What was the worst year in history?

The Triumph of Death
The Triumph of death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

To say that 2020 has been a year to forget would be a colossal understatement. The Covid-19 global pandemic has cost the lives of many and plunged millions of others into financial hardship, whilst climate change has caused major environmental disasters worldwide including unprecedented wildfires in both Australia and America.

Is 2020 the worst year the human race has ever known? We take a look at some other candidates vying for that unfortunate title and leave it up to you to decide whether or not 2020 takes the cake.

536 AD

According to medieval historian Michael McCormick, 536 AD was ‘the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year.’ Falling in the time known as the 'Dark Ages', the year 536 AD fully embraced this moniker as Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia were plunged into 24-hour darkness for 18 months. Summer temperatures plummeted between 1.5-2.5°C causing crops to fail and millions to starve to death.

The cause? A volcanic eruption in Iceland spread ash across the Northern Hemisphere, blocking out the sunlight for over a year. The event kick-started a decade of misery for mankind as two further volcanic eruptions followed in the 540s leading to the coldest decade on record for the past 2,300 years. It created the ideal conditions for the ‘Justinian’ bubonic plague, the first plague pandemic, to spread across the Mediterranean leading to an estimated 25-50 million deaths, between 35-55% of the population, which also aided the collapse of the eastern Roman Empire.

1347/8/9

Arguably any one of the years between 1347-1349 could make this list as the infamous 'Black Death' bubonic plague was at its peak, ravishing most of Eurasia and parts of North Africa. It has the title of the deadliest pandemic in human history with estimates ranging wildly from 25-200 million people killed, an estimation of around 30 - 60% of Europe’s entire population at the time - one of the greatest human catastrophes in history.

Beginning in the Far East, the plague arrived on European shores via the arrival of 12 so-called 'Death Ships'. After they docked at the Sicilian port of Messina in late 1347, bystanders were shocked to discover most sailors were either dead or dying from a mysterious disease. From there, the Black Death spread across an ill-prepared Europe causing fear and misery as it went. Many believed the plague was divine punishment leading to purges of those thought to be heretics. Jews were also falsely blamed for the outbreak leading to massacres across the continent.

Although death from the plague was swift, the offending bacteria known as Yersinia pestis would cause the victims a great deal of pain before they died. Fever, vomiting and severe bleeding, along with the swelling of puss-filled boils, were just a few of the symptoms victims had to endure before passing away. With low survival rates inevitably the bodies piled high. It was a truly terrifying time to be alive.

1816

It was known as the ‘year without a summer’, as average global temperatures fell by around 1°C. Like 536 AD, the culprit for the drop in heat was due to volcanic ash that covered skies around the world. In 1815, Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa (present-day Indonesia) erupted causing the most powerful volcanic eruption ever recorded in human history, spewing tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere causing global temperatures to fall. Around 11,000 people were killed in the immediate aftermath of the explosion whilst thousands more died in the coming months and years due to the lasting effects of the explosion.

With temperatures plummeting, crop failures around the world caused widespread malnourishment, famine and death during 1816. Major typhus epidemics ravaged Europe whilst a wet, cold and even snowy summer gripped the Northern Hemisphere leading to the coldest recorded average summer temperature for Europe between the years 1766-2000. Parts of the world witnessed extreme flooding, drought and wildfires; for many, it seemed like 1816 was witnessing the coming of the apocalypse.

1918

The year started in the grips of one of history’s bloodiest conflicts and ended in the clutches of a deadly pandemic. The inclusion on this list of any year spanning the First World War is a justifiable one but the outbreak of the Spanish flu helps to tip 1918 above the rest.

Although the war was drawing to a close in 1918, the year still witnessed some of the bloodiest clashes including the German Spring Offensive and the Second Battle of the Somme. As a war-torn Europe then began to lick its wounds and contemplate the thought of peace, the Spanish flu began to take hold.

The exact origin of the flu is unknown but cases began to simultaneously crop up in the United States, Europe and Asia. As troops returned home after the war, many took the flu with them. From there it spread like wildfire in a series of successive waves that would see an estimated 500 million people infected. Without a vaccine or effective drugs to fight the H1N1 influenza virus, authorities across the globe shut down public places and ordered the wearing of masks, sound familiar?

By the time the flu had run its course some three years later, around 50 million had lost their lives to the disease.

1943

Every year between 1939-1945 was a low point for humanity but one year seemed to sink lower than the rest. In 1943, the world witnessed some of the largest and bloodiest battles of WW2 as well as the climax of the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews.

Early 1943 saw bitter fighting continue on the Eastern Front. The meat grinder that was the siege of Stalingrad drew to its bloody conclusion whilst the largest tank battle in history raged at Kursk. The Western Front saw fierce fighting as Allied forces invaded Sicily and drove Axis forces from the Island.

As the year went on the Holocaust grew deadlier as the Nazi’s perfected their machine of systematic deportation and genocide. By the spring of 1943, more than 1.3 million Jews had been deported and killed. The world was now awakening to the horrors befalling Europe’s Jews but the Allies failed to act due to a lack of military capability, intelligence and (as some argue) political will.

The year also saw the death of around 3 million in the Bengal province of British India due to famine and disease. Food scarcity had been exasperated by an increase in the volume of food Britain exported from its Indian provinces.