We’re quite used to the clean historical model of humans evolving from some manner of uncivilized, famished, desperate individuals to the well-nourished and civilized beings we know today. We’ve progressed from a series of despotisms into sophisticated republics, democracies, collectives, and so on.
Except it’s not that simple. Many times through history a society was brought down by enemies without, or subversives within. The ramifications of these regressions inevitably ripple out through the rest of the human race, even if the effects aren’t immediately obvious. So it would be best for us to get better acquainted with times when societies reversed progress in terms of technology, culture, or organization.
10. The Ascent of Caesars
Because Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar both have developed a degree of personality cult since their reigns, it is easy to think they were unalloyed blessings for the Roman Empire. It’s been said of Augustus in particular that he found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. However, the lower classes of Rome actually had plenty of reason to curse the arrival of Emperor Augustus; even those who weren’t particularly invested in the concept of a senate.
For one thing, according to Michael Parenti’s A People’s History of Ancient Rome, Augustus passed sales and death taxes which only impacted the poor or working classes. He eradicated the popular assemblies, which had brought some degree of popular representation when even the senate was proving unmanageably corrupt. As if that were not devastating enough to the working class, he also banned many guilds. The final nail in the coffin of the idea Augustus had any populist inclination was his legal restrictions on the number of slaves that an owner was allowed to free, lest free labor receive too much bargaining power. Little wonder that for all the marble construction he was supposedly overseeing, Augustus’s reign was still replete with poverty and plague.
9. The Rise of Pinochet
In 1973, democratically-elected president Salvador Allende committed suicide in response to a CIA-backed coup. In his place rose General Augusto Pinochet, bringing a decades-long wave of terror with him. In all, an estimated 3,000 people were murdered in his coup d’etat, including a famous widespread practice of dropping 120 people from helicopters. In terms of specific cultural regression, Pinochet was so vocally anti-feminist that women of the Association of Families of the Detained-Disappeared were instrumental in ousting Pinochet from the presidency in 1990.
Pinochet had very little compunction about biting the American hand that fed him. In 1976 he had former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier assassinated in Washington DC. Even as late as 1986 he was openly rejecting advice from the Reagan Administration to implement human rights, saying to General John Galvin he would “set Chile’s course without advice without anyone else.” Ambassador Harry Barnes would refer to the dictator who oversaw the deaths of so many Chileans and the revoking of rights for so many others as a “Chilean Archie Bunker.” Such is the banality of evil.
8. Panic of 1873
The period of American history between the Civil War’s end in 1865 and, roughly, the Spanish-American War of 1898 is prone to being skimmed over in high school history classes. One thing that gets skipped over as a result is when America plunged into its first depression, largely a result of the gigantic railroad financing Jay Cooke & Co. declaring bankruptcy in 1873. They took 18,000 companies nationwide down with them, and by 1876 unemployment would peak at 14%. The economic fallout of that would last until 1877, and it would actually impact Europe longer, with France in particular having an economic slowdown that lasted until 1879.
This happened during a period of increased labor organization in the US. In the state of California in particular, Chinese immigrants were blamed for making the money pit railroads possible and for undercutting wages, and so widespread atrocities sprang up, such as the attack on San Francisco’s Chinatown. The anti-Chinese fallout would outlast the depression, so that in 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act would be signed into law. The union laborers fared little better, as federal troops were sent to break up or even shoot at strikes, resulting in more than 100 laborer deaths. In the former Confederate states, the redirection of Federal resources meant the Ku Klux Klan was able to resume its campaigns of terror against Black populations with full force, resulting in, arguably, America losing its reconstruction. In short, nothing endangers progress like an economic disaster.
7. Thirty Years War
One of the most destructive wars in European history, the Thirty Years War effectively began in 1618 when Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II tried to reimpose Catholic dominion on Austria and Bohemia. After five years he more or less succeeded, but the struggle left Germany vulnerable to invasion from King Christian IV of Sweden, and it went in like fashion until the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The Holy Roman Empire lost grievously, as the war had alienated much of Europe to the concept of a centralized religious authority in favor of secularized nation-states. Even more horribly impacted was Germany.
In addition to the many deaths from war, plague and famine which would cost regions in what would become Germany as much as 40% of their populations due to devastation and raids by unpaid mercenary armies, many governments of Middle Europe often became effectively non-viable. Germany broke up into 300 principalities. With each having its own expensive administration, the level of costs for government services rose at a much faster rate than could be dealt with by devastated economies. Furthermore shipping goods became a nightmare, as a shipment down the Rhine could run through as many as 27 principalities, meaning constant stops through customs for the most trifling orders. With such impaired trade and poverty, little wonder that Germany remained Balkanized for centuries.
6. Fernando VII’s Tumultuous Reign
Few reigns were as fraught as this Spanish King’s. The event that allowed him to take the throne of Spain in 1808 was the abdication of his predecessor Charles IV, which was known as the “Tumult of Aranjuez.” As Spain was under invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte when the dictator of France was pretending to be the steward of the French Revolution and transferring monarchical power to the people, Napoleon had him put in prison that same year. Napoleon released him in 1814 as the French military withdrew from Spain.
While the king had been imprisoned, liberal independent forces in Spain had passed a new system of government known as the Constitution of Cádiz in 1812, which among other liberal reforms limited the monarchy’s power. Ferdinand VII was not about to approve of a constitution that limited his very recently restored powers and had the liberals who’d composed the document imprisoned or exiled. To secure power he turned more and more to reactionary forces, among them his brother Don Carlos.
Yet the forces of progress were not beaten forever, and scored a major success in 1820 when Colonel Rafael Riego joined the constitutionalists, starting a civil war that Ferdinand put to an end that year when he ratified the constitution. In 1822, Spain fell into civil war again when royalist forces rose up to declare Ferdinand be unbound from the constitution he’d signed, which prompted a royal French army to invade in their support until the liberals declared the constitution void in 1823, and Ferdinand had many of them exiled or imprisoned again. Or at least he did until 1830, when his lack of a male heir meant he deemed Princess Isabella his successor. Don Carlos did not agree to that and another civil war broke out; this time Ferdinand had to turn back to the liberals he had spent years persecuting. His sympathies would remain with them until his death in 1833. Even today the many times he rolled back progress in Spain are heavily criticized by liberal historians.
5. Prince Metternich
Speaking of monarchs trying to keep power from the people in the 19th Century, Prince Klemens von Metternich is remembered both for maintaining peace in Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and for being extremely oppressive. He became foreign minister in 1809 and concentrated on stopping expansion of the Russian and Ottoman Empire and also democratic institutions, including putting down peoples’ uprisings. Ultimately such uprisings would force him out of office in 1848. According to books such as Alexander Gerschenkron’s Bread and Democracy in Germany, Metternich had admitted that while it was inevitable that democracy would overtake Europe in the wake of such momentous events as the French Revolution, he would roll it back for as long as he could.
Even into the 1950s, Metternich was still widely condemned in Germany and Austria. Films from the period depicted him and his secret police infiltrating peasant celebrations, trying to ban supposedly inflammatory waltzes in favor of traditionalist polka dances. As Metternich would have conceded, people often don’t consider peace a worthwhile substitute for freedom.
4. Afghanistan’s Taliban Disaster
Previous TopTenz lists have mentioned how, in the 1950s, Afghanistan was perhaps the most progressive nation in the Middle East, and this history was used by General James Mattis in 2017 for an attempt to convince President Trump to continue American occupation in the hopes of returning the country to that state. That is quite ironic as it turns out American Cold War operations are the leading reason that Afghanistan became a Muslim theocracy. The popular perception is that the US began supporting the Mujahideen in an effort to expel the Soviet Invasion. The truth is that before a single Soviet boot touched the ground in Afghanistan, America was already sending funding to religious extremists such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was launching acid attacks on Afghan women.
By 1994, having defeated the Soviet military and contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Taliban was uniting with US-backed Mujahideen fighters. By 1996 they had taken over Kabul. If the Bush and Obama administrations were to be believed, this led to the gutting of all sorts of civil rights in the years that followed, particularly for women. After a two decade occupation by the US from 2002 to 2021, those rights ultimately were not restored.
3. First World War America
America’s role in winning the war to end all wars for the Allies often overshadows the grievous effect that manufacturing consent had on the home front. Despite President Woodrow Wilson campaigning on keeping the US out of the war, within a month the US government was imprisoning anti-war agitators under the Espionage Act despite the clear violation of the First Amendment. To a suspicious degree, the arrests targeted strike organizers. A particular target was the Industrial Workers of the World organization, which saw as many as 100 members put behind bars in September 1917 in the Chicago area alone. Most famous of all arrests was Senator Eugene V. Debs for daring to give a speech against US involvement in the war on June 18, 1918 to an audience in Canton, Ohio.
Additionally, a wave of anti-German sentiment swept the country. While it’s well known that sauerkraut became known as “liberty cabbage,” it took much more severe forms such as the murder of immigrants like Robert Prager in Collinsville, Illinois. As a result many Germans actively downplayed their heritage, to a degree where they changed their names and those of their communities. This rollback of acknowledging German heritage helped downplay the disproportionate role that German abolitionists played in preserving the Union in the Civil War and left a vacuum that was filled with more pro-Confederate propaganda, whitewashing the war and its aftermath.
2. The Weimar Republic
The rise of the Third Reich looms so large in German history that the postwar 1910s through Hitler’s election to chancellor in 1933 often gets overlooked. After Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated, the national assembly convened in the town of Weimar to draft a new constitution and ratified it in February 1919. That same year women’s suffrage was ratified in Germany and societal attitudes such as tolerance for LGBT citizens began to take hold. A welfare system was instituted.
The Weimar Republic had the rotten luck to inherit a horribly threatened economy, and by 1923 hyperinflation threatened the new government’s survival. It was only through introducing the new America-backed currency, the Rentenmark, that the day was saved for a time. When the American economy crashed in 1929 it took the Republican economy down with it, allowing the Nazi rise through parliament and the destruction of most of those civil rights, though it did keep a robust welfare state in place for ostensibly pure-blooded Aryans.
1. Fall of the Soviet Union
There have been past TopTenz articles detailing the horrors of the Soviet Union, but its collapse was a horrible disaster for millions of people as well. After its last ditch effort to coup Boris Yeltsin and replace him with Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, the Soviet communists officially had their system of government declared defunct in December 1991.
The result of 15 largely impoverished governments emerging was ruinous for many lives. Loss of medical care and switching to less nourishing home grown diets meant that by 1994 average male life expectancies in Russia had dropped six years, and three years for women. Infrastructure standards dropped, privatization lost many citizens their mass housing and sense of social cohesion. Hardly surprising then that a 2018 survey found that 66% of Russians expressed nostalgia for the Soviet system.
Dustin Koski is bracing for the next major loss of progress, because his post-apocalyptic ghost novel Return of the Living is sure to get him put against the wall.