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

Joseph Stalin? Leonard Lyons? Beilby Porteus? Kurt Tucholsky? Erich Maria Remarque?

stats09

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a vivid statement that typifies a heartless attitude toward human mortality:

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

These words are often attributed to the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, but I have not found a precise citation for this harsh expression. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI linking this saying to Joseph Stalin was published in 1947 by the popular syndicated newspaper columnist Leonard Lyons in “The Washington Post”. The ellipsis in the following passage was in the original text. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

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 Lyons used to obtain the details of this noteworthy scene and quotation. Without additional corroborative evidence or an explanation QI believes that this citation provides weak support for the ascription to Stalin. Perhaps future researchers will locate further relevant evidence.

There are several interesting precursors that illustrate the possible evolution of this expression, and additional selected citations are presented below in chronological order. The family of sayings examined here is variegated, and the denotations are often distinct, but QI believes that grouping them together is illuminating.

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Notes:

  1. 1947 January 30, Washington Post, Loose-Leaf Notebook by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 9, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  2. 1947 January 30, Salt Lake Tribune, Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Salt Lake City. (NewspaperArchive)