000,000+ dead in one century makes it the bloodiest. Count the bodies. Check out Nietzsche's prediction that the 20th century would be the bloodiest.

Start here: Democide (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democide), as defined by political scientist Dr. R. J. Rummel (Ph.D. Northwestern University, 1963), is murder by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder. He estimates there were 262 million victims of democide in the 20th century. Dr. Rummel the foremost authority on this subject. Please see his web site at http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/20TH.HTM.

Barnaby Dawson

David B: The figure for the 20th century would have to be well over 400 millions for it to exceed the bloodyness of the 8th century per capita.

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