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Matthew White on Humanity's 100 Deadliest Achievements

Matthew White has worked as a law librarian for the past twenty years. In 1997 he began his online Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century, and his database of atrocity statistics has become the most popular and widely cited section of the Atlas. In his book Atrocitology: Humanity's 100 Deadliest Achievements, White considers man's inhumanity to man across several thousand years of history. Find this and other great books in our Kindle Rainy Day Reads.

AtrocitologyAn Internet adage--Godwin's Law--states that sooner or later, every argument comes down to Hitler. By the time this happens, most arguments have drifted far away from their original questions, and this is the point that most people flee the argument. For me, however, it's at this point that the argument gets interesting.

We study the past to avoid repeating earlier mistakes, and Hitler is certainly the most horrifying mistake in recent memory; however, I've heard enough of these debates to know that they never stop with Hitler. History is full of monsters, all subtly different, and soon the argument twists around the question of who is worse--Hitler or Stalin, the religious or the godless, Communists or Capitalists, warmongers or slave traders.

I can't say that my book answers those questions directly, but I've tried to bring facts to the discussion. I start with numbers and rank the 100 deadliest atrocities of history by death toll--wars like the Crusades (#30), dictators like Mao Zedong (#2), upheavals like the Fall of Rome (#19). Then I tell you what you need to know about each atrocity--motivations, participants, cause and effect. The book leads you chronologically through the darkest episodes of history.

When describing each of the events in my list, I've tried to imagine myself on a long road trip with a friend. We've talked out all our usual everyday topics, but we still have many miles to go and many hours to fill, so he turns to me and asks, 'OK. You keep up with this sort of thing--what the hell is going on in Sudan?' He doesn't want detailed battlefield tactics or treaty negotiations; he wants the broad context, the ethnic divisions, the ebb and flow, and any interesting anecdotes.

He wants a conversation, not a lecture.

I've tried to address some of the questions I've heard over the years: 'How much suffering has been caused by religious fanatics across history' or 'Was the First World War really as stupid as it sounds?'

With some of the events--the genocides in Rwanda (#53) and Cambodia (#39)--it's impossible to be anything but horrified and sombre, but with others--the Crimean War (#96) or the War of the Spanish Succession (#61)--it's hard not to ridicule the stupidity involved.

--Matthew White



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