The term “genocide” is one of those controversial terms that can lead to all kinds of problems. The problem is that the term has been so politicized, and frequently used to attack leaders or countries that one dislikes, that it has come to mean different things to different people. For instance, the term has frequently been used to describe what white settlers did to the Native Americans over the last few centuries, when much of the indigenous population of the United States was wiped out. However, the overwhelming majority of those deaths were due to smallpox being inadvertently introduced into a native population that lacked the biological means to resist it which, while devastating, was not a genocide as it was not done intentionally.
For something to qualify as genocide, it has to be a deliberate, calculated decision by a particular ethnic or religious group, leader, or a government to exterminate, or otherwise destroy, a specific group of people for religious, cultural, racial, or political reasons. This can be done either through direct action (murder) or through indirect means (deportation or starvation). Using this general definition, then, what were the most horrific acts of genocide committed throughout history? It will always be something of an exercise in subjectivity to determine which were the worst, as how does one go about measuring such a thing? Is it a matter of sheer number of victims? Duration? Political ramifications? Nevertheless, here is my attempt to list the ten largest, most horrific, or best-known genocides in human history.
10. Genocides of the Amalekites and Midianites
Lest anyone imagine that genocide is a uniquely modern phenomena, it should be known that it was not only condoned, but even supposedly ordered by, God Himself against two of ancient Israel’s arch-enemies, the Amalekites and the Midianites—at least according to the Old Testament. While extremely localized, and probably resulting in the deaths of no more than a few tens of thousands of people over a number of decades, it does testify to the fact that the desire of one group to exterminate another for any number of reasons has been around as long as civilization itself. The only difference is that, today, humanity possesses the technology required to carry it out on a truly massive scale.
9. North Korea (1945-present)
How many people have died inside the “worker’s paradise” will probably never been known with anything approaching certainty, but the fact is that Pyongyang has been at war with its own people since “The Great Leader”, Kim Il-Sung, first assumed power in 1945. Certainly several million peasants have died of starvation since the mid-1990s, with aid and human rights groups charging that North Korea has systematically and deliberately prevented food aid from reaching the areas most devastated by food shortages. And of course, this doesn’t include the nearly one million people—including women and children accused of the most superficial “crimes”—who have died in North Korea’s political prison camps over the last 65 years. Were it not being propped up by its lone ally, China, it would have likely imploded long ago. As it is, it remains a ticking time bomb, waiting to explode.
8. Expulsion of Ethnic Germans after World War II (1945)
Many scholars consider this more of a population transfer, rather than a true genocide. However, the forced displacement of some 14 million ethnic Germans and allied Slavs from Soviet Russia, from occupied areas of Eastern and Central Europe in the aftermath of World War II, has to go down as something pretty close to genocide, especially when one considers that between half a million and two million of them didn’t survive the journey. While most of these deaths were from famine and disease, many German civilians were also executed outright, or sent to internment and labor camps by the Soviets—especially those known to or suspected to have had Nazi associations. What makes it genocidal in nature was that only Germans were targeted, and that the brutal policy of forced relocation was ordered by Stalin himself, specifically as a means of retribution.
7. Partition of India (1947)
This is one of the few genocides in history that was not politically motivated nor orchestrated by any government, but rather occurred spontaneously. All of it was the result of the partition of Great Britain’s largest and most important colony, India, in 1947. The powers-that-be decided to partition the massive state into Hindu and Muslim sections (creating modern-day India and Pakistan respectively), a decision which left millions of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs on the wrong side of the newly-formed border. This resulted in millions being uprooted from their homes and being forced to walk hundreds of miles to their new homes; during this great exodus, however (which affected upwards of 14 million people), escalating violence broke out between the various religious factions, leading to up to one million deaths (most of it centered around the densely populated Punjab region).
In effect, many Muslims were killed by Sikh and Hindu mobs, while many Sikhs and Hindus suffered at the hands of Muslim mobs in Pakistan. It’s difficult to label this a true act of genocide, however, as it was not specifically instigated by either the Pakistani or Indian governments. However, their inability to stop what was basically a spontaneous outburst of brutality on both sides contributed greatly to the carnage. This event specifically stands out as being one of the few genocides to be almost entirely religion-based, and to be engaged by several religions simultaneously.
6. The Rwandan Massacre (1994)
While we like to imagine that genocides are generally politically motivated, Rwanda is an example in which it was mostly the result of tribal differences. The short-lived killing spree, which left between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people dead, was the culmination of longstanding ethnic competition and tensions between the minority Tutsi. It seems that the Tutsi had controlled the country for centuries, lording their position of power over the majority Hutus, until they were overthrown in a 1962 Hutu rebellion. Tensions remained high after that and eventually erupted into full-blown war when, in April of 1994, Hutu President Habyarimana died under mysterious conditions in a plane crash. This elicited bloody reprisals by Hutus against their Tutsi neighbors in retaliation.
While not specifically orchestrated by the Hutu-led government, scholars maintain that the spontaneous, and violent, reaction to the assassination was encouraged by the Rwandan armed forces and largely carried out by Hutu militias, with the full knowledge and blessing of the government, making it directly culpable. Also responsible for the massacre was the unwillingness of the UN, or other western powers, to take decisive action early on. The UN even went so far as to evacuate what few troops it had in the country, to prevent harm from befalling them! President Bill Clinton has since admitted that his lack of timely action in Rwanda remains the greatest mistake of his Presidency. How different things might have been, had only the world had the backbone to have done something.
5. The Armenian Genocide (1915-1923)
While they are loathe to discuss it today, the Ottoman Turks, under the leadership of War Minister Enver Pasha (1881-1922), may have conducted the first large-scale, organized genocide of the 20th century. During and immediately after the First World War, Turkey killed, deported, and starved to death as many as 1.8 million Armenians, along with hundreds of thousands of other non-Turks. The Ottomans may have also been the first to introduce the concept of the concentration camp, though most of these camps were short-lived.
Modern Turks generally refuse to acknowledge what happened to have been genocide, considering it simply a mass deportation of people who had allied themselves with the Russians (a nation Turkey was at war with at the time), and who largely died from exhaustion or neglect during forced marches. Most genocide scholars, however, consider it to have been an orchestrated effort at exterminating an unwanted ethnic group that had lived within the borders of the crumbling Ottoman Empire for centuries. Not surprisingly, it remains a touchy subject among modern Turks to this day, not to mention angry Armenians with guitars.
4. The Killing Fields of Cambodia (1975-1978)
When the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government of Cambodia in 1975, and established a Communist “utopia” in its place, its first act was to annihilate anyone it deemed to be an “enemy of the state”. This included not only former members of the old regime and military, but journalists, teachers, businessmen, intellectuals, Buddhists, and even people who simply wore glasses!
While the total number of people who died in this short-lived, but grisly, purge will never be known, it is estimated that no fewer than two million people (nearly 20% of Cambodia’s population) died at the hands of the Khmer. Had it not been for a Vietnamese invasion in 1979 that toppled the Khmer and sent them into hiding, the toll would undoubtedly had been higher still. You know you’re bad when your government is overthrown by a fellow Communist regime!
3. The Holocaust (1939-1945)
No genocide is as well-known, or as carefully documented, as the efforts of the Nazis to exterminate not only the Jews from continental Europe, but millions of others it deemed “undesirable.” By the time Hitler shot himself in his Berlin bunker in April of 1945, some eleven million people—over half of them Jews—had died, either through mass extermination, deportation, or starvation and overwork in his prison camps. This was all part of a brutal policy that much of the world either refused to believe was happening, or chose to ignore until the first camps were liberated by the Allies in the spring of 1945.
What’s especially interesting in this case is that, unlike Russia and China, Germany had no history of such cruelty beforehand (at least on such a large scale), and was even considered to have been one of the most educated and cultured societies in the world at the time it fell under Hitler’s spell. This should serve as a warning that no country is immune from becoming a killing field under the right circumstances and with the right leader, as millions of Germans had to learn the hard way in World War II.
2. The Stalinist Era in the USSR (1929-1953)
While most people imagine Adolf Hitler to have been the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century (the aforementioned Mao Zedong not withstanding), the prize actually goes to Joseph Stalin, the man who turned his entire nation into one massive prison camp and extermination center. How many died under his direct instructions, or merely as a result of his failed agricultural policies, will never be known with certainty, but some estimates put it as high as twenty million. The Soviet elimination of a social class, the Kulaks, and the subsequent killer famine among all Ukrainian peasants, killed at least two million alone, while Stalin’s notorious 1937 Order No. 00447, that called for the mass execution and exile of “socially harmful elements” as “enemies of the people”, decimated the military and intelligentsia of Russia, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, and millions more languishing in Stalin’s massive gulag.
Had he not had the good manners to die in 1953 before he could institute another purge of Jews and other “enemies of the State,” the numbers of death would have swelled even more. Curiously—and despite all of this—the man was much admired by people who lived outside of Russia during this time, and the always-smiling and benevolent-looking “Uncle Joe” even made it onto the cover of Time magazine no fewer than eleven times.
1. The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China (1949-1976)
While it’s almost impossible to determine precisely how many people died at the hands of the Communists when they came to power in 1949 and in the decades that followed, estimates range anywhere from 45 to 70 million people, depending on whom you ask. While some of these occurred when Communist forces finally vanquished the Nationalist Army of Chang Kai-Shek, most of them took place later and came largely in two main waves; the first was during the “Great Leap Forward”, when China’s leader Mao Zedong’s attempt at agricultural modernization and social engineering led to mass starvation between 1958 and 1961, and the death of many former land owners. While not a specific effort to eradicate a population, what made it genocidal in nature was the fact that Mao continued his policies long after they were obviously proven to be disastrous, thereby dooming millions of peasants to starvation.
The second great genocide was a result of what was called the “Cultural Revolution” of 1966 to 1976—a bloody purge of “anti-government elements” that left millions dead or languishing in prison camps throughout China. It was only upon the death of Mao that the worst of the killings ended, though the brutal crushing of the Tienanmen Square protesters in 1989 demonstrated that Beijing’s violent tendencies did not entirely die with the man.
Other Noteworthy Examples: The Destruction of Carthage during the Third Punic War (146 BCE) is often considered the first historically recorded genocide in history; The forced repatriation of the Cherokee Indians from Florida in 1830 resulted in the death of some 4,000 Indians out of 17,000 who made the trip during the famous Trail of Tears incident; Genghis Khan’s Mongol horsemen of the 13th century were well-known genocidal killers, known for wiping out entire nations in their quest to expand their empire; German General Lothar von Trotha wiped out some 100,000 native tribesmen in Southwest Africa (modern Namibia) between 1904 and 1907 in what is often considered the first organized state genocide; and Saddam Hussein’s efforts at exterminating the Kurds during the 1980’s, which included using chemical agents against Kurdish towns.
Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.