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A fascinating and fun look at the "Heart of Darkness."
on November 20, 2011
I have long kept in my memory statistics such as the fact that the the Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648) managed to kill off 25% of the German population. Or there is my personal favorite - during the War of the Triple Alliance, the Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano Lopez improbably and imprudently led Paraguay in to a war against Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, which resulted in the deaths of something like 90% of the mature Paraguayan male population.
These statistics are simply imponderable. What was it like to live after the cataclysm of the Thirty Years War? How did Paraguay manage to continue as a nation after the debacle of the War of the Triple Alliance? How did these "democides" happen?
The Great Big Book of Horrible Things collects and ranks the Thirty Years War (Rank: 17) and the War of the Triple Alliance (Rank: 79) with ninety-eight other mind-boggling instances of man's inhumanity to man, and provides a brief synopsis of their causes, course and results, all done in a breezy and humorous approach to the all-too serious subject matter. This approach is not a flaw of the book. All but five or six of the wars are long-forgotten, and the fact that so many can die for what appear to be transient and ephemeral causes is a cautionary instruction for the modern age. Moreover, the effect that these statistics and the stories behind them have - particularly the ones removed from modernity - have on me is "Gosh!Wow!" as in "Gosh! Wow!" can you believe that Genghis Khan (Rank: 2) managed to kill 40 million human beings with nothing more than muscle powered weapons?!?!?
Each of the entries gets a fairly short write up that provides background, players, setting, course and effects of the particular piece of human tragedy being reviewed. The book covers a period from the Second Persian War (Rank: 96), circa 480 - 479, to the Second Congo War (Rank: 27) that ran from 1998 to 2002. The author Matthew White surveys the entire world, which results in entries from the Goguryeo-Sui Wars (Rank: 67) between Korea and China, crica 598 to 612 A.D., to the Bahmani-Vijayanagara Wather (Rank: 70) between Muslims and Hindus, circa 1366, in Indian, to the "Heart of Darkness" which was King Leopold I of Belgium's Congo Free State (Rank:14), circa 1865 - 1908. The result is a book that is easy to dip into to read whatever the reader is interested in, but then pulls the reader into reading "just another" selection, then another selection, as the reader is confronted by well-known and unknown mind-boggling, "Gosh! Wow!" histories of events whose passions have either died completely or are in the process of dying out.
The author has a couple of nice appendices where he crunches some numbers for determining who and what are the greatest killers. Although my senses was that he had a secularist bias, he was encouragingly even-handed in analyzing both the cliche that religion causes war and the contribution that Communism has made to mass-killing in the 20th Century. For my part, I was surprised by the number of Chinese rebellions that were inspired by a form of "Christianity," to wit, two: the Fang La Rebellion (Rank: 37) of 1120 - 1122 was led by "Vegetarian Demon Worshippers," i.e., Manichaeans, and the Taiping Rebellion (Rank: 6) of 1850 - 1864 was led by a person who fancied himself to be the "younger brother of Jesus Christ." Granted that there are a lot of Chinese rebellions that did not need to be ignited by a a Christian heresy, one has to marvel - Gosh! Wow! - about the fact that any of them - let alone two - were ignited by such an alien influence, as Christianity is to China, and ponder what effect that may have had on the antipathy of Communist China in the 20th Century to Christian missionaries. (Admittedly there are other reasons for Communists to suppress Christianity, but the virtue of a book like this one is that it allows such patterns to become apparent because of the breadth of its coverage.)
This is a great book to leave on the night stand or coffee table for those occasions when the reader has a few minutes to get lost in the the great ethnic cleansing of the Sino-Dzungar War (Rank: 67), circa 1755-1757, when China eliminated the Dzungar nation by eliminating something on the order of 600,000 Dzungars in an atrocity that has essentially been forgotten.