Did More Russians or Americans Die in World War II?

The death toll was staggering. 

Standing in the grassy sod bordering row upon row of white crosses in an American cemetery. Courtesy of the National Archives.

World War II was by far the deadliest war in history, and counting the number of total deaths can be controversial at times. How do you count the loss of human life? World War II with genocide, strategic bombing, and atomic weapons was the first war in which civilian deaths outnumbered military deaths. For the first time, civilians became the target of the opposing armies. Military figures include battle fatalities, as well as deaths from prisoners of war in captivity and soldiers missing in action. Both military and civilian casualty totals include the deaths from famine and disease. When trying to understand the devastation suffered by a country, it is advantageous to look at the percentage of its population who died as a result of the war. The general consensus is that 50 million to 80 million people died. On September 1, 1939, the day World War II started, the world’s population was approximately 2.3 billion. It is estimated 3.0 to 3.7 percent of the world’s population perished as a result of World War II.

The Soviet Union suffered 21% more casualties than Americans in World War II.


Most estimates agree the Soviet Union suffered the highest number of total deaths in World War II, between 22 and 28 million. The population of the Soviet Union was 194,100,000. This represents a total loss of 14.0% of its population. On the other hand, the United States suffered 420,000 deaths out of a population of 131,028,000 which represents 0.32% of its total population. There are several factors which account for the incredible discrepancies in total fatalities. First the Soviet Union, like all of Europe, had been fighting the war for several years before the United States entered. Secondly, the war was fought on the soil of the Soviets and the other European countries. The civilians in these countries were caught in the middle of the great conflict and were the targets of the opposing sides. The issue of the value of life and the strategies used by the Soviet military accounted for a large number of fatalities. Finally, the Germans considered the Russians ethnically inferior and German death squads targeted Russian Jews.  
The Soviets were not the only country to suffer high fatality figures. Germany suffered between 7 to 9 million deaths. With a population of over 80 million, this represents a fatality rate of over 8.0% of its total population. Poland suffered nearly 6 million dead. The Polish deaths are mostly civilians as result of the Genocide against Polish Jews. The country which may have suffered the most deaths was China with total fatalities estimated at between 15 to 20 million. With a population of well over 500 million in 1939, this represents a fatality rate of 0.04%.

 

Stalingrad ruins.

Two Russian women in the ruins of Stalingrad, Russia, August 1942. Photographed by Jakov Rjumkin. Courtesy of the German Federal Archive.

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WWII Polls

Public opinion polls give us unique insight into America in the WWII era. Each week, historians from the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy work with the archives of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University to explore what Americans believed and how they felt about events and people related to the WWII years

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Dan Olmsted

Dan Olmsted is a Research Historian in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. He started at the Museum in 2014 and, until his ...
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