Mankind has endured some pretty terrible things in the last 2,000 years, from genocidal wars to natural disasters to virulent plague. But what was the absolute worst time to live in certain countries? Or, to put it another way, what events in history should you be glad every day you didn't have to live through?
If one looks at major causes of death in different eras, it's easy to see some time periods are objectively (at least from a safety perspective) better than others. Tuscany is a fantastic place, but around 1348 the city was making corpse lasagna with plague victims. And if you're dying to see London, avoid 1666, the year of the Great Plague and the Great Fire.
People sometimes claim the modern era is one of the worst times in history, but the sheer brutality of history begs to differ.
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 countrymen die. As eye-witness Boccaccio wrote, “Brother abandoned brother... Fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children.”
Another Florentine, Marco 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 killed an estimated 20 million people across Europe, making it one of the worst times to live 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 conflict killed 20 million people, and Germany was one of the hardest hit. A full 80% of the German male population between the ages of 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 1/3 of the world's population and killing 50 million people, making it more than twice as deadly as the most horrific war the world had ever seen.
The Americas: 1520s
Columbus and his sailors brought more than guns and racism to the New World. They also carried deadly germs that nearly obliterated the indigenous population of the Americas. In fact, as Charles C. Mann, author of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, argues the smallpox epidemic killed between 60 and 90% of the indigenous population.
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 were dead, up to 95% of the population destroyed by infectious disease.
Soviet Union: 1930s
Joseph Stalin mercilessly industrialized the Soviet Union with his five-year plans, while solidifying his own power through the Great Purge. He forced millions of peasants off their land and murdered countless political prisoners using the Soviet secret political police. Show trials forced accused political rivals to confess to crimes under torture, and Stalin ordered his followers to track down Leon Trotsky and kill him.
How many died during Stalin's ruthless rule? One historian estimates Stalin killed 20 million, including six to seven million in an artificial famine, one million executed during the Great Terror of 1937-1938, and four to six million who were sent to forced labor camps. Other scholars believe the number may have been as high as 60 million.