Throughout the course of history, the world has witnessed a multitude of catastrophic events. Dating right back to the horrors of the atlantic slave trade during the eighteenth century to the terror attacks of September 11 2001, these historical events have shaped and continue to mould our worldview. Indeed, some of these historical events have decidedly altered cultures around the globe, effectively bringing a whole new way of thinking into being. In some cases, the question begs as to whether we will ever learn from that which has gone before, as we continue to repeat the actions taken by our predecessors. Are those who cannot remember the past doomed to repeat it, as the Spanish writer George Santayana once proclaimed?
In a letter to a friend, Plato once wrote that ‘it is only the dead who have seen the end of war.’ The course of history has witnessed massive bloodshed and loss of life at the hands of warfare. It continues to do so, as the world stands by and watches continued armed conflict in Egypt, Afghanistan, Chechnya and the Ukraine to name but a few countries. Here, the focus is on man-made calamities throughout history.
Whether or not we were living at the time of the atrocities featured on this list, these events are etched into the minds of individuals globally. They have influenced the scale of time and continue to be taught in classrooms around the world. William Faulkner reminds us that, ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past’ in his 1950 novel Requiem for a Nun. It bodes well to remember his words in this historical moment more than ever. This list of the world’s most shocking historical moments gives pause for thought.
10 Chernobyl Disaster
A reactor at a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine exploded on 26 April, 1986. According to a report carried out by the BBC, the explosion released ‘at least 100 times more radiation’ than the atomic bombs detonated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The seriousness of the event was not immediately recognised. Two individuals died on the day of the explosion, followed by an additional 29 deaths due to radiation in the weeks following the accident. However, to this day the long-term effects of the explosion in the form of cancers and physical and mental deformities resulting from radiation exposure are still being accounted for.
9 Attack on Pearl Harbour
On the 7th of December 1941, the Japanese military forces launched an attack without warning dubbed ‘Operation Z’ on Pearl Harbour, a United States naval base. This resulted in the death of over 2,000 U.S. combatants and civilians, wounding an additional 1,178. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the date as one ‘that will live in infamy.’ The U.S. declared war on Japan the following day, the 8th of December 1941, leading them directly into WWII.
8 World War I
Once referred to as The Great War, this global fight centred in Europe lasted for four years, beginning on July 28 1914 and ending on November 11 1918. It resulted in the death of over 16 million combatants and civilians. The war can be attributed to a number of causes such as mutual defense alliances, imperialism, militarism and nationalism. The catalyst that spurred the outbreak of fighting was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in June 1914. Debate still abounds today as to the root causes of the war. The closure of WWI is often described as the silence before the storm as the causes of WWII can be traced right back to it.
7 World War II
A global war without any one singular objective or enemy, this six year fight, lasting from 1939 to 1945, has been hailed the deadliest war in history resulting in the deaths of between 50 to 85 million. It was fuelled by Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and involved more than 30 countries. There was no main front. Rather, it was comprised of European, African, and Asian subdivisions of the war. Countries continuously fell under different leadership throughout the duration of the war, resulting in mass displacement, whereby millions of individuals were left to seek new homelands due to the devastation left in its wake.
6 Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was an armed conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from November 1 1955 to April 30 1975. The conflict saw the communist regime of North Vietnam fight against South Vietnam and the United States. The contentious war ended with the withdrawal of U.S. military forces in 1973 and saw the confederation of Vietnam under Communist control in 1975. Throughout the course of the war, over 3 million people, among them 58,148 American citizens, were killed in the conflict and 75,000 individuals were severely disabled in the war.
5 Rwandan Genocide
The Rwandan genocide took place in 1994. It saw the mass slaughter of the Tutsis by the Hutus, resulting from longstanding internal conflict between the two ethnic groups. J.E. Burnett states that the civil war broke out as a result of a coup by the Rwandan Patriotic Front in an attempt to defeat the Hutu led government. The Hutu retaliated and the ensuing civil war that took place meant that a staggering percentage of the country was killed during the genocide in the East African State. The number affected is estimated to be somewhere in the region of five hundred thousand to over one million. As is the case in all wars, both sides were complicit in the mass murdering of Rwandan citizens and as such, both the Hutu’s and the Tutsi’s must be held accountable.
This barbaric period in history saw the death of over six million Jews. The Holocaust Encyclopedia describes it as ‘the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder’ of these individuals. The Nazis, who rose to power in Germany in 1933, saw Jews as racially inferior. As part of the ‘Final Solution’ the Nazis killed 2 out of every 3 Jews. Their eugenics movement aimed to stop the weak from procreating. The barbaric means by which this was carried out was compulsory sterilisation, segregation or institutionalisation of anyone deemed to be unfit. Ultimately, eugenics became an umbrella under which ethnic genocide could be justified in Nazi Germany. It was a devastating period of the twentieth century.
3 Transatlantic Slave Trade
The Atlantic slave trade began during the 15th century and continued through the 19th Century during which period it was eventually abolished. The triangular trade was born out of the desire for European empires to establish themselves via trade in the New World. European and American settlers enslaved West African civilians and subjected them to gross abuse and neglect in order to fulfil their increasing labour needs on plantations. It is estimated that over 60 million Africans died during The Middle Passage, the crossing from Africa to the Americas.
2 9/11 Terror Attacks
The world watched on in horror as two hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers of the world trade centre on September 11, 2001. American Airlines Boeing 767 crashed into the north tower first, killing hundreds of people instantly and trapping hundreds above the 80th floor. Exactly 18 minutes later, a second plane crashed into the south tower. Following this, an additional plane crashed into the west side of the Pentagon. The attackers were militants associated with the Islamic extremist group Al-Qaeda reportedly seeking revenge for America’s support of Israel, as well as its role in the Persian Gulf War and its military presence in the Middle East. Over 3,000 people were killed in the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, among those over 400 firefighters and police officers.
The detonation of an atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 was one of the most horrific events in the history of the world. Equivalent to 20,000 kilotons of TNT, the atomic bomb known as ‘Little Boy’ was launched from the B-29 bomber, Enola Gay. The bomb destroyed two thirds of Hiroshima, an estimated 70,000 civilians dying immediately followed by the death of an additional 70,000 as a result of radiation poisoning over the course of the following five years. All that remained of those closest to the blast were shadows imprinted on buildings.