5 Most Lethal Wars in Human History
All wars are awful. Some wars are much, much more awful than others.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor does it comprise anything but a fraction of the overall deaths in wars in human history. Still, the five wars on this list may have collectively killed up to a quarter of a billion people.
These wars were big and upset the status quo. The Chinese Civil War turned more than half a billion people Red. World War II destroyed a totalitarian menace. Even the Mongol invasions echo in the present as an estimated 16 million people worldwide carry the genes of Genghis Khan.
Chinese Civil War
The Chinese Civil War was fought between the forces of the Republic of China (ROC) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The war was fought on and off for more than 20 years, from 1927 to 1950, and resulted in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on the mainland and the Republic of China on the island of Taiwan. Some eight million were killed in a conflict complicated by the presence of Japanese forces in China.
Like all civil wars in China’s history, social disruption was the main killer and affected civilians the most. Fighting generated refugees, leaving them vulnerable to disease and starvation. Reprisals by one side against cities, towns and villages thought to be sympathetic to the other killed more civilians.
Military casualties in the beginning of the civil war were relatively light, as the CCP primarily fought a guerrilla war. At the end of World War II the Soviet Army provided captured Japanese weapons to the CCP’s military forces, dramatically increasing their effectiveness in the field. Within five years the ROC had been swept from China into Taiwan and pockets of Southeast Asia.
An exacerbating factor in the civil war was the presence of Japanese forces engaged in a brutal campaign to pacify occupied China. The Japanese were usually more than a match for Chinese forces, but China had a seemingly inexhaustible amount of manpower. Both ROC and CCP forces fought the Japanese, even temporarily suspending fighting one another during the famous Second United Front.
Tai Ping Rebellion
Hong Xiuquan, a Chinese Christian mystic who believed he was a brother to Jesus, led a revolt against the ruling Qing dynasty. Hong founded the Tai Ping Heavenly Kingdom, and led an army to overthrow the Qing. The civil war, which lasted from 1850 to 1864, was possibly the most lethal conflict ever.
Hong’s rebellion started in southern China, with many of its recruits coming from Guangxi and Guangzhou provinces. As the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom marched north, enjoying victory after victory over Qing forces, a capital was set up in Nanjing.
The advance of the Taiping Army was halted by the Ever Victorious Army, an Imperial army led by European officers, including American Frederick Townsend Ward and British Army officer Charles “Chinese” Gordon, who would later be killed at the Siege of Khartoun. The Taiping Army proved unable to capture Beijing and Shanghai, and was eventually rolled back by Imperial forces.
Although military casualties were likely under 400,000, total casualties including civilians were reportedly anywhere from 20,000,000 to 100,000,000. Most civilian casualties were caused by civil disorder and resulting starvation and disease. Towards the end of the war Imperial government troops conducted reprisals in the birthplace of the rebellion, with up to one million killed in Guangzhou.
Mongol Conquests and Invasions
The Mongols, a tribe of nomadic horsemen from Central Asia, conducted a hundred year campaign of conquest that subjugated most of Eurasia. During the 13th century, the Mongol Empire systematically conquered modern-day Russia, China, Burma, Korea, all of Central Asia, India, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland.
The Mongols did not conquer gently. Between 1211 and 1337, they may have killed as many as 18.4 million people in East Asia alone. As Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker, “For the cities and cultivated places in the Mongols’ path, they were a natural disaster on the order of an asteroid collision.”
An example of Mongol brutality was the Persian city of Nishapur, destroyed in 1221 AD by Mongol forces who reportedly wiped out 1.7 million people living in and around the city. In their conquest of Baghdad, then the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongols embarked on a seven-day killing spree that killed 200,000 to 1,000,000 inhabitants of the city.
Exactly how many people were killed in the various Mongol invasions is difficult to pin down. Historians have likely exaggerated many of the statistics, helped by the Mongols themselves. The Mongols spread word of atrocities far and wide to demoralize those next in line for conquest. Revisionist studies of the Mongol invasions have proposed rolling back the number killed considerably, from roughly 40,000,000 to perhaps “only” 11.5 million during a period of 120 years.
World War I
Sixteen million people were killed in World War. Of those, 9,000,000 were combatants and 7,000,000 were noncombatants.