Experiencing the Humanities
A Web Textbook
7-C. A Brief History of Disaster:
Citizens of Belgium carrying caskets and burying those who died of bubonic plague, ca. 1340-1360 CE*
by Richard Jewell
This is the short version of this chapter (about 7000 words). If you'd like to read a
longer version (about 14,000 words), go to
Introduction--Why Study Disaster?
What does the picture above tell you about death in the Middle Ages (medieval times)? What have you, in your own life, experienced about death? Note that while this chapter is very factual, simply outlining the facts about which most historians agree, the chapter also is very serious. Don't read it unless you are ready to hear bad news about the world.
In fact, why read this chapter at all? The reason is the same as why people study history. "History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes," someone (possibly Mark Twain) once said. If you can factually observe and then understand the patterns of history, you are not doomed to have them "rhyme" in similar ways: you sometimes can change your destiny. For example, by knowing more about previous pandemics, such as the Spanish Flu of 1918, you might better prepare yourself for the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Some disasters are predictable, even planned, such as in war; others can take you by surprise. Either way, to the great majority of people in society, a disaster is an unwanted surprise or change: even if you see it coming, you may not be prepared for the actual negative change itself. Here in this chapter are some interesting highlights about disasters. The five sections of this chapter are as follows:
Pandemic (World Illness)
Disclaimer: Please note that the information here primarily
is from generally accepted knowledge. That means that almost no sources have been named because the
information here is generally accepted as fact, except where noted.
Climate Change--How serious can it be?
Some of the biggest changes the earth has ever seen actually have involved climate changes. A few have been much worse than what may be happening now. Sometimes they occur suddenly. At other times,they may be slow, taking centuries to develop.
What killed the dinosaurs?
The most recent catastrophic climate change was about 66 million years ago. It is called the Cretaceous-Paleocene extinction event because it led to the extinction of about 80% of all animal species on earth, including almost all larger dinosaurs. It was caused by an asteroid or comet five to ten miles wide or larger hitting the earth. The explosion was the equivalent of millions of nuclear bombs. It created a crater over 90 miles (145 kilometers) wide near modern-day Chicxulub, Mexico, gale- or hurricane-force winds that flattened forests for up to 600 to 1200 miles (960 to 1920 kilometers), and tsunamis 150 to 1000 feet (50 to 300 meters) in height along southern and central North American coasts. Almost 50,000 cubic miles of sediment--equivalent to 83 million square miles of sediment that was, on average, one yard deep--from the asteroid or comet and from the impacted earth--were distributed especially in the area of the impact, and also throughout the world as a detectable layer of soil.
This Chicxulub Asteroid, as it is called, threw into the air billions of pounds of fine dust particles that, in a few weeks, hovered in the air throughout the world, darkening the sun for decades, creating a worldwide, decades-long winter that killed plants and starved animals. Almost all dinosaurs and all other animals weighing more than about 50 to 60 pounds died. Oceans and lakes also were terminally damaged, poisoned by the high acidity of the dust falling into them for years, which killed the majority of marine life. This sudden climate change set the earth back literally millions of years, and required a recovery of millions of years more.
In recent years, scientists have developed asteroid-spotting software programs that search space so no large asteroids can catch the world unaware. Methods of destroying such an asteroid were featured in two science fiction movies released in 1998, Deep Impact and Armageddon (with astronomers reportedly saying the first is more scientifically accurate).
Can a volcano cause climate change?
Smaller climate changes have happened a number of times over the past thousands of years. Some are less significant, others more so.
The more important ones involve a supervolcano. A supervolcano is a volcano so powerful that its eruption significantly affects world climate. The Toba supervolcano, for example, erupted about 70,000 to 75,000 BCE (BC), throwing so much debris into the air that a worldwide temperature drop of about 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) probably occurred for up to ten years, leading, most likely, to an ice age on earth that lasted up to 1000 years. This event also may have reduced the total population of humans to under 10,000 worldwide.
Recent scientific study by the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada and other collaborators also may have discovered a link between major social change in Rome and one of the largest volcano explosions in history. An Alaskan volcano in the Aleutian Islands my have caused temperatures to drop more than 13 degrees F. (7 degrees C.) for a season, and four times the normal rain to fall, in the Roman empire. Records from then show that crops failed and famines occurred. This climate event may have hastened major political, social, and cultural changes soon after.
Two similar but smaller climate winters from smaller volcanoes occurred in the 1800s. The first was known as the "Year without Summer" in 1816, after an 1815 volcanic explosion of Mount Tambora in modern-day Indonesia, the largest in at least 1300 years. Summer temperatures throughout the world dropped slightly, but Europe was hit particularly hard with a summer of 6 degrees F. (3.5 C.) lower than normal, creating major food shortages for both humans and animals that led to illness and death.
The second occurred because of the 1883 volcanic eruption of Mount Krakatoa in modern-day Indonesia, an explosion heard 2000 to 3000 miles away. The eruption decimated its own and other islands around it, killed over 36,000 people, and led to a worldwide drop in temperatures of 2 degrees F. (1 degree C.), enough to hurt world agricultural production. Though scientists aren't perfectly sure of the cause, the four winters after the explosion were, worldwide, longer and colder than usual, thus requiring later planting and earlier harvesting of food.
Did a disaster start the Dark Ages?
However, according to recent speculation by researchers, one of the most notable climate changes in recorded human history may have occurred starting in 535 or 536 with a volcanic eruption in Iceland that left effects on society that lasted for up to 1000 years. We might appropriately call it the "No-Sun Disaster" because it created a haze that hid much of the sunlight in many parts of the world for one to two years. This caused or contributed to other disasters--major migrations, wars, and plagues--that may have led to the Middle Ages or Medieval Period.
The birth of this climate change was relatively sudden, happening at first over a few days' or weeks' time. One theory is that it was caused by a supervolcano or a group of volcanoes near each other in Indonesia. A more recent theory is that the change was caused by a supervolcano in Iceland. This "No-Sun Disaster" caused many cubic tons of dust and other debris to fly into the air and hang in fine-particle suspension that, for about eighteen months throughout much of the world, the sun grew very dim. Roman historian Procopius, in a 536 CE (AD) report, said that "during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness...like the sun in eclipse."
Similar descriptions exist from other parts of the world. Snow was reported to have fallen in desert areas, crops in large portions of the world failed, and inches of dust settled. Massive floods struck some regions, others saw severe drought, and some experienced both. Tree-ring analysis shows that in many parts of the world, tree growth stopped or slowed for a decade or more.
As a result, crops failed worldwide. Millions of people starved. Starvation and other related changes (see "Illness" below) displaced millions of people throughout Asia, who migrated into western Asia and eastern Europe, bringing invasive war with them as they came. Turks, Huns, Persians, Slavs, and others moved--during the following three decades--westward in mass migrations and invasions. The West and its dominant Roman Empire, grew weaker from these new invasions, having already suffered previous invasions for four hundred years.
The worst effect of the "No-Sun Disaster" is that it may have triggered two centuries of waves of bubonic plagues, one after another, throughout much of Europe, Asia, and Africa. As agricultural produce disappeared in many places, rodents also had trouble surviving. According to According to David Keys, author of Catastrophe, a book about the "No-Sun Disaster," the rodents began gathering in places where more grain existed: cities with ports and grain storage bins for shipping. some of the rodents followed the grain right on and into the ships. Unfortunately, the rodents were carrying fleas that were infected with the bubonic plague virus. As grain was shipped throughout the Roman Empire from African ports or Asian trade routes to the port city of Constantinople, then the capital of the Roman Empire, the fleas and bubonic plague went with it. Much of the world suffered a century or two of a series of such devastating crisis that, according to Keys and others, it may have taken many hundreds of years more to recover from it.
When there are major climate changes, people change some of their beliefs, as well. Such a change in belief sometimes is called a "paradigm shift." A "paradigm" is a major "pattern" or "model" for how the world works. For example, many people believed thousands of years ago that the earth was flat. As a result, they generally did not try to build ships that could "go off the edge of the world." Then astronomers such as Galileo and Newton helped the world learn that the earth is round. At that point, ships were built for crossing major oceans, and the great majority of people in the world gradually understood that a ship can journey around the world, and Earth is a globe.
In climate changes, there is a shift in beliefs. Before a climate change, people come to trust and understand the typical patterns of nature for farming and other needs. When the climate shifts, though, people often no longer trust nature. Instead, they may begin to fear it or, at the least, change how they plan to use it in their future.
Pandemics--What are some of the worst world illnesses?
Another type of major change involves widespread illness. When it involves the entire world, this is called a "pandemic."
Are we having a "pandemic" now?
Yes. Right now, we are living with a pandemic: the new coronavirus and the illness it causes, COVID-19. It, like the great majority of pandemics, was born--according to most researchers--in a transfer of the illness from animal to human. In this case it occurred in or near the Chinese city of Wuhan, possibly in a marketplace. Similar coronaviruses exist in Kunming, China in bats, so a bat possibly transferred the COVID-19 virus to another animal that then was sold in the marketplace as a pet or for food. Quite possibly humans contracted it in November 2019 or even earlier, but it was not identified in humans until December.
This pandemic was called, at first, a "rich man's disease" because it first spread primarily from people on jet airlines, private jets, and cruise ships, perhaps the first pandemic in history to start with the wealthy and spread to everyone. Throughout history, usually pandemics started among the poor, merchant ships, or soldiers.
The birth of pandemics often seems sudden. While scientists can predict that some kind of pandemic may happen, they cannot predict when or where. Some pandemics last for centuries. Others are short-lived. The end of a pandemic can come when most people get sick and then develop antibodies making them immune from catching the disease again, or from the disease itself mutating and becoming weaker.
We have no idea how many pandemics have swept the world throughout time. However, since recorded history started in about 3000 BCE (BC), we know that they are not unusual. The worst pandemics--before societies were able to control them--sometimes killed half or more of the people in a city, a country, or even a continent.
What was one of the worst pandemics in history?
One especially grim pandemic was the Black Death of 1347 to 1666 in Europe. Also known as the Pestilence or Great Plague, it killed 30% or more of Europe's population in waves of infection and re to infection for over three hundred years. It was a type of bubonic plague--named from the "bubols" or painful swellings of infected lymph nodes in several parts of the body. These painful swellings cause those who are infected to die torturous deaths. The Black Death may have spread initially from China along merchants' travel routes--from fleas moving back and forth between humans and rodents. The types of rodents carrying bubonic-plague fleas vary according to geographic areas, but in Europe they usually were rats. The rats moved throughout the continent carrying their infected fleas, which jumped to human hosts. All three infected groups--rats, fleas, and human hosts--usually died, but not before infecting others through breath in close contact. In recent centuries we have learned to control and even almost eradicate the plague.
Was there a pandemic similar to our current one?
Another example of a more recent pandemic was the 1918 to 20 "Spanish Flu" epidemic. It may have been the second biggest pandemic killer in earth's recorded history, in part because earth's population had grown so much compared to earlier historical periods. And it was similar to what we are experiencing with COVID-19 now.
The Spanish Flu infected up to 500 million people in the world during a three-year period, with the first year being the worst. At the time, this was about one-third to one-fourth of the world's population. Record keeping was poor; however, researchers estimate the 1918 Spanish Flu killed between 15 and 100 million people throughout the world, or from 1.5% and 5% of those who caught it. In contemporary terms, this Spanish Flu death rate is somewhat similar to (or higher than) the current world- and U.S.-science organizations' projections for a COVID-19 death rate of 0.5% to 4%, depending on whether a country is wealthy with excellent health care or poor with very little health care.
Manipulation of the news media caused this 1918 to 1920 flu pandemic to be labeled, unfairly, the "Spanish Flu." This happened because, at the time, World War I was raging in Europe.
As a result, many countries' politicians repressed news of the spreading flu in all of their countries because, they believed, it would be hard on the wartime morale of their fighting forces. However, Spain was neutral, and its politicians allowed much freer discussion in newspapers about the developing pandemic. Because of this, when people around the world began talking about the pandemic, they repeated what they had heard about it in Spain. What was the real source? Historians don't know. The first official record of it was among soldiers stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas, who may have spread it to Europe through troop transport ships to the World War I European war theater. However, historians have pointed out that other European countries Chinese workers sent to work in eastern Europe in 1918 could have had the first cases.
The first wave of the 1918 flu pandemic caused relatively few deaths in the spring. In summer, it subsided.
However, when the second wave hit in late summer and in fall 1918--and with the world still at war--people were taken by surprise. It was devastating. It spread quickly everywhere simply from sneezing, talking, shaking hands, or touching the same object. Unfortunately, just when social distancing should have begun, most cities and countries ignored the need for it. There were four main reasons: (1) the first wave in spring had not been so bad, (2) soldiers had to live in such close quarters and be transported in crowded Atlantic Ocean troop ships and land vehicles, (3) families everywhere, in 1918, were larger, multigenerational, and in smaller housing, and (4) politically, leaders felt it unwise to talk about it, as they did not want to discourage soldiers' and citizens' morale during war.
Philadelphia, for example, held a large wartime "liberty" rally in September 1918 with tens of thousands in attendance. Within two weeks, a thousand more Philadelphians were dead, and two hundred thousand sickened. At about the same time, St. Louis, on the other hand, closed public places and forbade public gatherings early in the crisis. The result was it suffered one-eighth of the casualties of Philadelphia.
In addition, in 1918, medical care was inadequate and too slow, especially when the the second wave struck in the fall. Most doctors and nurses were at the war front, helping the injured and dying. Hospitals at home, no matter what country, didn't know what to do. People died quickly: within a day or two, sometimes just hours, of first getting sick. The Spanish Flu struck everyone, from youngest to oldest, equally, or perhaps even hitting people the hardest who were in their 20s.
Schools were closed and converted to temporary hospitals. Bodies piled up in towns and cities, and as social distancing began and people lost their jobs, many people got new jobs carrying bodies and burying them. In some cities, the dead had to be buried in large trenches in quickly built cheap wood coffins built by the thousands. Some municipalities even had a problem with coffin thefts and had to hire guards overnight to keep the inexpensive coffins safe. Some cities and towns ignored the pandemic but then suffered much higher casualties as a result. Others took power into their own hands to slow the spread. Some towns even posted signs outside of them, on the highways leading into them, telling people not to stop in their town. This helped in some places; in others, distancing was too little or too late.
The Spanish Flu was a viral flu--that is, from a virus, like COVID-19 or the common cold. At first, unfortunately, researchers thought the Spanish Flu was from bacteria--which it was not--so researchers and doctors wasted months trying to kill the bacteria. Nothing worked. They even tried very large doses of aspirin, which was a very new drug, then. Unfortunately, the doses were so large that they may have killed some people while helping none.
In 1918, researchers knew very little about viruses and could not yet see them with the older microscopes of those times. As a result, people continued to die. They tried folk medicines, spiritual cleansings, and prayer. Nothing worked.
Fortunately, shortly after the end of World War I in November of 1918, deaths gradually began to decrease. They continued through 1920, but then--probably because many people had caught it and become immune, and because the virus may have mutated to a form less lethal--the numbers of deaths went down.
However, most nations that fought in World War I already were economically weakened. The flu made things worse. As a result of these combined events, the world suffered an economic depression called the World Depression of 1920 to 1921. The countries that had lost the war were especially devastated economically and, as a result, culturally, emotionally, personally. Even when pandemics are relatively mild, like the 1918 Spanish Flu--or the current COVID-19 pandemic--the economic prospects of many people can be seriously damaged.
In pandemics, usually paradigm shifts--changes in major beliefs--occur. Usually there is a strong leap forward in scientists' understanding of disease. However, society itself will feel more fearful and fatalistic--as if it can't control life anymore. In a pandemic, there is a change in how people feel about closeness and touching: usually, society adopts a code with less physical closeness that becomes such a habit that it may last in some ways for years even after the pandemic is over.
Are wars disasters?
Though minor wars may seem to be a problem only for smaller countries or their communities, wars often are major disasters. This is true especially for the losing sides, but also to some extent for the winning sides. For example, after World War I, both invaders and invaded experienced an economic recession, and then a major economic depression that destroyed the jobs of tens of millions throughout the world over a three-year period.
start with what may seem to most of those living through them as a sudden birth.
This is because few countries choose to go to war, and when they do, even those
who knew a war probably was coming will tell you that knowing about it and
actually experiencing it are quite different. War kills people, and the threat
of death along with the economic consequences create
negative physical, emotional, and psychological changes for participating
What were early great wars?
Many great wars have occurred in the world. One of the first "world wars"--because it covered parts of three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa-- was the series of conquests by the legendary Alexander the Great (356 to 323 BCE). Alexander was a bright scholar-athlete who was a hero to his soldiers and a master war tactician. He was one of the greatest commanders of armed forces the world has ever seen. He conquered what then was civilized Europe (Macedonia and Greece), northern Africa (Egypt), and the Middle East as far as the western part of India. He installed democracies, freed slaves, and furthered education and the arts in most places.
However, his soldiers and the immediate rulers he left behind likely killed--including deaths of his soldiers themselves--an estimated 100,000 to 1 million. The latter figure seems high to some historians, but if you add all the deaths from the many civil wars against his empire that broke out right after his unexpected death at the age of 32, a figure of 1 million deaths may be reasonable.
Two hundred years later, another master war tactician, Julius Caesar, 100 to 44 BCE, head of the Roman Republic, waged war on Gaul (modern-day France and parts of Belgium, western Germany, and northern Italy) and other countries. Caesar himself claimed he killed two million people in fifty battles to expand and secure the Roman Empire.
What great wars were fought from 1 CE (AD) to 1900 CE?
Altogether throughout the world, from the time of Julius Caesar to about 1900 CE (AD), a total of about 150 to 300 million people were killed by war. These figures don't even count most of the additional tens or hundreds of millions killed from war's ravaging results: starvations, plagues, and additional genocides.
In 1096 to 1271, medieval Christian Europe converged--under calls from the Holy Roman Popes--on the ideal of recapturing the Holy Land, leading to eight Holy Crusades against Islam. Estimates say that only one in twenty of the European soldiers and knights ever even reached the the Holy Land to fight, and overall, over 1.5 million people on both sides died or were killed in the Crusades.
In eastern Asia, major wars and changes also occurred. China's various civil wars and wars against nearby countries from 1 to 1864 CE killed 95 to 200 million people, most of them Chinese.
In central and western Asia, the combined Eurasian Mongol wars and conquests of 1206 to 1405 killed 38 to 60 million people, perhaps a majority from the plague that followed some of the armies. One noteworthy leader in this time and place was Timur, also known as Tamerlane, of Central Asia. He was to the Mongols what Alexander the Great was, many centuries earlier, to the West. Some historians consider Timur the greatest general of all time. He led his Turko-Mongol tribes using hordes of absolutely loyal soldiers and dozens of battle elephants, never lost a battle against his opponents, and spread culture, the arts, and scholarly thinking to the countries he conquered. His fame might have been even greater, except that when he was ready to invade China--which was as big as the empire he himself had established--he died unexpectedly. In his lifetime, he was responsible for the deaths of 8 to 20 million.
In Europe, the Hundred Years' War between England and France, 1337 to 1453, killed 2 to 3 million people or more. Other religious and territorial wars continued in Europe, 1524 to 1763, killing 8 to 20 million. In Napoleon Bonaparte's French Wars against the rest of Europe in 1803 to 1815, 3.5 to 7 million were killed before Bonaparte was defeated and life began to return to normal.
Africa had mostly small wars. However, in 1815 to 1903, the Mfecane Chaos and Wars in the far south, along with the French Conquest of Algeria in the north, 1830 to 1903, led to 2 to 3 million killed.
Wars by Europeans in the Americas
Starting in the 1500s, the Spanish invaded the Americas. It sent an army of 500 soldiers led by Hernan Cortes (also known as Cortez). When Cortes landed on the coast of what is now Mexico in 1520, he promptly burned his ships to impress upon his men that they were to go forward and conquer with no retreat possible. He and his soldiers managed, over the coming years--using cannons and guns against spear- and knife-carrying natives--about 15 to 20 million Central and South Americans in the Aztec, Incan, and Mayan Empires.
Most were mass executions in cities and villages of surprised ordinary people. Some of these deaths also were from the disease of smallpox that the Spanish soldiers brought: entire villages and towns of the native Indians, having never experienced the disease, died from it.
In contrast, wars on North American soil (discounting genocide--see below) have been minor. The American Revolutionary War killed only 37,000 soldiers. The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 killed half a million to 1 million. In Latin America, the Paraguayan War, 1864 to 1870, killed a third of a million to 1 million. And the Mexican Revolution in 1910 to 1920, perhaps the worst of all in U.S. wars on American soil, killed half a million to 2 million Mexicans and U.S. soldiers.
The World Wars of the 1900s
The first half of the 1900s--the twentieth century--added a huge number of deaths in just a 38-year period: World Wars I and II. Estimates vary, but in the two wars, probably 90 to 115 million soldiers and civilians died. Both wars brought the full new force of industrialization--assembly-line creation of millions of weapons--to killing. They both extended to the entire world. And both were caused by many of the same political disagreements and economic imbalances experienced, in both cases, by many of the same countries.
In World War I, 1914 to 1918, 21 million were killed. However, if you include the Spanish flu that was spread widely by WWI soldiers, the total then becomes close to 30 million, conservatively, or far more, as the flu spread far beyond soldiers to whole countries. Hard upon WWI was the Russian Civil War, which was partly a result of WWI. During it, in 1917 to 1922, 5 to 9 million Russians died. The grand total of deaths in, from, or related to WWI thus was about 35 to 40 million, perhaps as many as 90 million if you count the spread of the 1918 flu.
WWII was worse. It was especially hard on civilians, as a total of up to 40 million of them were murdered in large groups and in masses by industrial weapons of war. Never in the world's history had so many civilians been slain so thoroughly, intentionally, and ruthlessly.
First, there were concentration camps with firing squads and, later, gas chambers. Second, there were mass bombings that killed tens of thousands in each single air raid, resulting in the death of many hundreds of thousands dead in such raids. In addition, there were massacres of villages and towns, the deployment of the atom bomb, and other mechanized mass methods of execution.
World War II started when Nazi politicians led by Adolf Hitler took over Germany and invaded countries around it. As WWII progressed, the Nazis and their group of Axis countries used concentration camps to kill 6 to 12 million citizens of their own and from enemy countries: individuals they classified as "unworthy of life"--and therefore without a right to live. About half or more of them were Jews. Another Nazi plan was to starve 30 million Russians by stealing all of their food as Nazi forces invaded Russia, a plan that, fortunately, failed. The Nazis did successfully starve a few million prisoners of war, and several hundred thousand civilians in Leningrad (now called Petrograd). In fact, Russia bore the greatest death rate of any one country in World War II. It lost over 25 million soldiers and citizens in that war alone.
In the Pacific theater of WWII, some three to ten million people were killed. This happened beginning with Japan's invasion of China in 1937 to its surrender in 1945.
Before World War II, The total number dead in World War II may have been as high as 75 million direct deaths. This includes both soldiers and civilians.
How many have died in war in the past 2000 years?
The total deaths from war over 2000 years of history total an estimated 250 to 400 million people. That is the same as if, every year for 2000 years, a small city the size of 125,000 to 200,000 people were completely obliterated from the map of the earth. In your own lifetime, assuming you live the average 80 years, that is the equivalent of 80 such cities being destroyed, or about 10 to 16 million people killed from war in your lifetime. War has not been the exception--the unusual event--throughout history, but rather the norm for human civilizations.
Societies experience significant paradigm shifts, or changes in belief, because of war. One of the most significant is learning to think of some of the communities and peoples around the world as a "Dangerous Other." In this kind of thinking, the enemy is classified as nonhuman or dangerous enough that the people in it deserve killing, maiming, and being locked up. Some leaders argue that this kind of change in belief is necessary in order to be able to conquer an enemy. Whether it is necessary or not, it causes people on both sides, even long after war is over, to dehumanize these "Dangerous Others" from other countries, and to neither trust nor care about them. It can take decades--and the birth of new generations--to once again shift back to a belief in the goodness of people who formerly were enemies in war.
How are genocides like continuing wars?
Another form of war, genocide, has in the long run suppressed even larger populations that the World Wars. Genocide likely has killed many more than has war. They seem, superficially, to die at a point when they become illegal in society. However, in reality, the resentments and underlying bigotry can take generations, even centuries, to dissolve.
What is "genocide"?
Genocide is a type of long, drawn-out war waged against a particular population, race, or unique culture. It has existed from long before historical records, as we have stories that describe ancient genocides. However, only since the mid-1900s has the world given such acts their official name, "genocide." The word "genocide" means, specifically, the act of attempting to destroy an entire racial or cultural group of people by killing them physically, stealing or destroying their powers and knowledge, by denying them their cultural and historical identity, or by absorbing them by force into the dominant culture and its ways. And it hurts not only those against whom it is committed but also the society, or members within that society, who commit it.
What are recent examples of genocide?
The most obvious example known to most people in the West is the Holocaust during the World War II. In this Holocaust, Nazis took over Germany and began invading countries around them. The Nazis killed--or ordered the extermination of--6 to 12 million people in concentration camps, by firing squads, and sometimes by starvation and other means. The single largest group killed in such camps included Jews. Others groups included communists, artists, the disabled, and political dissidents. They were "exterminated" because, in Nazi theory, they were inferior specimens who were contaminating the master race of humans. If the Nazis had succeeded, we would have almost no Jews nor Jewish culture in the lands they would have conquered or controlled.
The world also has seen many other genocides. In 1914 to 1923, for example, the Armenian Holocaust in Western Asia saw 700,000 to 1.8 million Armenians mass executed or forced out of their villages and towns primarily by Turkey. And in Rwanda over just a few months in 1994, Hutu tribal members in control of the government called for and carried out the massacre of half a million to one million Tutu tribal members and their sympathizers, and also raped another fourth to half a million Tutsi women to force them to have half-Hutu babies. Other genocides have happened in recent decades or are happening now.
Long-term genocides also exist. This can include simple killings of hundreds of thousands of people, sometimes millions, over the decades. But it also can include "cultural" killings in which hundreds of thousands or millions are forced to give up their cultures entirely. In addition, some continuing genocides have been for financial gain--making slaves of people. The latter, slavery, has happened to people of most races. For example, just in the past five hundred years, perhaps half a million to three million Europeans were enslaved in Africa and Asia Minor from about 1500 to 1780. A large number were white sailors or coastal-village Europeans captured by slave traders from Tunis, Algiers, Tripoli, and Morocco; and others by Istanbul’s slave imports captured from eastern European villages and ships on the Black Sea. These are small numbers, though, compared to the enslavement of Africans in North and South America in the past five hundred years.
Genocide against African Americans
Genocide against Africans in the two Americas was a slow destruction of them and of their culture for economic gain. In the 1500s to 1800s, more than 12 million African people were taken from their homes and chained into slavery, mostly in the Americas. Roughly one in ten of them died crossing the Atlantic, a quarter of these children. All of them were chained so closely to others that often they couldn't lie down except on each other. Of the survivors, about 400,000 reached the U.S., about 5 million went to Brazil, over 1 million to Jamaica, and the rest mostly to other Caribbean countries.
In the Americas, these African citizens were treated as livestock for sale and use. They were beaten and killed enough so that their cultures and their individual personalities disappeared when they were working, which was six to seven days per week as long as daylight persisted. In some parts of the Caribbean Islands, the average field slave died from exhaustion and ill health after just five years of extremely hard labor.
In the United States, the number of slaves grew and spread. Female slaves often were bred like cattle to have as many children as possible before they died. Importation of slaves became illegal in the U.S. in 1809, but not slavery. By the year 1860 (just before the American Civil War) the population of African Americans had grown to over ten times the number initially brought to the U.S., or a total of about 4.4 million. 90% of them were slaves, and the U.S. then had half or more of all slaves in the Americas.
Even after slavery was abolished in the U.S. during and after the Civil War, the results of it continued in deep-seated distrust and hatred of Black Americans. For example, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a thriving community of Black Americans called Greenwood had grown to become perhaps the richest such neighborhood in the country. In honor of this, it sometimes was nicknamed "The Black Wall Street." However, on May 31, 1921, two misunderstandings started a riot. A white mob invaded Greenwood. In two days, these whites killed, burned, and looted until the Oklahoma National Guard stopped them. The result was that an estimated 150 to 300 Black citizens of Tulsa lay dead, 800 or more were injured, and 10,000 Blacks were left homeless. There also was over $32 million in property damage (in today's dollars). The event was named the Tulsa Race Riot. Greenwood never recovered.
The legacy of genocide and slavery, though not as violent and widespread as in the past, continues. The racism and continuing prejudice against some ethnic groups are more recent products of what started as genocide. They still have a potent effect in the U.S.
Genocide of Native and Latino/Latina populations
Another example of long-term genocide is the killing and forced reeducation of the world's populations of Native, Aboriginal, or First People (as they are called in different countries). When Europeans arrived in the Americas, for example, they killed so many Native Americans that some historians estimate 90% of all Native Americans were killed. Sometimes Europeans fought Native Americans in wars, but often they simply invaded villages and slaughtered everyone. Other deaths came from the spread of such diseases as smallpox and measles, which were new and deadly to Indians. Often such deaths were accidental, but sometimes such diseases were purposely spread.
For example, Spanish leader Hernando Cortez managed, with only 500 men with guns, cannons, and smallpox, to kill half or more people in the Incan, Aztec, and Mayan Empires. Much the same happened as Europeans came to the U.S. eastern coast and then expanded west. In the U.S. West in the 1800s, some people even kept Native American slaves.
Gradually, Native Americans were killed less by direct means and instead forced into "reservations" on land so poor that many of them starved and large numbers experienced serious illness. Much of there cultures were endangered and lost, as well. A heritage of this genocidal behavior continues for Native Americans as it does for American Blacks: distrust, racism, poorer economic opportunities, and significantly poorer health and shorter lives.
Yet another example in the U.S. of long-term genocide is how Mexicans were treated when the U.S. took over one-third of Mexico and made it into what is now the southwest part of the U.S. During and after the conquest, Mexicans of all types and economic brackets were thrown off their land, penniless; lynched and otherwise killed if they resisted, Mexican women raped, and children slain. Even today, Latinos/Latinas (Mexicans and others from south of the U.S. border) feel the continuing heritage of these genocidal heritages in racism poorer economic opportunities, and poorer communities.
In that war, the U.S. took, by armed conflict, about one-third of Mexico. That third became what is now known as the U.S. Southwest. And many former Mexican working and middle-class residents of their new country, because of their Mexican ancestry, were killed by hangings and shootings, chased off their land and starved, and forced into becoming poor second-class citizens.
Paradigm shifts--major changes in belief--happen in and after genocides to both the oppressed and the oppressors. In genocide, the oppressed person must become cautious, watchful, and prepared for illness and punishment that may kill or maim him or her at any time. As a genocide slowly ends with a long period of racism, an oppressed person must continue to live with many of those same feelings; in addition, because the oppressed person has somewhat more freedom, he or she must also deal with his or her increased levels of anger, even rage, of often-disappointed hopes, and of never being sure what an individual from the oppressing class thinks of him or her. None of these emotions are healthy in the long run; so much justified paranoia in itself creates a shorter, less happy lifespan.
At the other end, an oppressor in genocide must learn to treat the oppressed as if there is a war: a successful oppressor needs to see an oppressed person as little more than an animal and thus an object at his or her disposal. As genocide subsides into racism, an oppressor must continue to see the oppressed as something lesser, like a child unable to make useful rational decisions. Such treatment leads to an oppressor to physical danger from the oppressed, and to a controlling and imperial attitude toward others around him or her. None of these traits are physically or emotionally healthy, either. In other words, genocide and its drawn-out aftermaths of racism and prejudice are bad for both sides, creating a wounded and dysfunctional society.
Typically, in other countries where racism and prejudice is not as great as in the U.S., laws create more equality rather than more punishment, and such laws are enforced equally rather than with greater preference given to a dominant race. Historically, such laws ensure that economic equality is developed, as well. In economic development, people of all colors have the opportunity to have a good life, on average, to develop their own and their communities' culture, and to maintain equally good health and happiness.
Other Types of Disaster
Other types of disasters also deserve mention. One of these is locusts, flies, lice, and frogs. They are among the plagues with which Moses threatened the Pharaoh of Egypt. A current example is how desert locusts are plaguing parts of Africa since 2019 and are moving eastward into Pakistan and India. They look like finger-length grasshoppers, and they settle by the millions on farming communities, eating everything on the ground. An average swarm can eat, in just one day, as much food as would thirty to forty thousand people. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions, in these parts of the world are facing starvation.
Industrial accidents happen, too, such as the local disaster in 1984 in Bhopal, India. A toxic gas spill from a pesticide plant killed an estimated 15,000-20,000 people immediately and over the next several years, and injured perhaps a half million more. Another accident was the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster that likely killed 15,000 to 60,000 people over a period of years and contaminated 1000 square miles of farmland and villages with dangerous levels of radioactivity.
Economic disasters also are common. The Great Depression of 1929 to 1939 was perhaps the worst financial disaster since the beginning of industrialization. In the United States alone, half of all banks had to close, unable to return depositors' money, and the unemployment rate ran above 14% for years, peaking at about 25% in 1933.
A disaster often draws some parts of society closer together because the people in it need to work together to end the disaster. However, at other times, among other people, there can be so much resistance to a disaster--such as ignoring or refusing to do anything about it--that a society must suffer the disaster longer or even fail as a society.
In addition, one of the surprises in some disasters is that one disaster may create another. If, for example, if you have a war, often you may experience a financial disaster afterwards, or even, in extreme cases, a lack of food leading to general starvation. A climate change can lead to a food disaster, too, or to the greater likelihood (as in World War I) of a pandemic spread of disease. And in the middle of a major world disaster, local disasters magnify; for example, during World War II, farming communities were in danger of being unable to provide food to their communities and cities because all the farmers were going to become soldiers; so, in some countries such as the U.S., one male farmer in each family was allowed to continue working on the farm, rather than go to war.
Finally, a disaster can be deeply emotionally upsetting. It is life changing. It may be likely to cause you panic, disbelief, or fear in the beginning; painful adaptation to it in the middle; and a personality or self that is at least somewhat different--for some people, for example soldiers, very different--by the time it is over.
One important idea from sociology is that long-term societies--those lasting hundreds of years--must assume that they sometimes will need to revitalize. In other words, change is inevitable in a society. We cannot avoid it. Society and nature are not only imperfect, but sometimes unpredictable. As a result, the need to change builds until a society feels generally disturbed, uneasy, and in need of change. A successful society learns to use cooperation in order to revitalize itself. The greater the need for change, the greater is the need for cooperation. A society that can successfully cooperate can revitalize itself with new patterns. A society that cannot cooperate cannot revitalize, and may fail.
This is why understanding disasters of the past can help you be better prepared. As a result, you also can better prepare loved ones, friends, and neighbors. Disaster has a tendency to make you want to shrink into yourself, avoid others, and avoid talking about it. However, the communities and societies that best come through a disaster are those who share their needs and, especially, their solutions, working together to revitalize.
1. Imagining the Worst: As an individual or in a small group, imagine that something bad happens to your group of friends, your community, or your town, city, or state. Make a rough outline or description of what this event would look like, how people would react, and how it would affect you personally. Then write a rough outline or description of how you might respond to the event negatively at first, and how you could, instead, respond to it positively.
2. How to Start a War: As an individual, what is the biggest disagreement you have ever had with another person? Or as a group, what is a major disagreement you easily could have with some other group that is very different from your own group? If you can't decide, then make up an imaginary disagreement. Then, whether you're working as an individual or as a group, write a few sentences summarizing the disagreement and the issues involved. Next, imagine that you are the political leader of a major country, and your opposition is the political leader of another nearby country. Write a few sentences summarizing the two of you as opponents, and then write a few sentences about each of the following: Which one of you might be inclined to start a war against the other first? Would you simply command the war to start, or would you first have to get the will of the citizens behind you, and either way, how would you do this? What would your first action be? What else would you plan? Which of you--you or your opponent--be most likely to end the war? Why and how, through utter defeat, a compromise, or what? What would be the likely results of the war in your opponent's country, and in yours? Finally, what might you have learned from this exercise?
3. Response to Epidemic: What would you do if an epidemic swept your community, and two or three members of your own family died? Who would most likely die, why, and how? How would you feel? How would you deal with it? How would others in your family deal with it? How would your friends and neighbors deal with it? Write a few sentences describing each of these. Or, if you are working in a group, create an imaginary family and then answer the same questions.
Surprising Death: Imagine a time 100 to 200 years in the future when humans
decide to colonize a moon of Jupiter or Saturn that can support life. We have travelled to the planet by the hundreds and started using water from a great
ocean on the moon that is under a frozen crust. As we place our water pipes into
the ocean at a number of spots, we discover that some of the strange
"fish"--something like slimy octopuses--that are in the ocean are getting sucked
up and killed by the hundreds each month as we humans draw on the water from the
ocean. We consider saving the carcasses to eat but discover that they taste
terrible. After doing this for five years, our scientists suddenly discover that
not only can they communicate with the octopus creatures, but the creatures are
just as bright as we are in nonscientific ways and have developed whole
underwater villages and towns. For five years, we've been killing them. Imagine,
in several sentences each, what we should now say to them, what we should now do
about our water supplies and the killing of them, and what we should propose, if
anything, about working with them.
Recommended Movies and Readings, and Bibliography
See Chapter "7-D: Films and Readings on Disasters."
**Citizens of Tournai bury plague victims. Pierart dou Tielt (fl. 1340-1360) in The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis (1272-1352). Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, MS 13076-77, f. 24v. Photograph of miniature at http://balat.kikirpa.be/photo.php?path=X004175&objnr=20049662 , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64384803. Retrieved 4 April 2020.
Most recent revision of text: 7 Nov. 2020