Murder by the State

Policy Reports | Crime

No. 211
Monday, September 01, 1997
by Gerald W. Scully

Historical Progress

Figure II - Percentage of World Population Murdered by Governments

Although very limited historical information exists about state-sponsored murder over the centuries, R. J. Rummel has estimated the number of people murdered by country over time.10 This study uses his data, reworked to obtain an estimate of state-sponsored murder by century. Undoubtedly, the reliability of the data deteriorates the further back one goes in time. Nevertheless, the results indicate the relative scale of democide over the centuries.

"As per capita incomes have risen with industrialization, democide appears to have declined."

Presumably, a decline in the tempo of government-sponsored murder can be taken as an index of an upward trend in civilized behavior. For example, governments murdered about 32.2 million in the 13th century, when the world population was about 360 million. Thus the fraction of the population killed by governments in the 13th century was about 8.9 percent. Gunpowder was not yet available, and presumably killing with cruder weapons was more troublesome. In the 17th century, about 25.6 million were murdered by their governments, representing about 4.7 percent of the population. In the 19th century, when guns were highly developed and widely dispersed, about 44.4 million were killed by their governments, representing about 3.7 percent of the world's population. A resurgence of brutality occurred in the 20th century, raising the overall democide rate to 7.3 percent of the world's population. But this is mainly due to the domestic terror of the Communists and the genocide of Nazi Germany. [See Figure II]

If the murders by the Communist states are subtracted from the total, about 59 million were murdered in this century. Thus state-sponsored killing in the noncommunist world (including the more than 16 million killed by Germany) was about 3.6 percent of the population. On the whole, although the evidence is very crude, it appears that as per capita incomes have risen with industrialization, the relative incidence of democide has declined.

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