Our collective knowledge of the past doesn't go back very far when it comes to quantifying the worst things humans have done to each other.
We know the wars of the last century caused tens of millions of deaths. But what about the Crusades, the African slave trade, and the many conflicts in China's history? How do they compare? Were they even worse?
Maybe they deserve more attention as we try to understand humanity's most horrific moments and prevent future ones.
Matthew White thinks so. The Richmond, Va., librarian believes it's time for a fuller accounting of man's inhumanity to man. In the newly published The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities, he ranks the deadliest human-caused catastrophes of all time, topped by World War II, the regimes of Genghis Khan and Mao Zedong, famines in British India, and the fall of the Ming Dynasty.
The 669-page book's unusual approach to an exceedingly grim topic has attracted attention, including a New York Times story that noted it's gained credibility thanks to scholarly fans.
Despite being a kind of encyclopedia of evil, it actually manages to be a fascinating read thanks to White's keen grasp of history and his wry take on the villains of the past.
It helps that White is careful to respect the victims who died at the hands of others and correct the record when necessary about the identities of those who were responsible for so much misery.
In an interview this week, White talked about his desire to set the record straight, the one part of the world that seems largely immune to the worst of the worst, and the way chaos and tyranny compare.
Q: What's a nice guy like you doing writing about the worst things humans ever did to each other?
A: I've always been statistically minded, and for a while I was doing a lot of local history. Then when the Internet came along, I set up a website on world history. This turned to be one of those things people argued about – who's responsible for the worst things that ever happened? – and I kept getting into arguments.
Q: Why do people argue about this?
A: A lot of it is that they want to file things on their enemies and accuse them of doing all these terrible things. And there is this sense that if we know about mistakes in the past we can start working around them in the present, deciding whether we intervene in certain wars.
And then there's orneriness.
Q: You're pretty specific about how many died in atrocities, even if they happened thousands of years ago. Can you really quantify the effects of long-ago events like conflicts and the collapses of civilizations?
A: Within limits you can. There are records that go back, and a lot of them are based on things like money – tax records, for instance. There are suddenly fewer people after a war.
Archaeology is another way. If one layer of the past has a thriving civilization, and a war comes through and the next layer is pretty empty, you can get into the area of numbers, whether it's tens of millions or hundreds of thousands.
We tend to discount some of the chronicles that have been told, but I didn't base this on the historians of these eras. It's usually based on some sort of modern academic scholarship.
Q: What value does your ranking have?
A: A lot of it is just seeing how societies work. That's the broadest use of it – understanding how wars start. Once you start studying several different wars instead of focusing on one or two, you can start to see patterns.
The one that I jumped out at me is about dictators. You hear about oppressive dictators as being terrible, and they are, of course. But there are fewer of those compared to times when an entire culture just collapses and you have decades of civil war and the population is cut in half.
If you’re looking at risk assessment, you see that the collapse of civilization is sort of the worst-case scenario. That happens on a narrow level in history, something like Somalia or the Roman Empire.
The big pattern is that chaos is deadlier than tyranny. There are deadlier events when everything falls apart.
Q: Is your ranking useful in terms of preventing atrocities?
A: At the least, it sets out the case studies that other people can start looking at.
One of the problems is that when people start studying society is they tend to focus on the things that interest them. But if you look at the 100 worst, it gives you a broader sample of events.
Q: What made you spend so much time on events that we may not be as familiar with in the West, like the many conflicts in Chinese history?
A: I wanted to try to access everything in the world that fit the criteria. It did push me into studying and trying to explain Chinese history, something that most of my readers know nothing about, and make it interesting.
Q: What have you learned in the big picture about history?
A: Some historians almost forget the human element. They’ll talk about conquests and cultural mingling without saying people got killed.
There's even an attempt to rehabilitate the fall of Rome by saying it wasn't that bad. Sometimes they act like there aren't actual real living people involved in these events.
Q: What about bright spots amid all this misery?
A: One of the odd things I found was that I could not find many horrible events in India. It might be that their history is not well recorded, or it could also be there’s something about their civilization that’s more peaceful. I don’t know.
Q: Did you find heroes that we may not be familiar with?
I tried to bring out people who spoke against these things.
Bartolomé de las Casas was a Dominican monk who lived in the West Indies shortly after their discovery. He made a strong effort against what the conquistadors were doing against the Indians.
I also mention St. Francis of Assisi.
For some reason, people are trying to rehabilitate Genghis Khan, giving him a better reputation. They say you have to judge him by the times. But his career is at the same time as St. Francis of Assisi. That's to point out that it was possible, if you were living in the 1200s, to be a nicer person. You don't have to be Genghis Khan.
Q: Was it challenging to set the tone of the book?
A: It is sort of my nature to be a wise guy. I tried to direct insults, sarcasm, and irony at the bad people of the world.
Q: What did you learn on a personal level?
A: In some ways I found it enlightening and useful just to know things could be worse. However bad things seem to be now, they could be worse. I don’t get as worked up over things I see in the news.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.