Book Review “The Great Big Book of Horrible Things” by Matthew White

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

  • Attributed, falsely, to Stalin

The above quote is brutally true in many ways. One person can be mourned and the grief internalized. To grieve for a half-million Ethiopians or 6 million Jews – where does one begin? But the fact this quote is so often attributed to Stalin – Erich Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front, at the very least said it first – illustrates another, even more awful fact. So much of history is blurred, forgotten, now unknown. While humanity has many shining events to celebrate, can we for a moment dare to look away from the dark corners and pyramids of grinning skulls that line the historical march of our species?

Enter Matthew White, who takes this torch of a book deep into the darkest of humanity’s crypts and invites you the reader to check his corpse-counting ability. White is one of a group of historians, scientists, and just plain amateurs attempting to obtain accurate numbers for genocidal events throughout history. Often referred to as atrocitologists or necrometricians, their works frequently result in major debates. Was Hitler worse than Stalin? Did the Mongols really kill that many people? What was the worst event in human history? With so many statistics scholars can, and do, argue forever.

Matthew White has now given you the chance to argue as well. White ranks the 100 worst human-caused atrocities (key word being “human-caused,” so something like the Indonesian Tsunami doesn’t make the list) by total number of people killed. In order to make the historical context of each atrocity more understandable, White presents them in chronological order. Thus we start with the 2nd Persian War, first atrocity chronologically, but ranked #96 overall with an estimated 300,000 dead. The higher the rank for an event the shorter the entry. So the 2nd Persian War gets two paragraphs, whereas an event like the Thirty Years War (#17, 7.5 million dead) gets 8 pages.

You have probably asked yourself by now, “Why would I want to read a book on atrocities? Is it not unrelentingly depressing?” Well, it can be. After all, by White’s count this is a chronicle of the death of 455 million people – that’s 2,000 people for every word in this book. I do not recommend anyone read this book straight through. The subject matter is heavy, and the book reads like a reference book more than straight narrative. Periodic breaks would be a good idea.

 

White must have realized this would be a problem, as he made the choice to try and inject some lighthearted moments. If you lack a sense of irony then this could be offensive, but keep in mind many of these events are freighted with astounding stupidity and strange occurrences. Thus it isn’t hard to poke some fun at the Habsburgs or Mussolini. Realistically White had no choice but to take this route; the book would have been unremittingly dark otherwise. White maintains the delicate balance of reverence and absurdity fairly well, infrequently hitting a wrong note.

White does not shrink from controversy, and it is a testament to his fairness that everyone will find something in the book to disagree with. The ranking of the Conquest of the Americas (#11, 15 million) and the Atlantic slave trade (#10, 16 million) will anger any number of potential readers. So will White’s conjecture that Aztec human sacrifice (#45, 1.2 million) was largely motivated by a desire to practice cannibalism, a statement that is horrifying, fascinating, and extremely controversial.

So what was the worst event in White’s list? Unquestionably World War 2, with at least 66 million dead. Among many, many other firsts, World War 2 also contains the event wherein the greatest number of people died in an instant (120,000 at Hiroshima) and the world’s worst recorded shark attack (900 dead in the torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis).

Who was the worst person in history? On White’s list Chinggis (think Ghengis) Khan and Mao Zedong tie for 2nd place overall with 40,000,000 deaths attributed to each. Khan got it done with swords and bows, whereas Mao caused most of his deaths through disastrous decrees, but combined together almost a fifth of all deaths in the 100 worst atrocities can be attributed to these two men. Stalin, Hitler, and Timur (another Mongol warlord) rank close behind.

Don’t make the mistake of skipping the “smaller” atrocities to get to the bigger events. Some of White’s best writing is in the brief vignettes. Take this excerpt from the Sino-Dzungar War (#67, 600,000):

Somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, a long time ago, the Chinese wiped out a tribe few people have ever heard of. Most of history is like this.

White goes on to explain what happened in this genocide, but the point made above is both profound and succinct. So much of history, good or bad, flows down the stream of time unnoticed. Little jewels like that are sprinkled throughout the book.

For all the statistics, the occasional humor, the controversy and the nuggets of knowledge, White never loses sight of the horror of these events, and the human experience of death. The Rwandan genocide will curl your toes. Idi Amin’s atrocities are gut wrenching: prisoners in his regime had to eat each other to live, and he had so many dead bodies dumped in the Nile River that they clogged the intakes of Uganda’s major hydroelectric plant, actually shutting down much of the nation’s power. Things like this are all through the book.

White has triumphed by giving us The Great Big Book of Horrible Things. A painful subject and at times a painful read, the book is full of events that bring out the dark heart of man. They should all be remembered, both the individual tragedies and the anonymous statistics.

Code 451 Rating: 9.0 Must Read

By James White

 

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