In popular imagination, the 20th century was a time of technological progress and relative peace around the world, when we built the computer and finally reached space. Look closer, though, and this rosy view doesn’t seem to be accurate, or at least not for everyone. While it’s true that some parts of the world experienced unprecedented growth and stability during this time – at least in the post-war era – it was a tumultuous, dark period for many others.
10. The Troubles
From the late 1960s to 1998, Northern Ireland was embroiled in one of the bloodiest insurgencies of the 20th century. Known as the Troubles, it was a violent culmination of years of conflict between the nationalist Irish and unionist British population in the region, controlled by the UK since the 1920s. It was a large-scale conflict, and could even be categorized as a war if we go by the numbers.
More than 3,500 people died throughout the episode, as rebel Irish paramilitaries – like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – waged an intense guerilla war against the loyalist Ulster forces, allied with the British army. The conflict saw multiple civilian deaths and casualties, as more than 47,000 people were injured in the crossfire, most of them young adults. This time was also marked by multiple high-profile assassinations, like Lord Mountbatten and Airey Neave – the British Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 1979.
While the Troubles officially came to an end with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the violence only completely stopped in 2007.
9. Guatemalan Civil War
The civil war in Guatemala began in the wake of the revolution in Cuba in 1959, when leftist guerilla groups in the country began a 36-years-long armed conflict against the Guatemalan state. It was the longest struggle in modern Latin American history, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and making millions of others homeless.
The conflict is still remembered for its exceptional brutality against civilians, especially those of Mayan descent. Much of the violence could be attributed to paramilitary death squads allied with or directly controlled by the state and local landowners. It included arbitrary execution, sexual violence, torture, mutilation, violence against children, and systematic destruction of settlements.
The conflict’s worst phase came during the early 1980s, when the paramilitaries undertook counter insurgency measures aimed at wiping out the rebel population. Between 70% – 90% of the population was killed in the worst-affected provinces during this time, which has since been recognized as a genocide by the U.N.
8. Revenge Hutu Genocide
Most people know about the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when more than 80% of the Tutsi minority was killed by the Hutus following the assasination of president Juvénal Habyarimana. Far less discussed, though, are the immediate effects of this tragedy on nearby regions, particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Throughout 1996 and 1997, Hutu refugees in Congo went through a reprisal genocide by the now-Tutsi-led Rwandan government. During the First Congo War, Rwandan-backed rebels committed multiple massacres in the eastern part of the country, mostly against the Hutu refugees that fled Rwanda after its civil war, as well as local Congolese Hutus. Brutal execution methods were deployed, as tens of thousands of civilians were killed in a campaign of ethnic cleansing that would impact politics and social relations in the region for years to come.
7. Japanese Invasion Of Manchuria
The Sino-Japanese War officially broke out in 1937, though conflict in China was ongoing for much longer than that. Japan invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931 and established the puppet state of Manchukuo, beginning a conflict that would last until the defeat of the Japanese empire in 1945.
Throughout the war, Japanese forces committed multiple atrocities in many parts of China. While some of them are well-known – like the Nanking massacre of 1937, when the invading army terrorized hundreds of thousands of civilians in Nanking for six weeks – others now lie mostly forgotten. Like Germany, Japan also conducted extensive experiments on the conquered population, with the largest labs operating in Manchukuo. The details are gruesome, as the experiments were usually carried out in crude and inhumane ways. The victims were usually prisoners of war captured during the invasion, many of whom would die within weeks of experimentation.
6. Iran-Iraq War
On September 22, 1980, Iraqi forces began a full scale invasion of Iran, beginning a conflict that would be characterized by inhumane killing methods – like chemical attacks – and widespread violence against civilians. The Iran-Iraq war was easily one of the longest conflicts of the 20th century, as it went on for nearly eight years until the ceasefire in 1988 (though a formal peace agreement wasn’t signed until August 16, 1990).
The conflict would have a profound impact on geo-politics in the Middle East and beyond, even if it’s largely forgotten outside the immediate regions it was fought. Iraq made excessive use of its chemical weapons arsenal, both against civilians and on the battlefield against Iranian soldiers. The violence was also directed at the Kurdish rebels inside Iraq – in March, 1988, between 3,000 to 5,000 people were killed by a massive chemical attack in the Kurdish-Iraqi town of Halabja.
5. Herero And Namaqua Genocide
Around the turn of the 20th century, Germany controlled one of the largest colonial empires around the world, almost all of it located in Africa. Between 1904 and 1907, the Herero and Namaqua tribes from Namibia went through what many historians now recognize as the first genocide of the 20th century, almost all of it perpetrated by professional German forces. If we go by the numbers, more than 80% of the Herero and 50% of the Namaqua were wiped out, often in brutal, inhumane ways that would be repeated in many battles and concentration camps until the end of WW2.
From the German side, it was a war of extermination, waged to completely replace the local population with German settlers. While it started as a rebellion by the Herero, they were quickly overwhelmed by superior German firepower, followed by some of the worst atrocities on a native population in colonial European history. Many of them were forced to march into the desert and die of starvation or heat; others were forced to work in concentration camps until they died, or tortured, experimented on, raped, and even beheaded.
4. Partition Of India
In August 1947, India was divided into the modern states of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, which finally granted independence to the long-held British colony. While it was a moment to celebrate, this period is now remembered for the widespread violence on both sides of the border, resulting in one of the largest humanitarian crises of the 20th century.
More than two million people lost their lives, as a number of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims on either side of the border began one of the largest mass migrations in human history. More than 14 million people would be made homeless by the violence, almost all of which was directed at the civilian population. While it’s not recognized as a genocide, some British soldiers and journalists that witnessed it later described it to be worse than Nazi concentration camps.
3. Late Ottoman Genocides
The First World War was as full of atrocities and dark phases as the second, though it hardly gets the same attention in contemporary readings of 20th century history. One of the darkest was the dissolution of the Ottoman empire, which was followed by gross violence and campaigns of ethnic cleansing across the new territories.
Some historians see them as a continuous series of genocides known as the Late Ottoman Genocides, even if there’s quite a bit of controversy in Turkey regarding whether they count as genocides. While the Armenian genocide is still remembered and talked about, it also included violence against Assyrians, Greeks, Kurds, Arabs, Jews, and others. As the vast empire once spread across eastern Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East broke up and gave way to new nations in the Middle East, old ethnic tensions between communities and the new geo-political realities of the region resulted in numerous atrocities, often committed by the armed forces of the new states.
2. Colonial Belgian Rule
From 1885 to 1908, the nation of Congo was run entirely as a privately-held enterprise of Belgian King Leopold II. Known as the Congo Free State, it was the only private colony in history, with its own private army and local militias to control the lucrative resources of the region. This period was marked by exceptional brutality against the local population, so much so that a bunch of other empires – including other European colonial powers that were engaged in similar techniques in their own colonies – had to come together and intervene to put a stop to it.
While the numbers are disputed, the Congolese population was reduced from some 20 million to 10 million in this time. Natives were often kidnapped and forced to work for resources like ivory and rubber. Torture, sexual violence, amputations, and exhaustion was common in places like the plantations and mines, as Leopold’s armies kept a strict, violent check on productivity. There were a few rebellions, though they were often put down mercilessly, followed by reprisal attacks on the local population.
1. The Eastern Front of WW2
The Second World War’s eastern front was easily the largest military confrontation in history, even if modern history books hardly give it the same attention as, say, the Pacific and western European theaters. Stretching across a front that was, at its widest, more than 1,000 miles long, with over 400 Red Army and German divisions in total, it’s not inaccurate to say this was where the war was really fought and decided.
The eastern front also saw some of the worst atrocities in the entire war, though much of it is just mentioned as numbers in post-war figures. Here, Nazi violence wasn’t just limited to the Jewish population, but also other communities like the Roma, Russians, Poles, prisoners of war, and others. In occupied territories, massacres perpetrated by German death squads and local collaborators were commonplace, often done in crude and gruesome ways. Unlike the west, the war in the east was fought as a war of complete annihilation, with few parallels in history in terms of scale or brutality.