War has been waged as long as mankind has staked claim as ruler of this planet. Men killing men in the name of politics, religion, race and resources is nothing new; in fact it’s our oldest and bloodiest pastime. Wars between nations have shaped our collective history, and to be sure defined it. Without the ghosts of wars past haunting our globe current geographical boundaries would not be as such, governments would not have claimed power they so desperately fight to keep and the population of entire races of people may look markedly different. And these are all due to global conflicts between opposing nations.
Sadly, the same can be said of those conflicts that pit countryman vs. countryman, neighbor vs. neighbor and even brother vs. brother. Technically civil wars are only as old as the nation states that fight them, but the causes are all the same. Politics, race, religion and resources define civil wars as much, and perhaps even more so, than broader conflicts and in the case of the wars on this list, much more so. Here are five of the most brutal and influential civil wars in modern history; civil wars that shaped global foreign policy, served as a training ground for broader violence to come and civil wars that shaped the history of nations and in one case, the world.
5. The Second Sudanese Civil War 1983-2005
One of the most tragic episodes in human history, and a damning indictment on post-colonial Africa, the civil wars that have raged in Sudan cannot be summarized, nor the atrocities committed be properly articulated in such a short article; condemning the extreme violence perpetuated in the name of religion and oil, while preserving the legacy of the millions left dead and displaced is a task better suited to a college text book as opposed to a brief snippet in this article. That said, the Second Sudanese Civil War in particular is as horrific as any civil war in recent memory.
Essentially, on the religious side of the conflict, the predominantly Christian or tribal religious groups in the south of the country opposed the expansion of the central government of Khartoum in the north and its policy of implementing Islam throughout the whole of Sudan. On the natural resources side of the conflict, vast oil fields divided the north and south halves of Sudan, but while the south of Sudan contained fertile land for agriculture due to it’s proximity to the Nile river, the north borders the Sahara desert, necessitating Khartoum’s need to control the oil fields in order to maintain the revenue they produce.
Because of two of the world’s greatest evils, oil and religion, Sudan descended, for a second time, into civil war in 1983, and utter savagery plagued the African nation the likes that had not been seen since the Second World War. Over two million people died during the conflict, the amount of massacres in the name of ethnic cleansing is still unconfirmed, thousands of children were forced to fight as child soldiers in the conflict, millions of people fled their homes, many to refugee camps in the region of Darfur, where they were still subject to massacres, or neighboring countries.
In the end, a ceasefire was reached, and the south of Sudan became an independent country in 2011. Tragically, that hasn’t stopped the violence; since the civil war ended countless skirmishes and massacres have taken place between north and south, tribes within the south, and in refugee camps, killing thousands more.
4. The Spanish Civil War 1936 – 1939
The Spanish Civil War was an extremely brutal war of ideological differences fought between the Republicans, those loyal to the democratically elected government of Spain, and the Nationalists, a fascist movement led by General Francisco Franco. The war was noted for the many atrocities that were committed, particularly by Franco’s Nationalists. Purges of entire territories made up of Republican sympathizing civilians was not uncommon. In fact, the war incited such hatred between the two sides that the Republicans characterized the conflict as a struggle between “tyranny and democracy” while the Nationalists went so far as to cast the war as an epic battle between “communist and anarchist red hordes” and “Christian civilization.” Such was the rhetoric that left over 500,000 Spaniards dead, and saw another half million flee their homes, and often times the country.
While the Spanish Civil War was an extremely bloody affair and had immense ramifications for Spain itself, leading to 36 year long fascist dictatorship led by Franco, it was also a training ground for the Second World War, the Eastern Front in particular. Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union fought on opposite sides in the Spanish Civil War. The Nazis, aiding Franco, used Spain as a testing ground for their rebuilt military and new military technologies, especially the Luftwaffe, while the Soviet Union aided and fought for the Republicans. A mere two years later, with Spain still reeling from civil war, Germany and the Soviet Union would again meet on the battlefield as part of the bloodiest military campaign of all time during the Second World War, defining modern history in the process.
3. The Chinese Civil War 1927-1950
Before 1946 the Chinese Civil War was essentially a convoluted series of battles and skirmishes between forces that were dedicated to the government of the Republic of China led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the revolutionaries that adhered to the Communist Party of China and it’s leader Mao Zedong.
Inspired very much by the Russian Revolution a decade earlier, Mao, an ardent Marxist-Leninist and the communists believed that revolution was necessary in China in order to overthrow the abuses they saw perpetrated by Chiang Kai-shek’s government. For his part, Chiang Kai-shek did not believe in democracy nor the political process as he maintained the view that China was best served by one leader who was supported by the military. In order to achieve his aims, often Chiang employed a secret police that pushed society into subservience by force, and rooted out communists during the early stages of the war. Mao, on the other hand believed that rallying the poorest people in the country side to the communist cause would ultimately win them the cities, and began challenging the government’s tenuous hold for territory in the rural areas of China.
After nearly a decade of battling for control of China, the civil war was effectively put on hold when the Japanese invaded the country in 1937, starting the Second Sino-Japanese War, which was ultimately another theater of the Second World War as a whole. Following the defeat of Japan the major initiative of Mao to take over mainland China began in earnest, a feat he achieved by 1950 after Chiang Kai-shek’s government fled to Taiwan and from the island declared itself the true government of China.
Not wanting to see another massive, heavily populated country fall to communism, western nations acknowledged the government in Taiwan as the true government of China until 1971 when the communist government on the mainland finally took its rightful seat at the United Nations as the sole representative of China. All told, the Chinese Civil War inspired Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara to attempt their own successful communist revolution in Cuba, and took nearly 45 years and eight million deaths to formally declare a single, communist, government of China, one that still plays an extremely vital role in foreign relations, the global economy and world affairs to this day.
2. The American Civil War 1861-1865
Undoubtedly the most famous civil war ever fought, certainly for those growing up in the western hemisphere, the American Civil War could arguably be the single most important moment in U.S. history. While the American Revolution declared American independence, and created a nation, the American Civil War has defined the identity of the nation, from the day the first shot was fired in April of 1861 to the day the last shot was fired in June of 1865; through the reconstruction period, the Civil Rights Movement, right up to this very moment.
While by and large, and certainly on the surface, the conflict was fought over the legality of slavery, the conflict was fought about more than that. Ultimately, the American Civil War was more than anything a war fought over the right of the Federal Government to impose its will on the rights of the individual states. The southern states did not believe, as the Constitution clearly illustrated, that the government in Washington had any right to decide whether slavery was legal or not within their borders. Furthermore, when the Confederate states (legally) attempted to succeed from the Union, the Federal Government, led by Abraham Lincoln, intervened; however noble the President’s intentions were to hold the nation together, they were effectively unconstitutional.
All told, the war of what was and wasn’t constitutional, and which form of government ultimately decided that, claimed over 700,000 lives, fractured the relations between the north and the south of the country with tensions that linger to this day, and left the question of the identity, and rights of African-Americans in turmoil for over a century.
1. The Russian Civil War 1918-1922
The most influential civil war ever fought and the one that changed the world forever, the Russian Civil War violently introduced a new form of government to the world. Communism, a form of government the western capitalist powers had feared for almost 70 years after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the “Communist Manifesto” had only been hinted at in social movements and uprisings in Europe until 1917; with the death of the Tsar and fall of the monarchy in Russia to violence during the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war, the ‘red threat’ became all too literal and all too real.
The dates for the Russian Civil War are arguable; before 1918 any military action that occurred in the country is generally referred to as being a part of a series of revolutions that as a whole formed the entirety of the Russian Revolution. Anything dating 1918 and beyond is regarded as part of the civil war, but in reality, the entire communist overthrow of Russia may as well have been a part of the civil war. First, during the revolutions, the communist Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky took aim at the monarchy and succeeded in seeing Tsar Nicholas II abdicate the throne in February of 1917, all the while still fighting Germany during World War One. Once the Bolsheviks were able to draw up a peace accord with Germany to end the war, they took aim at all those who opposed their communist rule within Russia, including ordering the execution of the Tsar and his entire family in July of 1918. And to be sure, beyond the Tsar and those monarchists loyal to him, there were many factions within Russia who opposed the Bolsheviks.
Dubbed the Whites to counter the Bolsheviks’ Reds, the opponents of Lenin were a disparate group of various political affiliations and ethnic groups, none of which had any real desire to help one another beyond defeating the communists. Indeed, many times the Whites were at war with each other as well, and that would be their ruin. Despite being outnumbered and having absolutely no business winning the civil war in Russia, never mind consolidating their power within the country, the Bolsheviks succeeded because they were unified under Lenin’s iron fist and Trotsky’s masterful military eye. And so, after nearly nine million dead in less than six years, the western world sifted through the immense violence of revolution and civil war that Marx had so long ago wrote about, and viewed its first communist government with discontent, conscious of the fact that the first real threat to global economic stability in the form of capitalism may lay behind the Kremlin walls deep in the heart of Russia.
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