Many of the best known civil wars in world history fill the pages of history textbooks but had relatively light casualties – and many of the bloodiest civil wars, some of which claimed millions of lives, are practically unknown today. In the United States, we hear the words "civil war" and think about the American Civil War, which remains the deadliest in our nation's history. But that four-year, 750,000-casualty conflict seems downright mild compared to the 20,000,000 lives lost during the Taiping Rebellion.
Many lesser-known civil wars resolve quickly and with relatively few casualties, so it makes sense why they aren't commonly studied. But these massive, bloody feuds should, by all accounts, be familiar to the average person. Here are some of the deadliest civil wars in history which have somehow flown under the radar.
The North Yemen Civil War began with a coup in 1962 carried out by revolutionaries who dethroned Imam Muhammad al-Badr, leader of the Kingdom of Yemen. The revolutionaries, led by Abdullah al-Sallal, got rid of the monarchy and established the Yemen Arab Republic. Al-Badr fled to Saudi Arabia and rallied support among Shia tribes. The civil war became a battle between the Kingdon of Yemen (with support from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Britain) and the Yemen Arab Republic (with help from Egypt and the Soviet Union). The revolutionaries claimed victory in 1970, and the war drew to a close when Egypt agreed to withdraw its troops. North Yemen and South Yemen merged in 1990.
Racial antagonism and class warfare – with some religious strife thrown in for good measure – was the cause of the Dungan Revolt (1862-77), a chaotic confrontation in China which often involved leaders pursuing unclear goals and diverse warring parties. The Hui people wanted to create a separate Muslim country on the banks of the Yellow River and rose up against the non-Muslim Hans. The Hui laid siege to Xi’an, refugees fled and formed battalions, and modern arsenals (i.e., primitive guns and cannons) were established. The war ended – sort of – when a Qing dynasty general was able to calm tensions, but the region sees unrest even today. An estimated 20 million people were killed during the conflict. Why did so many die? The Qing military systematically destroyed Muslim communities, whether they were rebels or not.
In 1927, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek launched an effort to unify China and end local warlord dominance of corners of the dynasty. This effort kicked off the Chinese Civil War, which raged until the start of World War II – and then resumed after the war for another five years. Viewed positively in China today, both sides – eventually called the Nationalists and the Communists – carried out mass atrocities and the deliberate killing of civilians. The war resulted in eight million casualties Why was it forgotten? According to historian Rana Mitter, “China’s wartime experience … fell into a hole created by the Cold War. Neither side had an interest in recalling what China did.”
The deadliest civil war since World War II was part civil war, part ethnic war, and part commodities war, and at one time involved as many as nine nations. The Second Congo War began in 1998 just after the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s president, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, forcefully took office. Kabila’s crumbling hold on the sprawling, poorly-connected nation created a void filled by warlords and natural resource plunderers. A peace agreement was signed in 2002, but Congo remains volatile and at times dangerous. As many as 5.4 million people are estimated to have died during the war. Besides forced displacement, abductions, child soldier recruitment, and a massive number of sexual assaults, Congolese perished due to famine, destroyed hospitals, and a collapse of the nation’s infrastructure.