Weird History

How The Worst Periods In Human History Got Better

Humanity has lived through some horrific periods in history, including natural disasters, plagues, and man-made crises. Plagues have threatened to wipe out civilization more than once, while famine, floods, and fires have brought devastation and destruction. Wars, depressions, and atomic weapons have also contributed to the darkest times in human history. 

How did the world recover from calamities like the Black Death, the Great Depression, and the Spanish flu? Sometimes it takes years or decades to bounce back after a crisis. Consider the worst year in human history. Millions succumbed to plague and famine, but society eventually bounced back and even found a silver lining in the crisis. The same can be said of the recovery from the general crisis in the 17th century, which gave society new ways to end wars. 

Looking how people recovered from the worst periods in history reveals the importance of perseverance and innovation in the face of devastation.

  • What Happened: In 1918-1919, a devastating pandemic known as the Spanish flu swept across the world. Its death toll dwarfed the destruction caused by WWI, with the virus claiming up to 100 million lives, while the war took 18 million. 

    The Bounce Back: The pandemic eventually ended, but it triggered major changes for European states. Rather than approaching health as an individual challenge, several European governments moved toward universal healthcare to treat health as a public issue. 

    In the 1920s, European governments began offering healthcare to the population without charge. Soviet Russia was the first to introduce a public healthcare system, with other Western European countries developing their own state-run healthcare systems. The US, by contrast, moved toward an employer-based healthcare insurance plan. 

  • England's Plague Led To A Flourishing Era Of Science
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    England's Plague Led To A Flourishing Era Of Science

    What Happened: Many Londoners believed the end of the world was near in 1665-1666. England's capital faced a devastating fire, while a horrific outbreak of plague swept across the country. The Great Plague killed 20% of London's population while also devastating the country. The Great Fire burned down 80% of the city, leaving charred remains behind. 

    The Bounce Back: England quickly bounced back from the plague and the fire, in part thanks to the efforts of England's scientific community. 

    In London, Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke created new visions of the capital's layout, drawing on scientific principles. And in Cambridge, the plague forced a young Isaac Newton to retreat home to conduct experiments. During his annus mirabilis, Newton developed calculus, experimented with light, and came up with a new theory of gravity. 

  • An American Golden Age Followed The Great Depression
    Photo: Unknown/National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    What Happened: The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Dust Bowl of the 1930s created a major economic crisis in the US. In 1930, unemployment hit 25%, with over 15 million Americans looking for work. President Herbert Hoover recommended self-reliance to endure what he called a “passing incident in our national lives.”

    Over the next nine years, Roosevelt’s New Deal created a new role for government in American life. Though the New Deal alone did not end the Depression, it did provide an unprecedented safety net to millions of suffering Americans.

    The Bounce Back: FDR's New Deal pulled America out of the Great Depression and helped usher in a new golden age. The New Deal used government spending to push the economy toward recovery, while FDR also pushed for banking reforms to prevent crashes. The New Deal also brought new social safety nets like the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act. 

    Industrial production during WWII helped end the Great Depression, but it was the federal government's massive investment in workers' rights, regulations, and a social safety net that helped the US bounce back from the Depression. 

  • After The 14th-Century Plague Came The Renaissance
    Photo: Pierart dou Tielt / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    What Happened: The Black Death wiped out 30% - 60% of Europe's population in the 14th century. A Florentine chronicler wrote, "All the citizens did little else except to carry dead bodies to be buried." The devastating pandemic was more than a demographic disaster - it also caused an economic collapse. Trade halted, unemployment skyrocketed, and many simply gave up hope.

    The Bounce Back: Europe's population didn't recover from the plague for centuries. Still, humanity bounced back and reshaped society. A smaller number of workers led to higher wages for agricultural and urban laborers. Peasants demanded an end to serfdom as feudalism slowly ended.

    The plague also convinced Italians that their society was broken. Instead of continuing on the medieval model, many Italians looked back to the last era where Italy dominated the world: the Roman Empire. The return to classical models to rebuild society sparked the Renaissance.