Quote Origin: A Single Death Is a Tragedy; A Million Deaths Is a Statistic

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

Question for 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?

Reply from 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

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.

In 1759 a classics scholar named Beilby Porteus published a prize-winning work titled “Death: A Poetical Essay”. Porteus later became a Bishop in the Church of England. The following excerpt did not contain the word “statistics”, but it did discuss tyranny and provocatively contrasted the ramifications of small and large casualty numbers. Boldface has been added to excerpts:2

To sate the lust of power; more horrid still,
The foulest stain and scandal of our nature
Became its boast — One Murder made a Villain,
Millions a Hero. — Princes were privileg’d
To kill, and numbers sanctified the crime.
Ah! why will Kings forget that they are Men?

In the text above the large number of deaths was not simply dismissed as a “statistic”. Instead, a more complex cultural process of reinterpretation depicted the deaths as a manifestation of “heroism”. The verse was implicitly critical of this unjustified societal reframing. Whether the deaths were viewed as statistical or heroic, the shock of mass mortality was downplayed.

In 1916 an anarchist publication based in California called “The Blast” printed a story that contrasted the feelings engendered by the personalized death of one individual versus the depersonalized death of many:3

There is double the pathos for us in the death of one little New York waif from hunger than there is in a million deaths from famine in China. It is not that distance glosses over the terrible picture of the Chinese horror, or that a feeling of national kinship with the waif impresses us the more sincerely with his plight. It is merely that the mind is unable to grasp a suffering in the gross. Suffering is so intimately personal a thing that it must be explained through the personal equation, if at all.

In 1925 a journalist and satirist named Kurt Tucholsky wrote a piece in a German newspaper that included a statement that was similar to the quotation. Here was the original text together with an English translation:4

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 French Ministry of Foreign Affairs 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!”

In 1932 “The Christian Science Monitor” printed an article describing a meeting that included George Bernard Shaw, Lady Astor, and Stalin. The article did not contain a statement matching the quotation, but it did contain a thematically related comment attributed to Stalin that portrayed him as a callous autocrat indifferent to death although the reporter expressed uncertainty about the veracity of the tale:5

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 1939 a newspaper in Wisconsin reprinted a short item that contrasted the divergent responses evoked by the varying number of causalities caused by an individual:6

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.

As noted previously in this article, in January 1947 the saying was attributed to Stalin in a syndicated column by Leonard Lyons:

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

Also in 1947 Charlie Chaplin played the role of Henri Verdoux in the movie “Monsieur Verdoux”. A line from the script written and spoken by Chaplin echoed the words Beilby Porteus:7

That’s the history of many a big business. Wars, conflict, it’s all business. One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify my good fellow.

In October 1948 “The Atlantic” monthly magazine published an instance, but the words were not attributed to Stalin; instead, the speaker was characterized only as a “Frenchman”. The quotation appeared in a book review column called “The Atlantic Bookshelf” which was written by Charles J. Rolo. This attribution may have been an echo of Tucholsky’s French diplomat:8

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”?

In 1956 the German novel “Der Schwarze Obelisk” by the prominent author Erich Maria Remarque was released. In 1957 it was translated into English and published as “The Black Obelisk”. Remarque included an instance without attribution:9

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.

In 1958 “The New York Times” published a book review that presented the saying with an ascription to Stalin:10 11

“A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Stalin’s epigram is admirably illustrated by Ernst Schnabel’s pointilliste portrait of Anne Frank during the few months she lived after the last entry in her diary, Aug. 1, 1944.

In conclusion, the saying was attributed to Joseph Stalin by 1947, but the evidentiary support for the linkage was not clear to QI. Columnist Lyons stated that the words were spoken during a meeting “of the highest ranking Commissars”. Perhaps a statement was made by a witness, but QI has not located such a document at this time. The satirist Kurt Tucholsky placed a similar remark into the mouth of a French diplomat in a piece that was available in German by 1925.

Image Notes: Example of a bar graph constructed by QI.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Stephen Goranson who located the key citations dated 1925 and January 30, 1947. Barry Popik also pointed to the words of Kurt Tucholsky. Thanks to James Marx who pointed to the line spoken by Charlie Chaplin in “Monsieur Verdoux” and to the work by Beilby Porteus. Thanks to Alex Stroup who also pointed to “Monsieur Verdoux”. Thanks to Fred Shapiro’s “The Yale Book of Quotations” which included the Chaplin citation and the 1958 citation. Thanks to commenters Mary and Tucker Lieberman for pointing to Erich Maria Remarque.

Update history: On January 27, 2016 the entry was rewritten, and several citations were added including the ones dated 1759, 1916, and 1932. On February 2, 2016 the date of the 1932 citation was updated to reflect an earlier 1925 publication date. On June 6, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated.

  1. 1947 January 30, Washington Post, Loose-Leaf Notebook by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 9, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  2. 1759, Death: A Poetical Essay by Beilby Porteus (Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge), Start Page 1, Quote Page 12, Printed by J. Bentham Printer to the University, for T & J. Merrill, Booksellers at Cambridge, Cambridge, England. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  3. 1916 May 1, The Blast, Volume 1, Number 12, Edited by Alexander Berkman, A Timely Thought, Quote Page 104, Column 2, (Page 6 in original publication), San Francisco, California. Reprinted in 2005 by AK Press, Oakland, California. (Verified with Google Books Preview of 2005 reprint) ↩︎
  4. 1932, Lerne Lachen Ohne Zu Weinen (Learn To Laugh Without Crying) by Kurt Tucholsky, Section: Französischer Witz (French Wit), Start Page 147, Quote Page 148, Ernst Rowohlt Verlag, Berlin, Germany. (Französischer Witz was previously published by Vossische Zeitung in August 23, 1925 and September 10, 1925; under the titles: Französische Witze (I); and Noch einmal französische Witze (II)) (Scans and bibliographic note in Wikimedia Commons Archive) link link link ↩︎
  5. 1932 December 29, Christian Science Monitor, Revised Impressions of Russia by J. Roscoe Drummond, Quote Page 12, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers) ↩︎
  6. 1939 September 9, Sheboygan Press, With the State Press, Quote Page 20, Sheboygan, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive) ↩︎
  7. YouTube video, Title: Verdoux: That’s business, Uploaded on: Dec 6, 2009, Uploaded by: RedUmbrellaUnite, Quotation spoken by: Henri Verdoux played by Charlie Chaplin, (Quotation starts at 1 minute 02 seconds of 3 minutes 07 seconds), (This video shows a scene from 1947 film “Monsieur Verdoux”. (Accessed on youtube.com on January 27, 2016) link ↩︎
  8. 1948 October, Atlantic, The Atlantic Bookshelf: Reader’s Choice by Charles J. Rolo, Quote Page 106, Atlantic Monthly Co. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  9. 1957, The Black Obelisk by Erich Maria Remarque, (Translated from German to English by Denver Lindley), Chapter 8, Quote Page 141, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  10. 1958 September 28, New York Times, Unwritten Pages at the End of the Diary by Anne Fremantle, (Book review of Anne Frank: A Portrait in Courage by Ernst Schnabel), Quote Page BR3, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  11. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Josef Stalin, Quote Page 724, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩︎

6 replies on “Quote Origin: 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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