The Worst Places in History to Be Alive


Human history – or at least the parts we know about – is full of stories of great civilizations and their achievements. Far less common, though, are accounts of some of its darkest periods outside the context of those achievements. From global wars to plagues to natural calamities straight out of the Bible, we see historical events of mass devastation as merely hiccups in the grand story of modern civilization. 

For the people living through them, however, they were really some of the worst places to be alive; living nightmares that need to be continuously remembered so as to not repeat them. 

10. The Taiping Rebellion

The Taiping Rebellion was perhaps the most devastating war before WW2 in terms of sheer numbers, though few people outside China know about it. While estimates vary, historians place the number of casualties somewhere between 20-70 million people, making it the deadliest civil war ever.

The rebellion officially began in 1851, when its leader, Hong Xiuquan, declared a new dynasty called Taiping Tianguo – or the ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’. He was heavily influenced by the teachings of Christianity and believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ.. His ideas also involved equality for women, redistribution of land and better rights for the peasantry, which is likely why he was quickly able to amass an army of more than 1 million dedicated, volunteer fighters.

The rebellion went on for around 14 years, fought between royalist Qing forces supported by various Western empires, and Taiping rebels. The fighting was intense and often involved brutality against civilians suspected to be involved with the other side, leading to large-scale violence and destruction across China.

While the rebellion was brutally crushed with the fall of Nanjing in 1864, it severely weakened the Qing dynasty. It also caused lasting changes in Chinese society – the communist revolutionaries that seized power in 1959, as an example, could be seen as direct ideological descendants of the Taipings.

9. Tokyo Firebombing Raids

While the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WW2 are still remembered as symbols of the many horrors of that war – and rightfully so – the firebombing raids on Tokyo with substances like napalm and white phosphorous are usually only mentioned as a footnote. Yet, it remains one of the most destructive acts of war against a civilian population in history, killing more people than both the atomic bombs combined.

The bombings went on for almost the entire first half of 1945, though the worst of them happened on the night of March 10, when 300 B-29 bombers dropped about 1,500 tons of incendiary bombs on the city. The operation was specifically aimed at civilians, as the target region in northeastern Tokyo was mostly residential with houses made up of wood and paper.

By some estimates, the fires killed over 100,000 people and turned an area of about 16 square miles to ash in a matter of hours. Survivors recollect firestorms eating up entire neighborhoods within minutes and sounds of screams throughout the night, until they went silent. According to U.S. military records, the heat generated by the fire was so intense that it caused turbulence over the targeted region for later raids, and the smell of burning flesh forced a few members of the crew to wear oxygen masks

8. Siege Of Sarajevo

Before the advent of modern ideas of wartime conduct and human rights, violence against civilians in wars was as commonplace as war itself. One example were sieges – military operations specifically aimed at starving out and reducing the morale of the civilian population of a settlement. 

While all sieges in history were hard for the civilians living inside the besieged city, perhaps the most brutal was the siege of Sarajevo by the rebelling Bosnian Serb army in the Bosnian War – a war already known for its exceptional brutality. The siege was preceded by Bosnia and Herzegovina declaring independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, which was strongly opposed by the Bosnian Serbs. Following the referendum, Serb forces surrounded the city and placed it under siege on April 5, 1992.

The ordeal went on for almost four years, making it the longest siege in history. The residents of the city were subjected to regular shelling and sniper shots from the hills surrounding the city, as well as a severe shortage of food and supplies. In one case, 68 people were killed and 150 injured by shelling while waiting in line for bread

Because of the ethnic nature of the conflict, the siege included many episodes of torture, rape and ethnic cleansing, particularly by the better-armed Serb forces. By the end of it in February 1996, more than 11,000 residents of the city had lost their lives, making it the deadliest military operation against a civilian population since WW2. 

7. Nanjing Massacre

Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 is usually marked as the official beginning of World War II, though many historians maintain that it was actually the Japanese invasion of the Chinese mainland in 1937 that started the war – at least in the Asian theater. 

The invasion began in 1937 and continued until the end of the war in 1945, though tensions between the two countries went as far back as at least 1931. It included some of the worst atrocities committed by the Japanese during the war, including torture, biological experimentation, and systematic ethnic cleansing. 

The worst episode, by far, was the treatment of the civilian population after the Japanese capture of Nanjing in December, 1937 – then a thriving, modern capital of the Chinese republic. While it’s nearly impossible to quantify the true number of casualties, estimates range from 100,000-300,000 dead, which included the residents of the city and POWs captured from other regions.

In a war full of horrific stories, the massacre of Nanjing – also known as the Rape of Nanjing – stands out as a particularly gruesome tale. Most of the accounts come from foreigners who stayed back due to various reasons and lived in designated safe zones. For about a month, the imperial Japanese army engaged in arson, looting, murder and torture throughout the city. Most prevalent, however, were stories of rape against women of all ages, often followed by murder using melee weapons like bayonets and swords. 

The massacre was so shocking that it was even opposed by Nazis in the city, such as John Rabe – the leader of the local Nazi party whose safe zone sheltered close to 250,000 civilians throughout the massacre.

6. 536 AD

We’ve gone through plenty of bad years in history, making it almost impossible to pick the worst one. According to Michael McCormick, the Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, however, the answer is clear: the year 536 AD.

McCormick conducted years of research and came to the conclusion that the year 536 AD was the beginning of one of the – if not the – worst periods to be alive ever. To start with, a mysterious fog had covered the sky for around 18 months in regions around the world – including most of Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia and Africa. According to records, the sun was invisible for almost the entire period, resulting in crop failure, famine, rebellions and other tumultuous events across the region. 

If that wasn’t enough, it was followed by the plague of Justinian in 541. It was the first recorded outbreak of the same virus that later caused the Black Death, and killed over half of the population of the Byzantine empire by the year 549.

5. The Plague Of London

The Black Plague is often cited as the most destructive pandemic in history, though we forget that it wasn’t one plague. Starting in the 14th century – when it first spread from Asia to Europe and took its worst form – it sporadically returned to many European and Asian cities for the next two centuries, making it hard to quantify the full extent of its overall damage. 

The London plague of 1655 was one of the worst of those plagues, though its story is often lost between the larger history of the Black death. It was an outbreak of the bubonic plague and killed within a few days – even hours, in some recorded cases. Victims developed a severe headache, body pain and huge pus-filled tumors before succumbing to the disease. 

Anyone living through it would have seen victims with severe symptoms all over the city, as about 15% of the city’s population succumbed to the disease by the time it was over. By some estimates, the real number of casualties may have been as high as 100,000, making it one of the biggest tragedies in London’s history.

4. WW1 Trenches

World War I was, in every way, the first modern war. It was also a unique war in terms of technology deployed. While the means to attack had advanced considerably in the years preceding the war, the same couldn’t be said for defensive tactics. As a result, countless soldiers were lost on both sides trying to charge against newly-trained, fully-equipped lines of artillery and machine gun fire – an effective shock tactic not too long ago. 

As a result, the war quickly turned into a stalemate, with long lines of trenches on both sides stretching across the Western Theater. As you’d expect, those trenches were easily one of the worst places to be in the war, and not just because of the threat of the enemy. Apart from artillery shells that occasionally hit their targets and chemical warfare in the later stages of the war, the soldiers living in the trenches faced horrific conditions. 

According to estimates, most of the allied deaths in the war were due to famine and disease. Anyone unlucky enough to be stuck in one of those trenches would be at a real risk of starvation, as well as diseases like influenza, typhoid and yellow fever.

3. Battle Of Stalingrad

One of the most oft-repeated myths about the European theater of WW2 is the notion that most of it took place in Western Europe, and that it was operations like the Normandy landings that changed the tide in the favor of the allies. In reality, there is no reason to believe that the battles in the west had any impact on the larger outcome of the war. In fact, the German war machine was so successful in its initial days that countries like Britain and France stood next to no chance of winning. If it wasn’t for the war in Russia – which engaged over 80% of the entire German force and served as a turning point of the war – the outcome of WW2 would have almost definitely been vastly different.

The focal point of the German invasion of Soviet Russia – also called Operation Barbarossa – was the Battle of Stalingrad, beginning in August, 1942. Until then, Germany was well on its way to complete victory in Russia, propelled by its superior air force and tank divisions.

For one year, Germans and Russians fought in one of the most unique settings of the war. Stalingrad was a large, industrial city with no room for maneuverability for tanks. As a result, the battle soon turned into a fierce close-quarters contest, as both sides occupied different buildings and vied for control for strategic points across the city. 

The battle lasted for about six months, as the Germans slowly lost their advantage due to dwindling supplies, deadly cold and a widespread loss of morale. By February, 1943, their flanks had weakened to the extent that they were easily overcome by the Russian forces. Germany’s defeat in Stalingrad would serve as the turning point of the war in the favor of the allies, albeit at an unprecedented loss of life for the Russians caught in the crossfire.

2. European Colonization Of The Americas

The arrival of Europeans in the Americas and its eventual colonization may have been a multi-dimensional, long-drawn event that can’t be summarized in a few sentences, though no one can deny that it was an absolute nightmare for the native population. 

While estimates are hard to verify, even the most conservative calculations put the number of casualties around 90% – about 56 million people. There were many causes for the deaths, including foreign diseases, famine, war and others. Anyone traveling through the destruction would have come across villages with their entire population lost to diseases like smallpox or influenza overnight.

According to one recent study, this dramatic reduction in the global population contributed to lower temperatures around the world, as the lands farmed by the native populations were now reclaimed by vegetation. This increased amount of carbon dioxide may have been the primary cause of the Little Ice Age experienced across Europe and parts of Asia in the 1650s.

1. Sacking Of Baghdad

In the 13th century,  Baghdad was known across the world as the greatest city ever built. It was the epicentre of the Islamic Golden Age – a five-century-long period of immense cultural, scientific and social progress across the Islamic empire. All of that, however, came to a tragic end with the siege and eventual sacking of the city by Mongol forces in 1298. 

While most Mongol invasions involved some violence, the worst was reserved for the kingdoms that put up a fight or resisted in any way. As you can guess, that’s exactly what happened. When faced with the option to surrender or fight against an oncoming Mongol horde, the Abbasid Caliph – or king – decided to take his chances and fight. It wasn’t a foolish decision, as the military strength of his empire matched the Mongols and Baghdad was a well-defended city, even for a force 

Obviously, he was wrong. The Mongol army – led by Hulagu Khan, one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons – was able to breach the city’s defenses in no time at all. What followed was perhaps one of the most destructive acts of war in history.

For 10 days, Mongol soldiers and mercenary groups raided and plundered anything they could find in the city. The House of Wisdom – perhaps the largest library built until that time – was razed to the ground, along with all the other buildings of note  Almost every single inhabitant of the city was killed or sold into slavery – according to legend, so many people were killed that the color of the Tigris river ran completely red for days.

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  1. Bryan Richhart on

    In #8 Siege of Sarajevo, you say that the siege started on April 5, 1992, end of paragraph 2. Then in the 4th paragraph, it says, “By the end of February 1992…”. If it went on for almost 4 years, that should be February 1996

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