30 Worst Atrocities of the 20th Century

The Hemoclysm

"I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they'd never expect it." -- Jack Handy

Year by year death toll of the century's atrocities:

The 30 or so worst bloodlettings of the Twentieth Century have (probably) been...

Rank Death Toll Event Dates
1 55,000,000 Second World War (Some overlap w/Stalin. Includes Sino-Japanese War and Holocaust. Doesn't incl. post-war German expulsions) 1937/39-1945
2 40,000,000 China: Mao Zedong's regime. (incl. famine) 1949-76
3 20,000,000 USSR: Stalin's regime (incl. WW2-era atrocities) 1924-53
4 15,000,000 First World War (incl. Armenian massacres) 1914-18
5 8,800,000 Russian Civil War 1918-21
6 4,000,000 China: Warlord & Nationalist Era 1917-37
7 3,000,000 Congo Free State [n.1] (1900)-08
8 2,800,000 Korean War 1950-53
8 2,800,000 2nd Indochina War (incl. Laos & Cambodia) 1960-75
10 2,500,000 Chinese Civil War 1945-49
11 2,100,000 German Expulsions after WW2 1945-47
12 1,900,000 Second Sudanese Civil War 1983-(99)
13 1,700,000 Congolese Civil War [n.1] 1998-(99)
14 1,650,000 Cambodia: Khmer Rouge Regime 1975-79
15 1,500,000 Afghanistan: Soviet War 1980-89
16 1,400,000 Ethiopian Civil Wars 1962-92
17 1,250,000 East Pakistan: Massacres 1971
18 1,000,000 Mexican Revolution 1910-20
18 1,000,000 Iran-Iraq War 1980-88
18 1,000,000 Nigeria: Biafran revolt 1967-70
21 917,000 Rwandan Massacres 1994
21 800,000 Mozambique: Civil War 1976-92
23 675,000 French-Algerian War 1954-62
24 600,000 First Indochina War 1945-54
24 600,000 Angolan Civil War 1975-94
26 500,000 Decline of the Amazonian Indians (1900-99)
26 500,000 India-Pakistan Partition 1947
26 500,000 First Sudanese Civil War 1955-72
29 450,000 Indonesia: Massacre of Communists 1965-66
30 365,000 Spanish Civil War 1936-39
? >350,000 Somalia: Chaos 1991-(99)
? >400,000 North Korea: Communist Regime 1948-(99)

The totals here are subject to the usual margins of error. They also contain all varieties of atrocity: battle deaths, civilian casualties of war, democide, famine caused by the economic disruption, etc.

Although each of these is a distinct event, many are closely inter-related. Stalin (#3), Chiang Kai-shek (#6) and Mao Zedong (#2) were major players in World War Two (#1), which was clearly a sequel to World War One (#4). The Russian Civil War (#5), which paved the way for the rise of Stalin, was an integral outgrowth of World War One. The anarchy that swept China following the overthrow of the monarchy brought Chiang to power, put Mao in conflict with him, and encouraged the Japanese invasion. The fall of the Japanese Empire following World War Two left Korea up for grabs (#8), and Mao's army was among those who tried to grab it.

It's very possible, therefore, that future historians will consider these events to be mere episodes of a single massive upheaval -- the "Hemoclysm", to give it a name (Greek for "blood flood") -- which took the lives of some 155 million people. All in all, over 80% of the deaths caused by Twentieth Century atrocities occurred in the Hemoclysm.

It divides neatly into two parts -- Eastern and Western. The Eastern Hemoclysm began with the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in China in 1911 leading to 38 years of Civil War and a Japanese invasion. In 1949, the bloodbath of the interregnum gave way to a greater bloodbath as the Communists consolidated power under Mao (who died in 1976). When seen as a continuum, this phase of Chinese history was a 65 year nightmare which took some 75 million lives.

The first sparks of the Western Hemoclysm were the Balkan Wars (1912-13) which quickly ignited the First World War. This brought down four of the most powerful monarchies in Europe, leading to a power vacuum which was eventually filled by the Nazis in Germany and the Communists in Russia, who came into conflict during the Second World War. The death of Stalin in 1953 finally extinguished the Western Hemoclysm after the loss of some 80 million lives.

If it weren't for the fact that the Second World War is considered to be a single event, we could probably consider the Eastern and Western halves of the Hemoclysm to be distinctly unrelated pieces of history.

A series of events which may or may not be related to the Hemoclysm are the wars and massacres which ravaged Indochina from 1945 to 1980. The first of these (1945-54) was obviously spawned by the Second World War, and we can easily trace a chain reaction which led from this to the next and the next (#24-#9-#14); however, each subsequent war took it farther and farther from the central events of the Hemoclysm, so I have not included the 5 million Indochinese dead in the total.


If we're going to be pointing fingers of blame for the savageness of the Century -- and you know you want to -- raw numbers are probably not enough. There have been plenty of episodes of concentrated brutality that don't show up on the list above simply because the affected population is so small. Meanwhile, a major reason that Russia and China stand so prominently at the top of the list is that they have so many potential victims to begin with. Therefore, I've taken all the episodes of mass killing of the 20th Century and divided them by the population of the country that suffered the losses.

The 25 highest percentages of national populations killed during periods of mass brutality:

If you look carefully at the chart with the intention of determining which race, religion or ideology has been the most brutal, you'll see a pattern emerge. It's quite a startling pattern, so I'd rather you find it by yourself. Go back and take a second look. I'll meet you at the next paragraph after I explain that, honestly, I did not manipulate the data. I simply took the most likely death toll (military and civilian) among the natives of each country (such as all the South Vietnamese -- ARVN soldiers, civilians and Viet Cong -- who were killed in the Vietnam War), and divided it by the population of that country (prewar). I didn't take, say, only the military dead, or only the victims of genocide. I didn't arbitrarily decide to split one horror into two in order to make each seem smaller (the only borderline case is that I calculated the Russians dead from WW2 and Stalin separately. A judgement call.), or eliminate countries of a certain size. No, I had no predetermined point to prove. I did the math and let the chips fall where they would. (Here are the raw numbers if you want to check behind me.)

That's why I was so startled to discover that there is absolutely no pattern to the chart. If I had simply picked 25 countries out of a hat, I could not have gotten a more diverse spread than we've got here. We've got rich countries and poor countries; industrial and agrarian; big and small. We've got people of all colors -- white, black, yellow and brown -- widely represented among both the slaughterers and the slaughterees. We've got Christians, Moslems, Buddhists and Atheists all butchering one another in the name of their various gods or lack thereof. Among the perpetrators, we've got political leanings of the left, right and middle; some are monarchies; some are dictatorships and some are even democracies. We've got innocent victims invaded by big, bad neighbors, and we've got plenty of countries who brought it on themselves, sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind. Go on -- take a third look. Find any type of country that is not represented among the agents of a major blooding, and probably the only reason for that is that there aren't that many countries in that category to begin with (There are no Hindu or Jewish countries on the chart, but then, there's only one of each on the whole planet, and they're both waiting in the wings among the next 25.).

In a way, it's rather disheartening to realize that we can't smugly blame the brutality of the century on the Communists, or the imperialists, or the Moslem fundamentalists, or the godless. Every major category of human has done it's share to boost the body count, so replacing, say, Moslem rulers with Christian rulers, or white rulers with black rulers, is not going to change it at all.

[N1]: Coincidentally, the 20th Century began and ended with horrors in the Congo; therefore, the numbers in the table only count those deaths that occurred within the 20th Century.

The death toll for the full period of the Congo Free State from 1886-1908 was somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,500,000. This would indicate that around 3M died during just the 20th Century.

The death toll for the entire Congolese Civil War (1998-2003) is reckoned now to be 3.3M, but in 2000, it was calculated to have been 1.7M.

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Last updated Dec. 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 Matthew White