As we come to the end of 2016 CE, it seems like an excellent time to take a moment to reflect on what an utter trash fire it’s been.
I do think it’s important, however, to take another moment to consider that it could be much, much worse. Don’t believe me? Here are 5 years that were unquestionably worse than 2016:
(Warning: This is long and may deal with uncomfortable levels of violence.)
1258 CE: Mongols? Who what now?
The 13th century as a whole was pretty much a mess, but 1258 deserves a special mention for no other reason than the Siege of Baghdad.
The capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, Baghdad was a massive and very cosmopolitan city for the era. It was also home to the Great Library of Baghdad, known as the House of Wisdom, which in its day was the greatest collection of books in the world. Scholars of Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith all worked to translate texts from both the current world and the ancient world, furthering knowledge in the humanities, medicine, mathematics and science.
1258 saw the end of that.
The Mongols of that era were brilliant — and terrifying — strategists and they had a very clear strategy regarding cities in their path — surrender instantly and totally and you may be spared. Resist or fail to surrender promptly and you’d be put to the sword.
Baghdad did not surrender.
And Baghdad was sacked.
The death toll is obviously an estimate, but on the very low end most scholars place it close to at least 200,000. Some say as many as 1,000,000 people may have been killed in the sacking of the city. Totals like that are breathtaking and nearly unimaginable to modern people with anything short of a massive bombardment or nuclear weapons; try to conceive, then, what that many deaths must have been like when the most advanced weapons to hand were the sword and bow.
Or don’t, and be grateful we live in 2016.
1353 CE: I Flea, You Flea, We All Flee Because Oh God
It’s probably no surprise that the Black Death is making a strong showing on this list. The very idea of a creeping plague that sweeps across the entire known world, killing 30-50% of the population, gets most people reaching for the hand sanitizer.
A massive plague is bad enough, but in the panic and frenzy caused by the plague, social unrest and persecutions erupted. Anyone and anything that might be blamed for the plague was killed, burned, hung, sacrificed, or exterminated. And naturally, the ‘other’ were the first to be turned on — Jewish people, the Roma, foreigners, the poor, and lepers were all targets of fear-induced murderous rage.
In this sore affliction and misery of our city, the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine, was all in a manner dissolved and fallen into decay, for [lack of] the ministers and executors thereof, who, like other men, were all either dead or sick or else left so destitute of followers that they were unable to exercise any office, wherefore every one had license to do whatsoever pleased him.
1645 CE: Is Anyone On This Planet Not At War?
This one was a bit tougher, and I admit, I’m cheating a tiny bit. The 1640s in general were something that some historians refer to as “The General Crisis” — virtually all of Europe was involved in wars and conflict and with the advent of growing global trade and exploration, these conflicts spilled over into the rest of the world.
1645 is the midpoint of the decade; I selected it as the representative year because of the Yangzhou Massacre at the very end of the Ming Dynasty. The northern Qing Dynasty forces were at war with the remnants of the previous dynasty, the Ming, and the central city of Yangzhou paid the price for remaining loyal. Some sources say 800,000 people were killed; other modern scholars dispute that number, saying the city itself only had 300,000 people in it.
When you’re debating numbers on order of hundreds of thousand, though, it’s easy to lose sight of the scope of the destruction:
Several dozen people were herded like sheep or goats. Any who lagged were flogged or killed outright. The women were bound together at the necks with a heavy rope—strung one to another like pearls. Stumbling with each step, they were covered with mud. Babies lay everywhere on the ground. The organs of those trampled like turf under horses’ hooves or people’s feet were smeared in the dirt, and the crying of those still alive filled the whole outdoors. Every gutter or pond we passed was stacked with corpses, pillowing each others arms and legs. Their blood had flowed into the water, and the combination of green and red was producing a spectrum of colors. The canals, too, had been filled to level with dead bodies.
Account of Ten Days of Yangzhou — Wang Xiuchu
If that wasn’t enough, Europe was embroiled in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which was ended by the Peace of Westfalia (aka, the number one most likely multiple choice answer involved in tests on the Thirty Years War). Protestantism and Catholicism kicked off a conflict in the Holy Roman Empire that eventually drew all of the great European powers into war with one another or with themselves. Historians appear comfortable in saying that a casualty figure of 8,000,000 people (including civilians) isn’t a bad guess. Granted, it was a long war, but that is still a lot of people for the era, and it’s not including the deaths from famine and plague as a result of the chronic instability.
Here’s a list of hits to consider, all taking place within the 1640s and all more or less tied to the great interconnected clusterfuck that was the Thirty Years War:
- The English Civil War
- The Fronde in France
- The Franco-Prussian War
- Famine, plague, the disintegration of society, mass hysteria
1918 CE: Everything Is Terrible, 20th Century Edition (Pt 1)
We’ll get to World War II eventually, but first, let me introduce you to its big brother, World War I. Say hi, WWI:
Oh, 1918. Where to begin? You have:
- The first World War
- The Spanish Flu pandemic
- A famine in Persia that killed millions of people
- The Finnish Civil War (which as wars go may not be that bad but we’re being thorough, so why not!)
Somewhere around 38,000,000 military personnel lost their lives in the Great War, on both sides. At the beginning of the war, soldiers went into battle with swords and horses. At the end, machine guns and mustard gas. It was the birth of modern warfare in all of its horror.
And then there was the Flu. In June of 1918, the Spanish Flu became an epidemic, sweeping across the world to kill between 50 and 100 million people. The fatality totals for the war above were for the entire conflict, which began in 1914; the Spanish Flu killed more people in six months than soldiers dying during the entirety of World War I.
The famine in Persia is terribly understudied, but seems to have been the result of the conflict between Russian and Turkish troops involved in World War I; death estimates are highly controversial, but what is in general agreement is that a combination of fighting, disease outbreak, and very dry summers caused crop failures that caused a high percentage of the Iranian population to fall into famine and starvation.
The world emerged from 1918 a vastly different place than it had ever been before.
1937 CE: In Conclusion
I’m ending with the early days of World War II, not because I don’t believe there are worse years beyond that — there are some stellar entries that come in after this. Atomic bombs enter the game. Genocide in Rwanda, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the devastation in Syria.
But 1937 has a particular feel to it. It’s before most Americans would think to call the war. If you asked the average American on the street, “What’s so special about 1937?” they might not have an answer for you. They might mention the Great Depression.
1937 was the year, I believe, that everything cracked open. It was the year of purges.
The Spanish Civil War was raging between the elected leftist government and the fascists under Franco. Those who disagreed with the victors were purged, killed. Many fled. The country would live beneath fascist control until Franco’s death in 1975.
Though there was much wanton killing in rebel Spain, the idea of the limpieza, the “cleaning up”, of the country from the evils which had overtaken it, was a disciplined policy of the new authorities and a part of their programme of regeneration. In republican Spain, most of the killing was the consequence of anarchy, the outcome of a national breakdown, and not the work of the state, although some political parties in some cities abetted the enormities, and some of those responsible ultimately rose to positions of authority.
– Hugh Thomas
In the Soviet Union, the Great Purge reached its peak. Artists, foreigners, members of minority populations, people who were not considered ideologically pure found themselves arrested and detained. The lucky were exiled.
680,000 of them were shot.
How does a society reach a point where the only possible solution to the differences between its members is death? How strange is it that extremism caused this to happen for disparate reasons in different countries, all across the globe?
In Germany, Hitler’s Gestapo overcomes the last internal resistance to its plans. Hitler ‘invades’ Austria, which to many signals the beginning of the war in Europe, even if the shots had yet to be fired. The worst is yet to come, there, but the plans are already being drafted.
And in the east, there is Nanking. The Japanese Army, at war with the Republic of China, invaded the then-capital city of Nanking in December of 1937. The horrors that were visited upon that city are so horrible, so vivid, and so well-documented, that I can’t in good conscious recommend reading about them if you are sensitive or unprepared for the violence. It was the close to a terrible year, and it was one of the worst acts of brutality by any group of human beings against any other in all of our history.
Perhaps the worst of it is to know that more is coming after 1937. That after all of that suffering, there would be the Holocaust. More pogroms. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
2016 is a pretty terrible year. Depending on your culture, you may have lost beloved artists. You may be suffering in a refugee camp, having crossed an ocean to save your life but found little welcome when you arrived. Perhaps your country just elected someone whose entire being is anathema to decency.
But please remember — it could almost certainly be worse, and out of all of that darkness, people did rise up. Battles were fought. Laws and peace treaties signed, unjust customs abandoned, philosophies of hate thrown aside. We humans are brutal creatures, but we are also beautiful, and capable of great kindness. We must remember that, when it’s very dark.