Great Big Book of Horrible Things

I recently read and highly recommend a book called “The Great Big Book of Horrible Things” by Matthew White with the sub-title “The definitive chronicle of history’s 100 worst atrocities”. Since it is the holiday season, not being involved in one of these events is definitely something to be thankful for…

As someone who has spent their entire life reading books about history and military history in particular, this “organization” of cataclysmic events is very interesting. The author has different types of events, such as major dictators, not just wars, as he attempts to “rank” and chronicle each occurrence. Here are the top ten items per the author:

1. Second World War 66m
2. Chinggis Khan 40m
2. Mao Zedong 40m
4. Famines in British India 27m
5. Fall of Ming Dynasty 25m
6. Joseph Stalin 20m
6. Taiping Rebellion 20m
8. Mideast slave trade 18.5m
9. Timur 17m
10. Atlantic slave trade 16m

(as a note the First World War comes in tied for 11th at 15m)

The first thing that came to my mind is that I didn’t even know what some of these items were; I know relatively little about ancient Chinese regimes and I had never even heard of the Taiping Rebellion which occurred from 1850-64 and per this book at least killed more than World War I (of which I know a great deal). Here is a wikipedia article on the Taiping Rebellion which also quotes the 20 million figure (for what it is worth).

I also find interesting the separation of individual dictators from the military conflicts that they led or sponsored. He did not break out Hitler from WW2 since Hitler’s atrocities were mostly contained within that time span. However, Stalin’s atrocities occurred pretty much from the moment he took power until the day he died so he received a separate section dedicated to his crimes. The author also makes a special section on the communist crimes where he aggregates the various tyrants and crimes in one spot for sad if easy reading.

In order to “make the list” you needed to reach over 300,000 killed. At the back of the book the author lists some atrocities that failed to “make the cut” in case an atrocity had a particular cheering section. I didn’t see the Sri Lanka civil war listed but a look at wikipedia put the death toll at 80-100k or so which means they weren’t even close to the cut off point.

The author also attempts to attract readers with an interesting use of graphics. This is from the back cover and I found it to be very engaging.

All in all the book is excellent not because it necessarily shows anything new but that it attempts to look at disastrous events in this new “ratings” analysis. Many of the death totals are nothing more than guesses especially the ones in ancient times (and civilian deaths tied to even recent wars also range wildly, such as on the Second Congo War), but the orders of magnitude are good fodder for discussion, at least.

Cross posted at LITGM

8 thoughts on “Great Big Book of Horrible Things”

  1. How can he possibly know how many were killed in the 12th century by Ghengis Khan? That he deserves to be on the “list” is without question but how did he come up with that number?

    Entire peoples, like the Finns who came from the region around Hungary, fled him…

  2. For those interested, the definitive book in English on the Taiping Rebellion is God’s Chinese Son by Jonathan D. Spence.

    Hung Syouchywan was an aspiring Chinese bureaucrat who came into possession of some Christian material translated into Chinese, had a nervous breakdown, and experienced visions that convinced him he was Christ’s younger brother. Hung studied under I.F. Roberts, a Baptist missionary from Tennessee, but the meeting was inconclusive. This marked the first time Americans seriously messed with China’s collective head. Hung went home, founded his own sect (the Taiping Tyan or “Heavenly Kingdom”), and launched an idol smashing crusade against the Ching Dynasty and Confucian culture. The rebellion was suppressed with the aid of the “Ever Victorious Army”, founded and initially led by another American Frederick Townsend Ward (see Lex’s post here).

  3. The 40m figure related to Chnnngis Kahn is huge considering world population was roughly 400m (W. Pop. estimates seem to vary quite a bit).

  4. Genghis Khan really was responsible for 40m deaths? That is a lot of work without automation (i.e. guns). I am surprised that there would be 400m people on the face of the earth at that time but I am sure no expert on that time period.

  5. Had the book figures for the middle eastern (e.g., Arabic) slave trade, 0-1433AH?
    Had the book figures of the continuing wars among African states? I’ve read that the various ongoing wars in the Congo (1960-present) consumed over ten million lives.

  6. The author apparently has a website, with a cursory overview of numbers, sources, methods, and results.

    The website is

    He had to sort through lots of pieces of data to arrive at death tolls for the Khan, or for other events like the 30 Years War.

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