So often, we publish lists that praise events in human history—tales of victory over diseases, disastrous situations, and the like. But alas, history is also replete with events that we must remember so as to not repeat them, but we wish had never happened. This list looks at ten of the worst moments in history when man showed that he could act with utter contempt for the rest of humanity.
Roman Catholic Sex Abuse
Sexual abuse of the naive and innocent by authority figures is nothing new to human history, but what makes this example of it especially heinous is that it has taken place under the unwatchful eye of the most powerful Christian organization in the world. Child rape and molestation are, in the common view, possibly the vilest, most despicable sin (and felonies) a person can commit, precisely because there is no excuse for it. Add to that the sin of homosexuality (we speak here in terms of Christianity), and it seems an impossible situation for a child ever to be found in.
Priests ought to understand these sins better than most people. In Roman Catholic cultures all over the world, parents highly revere priests as authority figures, second fathers to their children, and excellent teachers of morality. Hence, the question everyone has asked, “How in God’s name could this have happened?”
It’s not just a matter of well-kept personal secrets among the guilty parties. The Catholic Church held meetings in the 1950s concerning sexual abuse of minors by priests, and yet, apparently, nothing was done to prevent the growing disaster. Those people who are known to have a history of committing sexual abuse against others were knowingly ordained and sent to priestly duties all over the world, not just in the United States, but in England, Ireland, Canada, Belgium, the Philippines, and many other nations.
The scandal didn’t hit the mainstream media until the 1980s, raising suspicion of Papal cover-ups to protect the image of Christianity. Fortunately, Christianity’s image has not suffered a fraction of the fall-out that the Catholic hierarchy has. Christ will never be torn down because of man’s sin, or it would certainly have happened by now. As of this list, the priests are still being hunted down, investigated, and dealt with according to man’s law. God’s law will deal with the guilt of every sinner involved if you believe in Him. But, in the meantime, the Roman-Catholic denomination of the man that many hold as the absolute greatest good in history has suffered severe damage to its reputation. Whether it is irreparable depends on how long a consecutive series of superlative Popes the Catholic Church can elect, beginning with John Paul II.
Great Chinese Famine
From 1958 to 1962, China experienced a monumental famine that killed at least 45 million people. There are generally two causes blamed for it: natural disasters and the communist policies of Mao Zedong. Chairman Mao defined this period of his rule as the “Great Leap Forward” and implemented economic and social changes with epic consequences. This entry is quite similar to #6 and #3.
Mao intended to turn China from an agrarian economy into a modern, urbanized, industrial giant on par with the U.S. But forcing his Great Leap Forward on the Chinese countryside led to nationwide crop shortages. Then the Yellow River flooded in 1959, drowning or starving 2 million. The next year, 60% of China’s farmland received no rain at all.
Mao’s idea of forcing farmers into industrial careers further destroyed the harvests. The famine became so intolerable that in some areas, people resorted to cannibalism. Millions were tortured to death for the crime of stealing food to feed their families. One man, Liu Desheng, was found to have stolen a sweet potato, and he and his wife and son were urinated on, then forced to eat large gulps of human feces. They both died within weeks.
Mao and his officers meanwhile dined on $1,000 French meals and 20-year-old Scotch whisky. Mao is on record as having told his officers that there would be many deaths due to his Great Leap Forward, but that in the end, they would serve a greater good. The famine only ended when the weather improved in 1962. About 5% of China starved to death, drowned, or were murdered.
Forced Extinction of Species
Ecologists agree that Earth appears to be experiencing a mass extinction at present. These have happened many times in the past. The extinction of the dinosaurs is believed to have been caused most directly by a comet or asteroid impact. That event was nothing compared to the Permian-Triassic extinction, which a Gamma-Ray Burst may have caused. That event resulted in 96% of all marine life and 70% of all land life dying.
What has happened to plant and animal species while modern man has been on Earth pales in the shadow of these two events, and yet humanity, in general, is doing terribly little to maintain critically endangered species. Most humans seem to adore “cuddly” animals. Anything with fur qualifies, and we have many tastes in what animals are beautiful. The tiger is magnificent. In 2005 there were only 250 breeding Siberian tigers in the Russian wild. There are well over 10,000 in captive breeding programs around the world. Some people are trying to save species from extinction, while many others willfully poach those endangered animals for the black market.
A tiger penis is considered the ultimate aphrodisiac in some places in China. These magnificent animals are being killed, illegally and at extreme personal risk, for money and sexual gratification. In 2011, the Western Black Rhinoceros was declared officially extinct. Like so many other gigantic African marvels, they had been hunted coldly and unsympathetically by humans out for a cheap thrill and what they thought was sport and danger.
Black rhinoceroses are extremely aggressive and have terrible eyesight. They will charge headfirst into trees and termite mounds, thinking they see a territorial challenger. Males weigh an easy 3,000 pounds. The record is 6,380 pounds. Unfortunately, there are only about 4,000 left in the African wild as of this list. The reason is two-fold: in 1900, there were several hundred thousand in Africa, but English “hunters” toured Africa to shoot down the Big Five: elephants, rhinoceroses, cape buffaloes, lions, and leopards.
This lister goes hunting now and then for deer, squirrels, rabbits, and doves, and these animals are very bountiful and fairly difficult to outwit in the wild. The hunter must also be a good marksman. But in Africa, elephants and rhinoceroses are too gargantuan to have natural predators except for the very occasional lion. So, they stand still or charge in the presence of humans. There’s no “hunting” involved. You can drive up to either species in a Jeep in the middle of the day and take pictures.
And armed with a .700 Nitro Express, which propels a 1000 grain solid bronze bullet at 8900 foot-pounds of force, there’s no skill involved. Some people just enjoy killing these magnificent animals for the empowerment it seems to instill. Also, rhinoceros horns are highly sought after in Chinese “medicine” for their ability to cure disease and impotence, neither of which the horn can do. It is made of pure keratin, and so are your fingernails. Keratin comes from the Greek κέρατος, which means “of the horn.”
There are approximately 410,000 African Bush Elephants left in the wild, and they are protected from poachers, but not well. They are poached for their ivory tusks, regardless of the international illegality of buying or selling them. Gorillas are poached for their hands, which are used as ashtrays. Then, of course, there is severe habitat destruction in virtually every ecosystem on the planet, so we can have our diamonds and gold and build a colossal megalopolis.
Splinter-cell terrorism refers to acts of terror, especially bombings, hijackings, and assassinations, committed by agents of organizations operating all over the world free of a direct link to any organization. It is the ultimate example of guerrilla warfare. As the world has seen in the past 20 years or so, huge, powerful, technologically advanced militaries have extreme difficulty stopping these criminals.
Splinter-cell terrorists are responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States of America. Before that, the U.S. generally remained aloof to the global war of attrition being waged against these fanatics (lunatics). U.S. embassies were bombed in Africa in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000, and all the while, efforts were underway to find the leader of the primary aggressor against global civilization, al-Qaeda. That leader, Osama bin Laden, could not be found until after 9/11 when the U.S. began hunting him down in earnest. Unfortunately, it took a decade to catch him. In the meantime, other fanatics the world over were perpetrating atrocity after atrocity against innocent, unarmed civilians of dozens of countries for the avowed purpose of eradicating Jews and Christians from Earth. Stopping each of these terrorists once they make their presence known can never put an end to the problem.
Islamic terrorists are not the only culprits, as Theodore Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh prove. It is impossible to make these fanatics respect any military might since, to begin with, they are not afraid to die in the process of killing others. How civilized humanity can put a total end to this terrorism is still debatable, of course. Whether it even can be stopped is also debatable.
Khmer Rouge Regime
The Khmer Rouge were members of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, and during their 4-year reign of terror, from 1975 to 1979, they completely destroyed Cambodia—economically, politically, and demographically. They took advantage of the chaos following the Vietnam War to overthrow the Republican government and set up what their leader, Saloth Sar, who named himself Pol Pot, called “agrarian socialism.” In reality, it forced the relocation of every Cambodian citizen from cities to farms where they were forced to farm regardless of skill or health. They were starved to death, beaten to death, overworked to death, and tortured to death.
Anyone deemed “intellectual” was immediately murdered to protect the regime. Anyone wearing glasses was deemed intellectual. These people were taken out into “killing fields” and hacked to pieces with machetes. Every single book that could be found was burned, as was all money. All banks and even hospitals were shut down. The citizens were no longer given more than two bowls of rice soup per day. All religion was banned, and those adhering to any religion were prime targets for murder, including Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims, anyone educated in western universities, and any ethnicity other than Cambodian.
The most notorious details of this sorry moment in human history come from S-21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It was a high school before it was taken over. The Khmer Rouge guards forced the prisoners to eat the guards’ feces. The prisoners were forbidden from drinking water without permission, and if they did, they were sometimes beaten to death. They were waterboarded, raped, their teeth and genitals electrocuted, bled to death, drowned, and castrated with pliers.
The death toll of this regime cannot be accurately calculated because records were rarely kept well. The most reliable estimate is 2.5 to 3 million murdered. That was 21% of Cambodia’s population. Pol Pot died on 15 April 1998 of what was claimed to be heart failure. He might have been poisoned or committed suicide since he was about to be arrested for his crimes.
World War One
One of only two wars to make this list, this one does because of the hideous speed at which hostilities escalated in 1914 and because there is no single villain to blame. Humanity, in general, is to blame for this one. In retrospect, it appears as if every country in Europe was harboring a festering hatred for one another, and everyone was looking for an excuse to invade. The act that touched it off was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este, by Gavrilo Princip, whose motive was no more complicated than a desire to prove his bravery to the Serbian army, which had rejected him for being too small and weak.
Almost every nation in Europe had a treaty with another nation, and these treaties all said the same thing: if anyone attacks you, we’ve got your back. Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which prompted Russia to declare war on Austro-Hungary, which prompted Germany and Italy to declare war on Russia, which prompted the United Kingdom and France to declare war on Germany and Italy. Spain and, of course, Switzerland stayed out of it.
The United States stayed out of it until Germany waged total war on international unarmed merchant ships, particularly the Lusitania, and because of the Zimmermann Telegram, which Germany sent to Mexico, urging it to declare war on the U.S. The British intercepted this memo, but Mexico, to its credit, did not dare attack the U.S.
We can all agree that war is the epitome of human stupidity, and as wars go, WWI may be insurmountable in exemplary idiocy. War theory, if we may call it that, had progressed in terms of modern defense, but not attack: both sides were armed with more or less the very same weaponry, especially the Maxim machine gun, the first truly modern machine gun. It is belt-fed, fires the .303 British, the 8mm Mauser, or the 7.62 NATO, at a rate of 450 to 500 rounds per minute, sufficient to cut men in half, precisely what it is did tens of thousands of times for four years.
The British, French, Germans, Russians, and Americans all had them, and for the first two and a half years, the trench warfare involved one side charging out across 100 to 1000 yards of no-man’s land, through shell craters, barbed wire, mud, and mines, right into the waiting machine gun lines of the enemy trenches. Each time one side was beaten back with severe losses, the other side thought there would be a weakness and charged after them, right into waiting machine gun lines. Kaiser Wilhelm sent a telegram in late 1914 to his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, that read, in Russian, “Nicky, how can we stop this?”
On the first day of the Battle of the Somme River, 1 July 1916, the middle day of the middle year of the Great War, as it was called before 1939, the British conducted the European Slow March, walking, not running, toward the Germans, on the theory that the slower they advanced, the more difficult they would be to hit, and more fearsome they would be to the enemy. After 12 hours, 19,240 British soldiers lay dead in about 25 square miles. This was the most lethal day in the British military’s history.
The Somme was begun in an attempt to draw men of both sides away from the Battle of Verdun so a decision there could be attained. Instead, the Somme became an even larger battle in scale, and it and Verdun remain the most epic of the War. About 698,000 men died at Verdun, nearly 70,000 per month for 10 months. Over 300,000 died at the Somme. Each battle resulted in over 1 million casualties, the debut of the modern flamethrower at Verdun, and the tank at the Somme.
The Germans opened hostilities at Verdun with a 10-hour cannonade of 808 artillery pieces, firing almost 1 million shells, some as wide as steering wheels. Around the French fortifications, the blackened skeletons of trees were festooned with human and horse intestines. The Germans also used ample supplies of mustard gas in both battles. Mustard gas is essentially aerosol hydrochloric acid. One breath of it can kill a man by internal drowning. It also severely burns and blisters skin and blinds eyes.
Both battles ended in utter stalemate because mobility had not progressed on par with firepower. That lack of mobility, especially on the first day of the Somme, displayed more directly than any other action in any war the utter futility and insanity of warfare. Neither side could approach the other, but the Germans found their losses more irreplaceable than the combined French and British. When the Americans showed up, the Germans simply could not cope with the overwhelming enemy men and materiel for much longer. About 15 million, military and civilian, died unless we include deaths from Spanish influenza, which was itself a direct result of the War. That puts the estimate at about 65 million.
The Black Death
There is no one cause to blame for the Bubonic plague’s rise to power in 1346 or so, but Europe, in general, can be criticized strongly for its primitive belief in witches. Because “witches” were hunted down wholesale from the insufferably pervasive fear of the Devil, domestic and feral cats were also killed by the hundreds of thousands because they were thought to be witches’ “familiars.” And, without one, a witch could not adequately cast spells.
So, once witch-hunts showed up in full swing and cats started disappearing into the fires, the entire European world was ripe for an epidemic of rats. And the rats showed up in full swing in 1346 in Crimea via the Silk Road from China. There were no cats to check the rats stowing away on board merchant ships, and these rats were infested with fleas. The fleas carried yersinia pests, better known as plague.
Today, this bacteria has been all but eradicated in most places around the world because cleanliness is next to Godliness. A regular hot bath with soap will rid you of fleas, but such baths were not regular in the Middle Ages. Once bitten by an infected flea, curing yourself is really not difficult at all. Streptomycin prevents the bacteria from replicating, which gives the immune system enough time to tailor an antibody to kill it. Unfortunately, Europe didn’t know about antibiotics, and had they, they might have had fair results by eating moldy bread.
Without treatment, plague is one of only three known diseases with a mortality rate of 100%. The other two are rabies encephalitis and HIV. Given the primitive medical knowledge of the Middle Ages, the world didn’t have a chance. Even the best physicians had no clue what to do to protect themselves, much less the populace.
Doctors entered homes only after donning full-body leather armor, helmets, and masks shaped like hawk beaks, filled with aromatic herbs, due to the miasmatic theory of diseases. According to this theory, simply “stirring up the vapors” would cure the area of plague, while the doctor would remain safe breathing in his mask. The masks had red glass over the eyeholes because even looking at an infected person was thought to cause infection.
Ringing bells was thought to stir up the vapors. Or the sick person could stand next to a latrine and inhale the stench. The only method that actually worked to a small degree was smoking tobacco because the smoke kept the fleas away. But the most infamous methods for curing the plague were based on the principle that God was very angry with the whole world.
The Flagellants began roaming the countryside by 1349, especially in Germany, and they beat themselves bloody with Roman-style flails, the same kind used to scourge Christ. The idea was that if they suffered enough, God would relent, and the plague would stop. It didn’t work.
So, like clockwork, God’s wrath was blamed on the non-Christians throughout Europe, and that mostly meant Jews. In February of 1349, 2,000 Jews were hacked to pieces and burned at the stake in Strasbourg, on the French-German border. But the plague kept coming. It killed 40% of Egypt, 30% of the Middle East, about half of the 100,000 people in Paris. The worst-hit area was Mediterranean Europe, including Italy, Spain, and southern France. There, about 75% to 80% died. The Pope, Clement VI, survived by surrounding his throne 24 hours a day with torches burning close to the floor. In the aftermath, his servants found scorched fleas “like pepper” just outside the ring of flame.
England suffered about 20% dead. The total average was about 25% of the whole world, as evidence indicates plague deaths in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and the Orient. As much as 66% of Europe and Asia succumbed. Approximately 100,000,000 people died in four years.
Holodomor is the Ukrainian word for “killing by hunger.” It is now the proper term for Josef Stalin’s forced starvation genocide against Ukraine from 1932 to 1933. How Stalin forced it on the Ukrainian people is open for discussion. Still, most historians agree that he knew what was happening in Ukraine and refused to provide relief of any kind, even ordering food shipments diverted from Ukraine and what food its population had confiscated, violently if necessary. He imposed this particularly cruel death sentence on so many solely out of retaliation for Ukraine striving for national recognition and independence.
Today, we refer to it as a country, Ukraine, with Kiev as its capital city. But at that time, it was still referred to as the “Ukrainian SSR,” or simply, the “Ukraine,” one of many areas of Russia. The famine was manmade, an imposition directly from Stalin, but whether he premeditated it beforehand is difficult to determine. Most of Russia was experiencing famine at that time, and Stalin may have seen this as a chance to make the Holodomor look, at best, like an accident, at worst, passive justice.
The numbers are the saddest testimony overall in every one of these entries. Records were not well kept during the famine, so the death toll ranges from 1.8 to 12 million. Some scholars have narrowed this down to about 4 to 5 million. The borders were closed by the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, and anyone attempting to flee to other countries or Russian states was either shot or captured and brought back to starve. Around 190,000 tried to escape Ukraine after the first year. Starvation may be the most awful cause of death. The commoners’ despair, agony, and terror led tens of thousands to resort to eating their own children. Many ate their own feet. It did not end until Stalin’s implementation of forced collectivization of grain threatened to destroy all of Russia, not just the Ukraine. Once the police and military stopped stealing everyone’s grain, farmers could grow for small communities, as they always had.
World War Two
This war can be blamed mostly on one man, Adolf Hitler. Let us take a brief look at the motives by which he initiated global hostilities in 1939. Whereas Stalin was patently paranoid that he would lose his power, Hitler was not afraid. He simply carried a fuming rage which, in childhood, he directed against nothing in particular.
He was imprisoned for his failed Beer Hall Putsch, an attempt to overthrow the Kaiser government, in 1923. While serving eight months, he and Rudolf Hess wrote Mein Kampf, in which Hitler blamed absolutely everything bad that had ever happened to Germany on the Jews, all of them everywhere on Earth. Whether he actually believed this is open to debate, but there is no denying that he saw in Jews an outstanding scapegoat, one against which all non-Jewish Germans would rally.
It worked better than he could possibly have imagined. He emerged from prison a national hero and 10 years later took control of the government. What followed was nationwide brainwashing: everyone began hating Jews intensely. Many of the Jews saw the trouble coming and left for England or America. Most stayed, hoping they would be saved. They weren’t until it was too late.
Six years later, Hitler made good on his promise to acquire “lebensraum” for the German people by invading Poland. Britain and France immediately declared war on Germany. Russia made a pact with Germany because Stalin knew he could not conquer Germany at that time. Hitler bided his time before invading Russia two years later, knowing that Russia’s military was woefully inadequate. Japan invaded China for its resources, and in September 1940, Japan, Italy, and Germany became the formal Axis Powers solely because they understood their identical desires to conquer other countries.
Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in retaliation for the U.S. embargo on oil, iron, and machinery. The U.S. then declared war on Japan, and there were declarations of war all around. Oh, what a merry world it became so quickly. After 6 years, 71 million people were dead. Rome, Paris, Moscow, Leningrad, and London were smoldering. Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Stalingrad, and Manila were obliterated.
The most infamous aspect of the War will forever remain the Holocaust. It is also referred to as HaShoah, which is Hebrew for “The Catastrophe.” Much has been said about it already on Listverse, so let us briefly examine Hitler’s methods, by which he remorselessly and unsympathetically attempted to eradicate an entire race of humans.
His seething, abiding rage found in Jews the perfect target, and he set about in his political ambitions, surrounding himself with men who agreed, some for power, some out of rage or delight, all out of hatred, that the Jews as a race needed to, and could, be extinguished. The Wehrmacht, for its part, had nothing at all to do with the Holocaust and had very little idea it was going on. They were an honorable institution, if honor, just as compassion, can be found in war.
The Schutzstaffel, or SS, carried out the murder of six million men, women, and children, by poisonous gas, shooting, beating, torturing, “scientific” experiments, systematic starvation, and overwork, on the pretense that “Aryans” were superior humans, and that Jews were no better than cattle, in which terms, the question was asked, “Do we feel bad when we slaughter cows for food?”
Around 1.1 million were murdered at Auschwitz, 700,000 to 800,000 at Treblinka, 600,000 at Belzec, 360,000 at Majdanek, 320,000 at Chelmno, 250,000 at Sobibor. Merely because they were Jewish. Meanwhile, at least 750,000 soldiers and civilians died in 199 days in Stalingrad. That was only one battle of the War.
Whereas Stalin never offered any political explanation for, nor a formal admission of, attempting to starve all of Ukraine, and Hitler explained the Holocaust as “a necessary step” in the process of purifying and strengthening the “master race,” the Crusades were undertaken by both the Christians and Muslims for the openly expressed purpose of exterminating the opposing religion along with all its adherents, solely to glorify God. It remains the blackest moment in the history of all religions.
It lasted from about 1063 until about 1434 when handheld gunpowder weapons were first used to good effect in combat. Before you denounce God for allowing or causing it to happen, keep in mind that doing so is foolishly dismissive. Assuming there is a God, the Crusades were not his fault. They remain humanity’s fault by two causes: first, the refusal to tolerate differences; and second, the active enjoyment derived from hurting things, especially other humans since they can best voice their disapproval of such actions.
The use of the word “God” in any language to justify one’s actions of violence is but a means to an end, and also sweetens the enjoyment of another person’s pain, since by denouncing that person as an infidel, the malicious party can believe that person is also destined for eternal agony after the agony s/he is forced to suffer on Earth. Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it? Because we all get angry at other people for various perceived offenses, deep down, doesn’t it sound appetizing to believe those people are going to Hell, regardless of how much they suffer in life? No one would ever admit to it, of course, but it’s a primitive passion innate in every human and precisely the heart of the Crusades.
In 1099, the 1st Crusade ended in a “Christian” victory, when knights and soldiers from France, England, Germany, and Apulia (southern Italy) successfully besieged Jerusalem from 7 June to 15 July. They were opposed by the Islamic Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt, under Iftikhar ad-Dawla, who had 400 cavalrymen and a garrison of Muslim and Nubian troops comparable in size to the invaders about 13,000 for each side. Inside the city, there lived over 60,000 unarmed civilians, mostly Muslims and Jews.
Once the city fell, the invaders stormed in, ransacked every building, and murdered every single man, woman, and child within the walls. So, 70,000 people were hacked to pieces “in the name of Christ.” The horses waded in blood up to their knees. Probably half the women were raped, and most of everyone was tortured by varying methods. It was unbridled, bacchanalian sadism. About 500 Jews fought alongside the Muslims, then took refuge in a synagogue. The French burned the synagogue to the ground, with everyone in it.
Then, 88 years later, Salah ad-Din successfully took Jerusalem back for Islam and allowed all those inside to return unharmed to their homelands—provided they paid a ransom. Those who could not afford it were sold into slavery. Two years later, Richard I of England (the Lionheart) arrived with Phillip II of France and Frederick I of Germany. Richard was not the chivalrous hero he is frequently depicted as in films. He spent barely six months of his 10-year regency in England. He lived in France, spoke only Langues d’Oil and Langues d’Oc, two dialects of Old French, did not speak any form of English and used England as a money machine to finance his conquests. He loved the sport and glory of overpowering other nations. His Crusade, the 3rd, ended in an uneasy stalemate.
There would be six more Crusades, with the Holy Land changing hands several times, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, all in the name of one god or another. All the while, both bibles stated, “Love your enemies.”
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fact checked by Alex Hanton