Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, reportedly once said that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” World War II produced history’s grimmest statistics. By some estimates, as many as 45 million civilians perished in humankind’s worst conflict, far more than the actual military deaths on the battlefield. As all-consuming as the war was, civilians in some countries fared much worse than others.
To find the countries that suffered the most civilian deaths during World War II, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed casualty figures from The National WWII Museum, Britannica, the museum Centre Européen Robert Schuman, and World War II Database. We combined the different sources estimates and ordered countries by the lower estimate of civilian deaths due to military activities (as much as was clear). Total deaths include military deaths and civilian casualties from other war-related causes such as famine and disease. Estimates can vary widely between sources.
While there have always been civilian casualties in war, from about the time of the American Civil War, civilian populations suffered even more from the direct effects of warfare. Since that time, armed conflict has involved more civilian populations, because of, among other factors, artillery that can reach longer distances and the advent of air power. (Some of the largest armies fought in WWII. These are the largest armies in history.)
Terror bombing by the German Luftwaffe leveled cities such as Rotterdam and Athens. When the Allies gained air superiority, they laid waste to German and Japanese cities. In Japan, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey discovered that 30% of the urban population had lost its homes.
There also were ideological reasons for higher population deaths in World War II. Deaths as a percentage of the population by some estimates exceeded 10% in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union. These nations had high Jewish populations that were killed in the Nazi quest of extermination of the Jews. Germany killed millions of non-Jewish Slavic people in Eastern Europe, believing that they (like the Jews) were subhuman. Other countries such as Greece and Yugoslavia suffered high civilian deaths due to German reprisals against partisan activity.
In the Pacific, Japan, fueled by nationalist ambitions to dominate the region, brutally occupied countries such as Burma, the Philippines, Dutch East India, and large parts of China. It was in China that Japan committed one of the worst crimes against civilians during the “Nanjing Massacre” in which Japanese soldier killed an estimated 150,000 male “war prisoners” and massacred an additional 50,000 male civilians. (Find out which is the deadliest battle in world history.)
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