I don't think we have more problems now than ever before, but because of globalization and the internet we know more about all of them, even the problems not in our immediate area, so we care more. Also life is no longer about barely subsisting, so we have more energy for caring about world events. It's a lot easier to get riled up about world violence when you're not worried about just getting enough food to survive.
I decided to make an enormous list of the bad things of every era since Christ's death, because sometimes I think we dramatize events in our own lives so much that we forget we're really not that unique. Our specific set of problems are unique, but we're definitely not unique in that we face serious challenges. Some may argue that the challenges currently facing the world are "worse" than any from the past, but I personally don't agree with them. If we're just talking about number of deaths, our generation is actually doing pretty well in comparison to ages past. So here's the evidence of that, and you can make up your own mind if what we face in this day and age is worse than what people have dealt with in the past.
Disclaimer: I know this list is biased. It's pretty Euro- and Amero-centric, and I apologize for that. I tried to get a good sample from around the world, but I know the most about Europe and the U.S. Furthermore, I deliberately highlighted the bad from each epoch, because it would be ridiculous to compare the worst from our age with the best from another, so I realize that this list is biased in that sense, as well.
Late Antiquity: 0-400.
From an LDS perspective, one of the most tragic events of this time period is the fact that the true church of Christ was corrupted and lost completely from the earth.
From any perspective, regardless of religion, a horrific part of this time period is the bitter persecution faced by Christians in the Roman Empire. They were tortured, imprisoned, dislocated, and killed.
Also, everything in the Colosseum was pretty terrible, with gladiator fights being a main attraction.
Trouble brewed in the Middle East when Jerusalem was sacked, and most of the casualties from it were peaceful citizens, whose blood purportedly ran down the temple steps in a river.
Various barbarian tribes raided and pillaged, leaving death and destruction everywhere they had been. Notable among them stand the Huns, the Vandals, and the Goths. Among them they conquered large portions of modern day Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany, France, and North Africa. If we stop to think about what conquering means, we'll realize the enormous loss of life that came with this expansion.
Speaking of the Huns, they were so feared that when they started moving westward into Europe, they prompted the other barbarian tribes to move out of their way in the Great Migration, eventually contributing to the fall of the Roman Empire, as one of the greatest and longest lasting empires of the world crumbled into pieces.
The Three Kingdoms War in China was a protracted bloody conflict in which tens of millions of people died (somewhere between 36 and 40 million). The invading troops also plundered villages and raped women in their path, and some people had to resort to cannibalism after their food sources were completely wiped out by the invading armies.
The Middle Ages: 400-1400.
The Black Plague swept across large portions of the world, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. It's estimated that 75 to 200 million people died from it in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. It decimated about 30% of Europe's population. That's three out of every ten people dead.
Aside from the plague, medieval life in Europe was still pretty terrible. Hygiene and disease prevention was virtually non-existent, and there was a never ending series of petty conflicts over land.
International terrorism was a pretty real thing thanks to the Vikings. They raided and pillaged, and tended to target monasteries. They helped expand trade routes and globalization, but they also left destruction took in their wake.
Speaking of international terrorism, let's not forget the Crusades! We worry today about violence in the name of radical religion, but the Crusades are a pretty good example of that from about a thousand years ago. The death toll from them is estimated to be anywhere between 1 and 3 million.
Of course, some good things happened during this time. The Byzantine Empire had a culture of scientific and philosophic learning, and they finally stopped persecuting Christians. Of course, they also went through a cycle of conquering, losing, and reconquering lands, so war was pretty constant.
Meanwhile in the western hemisphere, the Aztec Empire was in full swing. They had a very rich culture and a lot of scientific knowledge, but they also practiced bloody human sacrifices. They would ritualistically remove the still beating heart from their victims on an altar on top of their temples, and practiced ritual cannibalism on certain occasions.
The Incan Empire was also doing pretty well, and was a high point (ha, literally. The heart of their civilization was high in the Andes) of society at the time. Of course, they would perform child sacrifices, so there's that. And let's remember that every time we say "empire," that implies conflict of lands and peoples as the empire expands.
In Asia, Genghis Khan was uniting the Mongols and laying the basis for the largest continuous land empire in all of history. In the process he became one of the most feared men of all time, racking up a death count in the tens of millions. China's population dropped by as much as half as a direct result of his pillaging, and it's estimated that his forces wiped out up to 11% of the total world population.
The Renaissance: 1300-1600.
When we think of the Renaissance we think of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, etc. Wait, maybe I'm thinking of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Either way, whether I'm talking about superhero turtles or famous Renaissance painters, life would appear to be pretty good. And it is true that the Renaissance saw the advent of a lot of new artistic and scientific methods, finally putting an end to the Dark Ages. However, the basic standard of living didn't actually change for most people. Remember the war and disease that ran rampant during the Medieval era? If you were a peasant, that all continued during the Renaissance, as the upper crust argued about the morality of depicting baby Jesus as a baby instead of a baby-sized man.
War was still a fact of life, especially with new technologies like gunpowder and muskets. During the Renaissance there were at least thirteen major wars in Europe, each with differing death tolls.
The Catholic Church reigned supreme in Western Europe at this time, and it was rife with corruption. This, along with other corruption within the Church, led to the Protestant Reformation, which in turn led to the bitter persecution of various Protestant sects.
Not only was the Church corrupt, but many political systems were, as well. Henry VIII ushered in the era of the divine right of kings in England, giving royalty a blank check as far as how far they could go, because all their terrible actions were justified by the fact that they were royalty.
Meanwhile in Italy, the Medici empire operated and ran the entire country through a complex system of corruption. Think of the Mob, and you have an accurate picture of the entire political system in Renaissance Italy.
If you want more specific examples of Renaissance-era gore, take a look at Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Count Dracula, so named because he impaled his enemies on spikes, and Elizabeth Bathory, a serial killer who tortured and murdered anywhere between 80 and 650 young women in the space of about 20 years.
Christopher Columbus "discovered" America, and subsequent explorers essentially wiped out various native civilizations. Entire empires were subjugated to the explorers, who had the military advantage thanks to the advent of guns. Many explorers, such as Hernan Cortes, saw it as their Christian duty to kill people they saw as pagans, leading to the wholesale slaughter of millions of people. It's estimated that about 80-90% of Native American populations were killed during the conquest of America.
Trade with the New World and the Old World commenced, and a big part of that trade was disease, with smallpox being introduced to the Americas, and syphilis being introduced to Europe.
This era was characterized by widespread political and social upheaval and wars. Across the map empires were clashing in bloody conflicts, destroying old regimes and replacing them with new ones.
Europe was ripped apart by a seemingly never-ending train of religious wars, and members of religious minority groups faced bitter persecution. Perhaps the best known war of the time is the Thirty Years War, which started as a religious conflict, and eventually became a general European political war that lasted for thirty years and killed around 8 million people.
European settlers started moving to America in larger numbers, which is cool because it led to the foundation of the United States, but also bad because they took land from Native Americans and laid the foundation for the idea that exploiting the native populations was fine. For example, Spanish settlers in Santa Fe routinely took lands from Native Americans, and used the natives as forced labor on their own encomiendas.
The Cossack-Polish War in Ukraine was accompanied by atrocities committed against the civilian population, and millions of Jews were massacred.
The Manchu Conquest of China led to 25 million deaths as two empires warred for control of the country for decades.
Wars in Europe continued as the norm during this period, spurred on by a complex system of alliances. So again, think of political instability, shifting regimes, and continuous fighting and death.
European trade with Africa continued to introduce diseases to native populations, and several groups of African people were wiped out by smallpox.
Slavery in a global sense took off during this epoch, reaching its peak late in the century. Slavery had existed before this, usually as prisoners of war were forced to work for their captors, but the need for cheap labor in the Americas led to the onset of race-based slavery. This was a particularly pernicious form of slavery, because it meant that even a slave's descendants would be consigned to a life of slavery. It also set the stage for centuries of racial tension and strife in multiple countries.
The French Revolution (the one everyone has heard about, but definitely not the only one) happened at the latter end of the century. It propagated values such as liberty, equality, and fraternity, and helped lay the foundation for modern liberalism. However, it also led to the Reign of Terror, in which tens of thousands of people were executed via guillotine, and even more were executed throughout the country. All told, around 40,000 people were killed by the state in less than a year and a half.
Napoleon led the French against various European powers during the Napoleonic Wars, which lasted about 15 years. The Napoleonic Wars are notable for their scope and size, and in addition to about 3 million soldiers who were killed, up to 3 million civilians also died as a direct result of the wars. They also led to the Holy Roman Empire dissolving, and helped weaken the Spanish Empire.
Taking advantage of the weakened state of the Spanish Empire, almost all Latin American countries staged revolutions during this time. While they were able to gain independence from outside rule, the revolutions also entailed a lot of violence, and in many cases led to years of political turmoil and unstable governance, with many dictators establishing themselves in various countries.
The Taiping Rebellion was an enormous civil war in China spanning over a decade. It holds the dubious honor of being the bloodiest civil war in history, and estimates for those killed during it range between 20 and 30 million, but some estimates are as high as 100 million (that's 25 million more people than were killed in WWII). Millions of people were displaced from their homes during this time, and even after the war ended, some groups of rebels remained fighting in some provinces for seven more years.
The Second Industrial Revolution led to innovations in all sorts of technology and allowed for unprecedented wealth and an improved overall standard of living for many people across the world. However, it also set the stage for horrible working conditions for lower class workers, who were exploited and abused for their employers' gain. This is the era of child labor, of horrific work accidents, and the advent of the slums as urban centers tried to deal with a massive influx of workers.
From an American perspective, this century is notable for the Civil War. The Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day in American history, with over 22,000 casualties.
The Trail of Tears was responsible for displacing hundreds of thousands of Native Americans from their lands, marching them across the United States in a dangerous trek, and relegating them to reservations on land that not even the government wanted. To this day, Native American tribes are officially confined to their reservations.
At the start of the century, Africa and Asia were heavily colonized by various European countries, with everyone wanting a foothold in those continents. The culture of colonialism was accompanied by a general lack of regard for native customs and people, as most Europeans believed they were civilizing savages. For example, in British India there was a marked effort to squash Indian culture and replace it with "more refined" British customs.
Even after European rule was overthrown in most countries, echoes of it remained. The Apartheid in South Africa is one stunning example of this, with the rights of black citizens being largely ignored.
World War I tore the world apart from 1914 to 1918, with almost 18 million people dying as a result of the war, and over 20 million wounded. It also heralded the beginning of chemical warfare, and is an example of total war, with intense hatred towards anyone from the opposing side, and the large impact it had on civilians as well as soldiers. The Ottoman Empire also used the war as a smoke screen for their ethnic cleansing of Armenians, killing about 1.5 million.
Not long after the end of WWI, the Ottoman Empire was completely dissolved, with a lot of accompanying political turmoil and violence.
The Great Depression caused an economic slump not just in the United States, but also throughout the world. Unemployment was at an all-time high, and suicide rates skyrocketed.
World War II is perhaps the most well-known atrocity of the 20th century, having the highest death toll for a man-made event in all of history, at over 74 million deaths. Russia alone suffered about 11 million deaths. Prisoners of war who were taken captive by the Japanese were subjected to inhumane treatment and torture outlawed by the Geneva Convention. And of course we can't forget about the Holocaust. Jews across Europe were rounded up and killed, along with gypsies, homosexuals, and disabled people, in one of the biggest genocides in history. Virtually every country in the world was impacted by this war, and the consequences are hard to measure. If I were to go into detail about every horrific part WWII I would be writing for days.
Human rights in Central and South America were a mess. Almost all Latin American countries had at least one dictator during this century, and some of them had several. With these dictatorships came a long list of human rights violations, economic instability, and generally poor living conditions. Some of the more notable dictators include...
- The Castro brothers. After overthrowing Cuba's totalitarian dictator in 1959, Fidel quickly became a dictator himself. Due to failing health he passed the ruling baton on to his brother Raul in 2008, who continues in power to this day. That's almost 60 years of two brothers being in complete government control in Cuba. They have enforced unlawful imprisonments, unfair trials, executions of citizens without trials, and widespread government censorship. Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Cuba has made the “list of the Worst of the Worst: the World’s Most Repressive Societies for widespread abuses of political rights and civil liberties” more consistently than any other country in the world.
- Augusto Pinochet (Chile) and Jorge Rafael Videla (Argentina). Contemporaries of each other, they both led right-wing revolutions in their countries in the latter end of the 20th century, ushering in the so-called dirty wars, a period in which secret police hunted down, imprisoned, tortured, killed, and "disappeared" people with supposed communist tendencies. Tens of thousands of people were killed by their own government during this time period, with their families receiving no information about what had happened to them.
- Rafael Trujillo (the Dominican Republic) led one of Latin America's bloodiest dictatorships from 1930 to 1961. Under his rule an estimated 50,000 were killed, including the genocide of up to 10,000 Haitians in the Parsley Massacre (so called because soldiers showed a sprig of parsley [perejil in Spanish] to everyone and asked them what it was called. Those who could pronounce it correctly were assumed to be Dominicans, while those who had trouble with the R were Haitians, whose native language is Creole. After mispronouncing the word, Haitians were then executed on the spot.) Trujillo also helped set the foundation for intense racism against Haitians in the Dominican Republic.
The Russian Revolution at the beginning of the century led to the creation of the Soviet Union, which was replete with human rights violations and atrocities. Joseph Stalin was responsible for more deaths
than Hitler, thanks to the gulags (work camps for enemies of the regime), the Soviet secret police who were charged with suppressing internal discontent, his Great Purge
, and the genocide of Ukrainians through a carefully orchestrated famine. The famine, Holodomor
(Ukrainian for "death by hunger"), caused up to 7.5 million deaths and was indescribably horrific. Elsewhere in the Soviet Union there were near constant shortages of basic necessities of life for everyone, with the ever-present fear of arbitrary imprisonment looming overhead. The Soviet Union's immense political power also ended up leading to the Cold War, as the world lived in fear of nuclear annihilation for years.
China experienced turmoil throughout the century, with years of civil war and instability, which culminated in the dictatorship of Mao Zedong, who ushered in communism in China. Under Mao, China experienced the Great Famine
, in which anywhere between 20 to 43 million people died of starvation, and some people resorted to eating their own children in order to stay alive. Mao's economic policies led to shortages throughout the country, and there was widespread censorship. The Tiananmen Square Massacre
took place in 1989, in which anywhere between several hundred to thousands of students were killed by the government.
ruled in Cambodia, forcing people out of urban centers to work in the countryside. During the Khmer Rouge regime which he presided over, millions of citizens were marched to empty fields where they were forced to dig their own mass grave, and then killed. It is estimated that due to the combined effects of executions, malnutrition, poor working conditions, and lack of quality medical care, up to 25% of all Cambodians died during Pol Pot's regime.
The Korean War was accompanied by war crimes and human rights violations by both the North and South Korean governments, and ended with Korea officially being split into North and South, laying the groundwork for North Korea to become a communist stronghold with a totalitarian government.
The Vietnam War led to over 1 million deaths, including the deaths of many Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian civilians. Watching the footage of carnage, and feeling that it was all for nothing led to widespread American opposition to the war, along with a sense of hopelessness.
In general, Americans became largely disenchanted with government as a series of governmental scandals took place, notable among them being Watergate and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.
Many African nations faced dictatorships and bloody civil wars during the end of the 20th century, with widespread government corruption and political executions, torturing, and imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of citizens in each country. It's hard to emphasize enough the terror that became widespread in so many different countries during this time, and the extreme acts of violence that became commonplace for civilians of all social classes. Many of the African dictatorships started during the end of the 1900's continue to this day. For a pretty comprehensive list of the worst African dictators, and some of the specifics of what they did, check this list out.
So again, to repeat what I said at the beginning, I don't think we as Americans, or as a world, are doing worse than we ever have before. You might be tempted to look at how many horrifying things I wrote down between 1900 and 2000 and say that because I wrote more for that century than any of the others so far, our world situation really is getting worse, but that has a lot to do with the availability of information from that time period and the fact that the 20th century is my favorite one to study, so I know more about it than any other time period I wrote about here. But in light of the many, many atrocities that have happened throughout history, I think it's somewhat egocentric of us to think that we have it worse than anyone else. Yes, life right now is hard, and there's a lot of global uncertainty and problems, but that's the way life has always been. As it turns out, that's just part of life, and it's really hard to compare problems from different time periods. However, that doesn't make everything happening now any less tragic. As one of the websites I already linked to here said, for somebody's family and friends, the difference between zero and one deaths is infinite, and when we talk about death tolls in the hundreds, thousands, or even millions, we tend to forget the humanity behind every single one of those numbers. So even though death and suffering is a constant factor across all social classes, nations, and periods of history, let's all do what we can to try to decrease the suffering other people go through, and be empathetic of others' problems.