• Ozzie Paez

Visualizing the human costs: WWII

In a 1932 essay, German journalist and pacifist Kurt Tucholsky quoted a fictional French diplomat describing the human tragedy of war: “The war? I cannot find it to be so bad! The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!”[1] It turns out that this attitude may not be simple cynicism, but a common cognitive phenomenon dubbed the collapse of compassion.

Psychologist Keith Payne points out that “it's not simply that as the number of victims goes up, people's sympathy levels off. No, when the numbers go up, the amount of sympathy people feel goes perversely down. And with it goes the willingness to donate money or time to help.”[2] It may be a coping mechanism to protect us from becoming overwhelmed or an adaptive predisposition to respond where we are most likely to make a difference. We might be able to help one person or even a few. But hundreds? Thousands? Millions?

I, too, have noted the same phenomenon when describing the human costs of war and mass repression so common to the twentieth century. Describe one person's ordeal and audiences are interested; talk about large numbers and listeners tune out. Interestingly, the same happens with presentations on subjects like data breaches, viruses and hacking attacks. Show an audience big charts and large numbers, and most will shut you out. Show them one business person painfully conveying how they were affected, and the audience becomes riveted. Humans!

Which brings me back to the human costs of war and the challenge of conveying the numbers in, dare I say it, a compelling and engaging way. One of the best examples that I’ve ever come across in our drowning-in-data world is shown above. It’s worth the time to experience it and ponder the implications. And it’s striking enough to engage young people and help them understand what we all hope they’ll never have to experience.

One of the salient lessons from the data on World War II is how cheaply Nazi Germany conquered one nation after another—and the high costs later paid by the Allies to drive them out.

Consider sharing the video link with history teachers and others so that hopefully we won’t forget, shut out or ignore the toll that wars have taken and continue to take around the world.


[1] Eoin O'Carrroll, "Political misquotes: The 10 Most Famous Things Never Actually Said," Christian Science Monitor, June 3, 2011, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2011/0603/Political-misquotes-The-10-most-famous-things-never-actually-said/The-death-of-one-man-is-a-tragedy.-The-death-of-millions-is-a-statistic.-Josef-Stalin.

[2] Keith Payne, "Why is the Death of One Million a Statistic?," Psychology Today, March 14, 2010, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-autopilot/201003/why-is-the-death-one-million-statistic.