Considered one of the most horrific atrocities that could be committed, genocide is an act of systematically trying to eliminate a cultural, religious, or ethnic population. The study of genocide has grown since the 20th century, when the term was coined. That being said, genocide is not a new phenomenon. Rather, advances in technology during the 20th century have allowed us to better document when an atrocity has occurred.
That technology has also made it easier for genocide to occur, with modern transportation, weapons, and communications tech all allowing for states and radical movements to better exert influence and control over the people within their power.
Unfortunately, the term genocide has become somewhat of a blanket term to describe particularly awful atrocities. This list will only include atrocities which I feel fit the criteria of being a genocide: a wilful and deliberate act of trying to eliminate a specific population by a legitimate force capable of doing so. Therefore, acts that are not legitimate attempts, successful or not, at destroying a people (or a subsection of them), will not be included regardless of how horrifying or terrible they were.
Some high-profile cases were deemed not to fit this classification, such as the Rape of Nanking and the Atomic Bombs because, despite the atrocity, neither of these attacks represented coordinated attempts to destroy an entire people. On the other side, atrocities in Belgian Congo, the Irish Potato Famine, and the Famine in the Ukraine did decimate populations, but they were arguably perpetrated for reasons other than the complete annihilation of a people.
The leaving of these items off this list is in no way a reflection of how terrible they were, but instead it was a judgement call on what exactly fits the description of a genocide. Here are the 10 worst.
Native Populations Across The “New World” (~1500-?)
One of the hardest decisions for this list was how to classify and handle this particular entry. Taking place arguably from the 1500’s to present, the decimation of native populations by Europeans is as fiercely debated as it is hard to classify.
No estimate could ever properly be made at how many people were killed over that time. Further, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how much of an intent there was to destroy Native populations, as this undoubtedly was different across the many regions affected. In the end, the jury remains out on this group of potential genocides and atrocities.
Caste War Of Yucatán (1847-1901)
The Caste War of Yucatán took place in Mexico between the native Mayan population, based out of the Yucatán peninsula, and the European population. During the war, about 40,000 to 50,000 were killed on both sides.
What changed this from a regular civil war into a genocide was a call by the Mayans to kill all non-Mayans. During this long war, (and as late as the 1930’s) any non-Mayan would be killed if they were found in Mayan territory. With the capture of the Yucatán capital, Chan Santa Cruz, in 1901, the war was officially declared over, though tensions still remain in the area.
The Bosnian Genocide (1992-1995)
Following the fall of the USSR, the communist state of Yugoslavia began to fall apart at the seams. Comprised of multiple ethnic and religious peoples of south Slavic origin, Yugoslavia descended into a terrifying civil war as its central power fell apart. During this, war broke out in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina with Bozniak (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosnian Croats on one side and Bosnian Serb forces on the other.
Approximately 100,000 people were killed and about 20,000 women were raped. About 80% of these deaths were Bozniaks caught in the areas controlled by the Bosnian Serbs, who enacted policies of ethnic-cleansing. Atrocities during this time include perpetrated mass deportations, jailing, and killings of the Bozniaks.
Al-Anfal Campaign And Kurdish Genocide (1986-1989)
Conducted in Northern Iraq by President Saddam Hussein, the Kurdish Genocide was a result of the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980’s. Seen as a potential threat to the country, Hussein ordered a genocidal campaign against the Kurd population of Iraq. This order resulted in the deaths of anywhere from 50,000 to 182,000 Iraqi Kurds.
Actions included mass deportations and chemical weapon attacks on several Kurd villages. When everything was finished, 90 percent of Kurdish villages were destroyed by Iraqi forces, including the Kurdish town of Qala Dizeh, which had a population of 70,000 before the attack.
Dzungar Gencoide (1757-1758)
Due to the age of this genocide, numbers and statistics are far less reliable than more recent entries. Nevertheless, according to one historian the destruction of the Dzungar people was “arguably the eighteenth century genocide par excellence.” Located in what is now Western China, the Dzungars were destroyed after the Qianlong Emperor ordered that all men be killed and all women and children divided amongst the army.
One Chinese scholar estimates that 40 percent of the Dzungar were killed by disease, 20 percent were able to flee, and 30 percent were killed by the army. Dzungars still remain in Western China in the city of Xinjiang, where ethnic tensions often explode into violent attacks and equally violent repression.
Carthage (146 B.C.E.)
Some argue this to be the earliest recorded attempt at genocide. Following Carthaginian General Hannibal’s attempt at sacking Rome, Rome took the fight to Carthage, located in Northern Africa in modern day Tunisia. The resulting Carthaginian defeat resulted in the decimation of this once powerful city.
Carthage’s population dropped from 500,000 to 55,000. For perspective, the then largest city in the world was Alexandria, with 1,000,000. To finish the city for good, Roman legions poured salt over the former city, rendering the surrounding land unable to grow crops or support life. Carthage became a by-word for the Roman Military’s viciousness, and its defeat paved the way for Rome’s domination of the known world for the next half a century.
East Timor (1975-79) (1999)
East Timor, a one time colony of Portugal, was invaded by its neighbour Indonesia just one year after it gained its independence.
Genocide here can be split into two eras. The first, between 1975 and 1979, was a pacification campaign that resulted in 200,000 killed, about 1/3rd of the East Timorese population. Then, in 1999, following a successful independence vote, over 200,000 people were forced into concentration camps, where many more were killed by force or neglectful conditions.
The atrocities committed in East Timor have been gaining more coverage over the last few years as shaming scandals about American and Western Powers complicity in Indonesia’s atrocities come to light. This includes millions of dollars in aid and weapons, as well as international silence on what was happening in East Timor.
Rwandan Genocide (1994)
One of the most famous genocides in history, the genocide in Rwanda against the Tutsi tribe lasted about 100 days and resulted in the slaughter of about 500,000 to 1,000,000 people. A fairly common estimate pegs the number at 800,000, which would mean the death of about 3/4’s of the Tutsi’s at the hand of the Hutu majority.
This genocide was actively planned by the government and military and was part of the larger Rwandan Civil War that had begun in 1990. Following the Rwandan Genocide, the International Criminal Court was set up so that incidents of this nature could be charged in a uniform and binding way.
The Armenian Genocide (1915)
Occurring in what is now Turkey, the Armenian Genocide was an attempt by the government to eradicate all Armenians, and other minorities, from its country. This resulted in the murder of between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000 Armenians, mostly men, and the deportation of the rest.
Considered the second-most studied genocide behind the Holocaust, the term “genocide” was actually coined during the study of this event. Today there are still problems of recognition for this genocide, as Turkey denies the severity of its actions, arguing that accounts of death tolls have been far overblown (they insist the number of deaths is closer to 300,000).
Atrocities committed during this genocide include death marches, poisonings, mass burnings, drownings, and extermination camps.
The Holocaust (1942-1945)
Easily the most well-known example of a genocide in history, the Holocaust perpetrated against the Jewish people by the Nazis resulted in about 6 million Jews killed. In other words, 67 percent of the entire Jewish population in Europe.
Begun after roughly a decade of increasingly anti-Semitic policies, the Final Solution sanctioned the collection and systematic killing of Jewish people in Nazi-occupied Europe. The Jews were killed by starvation and disease in ghettos, by firing squads, through unethical scientific experiments, torture, and by gas chambers in the infamous concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau.
This holocaust was not only horrific – it was planned. Based on designs from the Wannsee Conference in 1942, the Nazi party used its considerable power to track down and kill as many Jews in Europe as it possibly could. No attempt at genocide before or since has been more thorough or awful, and hopefully that will remain true in the future.