JUMP TO COMMENTS
Previous
Next

Humanity has endured some pretty terrible things in the last 2,000 years, from genocidal wars to natural disasters to virulent plagues. But what was the absolute worst time to live in certain countries? Or, to put it another way, what events in history should you be glad every day you didn’t have to live through?

If you look at the major causes of death in different eras, it’s easy to see some time periods were objectively (at least from a safety perspective) better than others. Tuscany is a fantastic place, but around 1348 the city was making corpse lasagna with plague victims. And if you’re dying to see London, avoid 1666, the year of the Great Plague and the Great Fire.

People sometimes claim the modern era is one of the worst times in history, but the sheer brutality of history begs to differ.

Italy: 1348

Photo: Pierart dou Tielt/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Black Death was bad everywhere, but no one quite captured the desperation and horror like the Italians, who watched more than half of their fellow citizens die. As eyewitness Boccaccio wrote, “Brother abandoned brother… Fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children.”

Another Florentine, Marchionne di Coppo Stefani, described the devastation in even starker terms. Citizens had to quickly dig mass graves, where layer upon layer of bodies and dirt filled up pits, “just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.”

The plague took the lives of an estimated 20 million people across Europe during one of the worst times to be anywhere on the continent.

Germany: 1918

Photo: Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-4.0

World War I introduced the bloody realities of trench warfare and the hazards of chemical weapons. And while no single year between 1914 and 1918 was great, 1918 was undoubtedly the worst. The war slew between 16 million and 20 million people, and Germany was one of the hardest hit. A full 80% of the German male population between ages 15 and 49 went off to battle.

Even after the war ended, the carnage wasn’t over. In that same year, 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic took off, eventually infecting one-third of the world’s population and decimating an estimated 20 million to 50 million people. It was at least as deadly as the most horrific war the world had ever seen.

The Americas: 1520s

Photo: Albert Bierstadt/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Christopher Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors brought more than guns and horses to the New World. They also carried deadly germs that nearly obliterated the original inhabitants of the Americas. According to Charles C. Mann, author of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, the smallpox epidemic took the lives of between 60% and 90% of the indigenous population, leaving the New World weak against European colonization.

Historians believe smallpox first came to the Americas in 1520, and it wasn’t the only deadly disease the Europeans carried. Within a few generations, 20 million people died due to infectious diseases they had no inherited immunity against.

The Soviet Union: 1930s

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Joseph Stalin mercilessly industrialized the Soviet Union with his five-year plans while solidifying his power through the Great Purge. He forced millions of peasants off their land, sent millions of people to forced labor camps, and murdered countless political prisoners using the Soviet secret political police. Show trials forced accused political rivals to confess to crimes, and Stalin ordered his followers to track down Leon Trotsky and eliminate him.

Just how many died during Stalin’s ruthless rule? In 1989, one historian estimated Stalin had slayed 20 million people, including 6 to 7 million in an artificial famine and 1 million during the Great Terror of 1937-1938. Other scholars believe the number may have been much greater – as high as 60 million.

Japan: 1945

Photo: Charles Levy/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

As history’s deadliest war, World War II was devastating everywhere. In the Soviet Union, 25 million people perished. China saw 15 million lost. And 6 million Jews, along with millions of other civilians and political prisoners, passed in German concentration camps during the Holocaust. With around 3 million deaths, Japan saw relatively low casualties compared to the USSR and China, but Japan was the only country to experience a nuclear attack during wartime.

President Harry S. Truman chose to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to pressure the Japanese to surrender. When Emperor Hirohito surrendered days after the attack instantly took the lives of more than 100,000 Japanese civilians, he pointed to the devastation of the “new and most cruel bomb.”

Ireland: 1840s

Photo: Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Irish Potato Famine changed Ireland forever. It struck in 1845, when a fungus-like infestation ruined Ireland’s potato crop for seven straight years, destroying about 75% of the harvest. The country’s tenant farmers relied on potatoes as a central food source, and the losses quickly led to a major famine.

At the time, Ireland was effectively a colony of Great Britain, and even during the famine, Irish tenant farmers exported large quantities of food to be able to pay their landlords. By 1852, when the famine ended, an estimated 1 million people had died from starvation and related diseases, and at least another million had fled the country permanently.

England: 1666

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

For several reasons, 1666 was a bad year to live in London, England’s capital city. The metropolis suffered from both a deadly plague and a devastating fire. Nearly 1 in 5 Londoners passed during the Great Plague, which began in 1665 and wiped out an estimated 100,000 people. King Charles II fled the city when it began, refusing to return for months, and things only got worse.

In September 1666, a fire broke out in a baker’s house and quickly spread throughout the city. The Great Fire of London destroyed more than 80% of the city, burning through buildings made of wood and tar. There was only one potential silver lining to the devastating fire – many believed it helped to end the plague.

Indonesia: 1815

Photo: Parker & Coward/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Of the active volcanoes in Indonesia, Krakatoa may be the most famous, but the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora had the most devastating impact. The eruption of Tambora was 10 times more powerful than Krakatoa’s in 1883, and it ranks as the most destructive explosion on earth in the past 10,000 years.

Standing higher than 13,000 feet, Tambora shot 12 cubic miles of gas, dust, and rock into the atmosphere when it erupted, raining incandescent ash down on the island of Sumbawa. It instantly wiped out an estimated 10,000 people, and as many as 90,000 died as a result of water contamination and starvation afterward.

The eruption was so enormous, it even caused a worldwide chill in 1816, which became known as the “year without a summer.”

China: 1958-1962

Photo: 赵仰山/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

China’s Great Leap Forward, initiated in 1958 by Mao Zedong, led to the passing of an estimated 45 million people. Mao planned to transform China from an agrarian society into an industrialized nation, but much like Stalin’s efforts in 1930s Soviet Russia, the program’s harsh and ineffective policies took the lives of millions.

Mao’s ruthless industrialization subjected Chinese peasants to physical abuse, starvation, and capital punishment. Millions were worked to death, while millions more starved or were beaten. In the end, the Great Leap Forward may have killed almost as many people as World War II’s worldwide toll of 55 million.

France: 1793

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Foreign armies threatened to invade France, civil war spread within the country, and the French Revolutionaries feared their grip on power would soon come to an end. In 1793, France’s leaders – most notably, Maximilien Robespierre – started a wave of arrests and executions that became known as the Reign of Terror.

Suspected “enemies of the Revolution” were rounded up and taken to the guillotine. Outside Paris, local officials carried out a similar agenda. At least 300,000 suspects were arrested, and close to 40,000 were tried and executed, killed without a trial, or passed in prison.

Among them were the former king and queen of France, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Crete: 365

Photo: Jona Lendering/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0

On the morning of July 21, 365, a massive earthquake shook the island of Crete and triggered a tsunami, which together wiped out an estimated 50,000 people in the region. Greek historian Ammianus Marcellinus reported the devastation from Alexandria, Egypt: “The solidity of the earth was made to shake… and the sea was driven away. The waters returning when least expected [took] many thousands by drowning.”

The earthquake, with a suspected magnitude of up to 8.5, and subsequent tsunami permanently changed the shorelines of Crete, Egypt, and other places, even leveling entire cities.

The United States: 19th Century

Photo: Henry P. Moore/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Before the Civil War (and well after), life in the United States below the Mason-Dixon Line was a horror of inequality and social injustice. Slavery ran rampant and morality unchecked, as a small percentage of the population gained enormous wealth thanks to the struggles and sacrifices of people they saw as their inferiors.

In certain states, as little as 1% of the population controlled nearly a third of the wealth in the region. Between the widespread poverty and the millions of people enslaved for the benefit of the few, the Antebellum South was hell for many.

Rome: 476

Photo: Thomas Cole/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

At one point, the Roman Empire stretched from the Pillars of Hercules in the west (around the Strait of Gibraltar) all the way to modern-day Iran. But by the fifth century, the empire was approaching the end of its long, slow decline.

In 410, the Visigoths sacked the city of Rome. They burned houses, took the lives of Romans, and carried off spoils and prisoners. The empire also lost Britain in 410, and Spain and North Africa by 430. Italy faced the invasion of Attila and the Huns around 450.

By 476, it was inevitable that Roman authority would fall in the West, and a Germanic force led by Odovacar overthrew the last Western Roman emperor, signaling the end of ancient Rome. It was a bad year to be in the capital city of the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

JUMP TO COMMENTS
Previous
Next
Please wait...

And Now... A Few Links From Our Sponsors