Communism's Barbaric Cruelty By the Numbers

Communism's death toll overshadows other contemporary human cruelty.


Writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, A. Barton Hinkle remembers "A century of ghastly communist sadism," which started when a relatively small number of Bolshevik anarchists led by Vladimir Lenin managed to overthrow the Russian government of Alexander Kerensky in November 1917. As Hinkle writes, "while the Soviet Union is no more and communism has been discredited in most eyes for many years, it is hard even now to grasp the sheer scale of agony imposed by the brutal ideology of collectivism."

The Black Book of Communism, which came out in 1997, estimated that some 95 million people were either killed or made to starve to death in the communist attempt to create an egalitarian paradise on earth. Current research puts the number of victims of communism anywhere between 43 million and 162 million. As such, the original 100 million figure remains a remarkably accurate midway point. It is, also, a figure so large that people may have difficulty comprehending it without additional context. Leaving the (rightly) well-known example of the Holocaust aside, let us look at some other bywords for human cruelty.

For example, the Russian Empire was always seen as backward and tyrannical. As Orlando Figes noted in A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924, "from the perspective of the individual, it could be said that the single greatest difference between Russia and the West… was that in Western Europe citizens were generally free to do as they pleased so long as their activities had not been specifically prohibited by the state, while the people of Russia were not free to do anything unless the state had given them specific permission to do it. No subject of the Tsar, regardless of his rank or class, could sleep securely in his bed in the knowledge that his house would not be subject to a search, or he himself to arrest."

So, how bad was the backward and tyrannical Tsarist regime that was so reviled by its more sophisticated Western neighbors? Between 1825 and 1917, Stéphane Courtois notes in his introduction to The Black Book of Communism, "tsarism carried out 6,321 political executions (most of them during the revolution of 1905-1907), whereas in two months of official 'Red Terror' in the fall of 1918 Bolshevism achieved some 15,000." That's one way to put communism in perspective.

Or take another byword for savagery—the Inquisition. According to Professor Agostino Borromeo, a historian of Catholicism at the Sapienza University in Rome who authored a 783-page study of the Inquisition that was based on the Church's own records, "there were some 125,000 trials of suspected heretics in Spain… [between 1478 and 1834, but only] about 1 percent of the defendants (i.e., 1,250) were executed." The rate of killing varied across Europe. Of the 13,000 people tried by the inquisition in Portugal (1536-1821), 5.7 percent (i.e., 741) were executed.

Queen Mary, the eldest daughter of Henry VIII, who has come to be known as Bloody Mary for her attempt to restore Catholicism to England between 1553 and 1558, sent 280 dissenters to the stake. If we consider the communist era as the period between the birth of the Soviet Union in November 1917 and its dissolution in December 1991, the ideology killed, on average, 154 people every hour.

Lastly, consider apartheid, which the United Nations declared a "crime against humanity" in 1966. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was tasked by Nelson Mandela's government to provide a definitive account of apartheid abuses between 1960 and 1994, found (Volume 5, p. 232) that the "IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party—a black nationalist movement) remains the major perpetrator of killings on a national scale, being allegedly responsible for over 4,500 killings compared to 2,700 attributed to the SAP (white-dominated South African Police) and 1,300 to the ANC (African National Congress—another black nationalist movement)."

Personally, I find the above figures astonishingly low, but was unable to come up with other numbers from an equally authoritative source. (Also, keep in mind that the data does not include killings committed by the South African Defense Force). In any case, the inclusion of the SAP killings allows me to make one final comparison between communism and other murderous regimes of the last century.

As one of the pre-eminent historians of South African history, Hermann Giliomee writes in his 2012 book The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Supreme Test of Power, in 1984, which was one of the most violent years during the struggle against apartheid, South Africa only had 1.4 policemen per 1,000 of population. A comparable figure in the United Kingdom was 2.4, 4.4 in Ulster and 5.7 in Algeria. In the USSR the number was 16 per 1,000.

Put in proper perspective, in other words, communism really does take the cake when it comes to the scale and intensity of human rights abuses.