Monsters of the modern age

Francis Sedgemore, Tuesday 13 November 2012 at 23:21 UTC

To be read during your ciggy break…

It is a macabre business, the statistics of mass mortality, especially when one talks of deaths that need not have occurred. By this I mean both deliberate killings and other non-accidental deaths. The danger is in drawing a moral equivalence between different cases.

Consider the acknowledged monsters of the 20th century – mass-murderers each responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of human beings, every one of whom had a personal story to tell. In terms of increasing numbers of deaths caused we have Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler. One can argue about the exact numbers involved, but we are playing an orders of magnitude game, so let us not quibble over the odd ten million.

Stalin, Mao and Hitler were mass-murderers: evil men who killed for a political cause. But what of those who did not kill by calculated intent, but whose actions, often driven by financial gain, led to death and destruction on an unimaginable scale? Can they be considered in the same way as the 20th century dictators cited above? In some ways possibly, though it depends on the knowledge possessed by the individuals concerned. It is certainly tempting to compare and contrast.

Josef Stalin
Josef Stalin
20,000,000
Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong
50,000,000
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler
60,000,000
James Buchanan Duke
James Duke
100,000,000

The numbers printed below the names are those of deaths caused through the combined direct and indirect actions of the those pictured.

The images of Stalin, Mao and Hitler undoubtedly belong together, but what of James Buchanan Duke, the industrialist responsible for automated cigarette manufacture and tobacco marketing? Duke’s technology and uncompromising business practices are estimated to have resulted in 100 million deaths during the 20th century, but the correlation between tobacco smoking and lung cancer was only detected in 1938, and the causative link not established until 1953.

Buck Duke died in 1925, and was not to know how dangerous his cigarettes would turn out to be. He cannot be charged with the murder of 100 million people, but he was a businessman – in fact a monopolist from 1890, with the creation of the American Tobacco Company – marketing a product that was at the time considered unhealthy, and denounced for both this reason and its perceived harmful moral effects. Duke was never a paragon of virtue. He was an very wealthy man, and a spot of philanthropy here and there did little to take the edge of the ill-gotten-ness of his gains.

This comparison of 20th century monsters is not original, and follows the publication by the BBC World Service of a portrait of Duke. It is an interesting piece by William Kremer, worth reading for the story of Duke’s commercial rise. The accompanying illustration featuring Mikhail Kalashnikov, Robert Oppenheimer and Alfred Nobel was likely put in by a subeditor rather than Kremer himself, but it serves a useful purpose, albeit one that will meet with the disapproval of many readers.

Moral equivalence or no, each of these killers must be considered in their own light and darkness. But it is the consequence of their actions that matters most, in which case there is a special place in hell reserved for James Buchanan Duke.

The same goes for Duke’s successors in the tobacco trade, some of whom wield considerable political power around the globe. The two biggest tobacco companies have a combined annual revenue approaching US$100 billion. Tobacco use kills more than five million people a year, and according to the World Health Organisation is responsible for one in 10 adult deaths.