A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic

Joseph Stalin? Leonard Lyons?

Dear Quote Investigator: When studying the history of the Soviet Union in school I came across one quote that I remember vividly. The words were supposedly said by the dictator Joseph Stalin, and provide a haunting insight into the mind of a tyrant:

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

But now I wonder if this quote is too conveniently revealing. Maybe it was invented. Did Stalin really say it?

Quote Investigator: This is a controversial and fascinating quotation. Until recently the earliest citation for the quote was in a 1958 book review in the New York Times where it was labeled “Stalin’s epigram”.  The Quote Verifier and the Yale Book of Quotations list the 1958 cite [FRN][QVS][YBS][FRS].

Now, two earlier citations have emerged in 1948 and 1947.

QI found a curious instance of the quote a decade earlier in 1948 in the Atlantic monthly magazine.  The words are not attributed to Stalin; instead, the speaker is characterized only as a “Frenchman”. The author presenting the quote is Charles J. Rolo who reviewed books regularly in the “The Atlantic Bookshelf” section of the magazine [ROS]:

Scourges as immense as fascism and war present the novelist with a knotty problem of ways and means. 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”?

This text appears in a review by Rolo of a book titled “Man is Strong” by Corrado Alvaro that includes a fictionalized treatment of a police state that Alvaro says was inspired by Russia. QI could find no clues to identify of the Frenchman in the book review.

A compelling citation dated 1947 was found by the exceptional researcher Stephen Goranson. Here a version of the quote is attributed to Stalin and some details of the setting are specified [STL1][STL2]:

In the days when Stalin was Commissar of Munitions, a meeting was held of the highest ranking Commissars, and the principal matter for discussion was the famine then prevalent in the Ukraine. One official arose and made a speech about this tragedy — the tragedy of having millions of people dying of hunger. He began to enumerate death figures … Stalin interrupted him to say: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

QI does not know what source syndicated newspaper columnist Leonard Lyons used to obtain this quotation. While searching for earlier cites QI came across another quote that presents Stalin as a callous autocrat indifferent to death. An article in the Christian Science Monitor dated 1932 describes a meeting that included George Bernard Shaw, Lady Astor, and Stalin [CSMS]:

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.

In this case, the author of the excerpt expresses uncertainty about the veracity of the story. QI specializes in tracing quotations and is not an historian evaluating credibility. QI does hope that these cites help to illuminate the past of this saying.

A cite in 1939 mentions a “crazy statesman” who sends “millions to their deaths” and contrasts the differing responses evoked by the varying number of causalities [SHEB]:

If you shoot one person you are a murderer. If you kill a couple persons you are a gangster. If you are a crazy statesman and send millions to their deaths you are a hero. — Watertown Daily Times.

Thanks for your question.

[FRN] 1958 September 28, New York Times, Unwritten Pages at the End of the Diary by Anne Fremantle, Page BR3, New York. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

[QVS] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 41-42, St Martin’s Griffin, New York.

[YBS] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Page 724, Yale University Press, New Haven.

[FRS] 2009 October 29, New York Times website, Freakonomics blog, Quotes Uncovered: Death and Statistics by Fred Shapiro, New York Times Inc. (New York Times website) link

[ROS] 1948 October, Atlantic, The Atlantic Bookshelf: Reader’s Choice by Charles J. Rolo, Page 106, Atlantic Monthly Co. (Google Books snippet view) (Verified on paper by Stephen Goranson and QI) link

[STL1] 1947 January 30, Washington Post, Loose-Leaf Notebook by Leonard Lyons, Page 9, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

[STL2] 1947 January 30, Salt Lake Tribune, Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Page 8, Column 3, Salt Lake City. (NewspaperArchive)

[CSMS] 1932 December 29, Christian Science Monitor, Revised Impressions of Russia by J. Roscoe Drummond, Page 12, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

[SHEB] 1939 September 9, Sheboygan Press, With the State Press, (NArchive Page 20), Sheboygan, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)

6 thoughts on “A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic

  1. I checked on a Russian search machine – several comments popped up attributing the quote not to Stalin, but to Erich Maria Remarque. However, different works. One says the meaning of the quote is present in No news from the West. Another says the quote is from the novel “Black obelisk” (I don’t know the English titles, so I am just translating what it said in Russian).

    Sorry, I did not have time to do a proper search on the Russian web pages, this is just a little something to work on with…

  2. Hi,

    recently I remembered this quote. My friend read it somewhere when we were young (like, 10 years old, so he really just was repeating it; today he’d hardly quote things like that).

    It being from Remarque would give it a different meaning – Remarque was famous for writing a lot about war and wartime death, specifically its meaninglessness. That would mean he likely made the comment to point out that such philosophy is fundamentally wrong. I.e., it was a critic of a lack of compassion when thinking about wars and other tragedies just as numbers – because they’re not.

    The attribution to Stalin could be a meme, i.e., something that sprang up by itself. Seeing as no one can realiably source it to the monster, I’d be in favour of Remarque having written it – he often commented this way, using irony and pointing out wrong ways of thinking like this. Usually, he wanted to highlight flaws in society and bad ways of thinking.

    My friend all those years ago also said that it was by Stalin, but again, he only read it somewhere. … [Comment edited to reduce length]

  3. The saying may draw on a writing of Kurt Tucholsky from 1925 (and in at least three later printings), Französischer Witz. A French diplomat is represented as saying, “Der Krieg? Ich kann das nicht so schrecklich finden! Der Tod eines Menschen: das ist eine Katastrophe. Hunderttausend Tote: das ist eine Statistik!” (Tucholsky, Gesamtausgabe, Band 7, Text 136, page 375).

  4. The passage in Erich Maria Remarque’s novel The Black Obelisk (1957) goes:
    “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.”
    (page 107 in the 1958 Crest paperback reprint)

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