Mass deaths and atrocities of the twentieth century

From Academic Kids

Philosophers and social scientists have frequently noted the propensity of humans to commit violent acts not only as individuals but as groups. The twentieth century is a legacy of the ability of humanity to engage willingly in acts of warfare and atrocity.


The study of mass killing

Since the 19th century various historians have investigated the number of deaths that could be attributed to warfare or ideology. In the 20th century Joel David Singer and Melvin Small analyzed conflicts and Singer argued in The Wages of War, that a conflict with a particular death toll is statistically related to time of events. In recent years there has been an increasing belief among those who study conflict and fatalities related to it, that civil wars in particular are related to measurable economic phenomenon, and the scale of conflict is related to the reach of these factors.

Several researchers have adopted the term democide to refer to fatalities caused by government intention, calling it "murder by government", and they argue that wars should be included with genocide among totals of deaths caused by government action. Others, such as Gregory H. Stanton have adopted the term politicide. He argues that there are 8 distinct phases to genocide or other mass killing: Classification, Symbolization, Dehumanization, Organization, Polarization, Preparation, Extermination and Denial. What he labels "Stage 7" conflicts are those with active killing, but that conflicts can cycle through Polarization, Preparation and Extermination repeatedly. His organization tracks killings since 1945 [1] (

The field of Peace studies has been the source for continuing work on deaths because of conflict or other state decision. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm in The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914 1991 (1994) wrote that 187 million people died in the "short 20th century" because of what he termed "government decision". Robert McNamara published a 1991 paper entitled "The Post-Cold War World: Implications for Military Expenditure in the Developing Countries" which estimated 40 million deaths in the developing economies since World War II.

Estimates of mass killings

Milton Leitenberg's estimate

Milton Leitenberg, of the Center for International and Security Studies, published a 2003 paper which focused on the post war era, and gave very detailed estimates for all major conflicts between 1945 and 2000. His estimate for the total century is based on the following numbers:

  • World War I mortality, between 13 and 15 million.
  • The Armenian Genocide of 1915, 1 million
  • The Russian civil war of 19181922 and the Polish-Soviet conflict towards its end, deaths of over 12.5 million in Russia alone.
  • The Chaco War, between Paraguay and Bolivia, 19281933, approximately 3 million deaths.
  • The Spanish Civil War, 19361939, 600,000 deaths.
  • Various colonial wars, approximately 1.5 million deaths.
  • World War II, deaths of between 50 and 60 million.
  • Wars/conflicts between 1945 and 2000, deaths of 40 million.
  • Soviet collectivization and "dekulakization" 16 million to 50 million, though some included in World War II totals in these estimates.
  • Deaths under Mao, between 16 million and 30 million.

Adding in a variety of other pogroms and civil wars, he comes to a final estimate of 216 million. This does not include what he calls "structural violence": deaths in under-developed nations because of crime, poverty, environmental degradation, disease, malnutrition not part of famine, contaminated water and lack of available medicine. He estimates that this reached 17 or 18 million per year by 2000.

Matthew White's estimate

Matthew White ( has conducted a study, based on figures quoted from a number of divergent and reliable sources ( to arrive at a conservative estimate of nearly 170 million lives lost to war and major atrocities in the last century. Because fatality statistics are subject to a great deal of uncertainty in turbulent times, White has opted to conservatism in his reporting of statistics. He also employs a commonly-used statistical strategem which forces extreme values at the upper and lower ends of the data field to cancel each other out, resulting in a value closer to the probable mean.

Using existing data, White categorizes these twentieth century events according to most reliable fatality data. While "minor" atrocities and civil conflicts will add to the number, this table compiles those conflicts whose death tolls are close to or exceed half a million souls.

Major mass killings of the Twentieth Century
RankDeathsEventTime Frame
150 000 000World War II1937-1945
240 000 000China: Mao Zedong's regime1949-1976
320 000 000USSR: Stalin's regime1924-1953
415 000 000World War I1914-1918
58 800 000Russian Civil War1918-1921
64 000 000China: Warlord & Nationalist Era1917-1937
73 000 000Congo Free State 1900-1908
82 800 000Korean War1950-1953
92 700 0002nd Indochina War (incl. Laos & Cambodia)1960-1975
102 500 000Chinese Civil War1945-1949
112 100 000Expulsion of Germans after World War II1945-1947
121 900 000Second Sudanese Civil War1983-1999
131 700 000Congolese Civil War1998-1999
131 500 000Turkish Genocide against Armenia1915-1923
141 000 000Cambodia: Khmer Rouge regime1975-1979
151 400 000Afghanistan Civil War1980-1999
151 400 000Ethiopian Civil Wars1962-1992
171 250 000Mexican Revolution1910-1920
181 250 000East Pakistan massacres1971
191 000 000Iran-Iraq War1980-1988
191 000 000Nigeria: Biafra1967-1970
21800 000Mozambique Civil War1976-1992
21800 000Rwanda1994
23675 000French-Algerian War1954-1962
24600 000First Indochina War1945-1954
24600 000Angolan Civil War1975-1994
26500 000Indonesia: Massacre of Communists1965-1967
26500 000India-Pakistan Partition1947
26500 000First Sudanese Civil War1955-1972
26500 000Amazonian Indian decline1900-1999
30365 000Spanish Civil War1936-1939
??>350 000Somalia1991-1999
??>400 000North Korean Communist regime1948-1999

These figures are subject to the usual margins of error. They also include a number of collateral fatalities: civilian casualties of war, democide, famine, and other hardships caused by the social and economic disruption of large-scale conflict. For conflicts which began before 1900 or ended after 1999, only those deaths within the 20th century are included.

External links

Twentieth Century Atlas - Top-ranked Atrocities (


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools