Whatever terminology you’re partial to using — Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, Diyu, Jahannam, Naraka or just Hell — history is littered with depictions of a brutal afterlife. However, these depictions almost seem trivial compared to the devastating experiences of reality. These hellish, tragic moments in history would expose the luckless individuals involved to pain, torture, suffering, and unspeakable terror. We speak of …
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Now and then we like to dig back into the TopTenz.net archives and re-share some of our best content as TopTenz Classics. Please enjoy this classic list from 2013.)
10. The Swamps of Ramree
WWII’s Asian theater saw a truly horrifying battle in the February of 1945, an adaptation of which could rival Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. The Japanese soldiers garrisoned in the island fortress of Ramree in southern Burma were forced to retreat into the mangrove swamps, after being overrun by a Royal Marine contingent. Had the estimated 1000 soldiers who entered the swamp known the Hell they’d find themselves in, they would surely have surrendered to the British.
The fleeing Japanese, many of whom were already wounded and low on ammunition, were set upon by the swamp’s overwhelming population of Salt Water Crocodiles, averaging 15 feet in length. Their man-eating capabilities are well documented, and the glut of blood from the battle only catalyzed the feeding frenzy. British naturalist Bruce Wright, who was attached to the Marine squadron, observed that “of about 1,000 Japanese soldiers that entered the swamps of Ramree, only about 20 were found alive.”
9. The Great Revolt Of The Jews
The Great Revolt of the Jews in 66 CE against the Romans, who had for so long been their oppressors, saw the former masters come back to make an example of the protesters. For a long time the anti-Roman sentiment held among Jews had been mounting, severely catalyzed by the radical actions of the crazed Roman Emperor Caligula. Even years after the death of Caligula, the dissent remained among the Jews. In 66 C.E, after Romans relieved the Jewish Temple of vast quantities of silver, the oppressed Jews rioted, annihilating the small Roman garrison stationed in the city.
Wanting to swiftly stifle this insurrection, Rome dispatched 60,000 heavily-armed, hardened legionnaires. The Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, finally overcoming the city’s defenses in 70 C.E. The incensed Romans killed, raped and pillaged indiscriminately; to them, all Jews were to be considered a party to the original uprising. One shudders to think of the Hell experienced by the Jews once the Roman’s siege was triumphant. Many of the city’s inhabitants were killed, crucified, or sold into slavery. Though records vary, the Great Revolt is thought to have killed over one million Jews, and led to the well-documented destruction of the sacred Temple.
8. Colonization of the Aztec Empire
To be an Aztec in the 16th century was to truly experience Hell on Earth. Prior to the Spanish invasion of Central America, led by the unerring Hernán Cortés, the Aztec people had only been used to warring against their primitive rivals such as the Totonac and Tlaxcaltec peoples. Now they faced the Spanish invasion force, sporting guns which the Aztecs had never encountered or indeed imagined. It’s not surprising that the Spanish overwhelmed the Aztec people. However, the violent methods they used against the whole populace, rather than just the fighting men, was what made the invasion truly hellish. The startling fact that there was a Papal debate as to whether the inhabitants of Central American were human explains this cruel treatment.
Alongside the invasion, the Spanish invasion force’s introduction of Smallpox killed countless more Aztecs as, having never encountered the disease before, they had developed no immunity.
7. Disaster on the K-19
The ordeal the crew of the Russian nuclear-submarine K-19 endured can only be described as Hell underwater. On July 4th 1961, while conducting exercises near the coast of southern Greenland, there was a major leak in the reactor coolant system, which threatened to kill everyone on board. Making matters worse, the ill-fated submarine’s long-range radio facility had malfunctioned, preventing them from making contact with Moscow. Thus, the crew found themselves several hundred meters below sea level, nuclear radiation slowly contaminating the entire ship, and no means of requesting help. Imagining a more devastatingly isolated scenario is a difficult task. Surrendering themselves to a nearby American warship was out of the question for Zateyev, the ship’s captain. He feared that, by surrendering themselves to the Americans, they would uncover all the confidential documents on the submarine. To prevent a mutiny, he confiscated all of the ship’s small arms except for 5 pistols, distributed to his five most trusted officers.
In a desperate bid to rescue the ship from full nuclear contamination, a team of 8 crew members were tasked with entering the highly contaminated section of the ship and welding a new water-supply pipe to the damaged coolant system. The temporary fix bought the crew enough time to be evacuated by a diesel submarine. All eight members of the repair team died shortly after; in the ensuing years, 15 more of the crew would fall to radiation poisoning.
6. The Black Death
Peaking between 1348-50, the Black Death is thought to have killed up to 200,000,000 people in Europe: a staggering 60% of the total European populace. The summer of 1348 was particularly wet across Europe; sodden grain lay rotting in the fields, and there was widespread unrest at the impending food shortages. This issue was to be dwarfed, however, by the outbreak of bubonic plague across Europe. The epidemic spread like wildfire, particularly in cities were the overcrowding and terrible sanitary conditions only hastened the rate at which ill-fated city dwellers succumbed to the fatal illness.
Someone infected would find bulbous, fist-sized boils, most commonly found around the groin, armpits or neckline. These intensely painful swellings would at first be red before turning black, giving the epidemic its name. Once you developed these boils, you were expected to be dead as quickly as two days later. Such hell was just as harsh on the survivors; to witness the painful death of all your friends and family, seeing corpses rotting in the streets, and living in fear of contracting the disease yourself may have been a fate worse than succumbing to the plague.
5. The Battle of Stalingrad
Though those involved were to find themselves the victim of extreme cold, as opposed to the traditional heat of Hell, there can be little debate that the experience of the German 6th Army at the Battle of Stalingrad was utterly hellish. The Germans assaulted the city on August 23rd, 1942, and found themselves embroiled in a dogfight with the Russians, which only ended with the Nazis finally surrendering on February 2nd, 1943. Between these dates, both warring factions endured the full force of the bitter Russian winter, though it is irrefutable that the underprepared, ill-supplied Germans truly went through Hell on earth.
A two-pronged pincer movement by the Red Army meant some 230,000 German troops found themselves trapped and surrounded in the city’s center; this site would become the frozen tomb for many. Not wanting to concede the strategically-invaluable city, the German high command forbade retreat. Instead, they attempted to supply the 6th Army by air, though providing supplies to such a large number proved impossible. Lacking adequate supplies of food and winter clothing, the Germans who didn’t perish by starvation were forced to endure Hell. Accounts reveal that some men’s fingers were so swollen from the cold that they were unable to enter the trigger guards of their rifles.
4. Great Chinese Famine
In 1949, some ten years after the Communists took power in China, arguably one of the most catastrophic disasters of the 20th century befell the already-impoverished Chinese populace. Even to this day – over half a century later – many of the Chinese people struggle to come to terms with their memories of the hellish famine, referring to it euphemistically as the “Three Years of Difficulties.” The cause of the famine is widely believed to be a result of the combined effects of the radical agricultural changes implemented by Mao’s communist party, a series of widespread droughts, and China’s unfettered population growth.
The largely agrarian nature of mid-20th century Chinese society makes estimating the total death toll a difficult task – most scholars agree the figure to fall somewhere between 20-40 million. As well as the unimaginable death toll, the famine gave rise to a number of hellish stories. A small village of 45 inhabitants had 44 people perish from the lack of sustenance. The only survivor, an elderly woman, was plunged into madness due to the Hell she was forced to endure. Another account tells of a starving teenage girl in an orphanage killing and eating her four-year-old brother.
3. Transatlantic Slave Trade
Though the remnants of race hatred still remain in some pockets of society today, it is indisputable that humanity has come a long way since the despicable hell that was the Transatlantic Slave Trade, where countless people were forcibly ripped from their home, driven to undergo the Middle Passage across the Atlantic (a voyage which often resulted in starvation for those unlucky enough to endure it) and forced to work for free, in terrible conditions, for a thankless master.
We were reminded very bluntly of the hellish reality faced by slaves in the United States last summer, thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s painfully candid film Django Unchained. Tarantino’s vision of American slavery regrettably does not deviate far from the truth. Indeed, there have been many terrible accounts from the slave era which even rival Django in their hellish nature. Perhaps the worst is that of Margaret Garner who – having briefly escaped her oppressors with her young child – decided to kill her child rather than risk seeing her sucked back into the hell that was slavery.
2. Rwandan Genocide
The violent struggle between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups in Rwanda had taken place long before its catastrophic escalation in 1994 in the Rwandan Genocide. The Hutu, the group to which the majority of Rwandan citizens belonged, had seized power in 1962 from the Tutsi. Over the next 30 years, the racial tensions between the two groups would mount, finally spiraling out of control in 1994 when the assassination of Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana led to the mass killing of Tutsis, as well as Tutsi-sympathizers. Over the next 100 days, the Hutus would attempt a genocide of their age-old rivals, resulting in the death of nearly one millions Tutsi.
As if this relentless killing of their fellow Rwandans wasn’t hellish enough, Hutu extremists added a despicable, sickening weapon to their arsenal. Having murdered the husbands of many Tutsi women, the Hutu would ensure that these women were not able to ever replenish the Tutsi numbers. There are numerous accounts of women being sexually mutilated with knives, machetes, boiling water, and acid, nullifying their child-bearing capabilities. Equally as horrifying, the Hutu enlisted many HIV-infected males to rape the widowed Tutsi, often gloating at their denying the women a quick, painless death.
1. The Holocaust
Considering that this was the darkest episode in human history, there was no way the Holocaust could’ve been anything but #1. To say the experience of the Jews, Poles, gypsies, and homosexuals (among others) in mainland Europe was hellish, is to somehow understate the true horror of the Holocaust. No religious description or artistic imagining of Hell adequately captures the terror of the systematic, industrialized attempt by the Nazis to eradicate the existence of Jews and other non-Aryan Germans in Europe.
The statistic that six eleven million people were murdered in the Holocaust doesn’t begin to describe the terrifying logistics and machinery behind the Nazi killing machine. At first, the Nazis used the rather primitive method of filling a large building with captive prisoners and sealing all windows, before starting several fuel building engines around the site, slowly poisoning those inside with carbon monoxide. The Nazis would refine and develop this idea into their Zyklon-B gas chambers used in the extermination camps like Auschwitz, Belzec, and Chelmno. If they weren’t put to death immediately, the prisoners were subjected to excruciating slave labor, to fuel their enemy’s floundering war effort.
Though there are a plethora of horror stories from the Holocaust, perhaps the most disturbing are the accounts of Josef Mengele, “The Angel of Death.” Mengele, a graduate in Anthropology and Medicine, conducted a number of human experiments on the captives of Auschwitz, including attempting to change eye color via various injections to the iris, amputations of limbs, and conjoining two people to become “twins.” Even Satan, on his best day, could not hope to match such atrocities.