The numbers from the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday are numbing: 20 children, at least one Jewish, six adults, including the killer’s mother. We know the names and lives of the dead, their parents, the adults’ sacrifices to save children. Behind the numbers are individuals. We see and know them in their particulars.

I’ve been thinking about numbers and individuals lately after reading two books with statistics that roiled me. The Newtown numbers are horrendous because of the school setting and the clear identity of the victims (it also happened in the county where I live). What about my response to other numbers?

The first book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, details casualties in World War II. I knew hundreds of thousands of Americans died, but I didn’t know how many died in accidents, even while training. Combat is deadly – but training? She wrote,

Pilot and navigator error, mechanical failure and bad luck were killing trainees at a stunning rate. In the Army Air Forces, or AAF, there were 52,651 stateside aircraft accidents over the course of the war, killing 14,903 personnel. Though some of these personnel were probably on coastal patrol and other duties, it can be presumed that the vast majority were trainees, killed without ever seeing a combat theater. . . 

 

“In the air corps, 35,946 personnel died in nonbattle situations, the vast majority of them in accidental crashes. Even in combat, airmen appear to have been more likely to die from accidents than from combat itself . . .  between November 1, 1943 and May 25, 1945, 70 percent of men listed as killed in action died in operational aircraft accidents, not as a result of enemy action.”

As Newtown shocked me with the numbers and nature of the victims, these numbers struck at my image of war – attacks, bullets and bombs, strife among the military. Hillenbrand goes beyond that to show the enormous toll taken by equipment malfunction, human misjudgment, bad timing, the weather. Death at this level appears so random, so unconnected to the purpose of war.

The other book that shocked me with numbers also upended my assumptions about killings. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder is a magisterial look at the two dictators’ rises and their policies in Eastern Europe before, during and after the war. From the start, Snyder personalizes the 14 million dead in the region. He writes, “The sheer numbers of the victims can blunt our sense of the individuality of each one.”

The “each one” vanishes in the millions dead in the macro view, then comes into sharper focus as the book tells of individual struggles and deaths. My emotional response to some of the statistics unearthed by Snyder unnerved me. At times I thought, “So few victims?” and then I realized that even one victim was too much, that deaths alone are only the most gruesome part of an environment of terror.

For example, Snyder writes,

Before the Second World War, in the first six and a half years after Hitler came to power, the Nazi regime killed no more than about ten thousand people. The Stalinist regime had already starved millions and shot the better part of a million.

Only 10,000? But what if the West had acted decisively against Hitler by realizing already 10,000? Compared to what came next, the number is miniscule, but only in that context. On its own, the number is horrifying.

Snyder takes the pre-war numbers even lower when he contrasts the two regimes:

Nothing in Hitler’s Germany remotely resembled the execution of nearly four hundred thousand people in eighteen months, as under Order 00447 in the Soviet Union. In the years 1937 and 1938, 267 people were sentenced to death in Nazi Germany, as compared to 378,326 death sentences within the kulak population alone in the Soviet Union. Again, given the difference in population size, the chances that a Soviet citizen would be executed in the kulak action were about seven hundred times greater than the chances that a German citizen would be sentenced to death in Nazi Germany for any offense.

Who were the 267? What were their names, their fates?

Moving to the post-war era, Snyder looks at Stalin’s anti-semitic actions. That history includes the murder of Solomon Mikhoels in 1948 in Minsk, the dissolution of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and arrests of its members, press campaigns against the “rootless cosmopolitans,” the execution of Yiddish-speaking writers on August 12, 1952, show trials against the leaders, often of Jewish background, in Eastern European countries. This happened against the post-war repressions and waves sent to the Gulag. The atmosphere was poisonous and the death toll was . . .

And here Snyder surprised me again. Against the astronomical body counts of the 1930s, he writes,

Taking into account all the trials in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, and all the people who died in police custody, Stalin killed no more than a few dozen Jews in these last years of his life. If he did indeed want one final national terror operation, which is far from clear, he was unable to see it to completion.

The repression and fear of death must have been rampant but among the Jewish population, actual deaths were low. Again, context is everything, since any death is reprehensible. Perhaps another take on the numbers – such as, the number of Jews imprisoned – would show a far higher figure. Still, the (relatively) low number of deaths made me look at the era in a slightly different way.

I won’t strain for effect here, other than to revisit Snyder’s focus on the individuality of each victim in these fateful numbers. They all deserve remembrance, from the Gulag to training accidents to Newtown.

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