Matthew White is the author of Atrocities: The 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History ($19.95, WW Norton). In this excerpt from the book, he discusses some of what he learned during its research, and reveals the ten most bloody mass killings in history.
What can we conclude from my list of mass killings? Is there any single quality that all one hundred of them share?
Aside from the horrific everyday details like torture, cannibalism, assassination, rape, castration, betrayal, and severed heads, are there any larger characteristics that all of these multicides have in common?
I don’t see any. In fact, the only major characteristic that applies to most of these mass killings without applying to all of them is that four-fifths are wars. You may not consider it a startling revelation that wars kill more people than dictators—after all, the average war mobilizes more active participants and allows more indiscriminate destruction than the average police state—but there’s a widespread school of thought in atrocitology that wars are not the leading cause of violent death. Some atrocitologists claim that oppressive government is worse. This appears to be wrong.
A few of the one hundred incidents have some unusually specific similarities. I’ll leave it up to you as to whether these are significant or mere coincidence:
• Defenestrations of Prague: Twice in this book, someone was thrown out of a window in Prague. (Thirty Years War and Joseph Stalin)
• Many of the dictators came from communities slightly beyond the margin of the nations they would come to lead. Napoleon was Corsican, not French. Stalin was Georgian, not Russian. Hitler was Austrian, not German. Alexander was Macedonian, not Greek.
• The United States was sucked into three European wars when the belligerents imposed blockades against their enemies. (Napoleonic Wars, World War I, World War II)
• Twice the conquest of China followed the same geographic pattern: During a civil war, an army out of Manchuria took Beijing. The defending Chinese tried to regroup at Nanjing, but were beaten, and a remnant retreated to Taiwan, which they seized from foreigners. (Fall of the Ming Dynasty, Chinese Civil War [second phase])
• Thuggish warlords like to be named after iron and steel. Stalin comes from the Russian word for steel. Timur and Temujin probably come from temur, the Mongolian word for iron. In alchemy/astrology the same symbol (♂) is used for Mars, war, iron, and male, and these gentlemen would probably appreciate the equivalence.
• Three times the West tried to put native Christian strongmen in charge of recently created non-Christian East Asian countries. (Chiang Kai-shek in China, Syngman Rhee in Korea, Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam) The religious difference may be one reason why the majority of natives never rallied to their support in the subsequent civil war. (Chinese Civil War, Korean War, Vietnam War)
• Saxony can never decide which side it wants to be on. (Thirty Years War, Seven Years War, Napoleonic Wars)
• Even though Russia gets all of the credit for being unconquerable, armies invading Egypt get chewed up and spit out too. (Fifth Crusade, Hulagu’s Invasion, Napoleonic Wars, World War II)
• While we’re on the subject, it is sometimes possible to beat the Russians on their home turf. (Mongols, World War I)
• Has anybody actually won a war using elephants? (Timur, Second Punic War, Alexander the Great)
• Vacationing in France is a bad career move for monarchs. (Cambodia, see “Vietnam War”; Afghanistan, see “Soviet-Afghan War”)
• Twice, backstabbing palace intrigues wiped out a ruling family, leaving the throne in the hands of a usurper. Natural disasters showed God’s disapproval of the usurper, so the peasants rose against him. (Xin Dynasty, The Time of Troubles)
• The taboo against cannibalism isn’t quite as strong as they say it is. (Too many examples to name)
THE TEN DEADLIEST MULTICIDES IN HISTORY:
Reprinted from Atrocities: The 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History by Matthew White. Copyright © 2013 by Matthew White. Used with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.