Rudy Rumnmel (see photo) e-mailed me again this week, making yet another correction in his estimates about democide. I’ve never met the man but I’m on his list – and gladly so, because he has fascinating things to say, though I agree with only half of them.
I wrote a blog recent blog entry about Rummel’s previous correction, only a week or two ago. He was so impressed by the new book on Mao that he concluded that the famine resulting from the Great Leap Forward was, indeed, democide. Mao knew what was happening and simply didn’t care. That made the famine count as murder, not a well-meaning mistake.
“Democide” is probably a term that Rummel invented himself. At least, I’ve never heard anyone else refer to it, though it makes perfect sense. It means “any murder by government – including genocide, politicide, massacres, mass murder, extrajudicial executions, assassinations, atrocities, and intentional famines.” Rummel’s imaginative line of research consists of exploring the causal relationships among democracy, war, and democide.
The relationship between democracy and war has been investigated by other researchers. It is an established (though insufficiently recognized) fact that democratic states do not go to war against other democracies. Sometimes democracies do fight against non-democratic regimes. And of course, non-democratic states commonly fight against other non-democratic states. Those findings about war are well established. Not everyone likes to believe them, but no one has successfully refuted them.
But democide? That association is still surprising. Rummel shows that democracies even have less domestic violence than other types of regimes, both at home and in foreign relations, and that democratic regimes commit less democide than authoritarian regimes, which in turn commit far less democide than totalitarian regimes. Moreover, as Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have shown, famines never occur in democratic countries.
Now it seems that Rummel was reading Adam Hochschilds book, King Leopold's Ghost, which prompted him to read some other research about the Congo. Now he’s aware that he had drastically underestimated the extent of democide in the world because he had missed the scale of Leopold’s atrocities.
King Leopold II believed that overseas colonies were the main factor determining a country’s economic success. However, the Belgian government had no interest in acquiring such lands, so he simply became the ruler of the Congo – the personal owner of the country. He hired the explorer Henry Morton Stanley to establish a colony there that was 76 times larger than Belgium. He ruled as its sovereign until 1908, when the Belgian parliament compelled him to cede it to Belgium. The brutality of the period was astounding in scope, for the Congolese natives were compelled to collect natural rubber for export. One common procedure for controlling the forced laborers was to cut off one of their hands.
Leopold’s murderous ways were well known at the time but have been almost forgotten since then. The Encyclopedia Brittanica claims that the population declined from 20 or 30 million to 8 million. Other estimates range from 3 million deaths (Peter Forbath) to 10 million or half the original population between 1885 to 1900 (Adam Hochschild) and even 21 million (Fredric Wertham). Rummel is simply astonished that he had overlooked these facts. Now he’s adjusting his estimates.
Now he estimates that over all of colonized Africa and Asia, 1900 to independence, an additional 50 million natives were murdered during colonization. This brings his total democides to 262 million. He writes,
“Incredible. Incredible. By my conservative estimate, governments in the last century murdered more than a quarter of a BILLION people. Enough bodies head to toe to circle the earth ten times, or the equivalent of the estimated toll of a nuclear war between major powers. We should all weep.”
Yes, weep. Or smile, depending on whether you’re looking to the past or the future. More and more countries are becoming democratic. (Just today I saw evidence that one more may be moving in that direction: Burma. ASEAN has pressed the junta there to release Aung San Suu Kyi and reinstate democracy, and General Soe Win has promised to do so.) As democracy spreads, the number of wars and murders has been declining. To be sure, we worry (properly so) about the abuses that the press covers. But the diminished numbers of wars and democides are not immediately visible. You can’t tell by looking. Someone has to collect the statistics. Fortunately, the peace research institutes around the world are collecting the evidence, and they all agree that the acts of violence are diminishing. Hallelujah!