Humanity has endured pretty terrible things in the last 2,000 years, from wars to natural disasters to virulent plagues. But what was the absolute worst time to live in certain countries? Or to put it another way, what events and natural disasters in history should you be glad every day that you didn't have to live through?
If you look at the major causes of death in different eras, it's easy to see how some time periods were objectively better than others. Tuscany is a fantastic place, but around 1348, the city was making corpse lasagna with plague victims. And if you've always wanted to see London, be glad it's not 1666, the year of the Great Plague and the Great Fire.
People sometimes claim the modern era is one of the worst times to be alive. In fact, the two weeks after March 26, 2020, are recorded as the "saddest" on Twitter since the site's conception. University of Vermont mathematicians Chris Danforth and Peter Dodds used a language tool called the "hedonometer" to track the relative emotional state of users in multiple languages. In an interview for Nature, Danforth and Dodds reported not only a major dip in the "global mood," but also an increase in tweet volume, likely because "both the pandemic and protests have been far more cohesive in terms of collective attention than anything we've ever seen."
Just remember, humanity always bounces back.
The Black Death was bad everywhere, but no one quite captured the desperation and horror like the Italians, who watched more than half of their fellow citizens die. As eyewitness Boccaccio wrote, "Brother abandoned brother... Fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children."
Another Florentine, Marchionne di Coppo Stefani, described the devastation in even starker terms. Citizens had to quickly dig mass graves, where layer upon layer of bodies and dirt filled up pits, "just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese."
The plague took the lives of an estimated 20 million people across Europe during one of the worst times to be anywhere on the continent.
World War I introduced the bloody realities of trench warfare and the hazards of chemical weapons. And while no single year between 1914 and 1918 was great, 1918 was undoubtedly the worst. The war slew between 16 million and 20 million people, and Germany was one of the hardest hit. A full 80% of the German male population between ages 15 and 49 went off to battle.
Even after the war ended, the carnage wasn't over. In that same year, 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic took off, eventually infecting one-third of the world's population and decimating an estimated 20 million to 50 million people. It was at least as deadly as the most horrific war the world had ever seen.
The Americas: 1520s
Christopher Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors brought more than guns and horses to the New World. They also carried deadly germs that nearly obliterated the original inhabitants of the Americas. According to Charles C. Mann, author of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, the smallpox epidemic took the lives of between 60% and 90% of the indigenous population, leaving the New World weak against European colonization.
Historians believe smallpox first came to the Americas in 1520, and it wasn't the only deadly disease the Europeans carried. Within a few generations, 20 million people died due to infectious diseases they had no inherited immunity against.
The Soviet Union: 1930s
Joseph Stalin mercilessly industrialized the Soviet Union with his five-year plans while solidifying his power through the Great Purge. He forced millions of peasants off their land, sent millions of people to forced labor camps, and murdered countless political prisoners using the Soviet secret political police. Show trials forced accused political rivals to confess to crimes, and Stalin ordered his followers to track down Leon Trotsky and eliminate him.
Just how many died during Stalin's ruthless rule? In 1989, one historian estimated Stalin had slayed 20 million people, including 6 to 7 million in an artificial famine and 1 million during the Great Terror of 1937-1938. Other scholars believe the number may have been much greater - as high as 60 million.