Not Very Cheering

by Tedra Osell on December 22, 2011

My husband sent me this fascinating chart of atrocities throughout history, from the NYT. It’s an excellent chart as chart (Tufte would be proud), and despite the appalling subject it’s really engaging. It’s a nice visual representation of something a couple of us referenced yesterday in comments, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ongoing posts about the civil war as the end of a great tragedy, rather than a tragedy in its own right. And it’s also incredibly, incredibly humbling: the only one of the most deadly events of human history I really know much about is WWII, and many of the others I’ve never even heard of. Clearly my education has been revoltingly Eurocentric; I think I had one half of one semester in high school devoted to the history of Asia, and the only thing I really remember is that we memorized a brief dialogue in Mandarin and I cheated on the test by writing the names and Mandarin characters of the major dynasties on my pencil. Poor Doc Langan; he had a PhD in Chinese (Asian?) history, and he had to deal with ignorant little jackasses like me. I owe him restitution in the form of learning something. Anyone care to recommend a couple of decent histories of Asia (or regions thereof) for the general reader?




BillCinSD 12.22.11 at 10:19 pm

Why doesn’t Hitler and his non-war based killing get a place in despots?


Watson Ladd 12.22.11 at 10:34 pm

This seems biased towards times and places for which we have written sources. Assyria doesn’t make the list despite some mass deportations and giant killings. What about Sargon’s crushing of the great revolt? He kills a lot of people in the third millenium, and writes it all down.


Watson Ladd 12.22.11 at 10:37 pm

sorry, substitute classical for written. Assyria had writing.


Matt 12.22.11 at 10:39 pm

I’ll admit to being surprised by the claim of 1.5 million deaths due to Aztec human sacrifice. I wonder how sure of that we are. And, in some of the cases, I wonder what’s being counted. (Is “fall of Rome” really an event? And what sort of deaths are being counted there? Same general worry about the ends of various Chinese dynasties.) But, as to book suggestions, I read it many years ago, but really enjoyed Jonathan Spence’s _The Search for Modern China_. Obviously, it won’t do all that much for you about China before the 19th century, but it’s very good after that. (It is long, though.)


Tom Bach 12.22.11 at 10:49 pm

The numbers for most of these events are going to be guesses and generally made up.


chris y 12.22.11 at 10:53 pm

No, not very cheering, is it?

I’ve decided that dividing the world into Africa, America, Asia and Europe in historical tables isn’t just not helpful, it’s actively misleading. There are eight or ten distinct regions on the Eurasian landmass in terms of historical centres of activity (sometimes interacting), several more in Africa and the Americas. And the Pacific. Europe is a fake continent anyway and its relative coherence demonstrates nothing in global terms.


Mise 12.22.11 at 11:11 pm

While we are on the point of recommending things, I’d learn to make a chart like that if anyone has any tips!

I’m currently reading Thant-Myint U’s, Where China meets India, which is a readable mix of history and contemporary, and great on the power dynamics of the region.


john 12.22.11 at 11:29 pm

Tom Bach i totally agree with you


Kiwanda 12.22.11 at 11:55 pm

For pete’s sake, don’t let Chris Bertram catch you looking at this kind of thing.


Hidari 12.22.11 at 11:59 pm

Just to reiterate the point of post number 5: and to point out (sorry to be an old post troll but I felt I didn’t make this point strongly enough at the time) that this means that Steven Pinker’s most recent argument is probably unfalsifiable, in Popper’s sense. Since death tolls for things more than a few hundred years ago are really guesswork, to compare them with more modern events (where the bureaucracy was involved and we can be reasonably sure the numbers involved are correct) is probably more or less meaningless.

FWIW, for example, I don’t believe for a microsecond that the (frankly, fantastic) death tolls attributed to Genghis Khan are accurate. Actually, we know they aren’t: John Man, in his biography, tells the story of a city that was apparently completely wiped out (every man woman and child killed) and then, fifteen or so years later, it turns up again in the records as a major trade centre. I’m slightly derailing the argument here, but we should always remember that population studies and statistics etc. are a modern invention, and that scientific studies of population are a very recent phenomenon. What you have before about 1800 is guesswork. Sometimes clever guesswork, but still guesswork.


BrendanH 12.23.11 at 12:18 am

I’ve recently finished ‘Destiny Disrupted: a history of the world through Islamic eyes’ by Tamim Ansary (a Cosma Shalizi recommendation) and while it excludes large parts of the works (notably east Asia), it’s extremely informative and engaging.


Retief 12.23.11 at 12:22 am

It’s not history, but I’d recomend “Water Margin”. Or in the Pearl S Buck translation “All Men Are Brothers”. One of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Plus it was historical fiction even way back in history when it was written, so that almost just like history.


ezra abrams 12.23.11 at 12:40 am

am i the only one who thinks tuft is oversold at least a log ?
at my last job, we had this great paperback on graphics, by a lady from SAS; more wisdom and practical how to in that one slim volume then all of tufte put together (sadly, I can’t remember the name of the book)


Soru 12.23.11 at 12:51 am

The number that stood out for me was the 3.5 million gladiators. But then I did the sums on 300 amphitheatres each killing just one person in a weekly show for 700 years, and that sounds about right.


Phil 12.23.11 at 1:19 am

@Hidari #9 : While I agree that there is a lot of guesswork in the older events, I don’t think that more recent ones are going to be necessarily more accurate. Estimates of the number of deaths during the Iraq war vary by a factor of 10.


mike shupp 12.23.11 at 1:43 am

Or look for Improving Literature. THE COURT OF THE LION and DECEPTION by Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri will teach quite a bit about 7th and 8th century Tang China, Gary Jennings’ THE JOURNEYER gets you there in the 13th (with Marco Polo!) just a bit after Thomas Costain did so with THE BLACK ROSE.
James Clavell did the job for 19th and 20th century Hong Kong with TAIPAN and NOBLE HOUSE … Richard McKenna reached the last century in THE SAND PEBBLES. Even some Chinese writers can be mentioned: for instance Guanzhong Luo’s ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS (in 4 volmes, translated by Moss Roberts).

All available from Amazon, all readable. Will you get a PhD after reading them? No. But on the other hand, you’ll have learned enough to make sense of Wikipedia accounts if you find you’re curious about say details of the Anshi Rebellion. You’ll have a better understanding of the currents of war and religion and migration that swept across Asia in the past several millenia. You’ll be a position to decide, say, that the Xia and Shang dynasties fascinate you and that the Ming are boring, which will guide you if you turn to non fiction (Jonathan Spence, Lin Yutang, John K. Fairbanks, Vinegar Joe Stillwell. Or be the first on your conservative block to walk into a public library and demand the collected works of Owen Lattimore!)

Oh, there’s so much joy ahead of you!


Kaveh 12.23.11 at 2:32 am

I feel like people ought to know the big picture of history of large regions of the world. So…

For the general academic reader, a classic work synthesizing the history of the Islamic world is Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam. It’s old but it’s held up well over the years. It’s not light reading, but it has great breadth and depth, and somebody with training in history or the humanities or social sciences will appreciate the deep, dense, and focused presentation of the topic.

For lay readers, Roy Mottahedeh’s The Mantle of the Prophet on the Iranian Revolution of 1979 would probably be of interest to many readers today, with the Islamist parties doing relatively well in Egypt. A more specialized book on the subject (but it’s not hard to read) is Assef Bayat’s Street Politics.

@9: Actually, we know they aren’t: John Man, in his biography, tells the story of a city that was apparently completely wiped out (every man woman and child killed) and then, fifteen or so years later, it turns up again in the records as a major trade centre.

I don’t know what people are reading these days on the history of Chinese civilization, but I read Jacques Gernet’s A History of Chinese Civilization in the original French (I am not fluent in French) and I remember it being pretty good; it seems to have held up pretty well too.

It depends on what you mean by “major trade center” and what makes it so. If we’re talking about Baghdad or Cairo, Medieval metropolises with huge populations and developed industries, then no, that’s not possible, but if we’re talking about Hami, Turfan, or Khotan (“Silk Road” cities), they are fairly small to begin with and a lot of their importance came from being located at important oases along the main land route between Iran/the M. East and China. So being “major trade centers” 15 years after everybody was killed sounds plausible to me. It seems plausible to me that even if the Mongol armies systematically killed every man, woman, and child (except for some artisans and other VIPs that they forcibly moved elsewhere, so most of them couldn’t return) when they took the city, enough people would already have headed for the hills by the time the Mongol armies arrived that these returning refugees and other immigrants could build it back into a major trade center within 15 years, all on their own. Or it’s possible that a local ruler resettled people there within 15 years after a general massacre, because they needed that oasis garrisoned to keep the trade route functioning. It was not uncommon for the Chinese and Central Asian rulers to build military colonies, complete with towns, including populations of various tradesmen, &c., in strategic locations.

The other thing widely noted about the Mongols as conquerors is that they were very bad at collecting taxes, which is to say that they collected taxes erratically and sometimes more than once from the same village (double the taxes!), and I could see that being deadly to many of the peasants under their rule.

But yes those numbers must be inflated. As I pointed out in the Pinker thread, anything that relies on Chinese census counts (or probably any pre-modern census count), like the Mongol invasions or (maybe even more so) the An Lushan rebellion, could drastically overstate casualties because, after the war, people took advantage of the chaos/lack of government control to avoid being counted in the census (so as to avoid corvee labor or military service or taxes).


Antti Nannimus 12.23.11 at 2:32 am


What, you cheated? For shame. Well, okay, I admit I lived in Asia myself for two years. But even so, I know NOTHING about the culture, history, geography, and current events of the entire region at all. I have no excuse. For shame on us all!

Have a nice day,


JWP 12.23.11 at 3:01 am

Really, for anything before 1800 that chart is just pretty pictures. To pick on the area I know about, the idea that three million people were killed in the French Wars of Religion is ludicrous. The one mass-casualty event in the Wars, the St. Batholomew’s Day massacre, killed about 10,000 at a pretty reliable estimate. Actual battles were intermittent and small in scale. They’re probably off by an order of magnitude, unless they’re working some kind of “excess deaths over a baseline due to social disruption” angle which would, on the data available, be purest bullsh*t.


dr ngo 12.23.11 at 3:33 am

A few years ago (well, 14, it seems) I put together a lengthy list of what I called Light Reading on Asia that may be somewhat useful to you. “Light” does not mean short or easy, it means something other than textbooks and monographs, of which there are also plenty. In the textbook vein, I can self-servingly recommend The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia for one region and one period. If you want to consult me in person – and why not? – I’m ngowen AT N[orth]C[arolina] . R[oad]R[unner] . com , or thereabouts.


faustusnotes 12.23.11 at 3:37 am

Everything you need to know about Asia you can surely learn from the Flashman novels. In fact, on a reading of his adventures, I have to ask why the mad Madagascan Queen isn’t in the chart…


dr ngo 12.23.11 at 3:43 am

As someone who has actually done research in historical demography, including episodes of “crisis mortality,” I would simultaneously (1) second the fact that most estimates, particularly for crises prior to the 20th century, have a huge magnitude of possible error; but (2) nevertheless, it is possible by assiduous and sober assessment of the data, to reduce this error and get closer to what actually (probably) happened. The difficulty with a chart like this is that you are (I am) not the one assessing the data, so we are wholly at the mercy of the guy who wrote The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, a title which, frankly, does not inspire confidence.


Joshua W. Burton 12.23.11 at 3:55 am

All the folks who have been quick to dismiss the input data as fanciful, without actually checking back to the author’s sources, are in for a pleasant surprise. This is not a lightweight piece of NYT fluff with competent graphic art, nor is it even a NYT recap of a casually researched pop book. Rather, it is a NYT recap of a pop book slice of a roughly 15 year labor of love by a net.fanatic, whose obsession has drawn extensive expert comment since the late Usenet era. I first encountered Matthew White’s “hemoclysm” site (which has moved around, but has always been trackable by that apt neologism) in about 2002, and have frequently used it since as an authoritative point of entry into the diverse and widely scattered published literature on this depressing subject.

A single graph, or even this new paperback précis, obviously can’t capture the error bars and subtleties bracketing his headline numbers, but sample the footnotes before scoffing. If there’s a source that disagrees with White, there’s a good chance he’s already read it and cited it, and can tell you why he discounted it. His wry and quirky digressions also reward rainy-day study.

Wikipedia and friends get a lot of attention from people like Clay Shirky, but the complementary online phenomenon of deep narrow info-troves maintained by one author is somewhat older and at least as interesting. Carey Sublette’s nuke FAQ and Chris Wayan’s Magrathea competitor are two others that tickle my taste; I’m sure there are hundreds more. How many ever make it into print, like White’s atrocities and the Lego Bible? Not enough, of course.


Joshua W. Burton 12.23.11 at 4:36 am

Oh, and on “decent histories of Asia.” Reischauer’s EATT was the canonical choice for a one-year survey in the 1980s, and I find my copy still meets my needs. If you want something beyond “my old AP European History book, but for East Asia,” you’ll probably have to pick a specific direction; EATT is splendid, but that’s all it is.


maidhc 12.23.11 at 5:41 am

Soru@13 The amount of money that went into training a gladiator meant that their owners were reluctant to risk having them killed except for big purses. According to a study I read, only 20% of gladiators were killed in the arena. The other 80% made it through to a relatively comfortable retirement.

However, there were lots of people killed in the arena who weren’t gladiators, so the number might still be good.


LFC 12.23.11 at 5:54 am

Kaveh @17
interesting pt on the census counts. I must have missed it when you made it earlier.

dr ngo – none of your links work


LFC 12.23.11 at 6:02 am

On book recs. for the general reader:
Stanley Wolpert, A New History of India
(the OP says histories of Asia or regions thereof, so I assume S.Asia is included)


Henri Vieuxtemps 12.23.11 at 7:55 am

The taxonomy in this presentation is completely useless. What’s the difference between ‘despots’ and ‘institutional oppression’? ‘Colonial wars’ and ‘International wars’? ‘Failed states’ and ‘civil wars’?

And if you want to categorize something as ‘institutional’, then, hey, everything is institutional, no? Genghis Khan didn’t just snap and kill 40 million people, surely there must be institutional reasons.


dr ngo 12.23.11 at 7:55 am

Sorry about the links – I’ve somehow forgotten precisely how to do the HTML tags, and approximately just doesn’t make it, apparently. Below are the URLs for my reading list and my (edited) book; others have provided the original link to “The Great Big Book of Horrible Things.”


dr ngo 12.23.11 at 7:57 am

WRT Henri Vieuxtemps: My mother used to say, “If you can’t help, don’t hinder.”


Jawbone 12.23.11 at 7:58 am

Koenraad Elst’s “Who is a Hindu” is a useful juxtaposition to much Western scholarship on South Asia, and, IMHO, more in line with the lived experience of my Indian friends and acquaintances.


dsquared 12.23.11 at 8:25 am

am i the only one who thinks tuft is oversold at least a log ?

yes, me too. Lots of his dogmatic pronouncements really don’t make sense.


Zamfir 12.23.11 at 8:37 am

I wonder, did people count this way before WW2? Saying “this rebellion was a 2 million death event, that dictator’s rule was a 500k event.” It seems highly influenced by the holocaust, with its bookkeeping that allowed to us be realtively sure on the numbers involved. After that, people had to put (big) numbers on other events, to show that those were also bad.


Hidari 12.23.11 at 8:55 am

# 23: the fact that the NYT charts are not, ultimately, based on peer reviewed literature but on the website of some guy does not inspire confidence. As some of the posters above have pointed out, the death tolls of (for example) gladiator deaths, deaths ’caused’ by Genghis Khan, and deaths in the French Religious Wars are all highly suspect.

I might also add that I have read wildly different guesstimates of deaths ’caused by’ the European invasion and colonisation of the Americas.


Hidari 12.23.11 at 8:56 am

Sorry should probably have read @ post 23. Or something.


J. Otto Pohl 12.23.11 at 9:56 am

Here are a couple of short general bibliographies I put together a few years ago about Asia. I have no idea how to make links here, but the url addresses are below.


Barry 12.23.11 at 2:03 pm


” The number that stood out for me was the 3.5 million gladiators. But then I did the sums on 300 amphitheatres each killing just one person in a weekly show for 700 years, and that sounds about right.”

The thing about the gladiatorial system is that it was probably nothing compared to the level of agriculture and endemic warfare in terms of killing people.


Barry 12.23.11 at 2:07 pm

Phil 12.23.11 at 1:19 am

” @Hidari #9 : While I agree that there is a lot of guesswork in the older events, I don’t think that more recent ones are going to be necessarily more accurate. Estimates of the number of deaths during the Iraq war vary by a factor of 10.”

The second sentence is very true, but irrelevant. [Godwinning here!] For example, ‘estimates’ of the deaths in the Holocaust vary by (guessing) a factor of millions, from ~11-12 million (i.e., the good estimates) down to tens of thousands or ‘none! it’s a lie!’ (from liars).

In the same way, we have a number of good estimates of the deaths from the Iraq war, and a number of lies. What I’ll call the ‘best good low end number’ is the IBC, which has the obvious problems, and IIRC there are correction factors (and it doesn’t contradict the higher estimates, for those obvious reasons).

In your first sentence, we will almost always have vastly greater data on current and recent events, plus the ability to procure more high-quality data as time goes one.


J. Otto Pohl 12.23.11 at 2:34 pm

Most estimates I have seen of the Holocaust are between 5 and 6 million. I do not think there were even 12 million Jews in all of Europe during the 1940s.


Phil 12.23.11 at 3:57 pm

Barry, I’m afraid that the fact some estimates are lies is what may turn out to be irrelevant. When all the mainstream media keep repeating the lower figures, there is a good chance that historians 100 years from now will be using them as well.

J. Otto Pohl: Barry mentioned number of deaths, not just Jews, so 11-12 million is in fact the better estimate.


Ralph Hitchens 12.23.11 at 4:05 pm

As any number of people have written, worldwide violence on a per capita basis is in decline. For total deaths, of course the 20th century represented the last “peak” and it’s been an increasingly peaceful world for the last 50 years or so. The problem with that chart is the need to make large circles for total deaths, which skews the picture to the right. I’m not at all sure Tufte would approve.


J. Otto Pohl 12.23.11 at 4:10 pm


He used the term Holocaust which as I understand it only refers to the deliberate extermination of Jews not all people killed by the Nazis. I don’t consider the Holocaust to include the starvation of Soviet POWs which would be considerably over half of the five million non-Jews posited above.


Barry 12.23.11 at 8:16 pm

“Broad definitions of the Holocaust include the Nazis’ genocide of millions of people in other groups, including Romani (more commonly known in English by the exonym “Gypsies”), Sinti, Soviet prisoners of war, Polish and Soviet civilians, homosexuals, people with disabilities, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other political and religious opponents, which occurred regardless of whether they were of German or non-German ethnic origin.[8] Using this definition, the total number of civilians murdered by the Nazis is between 10 million and 11 million (around 5.7 million Jews[9] and a roughly equal number of non-Jews)[10][11] The mini-series Holocaust is credited with introducing the term into common parlance after 1978.[12]”



Peter T 12.24.11 at 2:46 am

I’m ambivalent. As an amateur historian, I know that the error bars on this sort of stuff are large, but it’s nevertheless do-able. If you keep looking for new lines of evidence (not just censuses, but archaeological surveys, burial surveys, family records, tax accounts and so on) you can often reduce the initial margin of error significantly. But the categorisation seems problematic. How do you tell the difference between a natural and a man-made famine? Do a thousand extra deaths a year for several centuries due to policy count the same as a massacre? Do attitudes count (Jinggis Khan was just doing very well what all nomad chiefs were expected to do, but Hitler is on record telling his generals that if they did not win the war they could expect to be treated as criminals. And Palmerston is not generally put in the same league as Kim Jon-Il, despite the Irish Famine)?


Barry 12.24.11 at 4:24 am

“And Palmerston is not generally put in the same league as Kim Jon-Il, despite the Irish Famine”

The British empire won long enough to get away with a lot.


dr ngo 12.24.11 at 6:20 am

Peter T (44): I’m a professional historian (well, I was until I retired) and I second one of your remarks: categorisation is indeed problematic. Always. The particular crisis with which I am most familiar did not make the list: the Philippines, 1896-1902 (covering the Philippine Revolution and Philippine-American War). There was a lot of inflamed rhetoric at the time (“I want you to kill and burn . . .” etc.), and a lot of confusion afterwards, so one winds up with absurd assertions, such as the Americans killing a million (of 7.6 million) Filipinos – or even, with some extremists, two million, since we “know” that the number must be at least twice what the imperialist data shows.

A friend of mine, Ken DeBevoise, wrote an excellent book on this period, Agents of Apocalypse

which delves deep into the murky empirical data. By his best calculations “excess mortality” in these years – deaths above “average” for the place and time – were on the order of three-quarters of a million, still about ten percent of the population. So in strictly demographic terms, it was a Mortality Crisis.

The interpretive problem is that so far as we can tell the vast majority of these deaths occurred as a result of disease (especially, but not limited to, cholera and malaria), with epidemics having started before the Americans even arrived. US forces, though often nasty and brutal – pioneers of waterboarding, among other things (the “water cure,” it was called) – probably killed with bullet and bayonet less than ten percent of the total (i.e., less than 1% of the population), which hardly satisfies the understandable desire some have to show them to be murderers of millions.

DeBevoise, to his credit , blames the Americans for a great deal of the hardship and turmoil that exacerbated these epidemics (as well as possibly introducing a few new diseases, especially of the sexually-transmitted-though-not-usually-lethal variety), through forced relocation of populations, disruptions of agriculture (and the slaughter of draft animals), and the like. It is impossible not to conclude that the US was “responsible” for a whole lot more deaths than the few tens of thousands of victims of American arms. But that’s as far as he – and perhaps as far as anyone – can take it: a whole lot. (And that’s without even raising the question of “attitude”!)

I believe that DeBevoise has done an admirable job; that it is good for us to know what we can, even if we can never know all we want. But in this case (and, I suspect, in most others) if matters of category and the precise calculus of blame are our principal concern we will forever be frustrated.


Zora 12.24.11 at 8:30 am

Jawbone@31 recommended Koenraad Elst as an expert on Indian history. HA! Elst is a Flemish right-wing nationalist who has dabbled in contemporary Indian politics on behalf of the Hindutvadis—the right-wing Hindu fanatics. Like the ones who killed Gandhi, tore down the Babri Masjid, and massacred thousands of Muslims in Gujarat pogroms. Apologist for bigotry. Avoid.


Henri Vieuxtemps 12.24.11 at 10:15 am

Yes, matters of category will always be controversial, but this one, with a strong flavor of the great man theory, seems particularly inept.


Hidari 12.24.11 at 10:46 am

“And Palmerston is not generally put in the same league as Kim Jon-Il, despite the Irish Famine”

I think you will find that the truth of that sentence depends a lot on whether you are sitting in Dublin or London.


Zamfir 12.24.11 at 1:41 pm

Or Pyongyang.


Mike Huben 12.24.11 at 2:02 pm

I’m unimpressed. The WHO estimates that tobacco causes 5.4 million deaths per year, and has been doing so for a long time. That approaches the rate of death in WWII, but is continuous and shows no sign of ending.

And that’s just one industry, though obviously the most harmful.


Brian 12.24.11 at 5:52 pm

One would gain no knowledge of the U.S.-sponsored mass-killings throughout Latin America via this chart. Not just the lack of connection to U.S. policy, but the mere existence of them. Appalling. But unsurprising.


Josh G. 12.24.11 at 6:36 pm

Peter T. @ 44: “And Palmerston is not generally put in the same league as Kim Jon-Il, despite the Irish Famine

I’ve never really understood why not. When 20th century communists (Stalin, Mao) deliberately starve a bunch of people to death we have no hesitation in calling it genocide. Yet when 19th century imperialist capitalists deliberately starved a bunch of people to death, it’s… what? An unfortunate accident?

As far as I’m concerned, the British were basically the Nazis of the 19th century, just with better press.


Harold 12.24.11 at 7:20 pm

19 — About Saint Bartholomew. You say 10,000 victims, but other people have claimed as many as 20 — or 50,000. Members of victimized groups generally claim more, perpetrators less.

This site has a very interesting and enlightening paper about the St. Bartholomew Massacre, I found, and also deals with the problem of calculating the number of victims generally in similar events and the mythologies arising subsequent to them.
Five million are supposed to have died as a result of US aggression in the Vietnam war.victims.


Joshua W. Burton 12.25.11 at 12:35 am

dr ngo writes:

The particular crisis with which I am most familiar did not make the list: the Philippines, 1896-1902 (covering the Philippine Revolution and Philippine-American War).

Here. As I said @23, you’re looking at a cartoon of an abridged reprint, and should, in mere courtesy, backtrack at least to the author’s original footnotes before pouncing.

Thanks to Hidari @35 for bucking the trend.


LFC 12.25.11 at 5:06 am

On a question of terminology that arose upthread: the term Holocaust (capital H) usually refers specifically to the Nazis’ killing of close to 6 million European Jews. The Wikipedia entry cited above mentions a “broad definition” of the term, but the entry leads off with the narrower, usual definition. (If this weren’t the usual definition, then the long-running historiographical debate about the uniqueness (or not) of the Holocaust would be hard to decipher.)


dr ngo 12.25.11 at 6:48 am

Joshua Burton @ 55 – In mere courtesy, I would point out that “the list” to which I was referring was the 100 greatest killings (as shown on the chart), not the complete compendium from which this was drawn. Inasmuch as the latter, to which you linked, does not cite DeBevoise (1995), whose study supersedes all of the sources cited, I’m not overly concerned about this omission. Pounce.


Metatone 12.25.11 at 3:47 pm

For a broad overview, I highly recommend:

After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 by John Darwin

I’ve also received for Xmas:

The New Atlas of World History
Global Events at a Glance
John Haywood

which looks interesting… didn’t have chance to more than skim it – and it’s not about detail but it gives you a sense, of more to the world history than we’ve been taught…

I haven’t read Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe by Norman Davies and it doesn’t take you beyond Europe but it does remind us of how much we view history from the countries of the now…


Metatone 12.25.11 at 3:48 pm

Not to overpost, but After Tamerlane is necessarily broad brush to fit so much into one book, but it really is an amazing read.


Stephen 12.26.11 at 1:05 pm

Peter T 12.24.11 at 2:46 am
” Palmerston is not generally put in the same league as Kim Jon-Il, despite the Irish Famine.”
One possible explanation for that might be that the Irish famine occurred in 1846-49, while Palmerston did not become Prime Minister till 1855.

True, he was an Irish landlord as well as a politician. To quote the DNB, he owned
“more than 10,000 acres on the coast of Sligo, populated with small tenants largely reliant on harvest labour in England to pay their rents. Palmerston set himself to improve their condition and his rental amid difficulties that were often too much for west of Ireland landlords. Borrowing to build a harbour, roads, and schools, and to drain boglands, he nearly doubled his Irish income by 1840 to over £11,000. When the great famine of 1845–9 struck, the estate shipped destitute families to North America; he and his agent incurred severe criticism for taking this course, to which there was, in their view, no economic alternative. Holdings, enlarged by emigration, were still small as the receipts climbed back towards pre-famine levels. From prudence and humanity he respected the tenant right, which he famously denounced as ‘landlords’ wrong’.”
Not a perfect record, nor was the record of the Russell government anywhere near perfect during the famine, but a very long way indeed from Kim Jon-Il.

As for Josh G. 12.24.11 at 6:36 pm:
“19th century imperialist capitalists deliberately starved a bunch of people to death … As far as I’m concerned, the British were basically the Nazis of the 19th century, just with better press.”
you really need to read a bit about the British, the Nazis and the 19th century.
When you have done so, try to answer these questions:
Which government was feeding three million Irish a day during the potato famine?
Was it the British or the Nazis suppressed the slave trade?


Barry 12.27.11 at 9:47 pm

dr ngo: “US forces, though often nasty and brutal – pioneers of waterboarding, among other things (the “water cure,” it was called) – probably killed with bullet and bayonet less than ten percent of the total (i.e., less than 1% of the population), which hardly satisfies the understandable desire some have to show them to be murderers of millions.”

Until one gets into the 20th century, I believe, the standard method of wiping out people relied far more on famine and disease than directly killing people with weapons. People can run away from guns; widespread famine is harder to outrun.


Jim 12.28.11 at 4:44 pm

“…the British were basically the Nazis of the 19th century”

Why did you say “the Nazis” and not “the Germans”? Yet you say “the British”?

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