The Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain seemed to be permanent fixtures of the political landscape of Europe after 1961. But to everyone’s surprise, the Berlin Wall opened on November 9, 1989. This stunning event triggered a chain reaction throughout Eastern Europe, accelerating a process that had begun a decade earlier. Using a little poetic license, one could claim that what took ten years in Poland took ten months in Hungary, ten weeks in East Germany, ten days in Czechoslovakia, and ten hours in Romania. A peaceful revolution of unprecedented magnitude rippled across the continent throughout 1989 in a political, moral, and spiritual earthquake that changed the course of history. The rest of the Soviet Union would tumble two years later in the aftershocks. Nearly 400 million people were freed and scarcely a shot was fired. But why?

As it turns out, I was an eyewitness to much of this chapter of history. I experienced East Germany when it was under grim, deadly communist domination in the 1980s. I was an international television correspondent in Europe reporting on Germany and Russia, and stood at the Berlin Wall on the spot where the first victim was killed trying to flee to freedom in the West. I was there in Germany when the Berlin Wall opened up in November 1989 to great jubilation, and I helped people who fled communism start a new life in the West. After the communist regime imploded in Moscow in 1991, I went to Russia to join western efforts to build order in the ashes of the collapsed empire.

Why did communism collapse in the peaceful revolution of 1989-91? If Herodotus were writing the history, he would give several different reports from a variety of sources. In 1989-1991, most people reporting the events gave the accounts listed below. I know these arguments well because I also made them before doing my own research:

1) The economic system of the Soviet Union was breaking down, leading to an implosion.

2) The military buildup of the United States and NATO countries during the Cold War effectively backed down the Soviets, bankrupting them.

3) The extended empire of the Soviets became too large to govern effectively, and it collapsed from its excessive weight and dysfunctionality.

4) It was the triumph of free markets over the command economy: people in Eastern Europe rebelled because they wanted a Western standard of living.

Some people subscribe to the great man theory of history, claiming:

5) Mikhail Gorbachev did it, by allowing new freedoms, which whetted the appetite for more freedoms, which got out of hand.

6) Ronald Reagan did it, by combining forces with Margaret Thatcher.

7) Pope John Paul II did it.

Or there is the explanation that it was all a mistake:

8) The opening of the Berlin Wall was the result of a bungled press conference Günther Schabowski gave on Nov. 9, as he attempted to explain the new travel policy of the very new East German regime.

Or for those who contend great historic events are seldom, if ever, monocausal, we have the answer:

9) All of the above.

The best answer is 9) because all of these factors played a part. But none of these answers explain why tens of thousands of ordinary people suddenly took to their streets in the fall of 1989 to face down armed troops under orders to shoot them. The economic argument falls short because people do not typically risk their lives for a bigger refrigerator or a vacation visa. Nor do any of these theories explain why this revolution, unlike almost all others in history, remained peaceful. Nearly 400 million people were freed, and scarcely a shot was fired. That is definitely not normal. People rose up in rebellion in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary and Poland in 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Each time, the uprising was met with Soviet tanks and bullets, as the people seeking freedom were beaten, imprisoned, or killed. These quashed rebellions that ended in bloodshed make the success of the peaceful revolution of 1989 even more astonishing.

I missed the most important part of the story when I was reporting from Europe for American television throughout the mid-80s. But I got a second chance after I got to know people from communist countries by serving them. When the first wave of 300,000 political refugees escaped from the Soviet Union in the late summer of 1989, they surged into West Germany, where I was living at the time. With the opening of the Berlin Wall in November, people from all the East bloc countries flooded into West Germany, far exceeding the capacity of the government or the Red Cross to care for all of them.

It became clear in prayer that I was to go and serve these refugees who had escaped from communism. So one friend and I launched a small private initiative to try to help people arriving near Cologne, who were in thirteen emergency shelters throughout the city. We brought them blankets, coats, and food, tutored their children, and helped parents find a job and a place to live. And we listened. We heard hundreds of stories from people who fled Poland, Hungary, Kazakhstan, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Many of them had dodged bullets, while carrying their children on their shoulders through the forests, as they fled.

A year later, with the same spiritual clarity, it became clear to me that I was to go to the countries the refugees had fled, to find men and women who had resisted communism, and that I should write about their experiences. So in blind obedience, and I do mean utterly blind, I went to Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and later Russia. Eventually I interviewed 150 people from throughout all the nations of the former Soviet Union, to ask them why they had resisted communism. I listened to people who had been imprisoned, beaten, and tortured, because their convictions did not align with communist ideology. I met the widow and children of Alexander Men, the great Russian Orthodox priest called the “C.S. Lewis of Russia,” who was murdered in 1990. These remarkable people explained to me why they had resisted communism with every fiber of their being.

Many of the political prisoners and leaders of the “peaceful revolution” throughout the former Soviet Union told me that at its core, the resistance to communism went beyond political, economic, and military confrontation to its roots in a moral and spiritual dimension. While certainly not all, or even very many, people who resisted communism were religiously motivated, Christians in significant positions of leadership throughout the entire East Bloc were crucial in keeping this revolution peaceful. Their moral authority had a disproportionate influence on people around them.

The people I interviewed told me that the events of 1989 began a decade earlier in Poland, when the newly elected Pope John Paul II visited his homeland in the sunny summer of 1979. His message was not a political one. Instead, he reminded his countrymen that they were children of God with dignity, rights, and duties that transcended the state. John Paul II reminded the Polish people that their identity was not primarily political, but spiritual. He rose above the political realm to address the Permanent Things. Again and again, Pope John Paul repeated a phrase that was to echo throughout his papacy: “Be not afraid!” Millions of people who crowded the streets grew stronger as they listened. He ignited their courage in such a powerful way that it sent seismic shocks throughout not only Poland, but all the neighboring countries as well. Through the words of Pope John Paul II, people under the communist yoke began to rediscover the source of Truth, reclaiming their courage to give witness to it in their lives.

A handful of moral leaders emerged in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany who, over the coming years, would develop small cells of civil society and a “second culture.” Karol Wojtyla (before he became Pope John Paul II) was certain that the culture was the most important realm to change, and that a healthy culture was the fruit of human souls rooted in faith. He spent his young years as an actor, playwright, and poet, performing Poland’s traditional works to keep the culture alive. As a young priest, he took kayak trips with young couples to talk candidly with them about living their faith vibrantly in a marriage and family. These couples were to become lifelong friends of the future pontiff, while providing him with authentic lifelong friendships with lay people whose spirituality he understood and admired.

To live out the “second culture,” sometimes it was necessary to keep it hidden below the surface. Its members in Poland founded underground newspapers, wrote and performed plays, just as Intellectuals organized a “flying university” to teach in people’s homes, and launched new organizations to focus on about civil liberties. Similar movements sprang up in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany, as well as the Baltic countries. Artists painted and exhibited works of art in traveling shows in private homes, while playwrights like Vaclav Havel talked for hours over littered ashtrays and endless cups of coffee. The goal shared by all of these various people was life free of the communist constraints, free from the “culture of the lie,” a life devoted to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. The work of the peaceful revolution was not primarily political in its intention. Instead, the focus was on the pre-political realm, the culture, the human soul and mind. The character that was formed in these cells of civic order began a process of transformation from the inside out in each person, and from the bottom up in the culture in which they lived. They sought Truth in a culture where everyone said something other than what they meant as a matter of survival. Aleksander Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel said communism fostered “the culture of the lie.” These two men spoke the truth, even if the cost was incarceration. Their “no” was a response to a higher and more compelling “yes.”

The Polish theologian Josef Tischner described Solidarnocz as “a huge forest of awakened consciences.” It was an apt metaphor for the entire peaceful revolution that would awaken consciences and summon forth courage across Eastern Europe over the next decade, building cells of civil society and strengthening the character of people with a willingness to stand erect, despite threats and opposition. The leaders who emerged shared the conviction that God exists, that “the culture of the lie” must end, and that there are some things worth dying for.

The rise of communism came in the Soviet Union because, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “men forgot God.” The central promise of communism was to build an earthly paradise through human efforts, while denying the existence of God. Communism was rooted in Rousseau’s proposition that man’s nature can be changed by his material circumstances to bring about his perfected state. Marx and Engels inhaled the Hegelian vapors of three ascending ages, which were to bring about the perfected state of man. Lenin and Stalin put steel behind the intoxicating vision. If violence was necessary to bring down the upper classes and abolish private property, so be it. The gulag silenced voices of dissent, as did psychiatric prisons and firing squads. In the end, the Soviets killed at least 62 million of their own citizens to quash all resistance. Stalin alone is responsible for at least 40 million of those deaths.

As a former communist who disavowed his earlier convictions, Whittaker Chambers explained: “There were two faiths on trial in the twentieth century: faith in God and faith in man. The communist vision is the vision of man without God.” Many of the people whose faith was in God were exterminated, including the 40,000 priests in Russia who were killed between 1918 and 1940.[1] On a single night in October 1929, three hundred political prisoners were executed in the Solovky camp, many of them bishops who had contributed to the Solovky Memorandum, which articulated their beliefs:

The Church recognizes spiritual principles of existence; communism rejects them. The Church believes in the living God, the Creator of the world, the leader of its life and destinies; communism denies his existence…. Such a deep contradiction in the very basis of their Weltanshauungen precludes any intrinsic approximation of reconciliation between the Church and state, as there cannot be any between affirmation and negation … because the very soul of the Church, the condition of her existence and the sense of her being, is that which is categorically denied by communism. [2]

While the first phase of the Russian Revolution killed the country’s aristocracy, the next phase attempted to eradicate the spiritual nobility. The Cheka, the predecessor of the KGB, in a 1921 document spelled out its intentions to “corrupt the church from within,” because the communists knew that resistance fed by religious faith posed a genuine threat to them.[3]

Citizens were imprisoned for owning books such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, the possession of which merited a one-year in prison sentence in East Germany. In Russia, writing poetry that mentioned God, as in the poems of Irina Ratushinskaya, resulted in seven years of imprisonment that nearly killed her before she was released in a prisoner exchange before the Reykjavik arms talks between President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Nikolai Saburov cheerfully went to prison in Russia for smuggling Bibles from the West and printing copies on homemade samizdat (self-made) presses made from parts of washing machines and bicycles. Each time he was released from his three-year prison term, he printed more Bibles, only to be arrested and imprisoned again.

Merely declining to swear allegiance to the communist party was dangerous. A brilliant student of economics, Anatoly Rudenko, was sent to a psychiatric prison after he refused to join Komsomol, the communist youth organization, at two universities. Anatoly would not swear allegiance to the communist party because it was atheistic, and he had become a Christian. By Soviet logic, he must have been “insane” because he did not believe the communist ideology he had been taught in their schools. Anatoly was arrested and put into a psychiatric prison where perfectly sane people entered and were filled with drugs that made them drool, roll imaginary balls with their fingers, and hallucinate. Some were injected with a solution that would instantly and painfully raise the body temperature to 105 degrees, damaging brain tissue irrevocably. It was only because the Baptist Union of the USA insisted on the release of a fellow Baptist that Anatoly was spared the fate of the other prisoners unraveling all around him.

In Leipzig, East Germany, in October, 1989, armed with nothing but small candles and prayer, courageous people faced down armed troops under orders to shoot them. Beginning seven years earlier, Lutheran Pastor Christian Führer had invited people to the Nikolaikirche for the Friedensgebete Monday afternoon at five to pray for peaceful change in East Germany. What began with a handful of people sometimes dwindled to one or two, but Pastor Führer continued undeterred for the next seven years. In 1989, the group began to swell, gaining strength of hundreds in the spring, then thousands in the summer, until the communist officials were apoplectic in September. They asked each other “How many people can we shoot at once?”

On October 9, 1989, tanks rolled into Leipzig, along with water cannons, attack dogs, and several thousand soldiers and military police in riot gear. The Leipzig newspaper had warned the day before that any insurrection would be put down “if necessary, with a weapon in hand.” Thousands of pints of blood were flown into Leipzig’s hospitals and surgeons were put on alert to treat the expected shooting victims. Parents were urged to pick up their young children from school early, to avoid a bloodbath in the city. Despite these ominous preparations, 70,000 ashen-faced people took to the streets on that Monday. Leipzig threatened to erupt into civil war. Hundreds of members of the communist party squeezed into the pews to prevent legitimate protesters from being seated in the Nikolaikirche. Outside the walls of the church, ashen-faced people filled the streets for blocks in all directions. Despite panicked warnings, Pastor Christian Führer began the service at the stroke of five with the church packed to overflowing and opened with the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

As the final benediction was given, Christian Führer says that a palpable presence of the Holy Spirit descended on this fearful mass of people, most of whom were not practicing Christians. The pastor described it this way: ”The spirit of Christ, the spirit of non-violence and renewal fell on the masses, moved the people deeply and became a tangible force of peace. It was like the Book of Acts when the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and his household. This is something quite remarkable because these people were mostly not Christians. And yet the people behaved then as if they had grown up with the Sermon on the Mount.”[4]

In this spirit of peace and courage, the people grabbed each other’s elbows and held small candles as they walked out of the church. The power was contagious and what had been an amorphous mass of frightened people became a purposeful phalanx walking out of the church into the city. The young military draftees outside nervously held their weapons, hoping they would not be ordered to fire into the crowd, knowing that if they refused, they themselves would be shot from behind. The demonstrators looked the soldiers in the eye and began the march on the wide street that ringed the center of Leipzig.

Nineteen-year-old Raphaela Russ remembers, “With amazing composure the mass began to move, past the curious onlookers who hemmed the edges of the streets, past the mobilized security forces, past the barking dogs in the narrow streets and alleyways.”[5] As they marched past tanks and water cannons, some chanted “keine Gewalt” (no violence) while others thwarted provocateurs planted by the Stasi, encircling them to remove stones from their hands. A human chain protected the Stasi building and no one smashed even one window of their headquarters. Despite justified frustration at forty years of repression, no one so much as knocked the hat off a soldier. Although the troops had live ammunition, not one of the 70,000 people demonstrating provided provocation for the soldiers to open fire. At the end of this very tense evening, the forces for peaceful change had won. Christian Führer said, “The soldiers were prepared for everything except candles and prayer.” He was astonished at the outcome, saying “We were just grateful for the role God let us play in this amazing drama. It certainly was not the few Christians among us. God wrote history that night.”

After the television coverage of this extraordinary event, demonstrations like the one in Leipzig spread to cities all across East Germany. The East German communist party unceremoniously dumped Erich Honecker as its standard bearer, replacing him with Egon Krenz. Committees scrambled to meet the demands of hundreds of thousands on the streets, who spoke through the banners they carried. They wanted the freedom to refuse military service with a weapon aimed at fellow Germans.  They wanted the freedom to travel, to speak freely, and to buy goods from the West. And hundreds of thousands of them took to the streets all over East Germany throughout October and early November.  The evening of November 9, Günther Schabowski came out of a meeting and read a statement about new policies for granting visas to cross the wall, which journalists pounced on. “When does that take effect?” one asked. Schabowski fumbled and said he guessed it meant immediately. The journalists went into a frenzy and immediately began broadcasting.

Anyone who heard the radio reports that any East German could get a travel visa the same day ran out of their house in their pajamas and headed for the Berlin Wall. Wild lines of Trabis, the little unreliable cars made in East Germany, snaked up to the border honking in a chaotic chorus. Hordes of people on foot mobbed the cross-points, where the border guards were overwhelmed and uncertain what to do. Their superiors didn’t believe what they were being told on the phone. More people swarmed the gates. Finally the border guards just shoved their caps back and lifted the barriers to let the tidal wave of people pass through. Families that had been separated for forty years ran to embrace each other, showered in champagne, flowers, and tears. Young people scaled the wall and danced on it. No one, I repeat no one, knew or even suspected that the Berlin Wall would open then. The East German regime didn’t even intend to open it.

That is the natural explanation. Here is the supernatural one. That same night, November 9th, people gathered at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig once again. This time it was a silent march through the city to commemorate the 51st anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of violence against the Jews before World War II began. As these Germans walked through Leipzig, they asked God’s forgiveness for the violence the Nazis had committed against the Jewish people. As they prayed and walked around the city of Leipzig for the seventh time, the Berlin Wall opened unexpectedly and the communist regime fell with a crash as resounding as that of the walls of Jericho.

Throughout 1989, the people once dominated by the Soviets were throwing off their shackles, daring to live as if they were free. Poland had already held its first free elections in June, while Hungary had literally snipped the barbed wire on the border in May, asserting its independence from Moscow. Czechoslovakia staged its fantastic Velvet Revolution later in November, ejecting communist leaders with swift dispatch in merely two weeks. Romanians toppled Ceausescu in December, in a swift revolt that lasted only hours. Theirs was the only violent chapter of the otherwise peaceful revolution of 1989. In October, 1990, East and West Germany were reunited, cementing the new relationship of sovereignty free from the Russians. All the former Soviet satellites were exploring alliances with the West.

Disappointed Soviet hardliners concluded Gorbachev had been too soft, and they attempted a coup in Moscow in August of 1991. The natural explanation is that they failed to convince enough others.  The supernatural explanation is more complicated. Here is what several people who were participants in the resistance told me. Three Christians took a shipment of Bibles they had received the previous night from America. Leading them was Fr. Alexander Borisov, who had recently been elected to the Moscow City Council, a man of proven character who had been blocked from ordination for fifteen years because he refused to share information about his congregation with the KGB. Anatoly Rudenko, who had been released from the psychiatric prison, was passing out Bibles to the tank drivers sent to put down the demonstrations. He was joined by Shirinai Dossova, a Muslim convert to Christianity, who went right up to the tanks and pounded on the sides of them until a baffled driver popped open the top of the tank in exasperation to say “What?” She handed the tank driver a Bible and said, “It says here not to kill. Are you going to kill me?” And she put herself squarely in front of the tank and looked him in the eye. Her courage overcame the tank driver’s willingness to fire. Another Christian dissident met them there. Alexander Ogorodnikov, a Christian dissident who had been incarcerated for eight and a half years in Soviet prisons, formed a human chain around the Russian White House, where the beleaguered parliament was locked in, expecting to be crushed by tanks and bullets any moment. Alexander, Anatoly, Shirinai, and Fr. Borisov mustered the courage to stand and resist the tanks and military forces, inspiring others to join them. They stood vigil, praying through the night. People were being baptized, kneeling to pray. The members of the newly elected Russian Parliament, the Duma, waited tensely inside the Russian “White House,” defended only with a handful of pistols among them. Those I interviewed told me they were certain that they would be crushed by the military any moment. But as the night wore on, a strangely opaque fog settled in, shrouding the Parliament’s building from visibility. The helicopters intending to attack could not see to land. And at the same time, the military personnel on the ground refused orders to roll their tanks over the bodies of the human chain of private citizens defending the Russian parliament. When the morning finally dawned, much to everyone’s surprise, the forces of peace had won this battle, too. Four people had been killed.  The choir from Fr. Boris’s church sang to mourn their deaths and celebrate the victory. He preached from a balcony above the square.

After the failure of the attempted coup in Russia, the aftershocks of the political and moral earthquake shattered the remaining shell of the communist hierarchy. The desire for freedom had been swelling in Ukraine and the Baltic countries as well, drawing people to the streets of Estonia to sing traditional songs from their pre-communist past in what came to be called the “Singing Revolution.” Citizens of Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine had all staged demonstrations by this time, and there were no consequences for protesters. By December, the remaining hull of the Soviet empire heaved, groaned, and crashed. Aside from a few fossilized hardliners, it seemed there were no more true believers in the utopia communism had  promised. Of course, the old communists just got new business cards and started doing business with the West. The difficulties in Russia since indicate that its people may have entered their “wilderness years,” just as the Israelites were forced to wander forty years in the desert to unlearn the traits of slavery from Egypt.

The college students I teach now were all born after the Berlin Wall fell. The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union was so recent that most students have not covered that era in world history. They do not know that the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union was real. But considering the magnitude of the communist menace, which dominated US and European foreign policy for half a century, it is a dangerous blind spot when students conclude today that “communism is a good idea, as a concept,” as two blithely remarked to me not long ago. Many of the people who lived under communist regimes would vehemently disagree with them.

The bloodiest century ever proved that modern totalitarian governments are utterly deadly killing machines. But big numbers tend to wash over us with little impact—millions, billions, whatever. Perhaps this will put the numbers in perspective. Starting as far back as humans have kept records, in 4000 BC, and tallying up to 1987, some 133 million people were killed worldwide. But in one century, the 20th century alone, 207.5 million people were killed, well beyond all the people killed in all previous centuries together.[6] But the truly stunning number is this: 169 million people were killed by their own governments. [7] Let that sink in for a moment. These people who died were ordinary citizens, not soldiers fighting other soldiers in wars, but 169 million victims of totalitarian regimes that systematically killed their own people. [8]

  • The Nazis killed 21 million
  • Communist China killed at least 35 million
  • The Soviet Union killed approximately 62 million

Stalin alone was responsible for 42 million of those deaths, making him the biggest killer of all time.

Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago gives some of the best inside reporting on Soviet prisons. There were executions by firing squads, freezing isolated prison cells, beatings with truncheons, water hoses, rapes, and mass graves. And to flesh out the story, anyone can now check the massive records compiled by the Stasi, Securitate, KGB, and the secret police in every communist country. Nothing worked very well under communism, except the secret police, who amassed detailed information from neighbors, relatives, co-workers, and informants in every neighborhood and organization. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that someone isn’t out to get you.

The bloodbath in China’s Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989, where tanks rolled and bullets hailed down on protesters, was a grim reminder that there was nothing inevitable about success in resisting communism. It almost always ends in massive bloodshed. The uprisings in the “Arab Spring” toppled leaders but failed to produce lasting order. Why was 1989 in Eastern Europe different? I think the answer lies in the response of the Solidarnosc priest, Jerzy Popiełuszko, who was murdered in 1984 by Polish security officials. They beat him to death, bound his body with chains, and dragged his body to dump it into the Vistula River. Before he died, this priest and martyr preached to his countrymen, “We must overcome evil with good.”

No other response to the evil of communism could be sufficient. But if we take this hard-won legacy so lightly that we do not teach our own young people about these events that took place in 1989, we are not worthy of the sacrifice of 169 million innocent lives taken by totalitarianism. We in the West should not be too self-congratulatory, Solzhenitsyn warned us, because we are none too healthy ourselves. To the extent that the West has lost the moral core necessary for self-governance, we are at risk of losing everything. As one astute young East German woman put it shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, “We knew that Marx was a false god. But we don’t want to worship the golden calf of the West, either.” The danger we face in America is the golden calf we have made for ourselves, which we worship in our modern temples of consumerism. We, too, must overcome evil with good. No other response will be adequate.

I only hope in moments of trial to remember the remarkable courage and integrity of the unsung heroes whose faith shattered communism. Their souls were luminous– and as uncompromising as diamonds.

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1. Hill, Kent The Soviet Union on the Brink: An Inside Look at Christianity and Glasnost, Multnomah Press, 1991, 84.

2. Quoted in The Soviet Union on the Brink, 76-77.

3. Vyacheslav Polosin, “The Eternal Slave of the Cheka,” Izvestiia, Jan. 22, 1992.

4. Author’s interview with Christian Führer in Leipzig Feb. 28, 1991.

5. Raphaela Russ “…wenn es sein muss, mit der Waffe in der Hand!” Die Revolution der Kerzen: Christen in den Umwälzungen der DDR, ed. Jörg Swoboda (Wuppertal: Oncken Verlag, 1990) 144.

6. These numbers are drawn from The Black Book of Communism, Anne Applebaum’s Gulag, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and R.J. Rummel’s Freedom, Democracy, Peace; Power, Democide, and War, which aggregates all of these sources.

7. Some estimates put this total at 262 million.

8. These numbers are drawn from The Black Book of Communism, Anne Applebaum’s Gulag, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. R.J. Rummel at Freedom, Democracy, Peace; Power, Democide, and War puts the number of killings by the Chinese in the 20th century at 76 million.

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