Death of millions is a statistic - was it really having said by Stalin?

This phrase is often ascribed to JOSEF STALIN, an ambiguous figure in world history, blood-thirsty dictator, strong advocate of repression methods. However, sometimes words are to be deliberately attributed to emphasize a specific trait of a person and lessen the other of his facets – that is what had been exactly proclaimed right after Stalin’s death with personality cult dethronement.

This post is about the story of this quote – it concerns a word “statistic” and, therefore, attractiveness.

Death of millions is a statistic - was it really having said by Stalin?

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First acquaintance: personal story

As for me, I have firstly seen this quote at 15 – at that age it was almost impossible to tear myself apart from the books of Erich Maria Remarque; this phrase was included exactly in his novel The Black Obelisk (1956). The book covers a period of 1920s when Germany was recovering from the defeat in the I World War and experiencing hyperinflation, origination of nationalism and overall dejection.

Remarque dog
Young E. M. Remarque with his dog called “Wolf”

Ludwig, a main character and a narrator in one face, is a 20-year old tombstone maker, who interacts with a wide cross-section of German population (including prostitutes, speculators, schizophrenic mistresses, other veterans), witnesses the common public feelings and makes certain reflexive conclusions over his past, current and future, life and death:

It’s strange, I think, all of us have seen so many dead in the war and we know that over two million of us fell uselessly–why, then, are we so excited about a single man, when we have practically forgotten the two million already? But probably the reason is that one dead man is death – and two million are only a statistic

I postulate that one can easily assess each book from the perspective of concept, stylistics, language proficiency, but what makes a good book even better is a proper moment. As being a child of the so-called epoch of “the dashing 90-s”, when Russians were ushering into a new capitalism world, not least through the sharp fall of moral canons, I found echo in the Remarque’s works. I cannot say that his books are interesting for myself at this concrete moment, but for a reflexing teenager, who starts considering world on his own, they would seem like a salvaging pill.

When I was 15 and saw this statement about the death of millions, a number of associations visited my head. The brightest one was certainly connected with the aftermath of the II World War and the break-up of the USSR – just because I am a witness of those consequences. I knew the numbers of the fallen in wars (not only in the IIWW, but also Afghanistan and Chechenia conflicts, Yugoslavia, Abkhazia peacemaking operations) – I also knew these numbers are approximate and deviated. So, I could not get why so ruinous sacrifices were made by my native country to come eventually to what we have now – the life level of 80% of the winning country population is 100 times less than of the defeated and rescued ones? Why the price of winning was so high and based not only on lives given at battle fields, but also on lives of the oppressed and repressed inside the country and during the short peaceful breathing spaces? Why the life of one Russian is of almost no price, either way if you are a soldier, invalid or a pensioner? Why is our lifestyle always contingent with war or recuperating, not living, but surviving?…

At 15 I did not know that “the death of millions is a statistic” was attributed to Stalin. Unconsciously I suspected this could be said by everyone, either survived or commanded in such bloodshed circumstances – with the only exception that the person who said this would be treated differently.

Assigning this phrase to J. Stalin would be a perfect opportunity to highlight his cruelty, decisiveness and absolute power – but we cannot treat this indeed influential figure unambiguously and blame for what had not been said. Were them truly his words or not? This will be disclosed below.

Diversity of versions

Obviously the easiest way to classify all the versions is to group them on “for” and “against” having said that by Stalin. Nevertheless, by each version we should understand that it has definitely undergone specific critics, agitation and often phantasies associated with publicists. And certainly we do not have to forget the fact that all the wisdom of this humanity has been already said – in such a way that some cases are extremely complicated to identify, wherever they have originated.

Tukholsky and French diplomat – the most reasonable version?

The given quotation could be originated by German journalist and pacifist Kurt Tukholsky (1890-1935). Considering the biography of this journalist, the investigate phrase looks extremely matching with his profile – as being a politically engaged publicist, he proved himself to be a bright opponent to national socialism, however, his warnings of losing democracy and human rights were of no effect. Nazi’s have come; Tukholsky died because of suicide (or probable accidental overdose of sleeping tablets).

Kurt Tucholsky 1896
Kurt Tucholsky in 1896 at a comparably calm time for being a child

Anyways, in one of his essays (“Französischer Witz” / “French Wit” – the first publishing as of 1925), a very resembling statement appeared appealing to an unnamed French diplomat:

Darauf sagt ein Diplomat vom Quai d’Orsay: “Der Krieg? Ich kann das nicht so schrecklich finden! Der Tod eines Menschen: das ist eine Katastrophe. Hunderttausend Tote: das ist eine Statistik!”

At which a diplomat from France replies: “The war? I can’t find it too terrible! The death of one man: that is a catastrophe. One hundred thousand deaths: that is a statistic!

Although there is probability that Stalin could have said that by adopting a German writer or made it up himself, no one denies that K. Tukholsky had built it up earlier – officially (referring to the rest of versions, Stalin could utter that comparatively later).

Subsequent propaganda…

After a very good information cause here comes a set of “sensational” revelations. Starting from the 1930s, a number of western newspapers have published articles about Stalin by portraying him as a bloody autocrat indifferent to the death. A very one-sided view though.

Thus, in 1932 “The Christian Science Monitor” printed a note describing a meeting included B. Shaw, Lady Astor and Stalin himself. Although the journalist expressed uncertainty about the tale:

Although the interview which the Shaw-Astor party had with Stalin was theoretically secret, the story is told in Moscow that hardly had his guests been shown into the room when Lady Astor exuberantly opened the conversation with this remark:“Mr. Stalin, how long are you going to continue killing people?” The Soviet Dictator quietly answered: “As long as it is necessary.” Whether or not this story is true, it is illustrative of the Communist conception of government”

Certainly, hundreds publications like that flooded the press in the next years. For instance, in 1947 the direct citation was attributed to Stalin in Watertown Daily Times:

Stalin interrupted him to say: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics”

…and its most probable exposure

Notable that in October 1948 “The Atlantic” monthly magazine published an essay where the words were not ascribed to J. Stalin; instead, that attribution was looking like an echo of Tukholsky’s French diplomat:

 A Frenchman has aptly remarked that “a single man killed is a misfortune, a million is a statistic.” How to encompass the emotional reality of that aggregate of horrors which so easily becomes “a statistic” or a remote abstraction — “war dead,” “purge,” “pogrom”?

Stalin himself at Tehran conference

Also, D. McCullough, author of the Truman’s biography, gives there the same quotation. Referring to the citation in that book. McCullough, in turn, got it from the book “The Time of Stalin: Portrait of Tyranny” (A. Antonov-Ovseyenko).

Interesting that McCullough quotes Stalin as having said this to Churchill at Tehran conference (1943):

“Churchill had been arguing that a premature opening of a second front in France would result in an unjustified loss of tens of thousands of Allied soldiers. Stalin responded that ‘when one man dies it is a tragedy, when thousands die it’s statistics'”

Tehran conference
Tehran conference (1943)

I will be objective. I do not deny the possibility of saying that in Teheran, however, I would notice one specific moment. A.Antonov-Ovseyenko had his own destiny (same for many people as of his generation, unordinary for us). As being a son of famous soviet revolutionary who had been arrested and shot afterwards (the same destiny touched upon his mother, she ended up with the suicide during imprisonment in Siberia), Antonov-Ovseyenko grew up into a very expressive and persuasive antistalinist. Four times he was arrested for antisoviet propaganda and sentenced to jail; after the destruction of the USSR he founded the Historical Museum of GULAG. Moreover, he insisted on ratification of the stalinism propaganda in correspondence with the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.

A.V. Antonov-Ovseyenko

His actions seem reasonable (and justifying at least). But now we are not assessing the past regime and Stalin as a product of his time, our purpose is to reveal if there was a possibility to intentionally ascribe lie/ascribe truth to irrelevant circumstances/exaggerate. Antonov-Ovseyenko has more than 10 publications; the abovementioned work “The Time of Stalin: Portrait of Tyranny” contains the next quotation:

“This book was one of the first works revealing the Stalin’s crimes. The sources are grouped around official documentation, the press and memoirs, spoken stories and legends spread within particular circles of the old bolshevists who survived – where A. Antonov-Ovseyenko was like at home”

Having this in mind, we can view this version as the probable one – by making amendment to the personality of both Antonov-Ovseyenko and American publicist McCullough.

First days of the Great Patriotic War

Nevertheless, one of the investigators is insisting on the fact that Stalin really uttered “the death of millions is a statistic”, however, under the conditions and intonations, which crucially change the attitude to both the quote and moral image of the charismatic leader.

According to the expert, that happened in the first days of the Great Patriotic War, when the generals were exploring the reasons of such horrific losses in the Red Army and fulminant Blitzkrieg made by Wehrmacht in the European part of the USSR. Certainly, the question toward sentencing the guilty ones had been arisen – general Pavlov, a commander of the western armies, together with other higher commanders was among them. Stalin blamed those people for casualties; some fanatics even supposed there had been a case of betrayal (nevertheless, this version did not get enough support and was no longer considered). Eventually, the party concluded that the commanding administration committed a criminal carelessness and unconcern.

Stalin soviet poster
Stalin painted for soviet agitation poster

After Stalin had spread the word, several officers from the Central Committee noticed that the tragedy of commanders took place, instead of their guilt… And only following those remarks Stalin reacted with the questioning intonations, “Death of one man – is a tragedy. Then what, death of millions is a statistic?

Thus, the sense might be absolutely opposed to what the antistalinists put in those words – they have no concern with unpunishable ability of murdering millions of people. It is a question of punishing those who were at fault of the deaths – useless deaths. After all, there is a difference between being killed after successful task completion or as a result of untalented guidance (subsequently leading to a disgraceful death by shooting)…

After the death of Stalin, the commanders, who had been shot after the revision, were discharged.

Other literature versions

In this paragraph I am going to allow myself referring to a wonderful source

As the investigators said, the origin of this thought goes back to 1759, when the scholar published a work titled “Death: A Poetical Essay”. Later, the aphorism was reinterpreted again in 1916 in the anarchist publication.

Instead of conclusion

Of course, it is understandable enough that for developed western economies, which were fighting for human rights and against the external enemy presented as Nazi’s, the repression politics and starvation made inside the USSR seemed more than shocking (plus politically demanding to exhibit things under the antisoviet light). But we are here to understand the historical context and accept the past as it occurred.

There is truth in those words – apparently, statistics is a soulless substance, either it concerns a number of the dead or amount of carbonic acid brought in the atmosphere by exhausting.

Regarding whether or not the phrase “Million of deaths is a statistics” was said by Joseph Stalin. To be honest, everything that has been said about humanity was duplicated, doubled and repeated for many-many times throughout the world history. All the truth of the world. Pillars of moral and its interpretation. Societal taboos – and their interpretations, too.

We are all humans born on the same Earth; each smart generation repeats the wisdom of its predecessors by applying the past experience to the context of challenges arisen at the current time. So, there is no real need for hunting or chasing the origination – adequate applicability is a key to societal success.

Datalypse between lines

P.S. I highly recommend the entire book “The Black Obelisk”. You can order by clicking this banner:


The other books concerning the topic of this post are also very demanding! Check them out:

  • Remarque E.M. “All Quiet On The Western Front
    The book describes the German soldiers’ extreme physical and mental stress during the war, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from the front.



  • Antonov-Ovseyenko A. “The Time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny
    An extraordinary book of historical revelation, a searing criminal indictment, told from the inside of Soviet history by the witness of repressions and former prisoner of GULAG.



Datalypse between lines


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