The world’s worst massacres

Greg Brecht

Courtesy: Whole Earth Review, Fall 1987 p74(2)

I’VE RESEARCHED the Holocaust, war, terrorism, and related topics for many years, seeking to find patterns, explanations, causes. Why does anyone research so macabre a subject? To remember.

I have not differentiated between war and massacre. I am aware of only two major wars in which more soldiers were killed than civilians: World War I and our own Civil War. This list is not complete, for it has not attempted to include events before the year 1100 or cases for which numbers are unavailable–the Muslim conquest of India, some of the rebellions in China, and the long wars between the Turks and the Persians, for example.

Nor have I included “smaller” events. Examples of these include the Indonesian conquest of East Timor (100,000 victims); the mutual genocide of Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda/Burundi (150,000?); the Iroquois genocide against the Erie and Huron (5,000?); or the Red Sea slave trade in which Arab slavers traded in black eunuchs for Islam’s harems (250,000?).

I may well be accused of a bias against Communism. That is not the case, but the facts are harsh: the toll of the purges, terrors, labor camps and engineered famines at the hand of the Soviet, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese regimes has been immense, not far short of the Mongol horrors.

It is a concern of mine that the numbers not be used to diminish the Holocaust. The industrialized genocide inflicted on the Jewish people by the Germans exceeds the others in horror, even if the toll of victims is less.

The list is being added to in Afghanistan, in West Iran, and as I write looks to be breaking out in Sri Lanka.

The literature of human hate and killing is immense. It is not localized in time or place I have found no people, or religion or ideology which has not been both murderer and victim.

a. This total includes soldiers, civilians and genocides, some derailed above in table.

b. The Mongols sought to turn North China into pasture for horses.

c. This includes a deliberately engineered famine to break the will of the Ukrainian people.

d. This does not include Soviet Jews, military deaths or related mass murder at Stalin’s hands. The total nears 30 million.

e. Ten million of these were soldiers killed in battle. Incompetent generalship in effect killed a million men.

f. The nations most involved: Americans, British, Danes, Dutch, French, Portuguese and Spanish. There was some German, Arab, Swedish and other involvement.

g. The best-known incident was the “Rape of Nanking,” where 200,000 Chinese civilians were massacred. The Japanese Army routinely used mass killing as a terror technique to quell resistance, as did the Germans.

h. 700,000 people were put to the sword at the sack of Merv, and very large numbers when the Mongols took Kiev, Herat, Nishapur, Samarkand, Balkh and Baghdad.

i. Germany and Bohemia lost a very high percentage of people.

j. The bloodiest episodes were the Spanish conquest of Hispaniola, the Aztec, Maya and Inca.

k. Timurlane (who was Turko/Mongol) sought to emulate Genghis Khan. He took grim pleasure in pyramids of skulls. He conquered Persia, much of India and Central Asia and, at his death in 1405, was preparing to invade China.

l. This does not include Polish Jews or the thousands of Poles the Russians killed.

m. There were savage guerilla wars in Spain and the Vendee, and the French invasion of Egypt begat much violence. The word “guerilla” originated at this time in Spain.

n. Crusades were fought in the Baltic (the Teutonic Knights) and against heretics. The Albigensian Crusade (1229) in the south of France killed a million people.

o. This includes death resulting from the Vietnamese occupation of Laos and Cambodia and the border war with China. During the American phase, about 1.4 million Vietnamese died, half of them soldiers.

p. Korean civilians suffered terribly, but Chinese military casualties were very heavy. The North Koreans were particularly prone to atrocity.

q. These are Russian soldiers and civilians captured by Germany, turned over to Stalin and murdered by him. Thousands had fought for the Germans, thousands more were prewar refugees. The blame lies partly on the British and Americans.

r. While some men were burned, the victims were overwhelmingly women, particularly older women, the retarded and the mentally ill.

s. Suttee is the ritual whereby a Hindu widow dies on her husband’s funeral pyre.

t. The Germans were particularly brutal in Namibia and the Belgians in Zaire. At this time the Ethiopians themselves warred for conquest.

u. Some 16 million Germans and “Volkdeutsch” were moved. Germans had lived in some of the area for 700 years.

v. Thuggee was a cult honoring the goddess Kali. The word “Thug” originated here.

to. The Inquisition in Spain murdered many people who had converted or were descended from Jewish or Arab converts. They were suspected of secret apostasy.

x. India fought Pakistan, aiding Bengali freedom. Ethnic violence was extreme.

y. British India included what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

z. Large-scale ethnic massacres of Ibos began the war

aa. They fought over the right to Manchuria.

bb. Including the firebombing of Tokyo as well as the atomic bombings.

cc. The firebombings of Hamburg and Dresden produced huge casualties. Estimates of the toll at Dresden go as high as 400,000.

dd. Greece tried to conquer parts of Turkey. Greeks were expelled, having lived there for 2,000 years.

ee. The Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs engaged in a bitter civil war with extreme atrocities committed by each against the other. The fascist Ustachi murdered at least 500,000 Serbs. The Germans, Bulgarians and Hungarians killed more.

ff. Among the victims were 20,000 Catholic priests and nuns.

gg. This was a clean war, but 15,000 Union POWs died of maltreatment at the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville.

hh. The French invaded Mexico, seeking to place Maximilan (brother of the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef) on the throne.

ii. Both sides conduct atrocity daily. Russians captured are usually murdered. The Russians and their puppet troops use terror as a tactic.

jj. There are several different wars concurrent in Ethiopia. The Mengistu regime killed about 30,000 people in a purge, and may or may not be engineering a famine to starve rebels; the evidence is inconclusive.


* denotes a provisional or controversial estimate.

Death Toll Victims Dates Killers Comments
59,000,000 people 1937-45 Racism, ideology World War II (a)
40,000,000 Chinese* 1210-40 Mongols Conquest of North China (b)
40,000,000 Chinese* 1850-64 Chinese Taiping Rebellion
30,000,000 Russians* 1930-53 Stalinist regime Purge, slave labor (c)
15,000,000 Chinese* 1949-64 Maoist regime Purge, labor camps
15,000,000 Russians 1941-45 Nazi Germany (Civilians) conquest, maltreatment (d)
15.000,000 people 1914-18 State rivalry World War I (e)
12,000,000 Africans* 1400-1880 Capitalism Atlantic slavetrade (f)
10,000,000 Chinese 1937-45 Fascist Japan Invasion, maltreatment (g)
10,000,000 people* 1220-60 Mongols Conquest of Russia, Middle East (h)
6,000,000 Jews 1939-45 Nazi Germany Death camps, slave labor
6,000,000 Europeans* 1618-48 Religious war Thirty Years’ War (i)
5,000,000 Americans* 1492-1600 Spanish Conquest (j)
5,000,000 Chinese* 1640-44 Chinese, Manchus Manchu conquest
5,000,000 Chinese 1250-80 Mongols Conquest of South China
5,000,000 Chinese 1945-49 Chinese Civil war (Chiang, Mao)
5,000,000 Asians* 1370-1405 Timurlane Wars of Timurlane (k)
3,500,000 Poles 1939-45 Nazi Germany Conquest, slave labor (l)
3,500,000 people 1789-1815 Rising nationalism Revolution, Napoleon’s wars (m)
3,000,000 Russian Pows 1941-45 Nazi Germany Maltreatment, slave labor
3,000,000 people* 1096-1400 Religious war The Crusades (n)
3,000,000 Indochinese 1945-87 Revolution, ideology The Vietnam wars (o)
2,500,000 Koreans 1950-53 Ideology The Korean War (p)
2,500,000 Russian prisoners 1945-50 Stalin’s regime Execution, labor camps (q)
2,500,000 Russians 1917-23 Ideology Civil war
2,000,000 European 135O-1750 Religious paranoia Persecution of women* “witches” (r)
2,000,000 Hindu ?-1850 Religious custom Practice of women* “suttee” (s)
2,000,000 Africans* 1839-1911 Europeans Conquest of Africa (t)
2,000,000 Indians* 1750-1850 British Conquest of India
2,000,000 Germans 1944-46 Russians Poles- Forced migration (u)
2,000,000 Indians 1500-1850 Thuggee cult Ritual caste murder (v)
2,000,000 Europeans* 1300-1750 Religious paranoia The Inquisition
2,000,000 Mexicans* 1400-1520 Religious custom Human sacrifice
1,500,000 Cambodians* 1975-78 Red Terror Khmer Rouge regime
1,500,000 Mexicans* 1910-23 Anarchy Civil war
1,000,000 Armenians* 1916-18 Turks, Kurds Genocide
1,000,000 Bengalis 1969-71 Pakistanis, anarchy Bangladesh independence (x)
1,000,000 Asians* 1947-49 Hindus, Muslims Partition of British India (y)
1,000,000 Americans* 1810-24 Spanish, Americans Independence wars from Spain
1,000,000 Indians* 1853-54 British Sepoy Rebellion
1,000,000 Nigerian* 1966-69 Nigerians The “Biafran War” (z)
1,000,000  Indonesians* 1942-45 Fascist Japan Maltreatment of conscript labor
1,000,000 Chinese 1904-05 Russians, Japan Russo-Japanese War (aa)
1,000,000  Japanese 1943-45  Americans Terror bombing (bb)
1,000,000 Germans 1939-45 British, Americans Terror bombing (cc)
1,000,000 Greeks, Turks 1919-23 Turks, Greeks Greco-Turkish War (dd)
1,000,000 Europeans 1900-12 Europeans, Turks Balkan Wars
1,000,000 Serbs, Croats 1940-45 Croats, Serbs, Germans Genocide, civil war (ee)
600,000 Spanish 1936-39 Spanish Spanish Civil War (ff)
600,000 Americans 1861-65 Americans U.S. Civil War (gg)
500,000 Mexicans 1850-75 Mexicans, French Anarchy, civil war, invasion (hh)
500,000 Afghanis 1979-87 Russians Soviet invasion (ii)
500,000 Algerians 1957-63 French, Algerians War of Independence, civil war
500,000 Gypsies 1939-45 Nazi Germany Death camps
500,000 Vietnamese* 1954-65 Hanoi Red Terror Purge, labor camps
500,000 Kurds 1920-87 Turks, others Kurd war for independence
500,000 people 1947-87 Ideology, religion Israeli-Arab wars
500,000 Japanese 1945-50 Chinese, Russians Maltreatment in camps POWs
500,000 Sudanese 1960-87 Sudanese Civil war
500,000 Ethiopians 1960-87 Anarchy, ideology Ogaden, Eritrean wars, Red Terror