We can all agree that war is the epitome of human stupidity, and as wars go, WWI may be insurmountable in exemplary idiocy. War theory, if we may call it that, had progressed in terms of modern defense, but not attack: both sides were armed with more or less the very same weaponry, especially the Maxim machine gun, the first truly modern machine gun. It is belt-fed, fires the .303 British, the 8mm Mauser, or the 7.62 NATO, at a rate of 450 to 500 rounds per minute, sufficient to cut men in half, which is precisely what it did tens of thousands of times for 4 years.
The British, French, Germans, Russians, and Americans all had them, and for the first 2 and a half years, the trench warfare involved one side charging out across 100 to 1000 yards of no-man’s land, through shell craters, barbed wire, mud and mines, right into the waiting machine gun lines of the enemy trenches. Each time one side was beaten back with severe losses, the other side thought there would be a weakness and charged after them, right into waiting machine gun lines. Kaiser Wilhelm sent a telegram in late 1914 to his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, that read, in Russian, “Nicky, how can we stop this?”
On the first day of the Battle of the Somme River, 1 July 1916, the middle day of the middle year of the Great War, as it was called before 1939, the British conducted the European Slow March, walking, not running, toward the Germans, on the theory that the slower they advanced, the more difficult they would be to hit, and more fearsome they would be to the enemy. After 12 hours, 19,240 British soldiers lay dead in about 25 square miles. This was the most lethal day in the British military’s history.
The Somme was begun in an attempt to draw men of both sides away from the Battle of Verdun, so a decision there could be attained. Instead, the Somme became an even larger battle in scale, and it and Verdun remain the most epic of the War. 698,000 men died at Verdun, 70,000 per month for 10 months. Over 300,000 died at the Somme. Each battle resulted in over 1 million casualties, the debut of the modern flamethrower at Verdun, and the tank at the Somme.
The Germans opened hostilities at Verdun with a 10-hour cannonade of 808 artillery pieces, firing almost 1 million shells, some as wide as steering wheels. Around the French fortifications, the blackened skeletons of trees were festooned with human and horse intestines. The Germans also used ample supplies of mustard gas in both battles. Mustard gas is essentially aerosol hydrochloric acid. One breath of it can kill a man by internal drowning. It also severely burns and blisters skin and blinds eyes.
Both battles ended in utter stalemate, because mobility had not progressed on par with firepower, and that lack of mobility, especially on the first day of the Somme, displayed more directly than any other action in any war the utter futility and insanity of warfare. Neither side could approach the other, but the Germans found their losses more irreplaceable than the combined French and British. When the Americans showed up, the Germans simply could not cope with the overwhelming enemy men and materiel for much longer. About 15 million, military and civilian, died, unless we include deaths from Spanish influenza, which was itself a direct result of the War. That puts the estimate at about 65 million.
There is no one cause to blame for the Bubonic plague’s rise to power in 1346 or so, but Europe in general can be criticized strongly for its primitive belief in witches. Because “witches” were hunted down wholesale by reason of an insufferably pervasive fear of the Devil, domestic and feral cats were also killed by the hundreds of thousands, because they were thought to be witches’ “familiars,” that without one, a witch could not adequately cast spells.
So once witch-hunts showed up in full swing and cats started disappearing into the fires, the entire European world was ripe for an epidemic of rats. And the rats showed up in full swing in 1346 in the Crimea, via the Silk Road from China. There were no cats to check the rats stowing away onboard merchant ships, and these rats were infested with fleas. The fleas carried yersinia pests, better known as plague.
Today, this bacteria has been all but eradicated in most places around the world, because cleanliness is next to Godliness. A regular hot bath with soap will rid you of fleas, but such baths were not regular in the Middle Ages. Once bitten by an infected flea, curing yourself is really not difficult at all. Streptomycin prevents the bacteria from replicating, which gives the immune system enough time to tailor an antibody to kill it. Europe didn’t know about antibiotics, and had they, they might have had fair results by eating moldy bread.
Without treatment, plague is one of only three known diseases with a mortality rate of 100%. The other two are rabies encephalitis and HIV. Given the primitive medical knowledge of the Middle Ages, the world didn’t have a chance. Even the best physicians had no clue what to do to protect themselves, much less the populace.
Doctors entered homes only after donning full-body leather armor, helmets and masks shaped like hawk beaks, filled with aromatic herbs, due to the miasmatic theory of diseases. According to this theory, simply “stirring up the vapors” would cure the area of plague, while the doctor would remain safe breathing in his mask. The masks had red glass over the eyeholes, because even looking at an infected person was thought to cause infection.
Ringing bells was thought to stir up the vapors. Or the sick person could stand next to a latrine and inhale the stench. About the only method that actually worked to a small degree was smoking tobacco, because the smoke kept the fleas away. But the most infamous methods for curing the plague were based on the principle that God was very angry with the whole world.
The Flagellants began roaming the countryside by 1349, especially in Germany, and they beat themselves bloody with Roman-style flails, the same kind used to scourge Christ. The idea was that if they suffered enough, God would relent and the plague would stop. It didn’t work.
So, like clockwork, God’s wrath was blamed on the non-Christians throughout Europe, and that mostly meant Jews. In February of 1349, 2,000 Jews were hacked to pieces and burned at the stake in Strasbourg, on the French-German border. But the plague kept coming. It killed 40% of Egypt, 30% of the Middle East, about half of the 100,000 people in Paris. The worst hit area was Mediterranean Europe, including Italy, Spain, and southern France. There, about 75% to 80% died. The Pope, Clement VI, survived by surrounding his throne 24 hours a day with torches burning close to the floor. In the aftermath, his servants found scorched fleas “like pepper” just outside the ring of flame.
England suffered about 20% dead. The total average was about 25% of the whole world, as evidence indicates plague deaths in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and the Orient. As much as 66% of Europe and Asia succumbed. Approximately 100,000,000 people died in 4 years.
Holodomor is the Ukrainian word for “killing by hunger.” It is now the proper term for Josef Stalin’s forced starvation genocide against the Ukraine from 1932 to 1933. The manner by which Stalin forced it on the Ukrainian people is open for discussion, but most historians agree that he knew what was happening in the Ukraine and refused to provide relief of any kind, even ordering food shipments diverted from the Ukraine and what food its population had confiscated, violently whenever necessary. He imposed this particularly cruel death sentence on so many solely out of retaliation for the Ukraine striving for national recognition and independence.
Today, we refer to it as a country, Ukraine, with Kiev as its capital city. But at that time, it was still referred to as “the Ukrainian SSR,” or simply, “the Ukraine,” one of many areas of Russia. The famine was manmade, an imposition directly from Stalin, but whether he premeditated it beforehand is difficult to determine. Most of Russia was experiencing a famine at that time, and Stalin may have seen this a chance to make the Holodomor look, at best, like an accident, at worst, passive justice.
The numbers are the saddest testimony overall in every one of these entries. Records were not well kept during the famine, so the death toll ranges from 1.8 to 12 million. Some scholars have narrowed this down to about 4 to 5 million. The borders were closed by the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, and anyone attempting to flee to other countries or Russian states was either shot or captured and brought back to starve. 190,000 tried to escape the Ukraine after the first year. Starvation may be the most awful cause of death. The commoners’ despair, agony, and terror led tens of thousands to resort to eating their own children. Many ate their own feet. It did not end until Stalin’s implementation of forced collectivization of grain threatened to destroy all of Russia, not just the Ukraine. Once the police and military stopped stealing everyone’s grain, farmers were able to grow for small communities, as they always had.
This war can be blamed mostly on one man, Adolf Hitler. Let us take a brief look at the motives by which he initiated global hostilities in 1939. Whereas, Stalin was patently paranoid that he would lose his power, Hitler was not afraid. He simply carried a fuming rage which, in childhood, he directed against nothing in particular.
He was imprisoned for his failed Beer Hall Putsch, an attempt to overthrow the Kaiser government, in 1923. While serving 8 months, he and Rudolf Hess wrote Mein Kampf, in which Hitler blamed absolutely everything bad that had ever happened to Germany on the Jews, all of them everywhere on Earth. Whether he actually believed this is open to debate, but there is no denying that he saw in Jews an outstanding scapegoat, one against which all non-Jewish Germans would rally.
It worked better than he could possibly have imagined. He emerged from prison a national hero and 10 years later took control of the government. What followed was a nationwide brainwashing: everyone began hating Jews intensely. Many of the Jews saw the trouble coming and left for England or America. Most stayed, hoping they would be saved. They weren’t, until it was too late.
6 years later, Hitler made good on his promise to acquire “lebensraum” for the German people, by invading Poland. Britain and France immediately declared war on Germany. Russia made a pact with Germany because Stalin knew he could not conquer Germany at that time. Hitler bided his time before invading Russia 2 years later, in the knowledge that Russia’s military was woefully inadequate. Japan invaded China for its resources, and in September 1940 Japan, Italy, and Germany became the formal Axis Powers, solely because they understood their identical desires to conquer other countries.
Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in retaliation for the U. S. embargo on oil, iron, and machinery. The U. S. then declared war on Japan, and there were declarations of war all around. Oh, what a merry world it became so quickly. After 6 years, 71 million people were dead. Rome, Paris, Moscow, Leningrad, and London were smoldering. Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Stalingrad, and Manila were obliterated.
The most infamous aspect of the War will forever remain the Holocaust. It is also referred to as HaShoah, which is Hebrew for “The Catastrophe.” Much has been said about it already on Listverse, so let us briefly examine Hitler’s methods, by which he remorselessly and unsympathetically attempted to eradicate an entire race of humans.
His seething, abiding rage found in Jews the perfect target, and he set about in his political ambitions, surrounding himself with men who agreed, some for power, some out of rage or delight, all out of hatred, that the Jews as a race needed to, and could, be extinguished. The Wehrmacht, for its part, had nothing at all to do with the Holocaust, and had very little idea it was going on. They were an honorable institution, if honor, just as compassion, can be found in war.
The Schutzstaffel, or SS, carried out the murder of 6 million men, women, and children, by poisonous gas, shooting, beating, torturing, “scientific” experiments, systematic starvation, and overwork, on the pretense that “Aryans” were superior humans, and that Jews were no better than cattle, in which terms, the question was asked, “Do we feel bad when we slaughter cows for food?”
1.1 million were murdered at Auschwitz, 700,000 to 800,000 at Treblinka, 600,000 at Belzec, 360,000 at Majdanek, 320,000 at Chelmno, 250,000 at Sobibor. Merely because they were Jewish. Meawhile, at least 750,000 soldiers and civilians died in 199 days in Stalingrad. That was only one battle of the War.
Whereas, Stalin never offered any political explanation for, nor a formal admission of, attempting to starve all of Ukraine, and Hitler explained the Holocaust as “a necessary step” in the process of purifying and strengthening the “master race,” the Crusades were undertaken by both the Christians and the Muslims for the openly expressed purpose of exterminating the opposing religion along with all its adherents, solely to glorify God. It remains the blackest moment in the history of all religion.
It lasted from c. 1063 until c. 1434, when handheld gunpowder weapons were first used to good effect in combat. Keep in mind, before you denounce God for allowing or causing it to happen, that doing so is foolishly dismissive. Assuming there is a God, the Crusades were not his fault. They remain humanity’s fault by two causes: first, the refusal to tolerate differences; and second, the active enjoyment derived from hurting things, especially other humans, since they can best voice their disapproval of such actions.
The use of the word “God” in any language to justify one’s actions of violence is but a means to an end, and also sweetens the enjoyment of another person’s pain, since by denouncing that person as an infidel, the malicious party can believe that person is also destined for eternal agony, after the agony s/he is forced to suffer on Earth. Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it? Because we all get angry at other people for various perceived offenses, deep down doesn’t it sound appetizing to believe those people are going to Hell, regardless of how much they suffer in life? No one would ever admit to it, of course, but it’s a primitive passion innate in every human, and precisely the heart of the Crusades.
In 1099, the 1st Crusade ended in “Christian” victory, when knights and soldiers from France, England, Germany, and Apulia (southern Italy) successfully besieged Jerusalem from 7 June to 15 July. They were opposed by the Islamic Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt, under Iftikhar ad-Dawla, who had 400 cavalrymen and a garrison of Muslim and Nubian troops comparable in size to the invaders, about 13,000 for each side. Inside the city there lived over 60,000 unarmed civilians, mostly Muslims and Jews.
Once the city fell, the invaders stormed in, ransacked every building and murdered every single man, woman, and child within the walls. 70,000 people were hacked to pieces “in the name of Christ.” The horses waded in blood up to their knees. Probably half the women were raped, and most of everyone was tortured by varying methods. It was unbridled, bacchanalian sadism. About 500 Jews fought alongside the Muslims, then took refuge in a synagogue. The French burned the synagogue to the ground, with everyone in it.
88 years later, Salah ad-Din successfully took Jerusalem back for Islam and allowed all those inside to return unharmed to their homelands provided they paid a ransom. Those who could not afford it were sold into slavery. Two years later, Richard I of England (the Lionheart) arrived with Phillip II of France and Frederick I of Germany. Richard was not the chivalrous hero he is frequently depicted as in films. He spent barely 6 months of his 10-year regency in England. He lived in France, spoke only Langues d’Oil and Langues d’Oc, two dialects of Old French, did not speak any form of English, and used England as a money machine to finance his conquests. He loved the sport and glory of overpowering other nations. His Crusade, the 3rd, ended in an uneasy stalemate.
There would be 6 more Crusades, with the Holy Land changing hands several times, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, all in the name of one god or another. All the while, both bibles stated, “Love your enemies.”