A history of violence

First aired on Q (4/01/2012)

Is it possible to rank human suffering? Were the Crusades more violent than the Vietnam War? Were Adolf Hitler's atrocities greater than Joseph Stalin's?

Some might say questions like these have no real answer. But librarian and history buff Matthew White has tried to put the most heinous acts in human history in order. In his new book, The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, the self-described "atrocitologist" presents to us the 100 most terrible acts of bloodshed from the Persian Wars to the Rwandan Genocide.

white-profile.jpgHis book actually began as a history website White kept and updated for his own interest.

"I started mostly just by studying history, by having a history website, and getting into a lot of arguments [with] users, people on the internet, about history, especially the worst part of history," he told Q guest host Jim Brown recently.

White's rankings are based purely on the total number of people killed, at least according to best historical estimates. So what are the three most deadly events in human history, according to White?

1. The Second World War
"[It was] fought over several continents, large nations, powerful weapons like atomic bombs, and genocide policy -- the Nazis' at least -- and several other warring parties. Sixty-six million people died in the Second World War."

2. The Genghis Khan era

khaaaaan.jpgThe Mongolian warrior is estimated to be responsible for the death of 40 million people, White said. "He set out to conquer the world, Central Asia, he attacked the Chinese, the Muslim world, wiped out entire cities. He really was unforgiving. If you crossed him he would wipe out you and everybody you knew." 

3. The Chairman Mao era

maaaao.jpg "When he first took over, he executed at least a million, possibly two million political enemies. Then he began to restructure China, and especially the agriculture, something called the Great Leap Forward, and that totally destroyed their ability to feed themselves. So it created the biggest famine in history, estimated to be about 30 million dead. And then following that, because he lost some of his credibility, he tried to get it back with the Cultural Revolution, where he kind of stirred up the student cadres to go out and punish more enemies."


The Great Big Book of Horrible Things

by Matthew White

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From the publisher:

"A compulsively readable and utterly original account of world history -- from an atrocitologist's point of view.

Evangelists of human progress meet their opposite in Matthew White's epic examination of history's one hundred most violent events, or, in White's piquant phrasing, "the numbers that people want to argue about." Reaching back to 480 BCE's second Persian War, White moves chronologically through history to this century's war in the Congo and devotes chapters to each event, where he surrounds hard facts (time and place) and succinct takeaways (who usually gets the blame?) with lively military, social, and political histories. With the eye of a seasoned statistician, White assigns each entry a ranking based on body count, and in doing so he gives voice to the suffering of ordinary people that, inexorably, has defined every historical epoch. By turns droll, insightful, matter-of-fact, and ultimately sympathetic to those who died, The Great Big Book of Horrible Things gives readers a chance to reach their own conclusions while offering a stark reminder of the darkness of the human heart."

Read more at W.W. Norton.