The 10 Worst Genocides in World History
Genocides have occurred throughout world history. Even so, the best-known ones are the modern ones. In part, this is because people remember recent events better than those that happened in the distant past. However, there are several other factors to keep in mind. For example, population numbers are higher in modern times. Similarly, states have more state capacity in modern times, which sees use for both good and not-so-good purposes. On top of these, it is much easier to determine the intent behind a mass killing in modern times than in pre-modern times because of the availability of information. The last one matters because not every mass killing meets the criteria for genocide.
What Is the Exact Definition of a Genocide?
What is and isn’t a genocide is a matter of much contention. Generally speaking, people use the term to mean the intentional destruction of a group of people. Despite that, the U.N. Genocide Convention says genocide isn’t genocide unless aimed at either a national, an ethnic, a racial, or a religious group of people.
Keen-eyed individuals will notice that this definition excludes certain acts that people often consider either genocide or similar to genocide. Wikipedia says the definition excluded mass killings targeting politics and socioeconomic class because of opposition from the USSR and other countries. Similarly, the definition excluded cultural genocide because of opposition from the colonial powers. Some authorities use more expansive definitions of genocide, which is understandable because politics exerted so much influence over the U.N. definition.
10. Circassian Genocide – 400,000 to 2,000,000 Deaths
By the 19th century, Russia was powerful enough to take the Caucasus regardless of its neighbors’ opinions. It took Dagestan plus Iranian-controlled South Caucasus from the Iranians. Similarly, it took the remainder of the South Caucasus from the Ottomans. On top of this, Russia conquered the North Caucasus in the same century. Russian control of the Georgian Military Road running through the mountains meant that its conquest of the region had two components. The eastern component was the Murid War. Meanwhile, the western component was the Russo-Circassian War.
Circassians resisted the Russians the longest out of the Caucasian peoples. The most commonly-cited dates for the Russo-Circassian War are 1763 to 1864 because those are the dates of organized warfare. That said, smaller clashes started in 1711. Similarly, some Circassian resistance continued from the mountains until the 1880s. Still, even the most commonly-cited dates for the Russo-Circassian War mean a century of on-and-off fighting.
As such, the Circassians suffered the worst fate out of the Caucasian peoples. Essentially, the Russian army decided on the stance of wanting Circassia but not the Circassians before acting accordingly. Massacres happened throughout the war. Then, the Russians expelled most of the remaining Circassians to the Ottoman Empire. Unsurprisingly, they carried out this process with the level of care one would expect, as shown by the numerous stories of overloaded ships. Some sunk because of that. Others were “just” filled with the dead and the dying by the time they reached their destinations.
Undoubtedly, the Circassians suffered the most during the genocide directed at them. However, the other people living in the same region didn’t emerge unscathed. The exact numbers are unclear, but the estimates tend to be high.
9. Dzungar Genocide – 480,000 to 600,000 Deaths
The Mongols have internal distinctions in much the same way as everyone else. Dzungar refers to the Oirat Mongol confederation that created the Dzungar Khanate. Said state came into conflict with the Manchu-dominated Qing dynasty on several occasions. For example, it lost Outer Mongolia to the Qing dynasty in the First Qing War. Similarly, it took over Tibet before being expelled by the Qing dynasty in the Second Qing War. Eventually, the Qing dynasty conquered the Dzungar Khanate with the assistance of the Dzungar leader Amursana.
Initially, Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty decided to break up the Dzungar Khanate into its constituent clans, each of which would have a khan. Its plan fell through when Amursana rebelled out of dissatisfaction that he received the khanship of a single clan rather than the khanship of four clans. This time around, Emperor Qianlong ordered the extermination of young Dzungar men. Meanwhile, older men, women, and children were handed over as bondservants to Manchu bannermen and loyalist Mongols, thus destroying the Dzungar identity. Once the process was complete, the region was re-settled using Han, Hui, Manchu, Uyghur, and other peoples.
8. Greek Genocide – 300,000 to 900,000 Deaths
Determining the exact numbers for genocides is a difficult process. The 300,000 deaths listed here are on the lower, more conservative end of things. As a result, there are estimates with higher, less conservative ranges. Presumably, that is why the Greek genocide has the number eight position even though its stated lower range is lower than that of the Dzungar genocide.
Regardless, the Greek genocide refers to the killing of Ottoman Greeks in Anatolia during the First World War and for some time afterward. It is a part of the Ottoman targeting of Christian minorities in its territories in that period. Supposedly, the perpetrators were motivated by the fear of those minorities becoming fifth columns plus the belief that a modern nation-state needed a single nationality. Most Ottoman Greeks in Anatolia were either dead or fled by late 1922. The few survivors were handed over to Greece as a part of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923. That was the end of the Greek presence in the region that had existed since the Late Bronze Age, according to Britannica.
7. Rwandan Genocide – 491,000 to 800,000 Deaths
As Vox points out, people often trace the roots of the Rwandan genocide to European colonialism. The Tutsi and the Hutu existed beforehand. However, there is disagreement over whether they were distinguished from one another by their ethnicity or by their caste. That seems strange until one learns they share the same language, the same culture, and even the same clan names.
German and then Belgian control hardened the difference between the two groups. For example, the issuance of compulsory ID cards made it impossible for people to move between these two groups. Similarly, Christian preachers played up theories of the Tutsi being foreigners rather than just another caste. This hardening was intentional. After all, favoring the smaller group at the expense of the larger group was standard divide-and-conquer, meaning that it was a common element of European colonial policies. Unsurprisingly, the Hutu came to see the Tutsi as symbols of European colonialism.
The Rwandan genocide wasn’t a spontaneous incident. There was organization, which in turn, means there was planning. Still, the assassination of the Hutu Rwandan president on April 6 of 1994 marked the start of the Rwandan genocide the next day. In total, the Hutu killed 491,000 to 800,000 Tutsi. Moreover, the Hutu killed a considerable number of their more moderate members. They even killed an estimated 10,000 of 30,000 Batwa even though they weren’t the intended targets.
6. Armenian Genocide – 600,000 to 1,500,000 Deaths
The Armenian genocide is another part of the Ottoman targeting of its Christian minorities during the First World War. Background-wise, the Ottoman Empire peaked with Suleiman the Magnificent. Subsequently, it started declining, so much so that the late 18th century saw the raising of the so-called Eastern Question. For those curious, this was the decline of the Ottoman Empire plus the reactions of other imperial powers to the decline of the Ottoman Empire.
Originally, the Armenians were labeled the “loyal millet,” as shown by this University of Michigan interview. Mostly, they wanted to stay within the Ottoman Empire, though they also wanted a degree of autonomy. This was different from other people such as the Bulgars, the Greeks, and the Serbs, who preferred independence through fighting if that proved necessary. Unfortunately, the Ottomans interpreted the Armenians’ attempt at getting autonomy by petitioning other imperial powers as treachery. By the First World War, their leadership became convinced that the mere presence of Armenians was a threat to their home territories. As a result, the Ottomans carried out the Armenian genocide, much of which happened in the form of death marches through the Syrian desert.
5. Cambodian Genocide – 1,386,734 to 3,000,000 Deaths
Mass killings can target multiple groups of people. For proof, look no further than the Cambodian genocide, which targeted ethnic minorities, socioeconomic classes, and anyone else seen as a threat to the Khmer Rouge. Vietnamese Cambodians were singled out for destruction, which is presumably a reflection of The Diplomat’s statement that Cambodians distrust the Vietnamese for historical reasons. Similarly, both Chinese Cambodians and the Cham suffered something like 50 percent deaths. The Khmer Rouge straight-up banned the existence of more than 20 ethnic minorities making up 15 percent of the country’s population.
Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge also went after anyone who seemed like a potential threat to their government. Infamously, this included many people who exhibited characteristics associated with intellectuals. One example would be those wearing glasses. Another example would be those who were multilingual.
4. Nazi Crimes Committed Against the Polish Nation – 1,800,000 to 3,000,000 Deaths
The Nazis drew upon preexisting ideas in German society. For instance, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum says the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel coined the term lebensraum at the start of the 20th century. In turn, these ideas drew upon preexisting ideas in wider western society, as shown by how Ratzel took influence from Manifest Destiny, other examples of western imperialism, and the social Darwinism used to justify those examples of western imperialism.
Even before the Nazis, the Germans saw Eastern Europe as the natural source of lebensraum. As such, the Nazis came up with Generalplan Ost, the genocide and subsequent colonization of Central and Eastern Europe. This wasn’t something they intended to carry out; this was something they were in the process of carrying out. The Nazis had extermination in mind when they subjected the conquered in Central and Eastern Europe to shootings, starvation, diseases, forced labor, and other horrors. Just in Poland, they killed 6 to 10 percent of Polish gentiles, thus making for 1.8 to 3 million deaths. That isn’t counting the 3 million or so Polish Jews they killed.
3. Holodomor – 2,711,000 to 7,811,000 Deaths
In the early 1930s, the USSR went through a famine in its grain-producing regions. This is because its leadership ordered the destruction of the kulaks, meaning peasants owning more than 8 acres of land towards the end of the Russian Empire. Two of the famine-stricken grain-producing regions were Ukraine and Kazakhstan. As such, the famine in those regions is sometimes considered genocidal depending on whether scholars believe the USSR leadership specifically targeted ethnic Ukrainians and Kazakhs. Whatever the case, millions of people died during these events. In 2003, a joint statement to the U.N. stated that the Holodomor – meaning the part of the famine that happened in Ukraine – killed 7 to 10 million people. More recent estimates are somewhat lower at 3.5 to 5 million deaths.
2. Nazi Crimes Committed Against Soviet Prisoners of War – 3,300,000 to 3,500,000 Deaths
As mentioned earlier, the Nazis sought to genocide most of Central and Eastern Europe. Unsurprisingly, that included the people of the USSR. Due to this, they treated their Soviet prisoners of war in a very different manner from their British and American prisoners of war. The Nazis murdered some of their Soviet prisoners of war either on the field or close to the field. Otherwise, the killing happened through either death marches, prisoner-of-war camps, or concentration camps. There is a claim that Soviet prisoners of war were dying at the rate of 1 percent a day by September 1941 because of deliberate starvation and other ills.
1. The Holocaust – 4,204,000 to 7,000,000 Deaths
The Anne Frank House makes it clear that the Nazis didn’t create German anti-semitism. Many Germans at the time believed that they hadn’t really lost the First World War. Instead, they were stabbed in the back by Jews and Communists. Similarly, many Germans at the time believed that Jews and Communists went hand-in-hand. This is shown by their propaganda regarding the USSR, which often featured the idea of Jewish masters commanding Slavic subhumans. As such, the Nazis also set out to destroy the Jewish people. The concentration camps are rightfully infamous. However, the Nazis also killed many of the Jewish population of Europe through other methods. They did this even though these killings were detrimental to their war effort because the destruction of the Jewish people was so fundamental to their regime.