Blood replaced ink for the most of human history. Prepare yourself for a painful recap of the most savage wars that ever took place.
Fought over religion, political supremacy, or conquest, the conflicts of the past killed tens of millions and left the land we live today blood-soaked.
1. French Wars of Religion – 3 million
A death toll of 3 million is a promising start, especially because we will first explore a war erupting solely because overzealous folks couldn’t agree to what religion is better.
The French Wars of Religion is an umbrella term for the many frictions that opposed the Catholics and the Huguenots (Reformed Protestants). Carried out throughout the 16th century, it aroused other European powers into picking sides.
The above painting depicts the most “memorable” event of the French Wars of Religion – the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Huguenots were slaughtered in the tens of thousands in a feast of savagery that lasted several weeks. What happened was scandalous mostly because the Catholic Church considered the atrocities a sign a divine retribution.
You will be surprised to know the war changed little and was mostly a façade for dynastic takeover.
2. Great African War – 3.5 million
The Second Congo War was so bloody and violent that people started calling it the “Great African War.”
Explaining the loose ends of African politics in under two paragraphs is a daunting task. A deadly cocktail of interethnic violence, genocide, and warring factions turned the Democratic Republic of Congo into a hellish land of never ending suffering and misery.
Who’s to blame? The fall of the former colonial empires left Africa with so many wounds the crystallization of the new nations was hastened and often uninspired. Almost all neighboring states sent troops to support one side or the other for the duration of the conflict (1998 – 2002).
The Congo conflict showed once more the awful consequences of bringing a war to poor communities. The hundreds of thousands that died in combat were soon joined by the millions that perished through disease and starvation.
Do you know what the worst part is? Even after a peace treaty had been signed, war is still smoldering, claiming lives on such a constant basis that it is no longer news.
Check out the war that almost saw France conquer Europe.
3. Napoleonic Wars – 4.5 million
From the chaos of the French Revolution, one military ruler emerged with the ambition of leading France to greatness.
Napoleon Bonaparte was such a brilliant military tactician that he convinced his fellow countrymen to crown him emperor. Consider the fact that French did that just ten years since they guillotined their last king.
The Napoleonic Wars was probably the first time a European power attempted continental hegemony. Between 1803 and 1815, it became sort of a cliché to hear the news of Napoleon’s army won another decisive battle against various coalitions of Austrian, Prussian, and Russian forces.
Napoleon’s winning strike came to an end with him foolishly attacking Russian during the winter. The battle of Borodino and the long retreat to France are amongst the bloodiest episodes of the Napoleonic Wars.
It’s easy to see the Napoleonic Wars as a rehearsal, one hundred years before the Great War would plunge Europe back into darkness. More than 4.5 million lost their lives, of which a third were French.
Check out how Spain and Portugal struggled for survival!
4. Reconquista – 7 million
The Iberian Peninsula was the set of a bloody conflict that created the first major front for Muslims and Christians to slaughter each other.
What we know today as Spain and Portugal might have held Moorish names if it weren’t for the painstakingly way with which the early Christian kingdoms fought the invaders back across the Gibraltar Strait. The kingdoms of Asturias, León, Castile, Navarre, Aragon, and Portugal fought over the course of seven centuries to reconquer what it took the Moors only five years.
You will be surprised to know that the Reconquista formally ended in 1492, the same year Christopher Columbus went across the pond to discover the New World. The fall of Granada marked the end of Muslim claim in Western Europe.
Going back to 732 AD, the Islamic Moors conquered almost all the entire peninsula and even crossed the Pyrenees to modern day France. There probably is one alternate reality where Europe gets fully conquered by armies chanting the name of Allah.
Check out another religious conflict that went too far.
5. Thirty Years’ War – 8 million
The Thirty Years’ War coined just how messed the political map of the European continent was in the 17th century.
What started as a localized conflict between various Protestant and Catholic states evolved into a full-scale conflagration that ravaged Central Europe and left behind the bulkiest death toll the continent has ever since in such a short time.
Every power had a good pretext to join the Thirty Years’ War. By far the most flamboyant intervention was that of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who engaged in one of the most bizarre adventures that took his troops deep into southern Germany.
The Thirty Years’ War brevetted cruel execution methods like so-called Defenestration. Soldiers threw out the windows the civilians of the captured cities.
The first all-out war that engulfed Europe showed major powers just how “fun” can be to fight on a continental scale. What followed was much worse.
Europe was not the only place where people enjoyed slaughtering each other.
6. Chinese Civil War – 8 million
China, the country that now flaunts a population of billions, “afforded” occasionally to lose millions of its citizens.
The Chinese Civil War opposed forces loyal to the Republic of China to the army assembled by the Communist Party. What followed was a bewildering war with two anomalies.
Probably the strangest fact about the Chinese Civil War is that it didn’t end. Yes, even today, there is no official peace treaty, and the two rival factions face each other across the Taiwan Strait. For those of you who don’t know, China’s old regime found a refuge on the island and still hopes to reclaim the mainland one day.
Another peculiarity of the conflict was that it took a decade-long hiatus. Between 1936 and 1946, the Nationalists and the Communists formed a United Front that opposed the territorial claims of Imperial Japan. Once WWII ended, the two enemies were back at each other’s throats.
The pic below shows Mao Zedong rising as a leader during the Great March, a strategic retreat of the Communist forces that would weight decisively in their victory.
7. Russian Civil War – 9 million
One century ago, Russia had a hard time deciding its political future.
The Red Army and the White Army faced each other in a bloody war that claimed millions of lives and kept the country in turmoil for six years. Everything started once the impoverished people of Russia have had enough with their Tsar.
In just one year (2017), the Russians went through two revolutions. One toppled the century-old monarchy, while the other gave way to the Communist takeover. Above is a haunting photo of a Tsar’s statue being demolished.
You might be surprised to know that Russia’s future was quite uncertain in the early phases of its civil war. Republicans, pro-monarchists, fascists – all wanted to fill in the power vacuum and exploit the gullible babushkas. Historians are still not sure what made Russia such a fertile ground for Communist ideology.
Although a lot of fighting took place throughout the Russian Civil War, the bulk of the victims is represented by civilians who happened to side with the losers. Lenin and the gang cleansed society and painted it in red.
That might answer why the Soviet Union saw little internal political friction throughout its existence.
Check out the atrocities committed by a bunch of Spanish soldiers!
8. Spanish Conquest of Peru – 9 million
The Spanish conquest of Peru is a dark chapter of human history, one that holds the story of the 9 million Incas that perished.
Francisco Pizarro is the man responsible for conquering an entire empire with only a handful of well-equipped soldiers. The conquistador put to work superior weapons and a cunning plan.
The drawing below shows the climax of the Spanish blitzkrieg against the Incas. Pizarro ambushes emperor Atahualpa, who is captured and executed.
Although the Incas rebelled multiple times against the foreign invaders, there was little they could do regarding fighting the infectious diseases the Europeans brought with them. The Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire formally ended in 1572.
By that time, the second most advanced civilization of the New World booked a one-way ticket into oblivion.
The next page reveals another bloody conflict that shocked the medieval world.
9. Conquests of Tamerlane – 17 million
Take a good look at Tamerlane, the ruthless ruler responsible for killing 5% of the world population throughout the years he campaigned.
Tamerlane (also known as Timur the Lame) had the ambition of restoring the Mongol Empire, almost 150 years after the death of Genghis Khan. Between 1370 and 1405 he toured Asia, sacking cities, painting their walls with blood, and destroying all the key power structures.
Timur played good cop – bad cop with the people he conquered. His most notable civilian bloodsheds are the sacking of Delhi (100,000) and crushing the revolt of Isfahan (200,000).
You will be surprised to know Tamerlane was close to engaging in a conflict that would have blown to pieces the Asian continent. Luckily, he died before ordering his army to attack the Ming dynasty of China.
The self-entitled “Sword of Islam” cut deep and merciless. Compiling the sources of the time, we confront horrifying statistics. More than 17 million perished because ambitious Tamerlane dreamt of taking over the world.
Check out China’s less know rebellion!
10. An Lushan Rebellion – 21 million
At first glance, the An Lushan Rebellion seems to deserve just a footnote.
That’s the error most historians make when they fail to check the numbers. More than 21 million perished as a result of an attempted coup that was close to overthrowing one of the most influential dynasties of the time.
Take a good look at the man who can be held responsible for the mess. General An Lushan detonated order and peace once he proclaimed himself emperor of Northern China in 755 AD. Seven years of turmoil followed, during which China lost one-third of its population.
The painting below depicts the flight of the emperor from the capital of Chang’an, immediately before Lushan’s army seized it. Although going that far, the rebellion eventually failed and came to an end in 763 AD.
The restored Tang became severely weakened and would exit the stage of history in less than two centuries.
You have to see Spain’s second carnage in the New World.
11. Spanish Conquest of Mexico – 24 million
Only three decades after Christopher Columbus had discovered the New World the Spaniards were already busy exterminating the local populations at a ferocious scale.
More than 24 million died throughout the Spanish conquest of what is modern day Mexico. Compared to that, the bloody sacrifices so engraved in Aztec culture appear like a bruise your mother kisses to make it go away.
How could less than 2,000 conquistadors overcome an army of 300,000 Aztecs, their well-fortified capital of Tenochtitlan, and the advantage of the home ground? How could tens of millions be slaughtered in a matter of decades?
Hernán Cortés exploited European style warfare to its maximum. For the superstitious Aztecs, the horse and the guns appeared as the weapons of the Gods. The Spanish contingent also boosted its numbers by initiating an alliance with the local Tlaxcala.
Nevertheless, the biggest aid came in an invisible form. European germs proved to be a formidable army and childhood diseases like small pox and measles met no natural immunity in the bodies of the indigenous populations.
Explore on the next page another Chinese conflict that killed millions!
12. Qing vs. Ming – 25 million
Medieval China saw enough dynastic drama to make the wars in Westeros look like children’s play.
Between 1618 and 1683, China completed a full transition from its southern Ming emperors to the new ruling elite coming all they from northern Manchuria. You could say that in this fragment of history the Starks were victorious.
As you suspect, the Ming did not leave without a fight. The Manchu (Qing) retaliation was unprecedented. More than 25,000,000 lost their lives in a conflict that spread across the entire land.
Whole provinces like Sichuan and Jiangnan were completely depopulated, and chronicles mention massacres like the one of Yangzhou where 800,000 innocent souls perished. The expression “women and children first” had a terrifyingly different meaning for the Qing generals.
At this point, we need to stress the fact that Qing Manchurians were foreigners who managed to conquer China mostly through betrayal and manipulation. Their savagery will be avenged similarly just three centuries later.
Check out the biggest land empire ever and the bloodshed it created.
13. Mongol Conquests – 35 million (+ 200 million bonus)
Watching a live world map of the world Mongol expansion shows just how quick and efficient the steppe riders moved across Eurasia.
Mongols dominated the battlefields with their slim and fast mounted archers that made the most of Europe’s sluggish armored knights. Mongol warriors had the bad habit of executing hundreds of thousands of civilians at a time, making religious fanatics believe the Antichrist descended upon Earth.
The armies of Genghis Khan and his lieutenants operated like a surgeon, performing a lobotomy on most states of Asia and Eastern Europe. The only thing that stopped the world from becoming one giant pasture for Mongol horses was the sudden death of their supreme ruler.
Just when the people of Europe were celebrating the end of the Mongol menace, another wave of death immediately followed suit and bathed the continent in blood throughout the 14th century. The riders have brought with them the bubonic plague.
On the next page, you visit again the slaughterhouse China was in the past.
14. Three Kingdoms War – 38 million
The Three Kingdoms War is one the bloodiest military conflicts in Chinese history.
Most people perceive China as a monolith that existed peacefully since its inception until today. That is far from being true. Back when Europe was enjoying relative stability under Roman rule, the Celestial Empire confronted one of the most prolonged crisis.
Between 184 and 280 AD China was divided in three empires – Wei, Shu, and Wu. The three emerged after the breakdown of the Han dynasty and would be again reunited by the Jin monarchs.
All historians base their life loss estimates on two national censuses that give a difference of 38 million. Whether the calculations were accurate will remain a mystery. Nevertheless, one thing is clear. China has a formidable capacity of regenerating its population.
It seems that the Chinese were so happy once the century-long conflict ended that they celebrated mostly in their beds.
As we approach the end of the list, the death toll rises to emotional levels.
15. World War I – 40 million
World War I proved once more just how messed up Europe’s political map was at that time.
An intricate network of alliances, friendships, and protectorates turned the continent into a field of domino pieces waiting for the first push. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was nothing but a pretext for nations to jump at each other’s throat with a ferocity never seen before.
The four short years of WWI would have made Napoleon and Genghis Khan jealous. Breakthrough technologies meant that soldiers could kill each other more efficiently. Airplanes and chemical weapons are just a few of the innovations that gave WWI its sad reputation.
The belief that WWI was a trench war is not far from the truth. Machine guns turned offensive warfare into mass suicide, so opponents often settled with bombarding each other’s positions and squabbling for the higher ground.
Those lucky enough to survive WWI gave it a nickname that proved to be inaccurate. The “War to End All Wars” was followed after two decades by something even more frightening.
Check out China’s less know civil war!
16. Taiping Rebellion – 44.5 million
The Taiping Rebellion highlights one more time China’s incredible potential in hosting epic scale warfare.
Also known as the Taiping Civil War, the conflict lasted between 1850 and 1864 and produced the most dramatic death toll in history at that time. The rebellion started with the millenarian movement of the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace, which tried to overthrow the Qing dynasty.
As you seen saw far on the list, every significant political change in the history of China came with savagery. The Taiping Rebellion counts as the bloodiest civil war in history and makes the American equivalent look like a banquet.
Below is the man responsible for the uprising. Hong Xiuquan considered himself the brother of Jesus Christ and wanted to establish an empire based on his take on Christianity.
Although unsuccessful, the conflagration further weakened China’s Manchurian dynasty and set the stage for the victorious Communist Revolution we talked about earlier.
Let’s end the list with the bloodiest war that ever took place.
17. World War II – 58 million
As you probably guessed, World War II sits comfortably at the top of the charts.
Countries brought each other close to total annihilation in a global conflict that lasted six years. The lure of extremist doctrines was enough to convince millions to take arms and engage in bloodshed like never seen before.
From the total of 58 million deaths, more than 40 million were civilians. Genocide, massacres, mass-bombings, as well as the inevitable epidemics and starvation, left the world (especially Europe) in ruins.
Between 1939 and 1945 our planet became a large war machinery that ran on steel and flesh, veiling the future with clouds of dark smoke. The romantic view on war finally met its doom in the Stalingrad slaughterhouse and the Nazi extermination camps.
Hopefully, humanity will never repeat the mistakes that led to WWII. Naturally, some pessimists saw in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki grand finally a preview for a third installment – the all-out war that will wipe civilization and send survivors back to the Stone Age.