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Death By Government

Contents || Preface

Chapter 1: "20th Century Democide"

Chapter 3: "Pre-Twentieth Century Democide"

Also Relevant

Methods and Procedures

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"Democide in totalitarian states: mortacracies and megamurderers"

"The Holocaust in comparative and historical perspective"

Graduate Syllabus on Repression and Democide


"Power kills: genocide and mass murder"

"Power predicts democide"


Lethal Politics

China's Bloody Century

Nazi Democide

Statistics of Democide (entire)


Chapter 2
Definition of Democide*

By R.J. Rummel

Genocide: among other things, the killing of people by a government because of their indelible group membership (race, ethnicity, religion, language).

Politicide: the murder of any person or people by a government because of their politics or for political purposes.

Mass Murder: the indiscriminate killing of any person or people by a government.

Democide: The murder of any person or people by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder.

Genocide is horrible, an abomination of our species, totally unacceptable. It is an obscenity, the evil of our time that all good people must work to eradicate. And at the core there is no doubt as to what this evil is--all recognize that the Nazi program to kill all Jews was genocide. Nor is there any doubt that the current Bosnian Serb massacre of Bosnian Moslems is genocide. But was genocide also the massacre of helpless villagers in the Sudan by government forces fighting a rebellion, the Indonesian army purge of communists, the assassination of political opponents by the Nationalist government on Formosa, the "land-reform" executions of landlords in the Soviet Union, or the rapid death of inmates in Vietnamese re-education camps? What about non-killing which has been called genocide, such as the absorption of one culture by another, the disease spread to natives by contact with colonists, the forced deportation of a people, or African slavery?

In international conventions and the professional literature, genocide was initially defined as the intentional destruction of people because of their race, religion, ethnicity, or other permanent group membership. The origin of the concept is the 1944 work by Raphael Lemkin on Axis Rule in Occupied Europe:

New conceptions require new terms. By "genocide" we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing), thus corresponding in its formation to such words a tyrannicide, homicide, infanticide, etc. Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against the individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.1

This was written at the height of the Jewish Holocaust, a clear case of a regime trying to exterminate a whole group, its intellectual contributions, its culture, and the very lives of all its people. There was an immediate need for some way of conceptualizing this horror and "genocide" did it. During the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals and in the post-war discussion and debate over how to prevent such killing in the future, "genocide" became commonly used. And in incredible little time, it passed from Lemkin's pages into international law. In 1946 the United Nations General Assembly recognized that "genocide is a crime under international law which the civilized world condemns, and for the commission of which principles and accomplices are punishable." Then two years later the General Assembly made this concrete. It passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This international treaty, eventually signed by well over a majority of states, affirms that genocide is a punishable crime under international law, and stipulates the meaning of genocide to be:

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Note that the Convention is consistent with Lemkin's definition and elaboration. Relevantly here, the gravity of both is that genocide is the intent to destroy in whole or part a group. One way of doing this is to kill members of the group, but also genocide includes the intent to destroy a group in whole or in part by other means, such as by preventing births in the group or causing serious mental harm. That is, by both definitions, genocide does not necessarily include killing.

This has been the source of much confusion. In the early years of its use "genocide" was applied almost entirely to the Jewish Holocaust and then, especially through the work of Armenian scholars, to the mass murder of Armenians by the Young Turk regime during World War I (as described in chapter 10 of Death By Government). However, scholars increasingly have come to realize that restricting the killing aspect of the concept to those murdered by virtue of their indelible group membership does not even account for the millions of those wiped out by the Nazis. How then do we conceptualize the purposive government killing of protesters or dissidents, the reprisal shooting of innocent villagers, the beating to death of peasants for hiding rice, or the indiscriminate bombing of civilians? How do we conceptualize torturing people to death in prison, working them to death in concentration camps, or letting them starve to death, when such killing is done out of revenge, for an ideology, or for reasons of state having nothing to do with the social groups to which these people belong?

Because of such questions scholars have generalized the meaning of "genocide." In some cases it has been extended to include the intentionally killing of people because of their politics or for political reasons 2, even though this has been explicitly excluded from the Genocide Convention. Some scholars also have extended the definition of genocide to cover any mass murder by government whatsoever 3; some have even stretched the concept much further, such as to characterize the unintentional spread of disease to indigenous populations during European colonization, including that in the American West.4 To all these scholars the critical aspect of "genocide" is intentional government killing.

All this is confusing. Both the non-killing aspect of "genocide" and the need to have a concept covering other kinds of government murder, all the following have been called genocide: the denial of ethnic Hawaiian culture by the American run public school system in Hawaii; government policies letting one race adopt the children of another race; African slavery by Whites; South African Apartheid; the murder of women by men; death squad murders in Guatemala; deaths in the Soviet gulag; and, of course, the Jewish Holocaust. The linking of all such diverse acts or deaths together under one label has created an acute conceptual problem that begs for the invention of new concepts to cover and be limited to intentional government murder. Thus, both Barbara Harff5 and I have independently developed the concept of politicide for a government's premeditated killing of people because of their politics or for political reasons. But this new concept is still not sufficient, since many mass murders by government cannot be so labeled either, such as the working of POWs to death by the Japanese army in World War II or the killing of Black Africans that resisted enslavement.

Already in general use we have the concept of "mass murder" or "massacre." Although usage varies, both usually mean the intentional and indiscriminate murder of a large number of people by government agents, such as the shooting down of unarmed demonstrators by police, or soldiers lobbing grenades into prison cells before retreating under pressure from enemy troops. They can also include the random executions of civilians, as in the German reprisals against partisan sabotage in Yugoslavia; working prisoners to death, as in the Soviet Kolyma mining camps; the blanket fire bombing of cities, as in the British-American bombing of Hamburg in 1943; the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; or atrocities committed by soldiers, as in the 1937-1938 Japanese rape and pillage of Nanking during which they probably killed some 200,000 people.

We also have the concept of "terror" applied to government killing, whose meaning is usually that of the extrajudicial execution, slaying, assassination, abduction or disappearance forever, of targeted individuals. That is, the killing is discriminating. This may be to exterminate actual or potential opponents or for social prophylaxis, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn characterized Stalin's country-wide elimination of undesirables.6 Such killing also may be for the purpose of promoting fear among a people and thus ensuring their obedience and subservience.

But then there is killing that does not easily fit under any of these labels. There is, for example, murder by quota carried out by the Soviets, Chinese communists, and North Vietnamese. For the Soviet and Vietnamese communists, government (or party) agencies would order subordinate units to kill a certain number of "enemies of the people," "rightists," or "tyrants," and the precise application of the order was left to the units involved. Moreover, millions of people wasted away in labor or concentration camps not because of their social identity, their political beliefs, or who they were, but simply because they got in the way, violated some Draconian rule, did not express sufficient exuberance over the regime, innocently insulted the Leader (as by setting on a newspaper with the picture of Stalin showing), or simply was a body that was needed for labor (as the Nazis would grab women innocently walking along a road in Ukraine and deport them to Germany for forced labor). And there are the hundreds of thousands of peasants that slowly died of disease, malnutrition, overwork, and hunger in Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge forced them under penalty of death to labor in the collectivized fields, expropriating virtually their whole harvest and refusing them adequate medical care.

Moreover, even when applicable the concepts of "genocide," "politicide," "mass murder" or "massacre," and "terror" overlap and are sometimes used interchangeably. Clearly, a concept is needed that includes all intentional government killing in cold blood and that is comparable to the concept of murder for private killing.

The killing of one person by another is murder whether done because the victim was Black or White, refused to repay a loan, or hurled an insult. It is murder if the killing was a premeditated act or the person died because of a reckless and wanton disregard for their life. Nor does it matter whether the killing is done for high moral ends, for altruistic reasons, or for any other purpose, it is murder under Western and most other legal codes (unless officially authorized by government, as for judicial executions or military combat). And as a crime murder is limited by definition to taking the life of another in some way. Although we use murder metaphorically, as in someone "murdering" the language, it is not the crime of murder to hurt someone psychological, to steal their child, or to rob them of their culture.

As an analogous concept for public murder, that by government agents acting authoritatively, I offer the concept of democide. Its one root is the Greek dTmos, or people; the other is the same as for genocide, which is from the Latin caedere, to kill. Democide's necessary and sufficient meaning is that of the intentional government killing of an unarmed person or people. Unlike the concept of genocide, it is restricted to intentional killing, and does not extend to attempts to eliminate cultures, races, or a people by means other than killing people. Moreover, democide is not limited to the killing component of genocide, nor to politicide, mass murder or massacre, or terror. It includes them all and also what they exclude, as long as such killing is a purposive act, policy, process, or institution of government. In detail, democide is any actions by government:

(1) designed to kill or cause the death of people
(1.1) because of their religion, race, language, ethnicity, national origin, class, politics, speech, actions construed as opposing the government or wrecking social policy, or by virtue of their relationship to such people;
(1.2) in order to fulfill a quota or requisition system;
(1.3) in furtherance of a system of forced labor or enslavement;
(1.4) by massacre;
(1.5) through imposition of lethal living conditions;
(1.6) by directly targeting noncombatants during a war or violent conflict.

(2) that cause death by virtue of an intentionally or knowingly reckless and depraved disregard for life (which constitutes practical intentionality), as in

(2.1) deadly prison, concentration camp, forced labor, prisoner of war, or recruit camp conditions;
(2.2) killing medical or scientific experiments on humans;
(2.3) torture or beatings;
(2.4) encouraged or condoned murder, or rape, looting, and pillage during which people are killed;
(2.5) a famine or epidemic during which government authorities withhold aid, or knowingly act in a way to make it more deadly;
(2.6) forced deportations and expulsions causing deaths.

(3) with the following qualifications and clarifications:

(a) "government" includes de facto governance, as by the Communist Party of the People's Republic of China; or by a rebel or warlord army over a region and population it has conquered, as by the brief rule of Moslem Turks (East Turkistan Republic) over part of Sinkiang Province (1944-1946);
(b) "actions by governments" comprise official or authoritative actions by government officials, including the police, military, or secret service; or such non-governmental actions (e.g., by brigands, press-gangs, or secret societies) receiving government approval, aid, or acceptance;
(c) clause 1.1 includes, for example, directly targeting noncombatants during a war or violent conflict out of hatred or revenge, or to depopulate an enemy region or terrorize or force the population into urging surrender; this would involve, among other actions, indiscriminate urban bombing or shelling, or blockades that cause mass starvation;
(d) "relationship to such people" (clause 1.1) includes their relatives, colleagues, co-workers, teachers, or students;
(e) "massacre" (clause 1.4) includes the mass killing of prisoners of war or of captured rebels;
(f) "quota" system (clause 1.3) includes randomly selecting people for execution in order to meet a quota; or arresting people according to a quota, some of whom are then executed;
(g) "requisition" system (clause 1.3) includes taking from peasants or farmers all their food and produce, leaving them to starve to death;
(h) and excluding from the definition:
(h.1) execution for what are internationally considered capital crimes, such as murder, rape, spying, treason, and the like, so long as evidence does not exist that such allegations were invented by the government in order to execute the accused;
(h.2) actions taken against armed civilians during mob action or a riot (e.g., killing people with weapons in their hands is not democide);
(h.3) the death of noncombatants killed during attacks on military targets so long as the primary target is military (e.g., during bombing enemy logistics).

Table 2.1 gives an overview of this concept in relation to the other concepts mentioned above, placing them within the context of democidal sources of mass death.

Democide is meant to define the killing by government as the concept of murder does individual killing in domestic society. Here intentionality (premeditation) is critical. This also includes practical intentionality. If a government causes deaths through a reckless and depraved indifference to human life, the deaths were as though intended. If through neglect a mother lets her baby die of malnutrition, this is murder. If we imprison a girl in our home, force her to do exhausting work throughout the day, not even minimally feed and clothe her, and watch her gradually die a little each day without helping her, then her inevitable death is not only our fault, but our practical intention. It is murder. Similarly, for example, as the Soviet government forcibly transported political prisoners to labor camps hundreds of thousands of them died at the hands of criminals or guards, or from heat, cold, and inadequate food and water. Although not intended (indeed, this deprived the regime of their labor), the deaths were still public murder. It was democide.

Moreover, when conceptually there is not a clear domestic analog to murder, as in the indiscriminate bombing of urban areas, I have tried to follow the Geneva Conventions and Protocols.7 Killing helpless people in time of war or military action in breach of these international agreements is a violation of the international law they codify a crime and is ipso facto democide. Therefore the forced detention of prisoners of war under conditions that cause their death is democide, as is death caused by medical experimentation on them. Bombing, shelling, or bombarding civilians indiscriminately is also democide, as is the forced removal of all food stuff in occupied areas, thus causing the death of the inhabitants from starvation. Similarly, food blockades that cause the indiscriminate death of civilians is democide, as was the largely British blockade of the Central Powers during and after World War I. As Article 14 to Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions affirms: "Starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited."8

I have to again be absolutely clear on this since so much takes place in time of war. War related killing by military forces that international agreements and treaties directly or by implication prohibit is democide, whether the parties are signatories or not. That killing explicitly permitted is not democide. Thus, the death of civilians during the bombing of munitions plants in World War II is not democide. Nor is the death of civilians when through navigation or bombing errors, or the malfunction of equipment, bombs land on a school or hospital, unless it is clear that the bombing was carried out recklessly in spite of a high risk to such civilian buildings. Nor is the death of civilians in a bombed village beneath which has been built enemy bunkers. Nor is the death of civilians caught in a cross fire between enemy soldiers, or those civilians killed while willingly helping troops haul supplies or weapons. Seldom is it easy to make these distinctions, but the aim here must be clear. I discriminate between democide in time of war and war-deaths. The latter are those of the military and civilians from battle or battle related disease and famine. The former are those victims (which may include the military, as when POWs are massacred) of internationally prohibited war-time killing, what may be called war-crimes or crimes against humanity.

What then about the American fire-bombing of Tokyo or atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II? I recently received a letter from a colleague who was distressed that I would count deaths from such raids as American democide. I discuss this to some extent in Statistics of Democide, but here I might note that this was indiscriminate civilian bombing and would thus be by Article 48 to Protocol I of the Geneva conventions unlawful. The Article reads:

In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.9

Article 51 makes the meaning of this more specific:

Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are:
(a) those which are not directed at a specific military objective;
(b) those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective; or
(c) those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.10

And still more specifically,

Among others, the following types of attacks are to be considered as indiscriminate: (a) an attack by bombardment by any methods or means which treats as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in a city, town, village or other area containing a similar concentration of civilians or civilian objects. . . .11

Pulling all this together, throughout this book a death constitutes democide if it is the intentional killing of an unarmed or disarmed person by government agents acting in their authoritative capacity and pursuant to government policy or high command (as in the Nazi gassing of the Jews). It is also democide if these deaths were the result of such authoritative government actions carried out with reckless and wanton disregard for the lives of those affected (as putting people in concentration camps in which the forced labor and starvation rations were such as to cause the death of inmates). It is democide if government promoted or turned a blind eye to these deaths even though they were murders carried out "unofficially" or by private groups (as by death squads in Guatemala or El Salvador). And these deaths also may be democide if high government officials purposely allowed conditions to continue that were causing mass deaths and issued no public warning (as in the Ethiopian famines of the 1970s). All extra-judicial or summary executions comprise democide. Even judicial executions may be democide, as in the Soviet show trials of the late 1930s. Judicial executions for "crimes" internationally considered trivial or non-capital, as of peasants picking up grain at the edge of a collective's fields, of a worker for telling an anti-government joke, or of an engineer for a miscalculation, are also democide.

I have found that in the vast majority of events and episodes democide is unambiguous. When under the command of higher authorities soldiers force villagers into a field and then machine gun them, there should be no question about definition. When a group armed by the government for this purpose turn the teachers and students out of their school, line up those of a particular tribe and shoot them, it is surely democide. When all food stuffs are systematically removed from a region by government authorities and a food blockade is put in place, the resulting deaths must be democide. Sad to say, most cases of government killing in this century is that clear. The number of deaths will be hazy for many of these cases; the perpetrators and intent will not. 


* From the pre-publisher edited manuscript of Chapter 2 in R.J. Rummel, Death By Government, 1994. For full reference this book, the list of its contents, figures, and tables, and the text of its preface, click book.
1. Lemkin (1944, p. 79).
2. See, for example, Fein (1984); Kuper (1981) and Porter (1982).
3. See, for example, Chalk and Jonassohn (1988); Charny (1991).
4. See Stannard (1992).
5. See Harff and Gurr (1988).
6. Solzhenitsyn (1973).
7. On these I have found the commentaries in Bothe and Partisch (1982) particularly useful.
8. Bothe and Partisch (1982, p. 679).
9. Bothe and Partisch (1982, p. 280-281).
10. Ibid., p. 297.
11. Ibid.

For citations see the Death By Government REFERENCES

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