by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
Jonathan Adler has a peice at the Washington Post that ought to be required reading for all young people, especially those who supported Bernie Sanders. After asking, “Who was the biggest mass murderer in the history of the world?,” Adler says:
Most people probably assume that the answer is Adolf Hitler, architect of the Holocaust. Others might guess Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who may indeed have managed to kill even more innocent people than Hitler did, many of them as part of a terror famine that likely took more lives than the Holocaust. But both Hitler and Stalin were outdone by Mao Zedong. From 1958 to 1962, his Great Leap Forward policy led to the deaths of up to 45 million people – easily making it the biggest episode of mass murder ever recorded.
Historian Frank Dikötter, author of the important book Mao’s Great Famine recently published an article in History Today, summarizing what happened:
Mao thought that he could catapult his country past its competitors by herding villagers across the country into giant people’s communes. In pursuit of a utopian paradise, everything was collectivised. People had their work, homes, land, belongings and livelihoods taken from them. In collective canteens, food, distributed by the spoonful according to merit, became a weapon used to force people to follow the party’s every dictate. As incentives to work were removed, coercion and violence were used instead to compel famished farmers to perform labour on poorly planned irrigation projects while fields were neglected.
A catastrophe of gargantuan proportions ensued. Extrapolating from published population statistics, historians have speculated that tens of millions of people died of starvation. But the true dimensions of what happened are only now coming to light thanks to the meticulous reports the party itself compiled during the famine….
What comes out of this massive and detailed dossier is a tale of horror in which Mao emerges as one of the greatest mass murderers in history, responsible for the deaths of at least 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It is not merely the extent of the catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died: between two and three million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later. The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied with iron wire, a ten kilogram stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling tool – punishment for digging up a potato.
The basic facts of the Great Leap Forward have long been known to scholars. Dikötter’s work is noteworthy for demonstrating that the number of victims may have been even greater than previously thought, and that the mass murder was more clearly intentional on Mao’s part, and included large numbers of victims who were executed or tortured, as opposed to “merely” starved to death. Even the previously standard estimates of 30 million or more, would still make this the greatest mass murder in history.
While the horrors of the Great Leap Forward are well known to experts on communism and Chinese history, they are rarely remembered by ordinary people outside China, and has had only a modest cultural impact. When Westerners think of the great evils of world history, they rarely think of this one. In contrast to the numerous books, movies, museums, and and remembrance days dedicated to the Holocaust, we make little effort to recall the Great Leap Forward, or to make sure that society has learned its lessons. When we vow “never again,” we don’t often recall that it should apply to this type of atrocity, as well as those motivated by racism or anti-semitism.
The fact that Mao’s atrocities resulted in many more deaths than those of Hitler does not necessarily mean he was the more evil of the two. The greater death toll is partly the result of the fact that Mao ruled over a much larger population for a much longer time. I lost several relatives in the Holocaust myself, and have no wish to diminish its significance. But the vast scale of Chinese communist atrocities puts them in the same general ballpark. At the very least, they deserve far more recognition than they currently receive.