Six decades worse than the 2020s

Large queue of people outside a shop serving free soup, coffee and doughnuts during the Great Depression.
There were always long lines of well-dressed but bedraggled people outside soup kitchens during the Great Depression | Shutterstock

As we all know, the story of human civilisation is not so much a feel-good tale of peace and love, but rather a bloodstained catalogue of cruelty and suffering. A cheery thought, isn’t it?

Therefore, the task of choosing the worst years from multiple millennia of history is a tough one, a challenge well-met in a previous article. This article attempts the no less difficult job of choosing the six worst decades in history.

Which of these decades would you prefer to have lived in (not counting the one we’re currently in…)?

“Those who are about to die, salute you!” – The 300s

In the first years of the fourth century, many civilisations around the world were having a whale of a time. The Kama Sutra, by Indian philosopher Vātsyāyana, was all the rage, legendary warriors were fighting it out in China and Japan, and central and south American civilizations, such as the Maya and the Teotihuacan, were enjoying their golden ages.

But in Europe and the Middle East, the so-called ‘known world’, things were not so rosy. Especially if you were a Christian.

Christians had previously suffered persecution at the hands of the Romans, under Nero and then again in the 250s. However, they say it’s always darkest before dawn, and the ten years leading up to the emperor Constantine’s protective 'Edict of Milan' in 313 were some of the darkest for Christians.

Beginning in 303 and continuing intermittently in some regions into 313, the ‘Great Persecution’ was the Roman Empire’s last and largest systematic oppression of Christians.

In a series of edicts, the emperor Diocletian severely restricted the religious life of Christians in his lands. Group worship was banned, and they were ordered to perform sacrifices to Roman gods. Christian churches were destroyed, and priests and bishops were arrested. A large number of Christians ‘defected’ (met the demands) while others fled. But thousands stayed put and refused to change. They faced up to arrest, torture, and execution. Thousands were murdered, with many publicly tortured and burned alive.

“Get the fire going, I want a glass of wine!” – The 1430s

In 2016, a team of scientists discovered that Europe's coldest decade in the last 1000 years was the 1430s. They found that this decade, in the context of those analysed, was freakishly cold and consequently a ‘cruel period’.

The incredibly chilly weather of the 1430s led to swathes of Europe being blighted by crop failure, soaring prices, and famine. Disease was rife and death rates were sky-high in communities across Britain and the continent.

The freezing, bitter winters of this decade lasted as late as April or May, even in southern France and Italy, seriously affecting agriculture and causing massive food shortages. Six of the decade’s harvests failed in Britain. 30% of sheep died in some years, nearly killing off Britain’s lucrative wool business.

In Scotland, in the winter of 1432-33, there were reports of people having to thaw frozen wine bottles over their fires.

“A flood of waters upon the earth” – The 1530s

The 1530s was a time of conflict and conquest. Wars of power and religion were raging all over Europe from Corfu to Norway, the Ottomans were conquering large tracts of land from Buda to Basra, and Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors were brutally carving out new colonies.

But it wasn’t just man-made causes that made the 1530s an awful decade to live through. It was a period of truly devastating natural disasters, too.

In October 1530, a huge flood swept through Rome. The water reached a height of 18.5 metres above sea level. The whole of the population, including the pope and the cardinals, evacuated the city for fear they would be swallowed up. (Spoiler: the Eternal City survived).

The following month, the massive St. Felix’s flood killed over 100,000 people in the ‘Low Countries’, with whole towns and villages lost under the waves. The Dutch, not mincing their words, came to call this day ‘Evil Saturday’.

A massive earthquake rocked Lisbon in January 1531, levelling a third of the Portuguese city's buildings and claiming 30,000 lives.

Later in 1531, massive droughts and swarms of locusts in northern China caused devasting famine. Starving peasants were said to have resorted to cannibalism in some cases. Years of drought, famine, and plague epidemics affected parts of China throughout the 1530s and 1540s.

Near Naples in the autumn of 1538 a new volcano, Monte Nuovo, emerged from a week-long eruption that swallowed, among other things, the medieval village of Tripergole.

“Give them the cold steel, boys!” – The 1860s

The above quote was said to be the final command of Confederate officer Lewis Armistead before his men charged the Union line at the Battle of Gettysburg. Fought in Pennsylvania in July 1863, Gettysburg was a key Union victory and a turning point in the American Civil War.

But it came at a cost. In total over 7,000 people were killed and 45,000 were wounded or missing at Gettysburg.

There were many blood-soaked battlefields all over the world throughout the 19th century, but the 1860s seem to have been particularly gory and deadly. To name but a few, there was the French intervention in Mexico (1861-1867) which resulted in around 57,000 fatalities.

The horrific Paraguayan War (1864-1870) claimed as many as 500,000 lives, including at least half of the Paraguayan population, possibly even 70% of it.

Britain fought a considerable number of wars in the 1860s, including the New Zealand wars, and the tail-end of the Second Opium War (against China). Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck waged bloody wars against Denmark and Austria in the 1860s, with the death tally running into the tens of thousands.

The Circassian people of the Caucasus were nearly wiped out by the Russians in the 1860s.

Between 1850 and 1864, China endured a horrendous civil war known as the Taiping Rebellion. Some experts have put the death toll, including soldiers and civilians, as high as a whopping 100 million, although a more common estimate is 20-30 million, still making it one of the deadliest wars in history.

Brother, can you spare a dime?” – The 1930s

The above words are from a song popular in the US in the early 1930s, a fitting accompaniment to the longest and worst economic downturn in modern history. The Great Depression was a social and economic disaster that brought misery to millions worldwide, making the 1930s one of the worst decades in history.

Even in the 1920s, many countries around the world, particularly Britain, were still recovering from the recession caused by World War I. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 kicked the global economy when it was down and made millions realise that things were going to get unfathomably worse before they got better. Unemployment in Britain reached nearly three million by the winter of 1932-33, a quarter of the working population. This level of unemployment was mirrored in many of the world’s industrial nations.

In the US, long lines of well-dressed but bedraggled men and women waiting outside soup kitchens and in breadlines was a familiar sight in the 1930s. Agriculture was on its knees and many people were jobless, homeless, and hungry.

Industrial output dropped massively around the world, particularly in the US and Germany, but slightly less so in the UK.

The US stock market lost 90% of its value between 1929 and 1933. Mass bank closures left millions penniless. Over 11,000 American banks failed. The roads in the American Midwest were clogged with hundreds of thousands of people leaving in search of work and somewhere to live. Around 200,000 settled in California.

It was not just economic woes that made the 1930s a tough decade to live in. On every continent, there was political upheaval, war, and tyranny. Hitler was persecuting minorities in Germany and German-occupied lands, Stalin’s Great Purge of 1936-1938 claimed 700,000 lives, and Japan was committing atrocities in China, particularly the horrific Rape of Nanjing, in which tens of thousands were raped and mutilated and about 200,000 died.

“There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust” – The 1940s

A few sentences cannot do justice to the extreme horrors of the Holocaust and the enormous loss of life and suffering of World War II, but the 1940s cannot be left out of this list. So perhaps the numbers will be left to speak for themselves.

There were 17 million victims of the Holocaust, including six million Jewish men, women, and children. Estimates of military deaths range from 22 to 30 million, including 'prisoner-of-war' deaths in captivity.

The number of war-related civilian deaths, including the Holocaust, ranges from approximately 38 to 55 million. This gives an upper estimate for the total dead of World War II of about 85 million.

Written by:

James Brigden