Here Are The 7 Bloody Events That Made The 20th Century So Violent

How genocide and human depravity drove history’s bloodiest century

here’s an irony surrounding the 20th century. Believe it or not, it began with a strong sense of hope and promise. There were several notable technological and industrial advances afoot, and it seemed that humankind was on the cusp of a new golden age.

Many scholars believe this hopeful vision was perhaps one of the reasons the 20th century became so violent. According to them the promise of a better society made people too hopeful, and therefore, too vulnerable.

After all, the 20th century saw a dramatic rise of ideological regimes promising comprehensive solutions to society’s woes — even a Utopia. Having the benefit of hindsight, we now know that this Utopian promise became a nightmare in most cases.
The 20th century was riddled with horrific activities like vicious total wars, a proliferation of concentration death camps, ethnic cleansing, and industrialized mass murder.

These atrocities were so prevalent that their death toll was over 210 million by the century’s end. Here are seven events that were crucial for this unforgivable slaughter of life — listed chronologically.

The Armenian Genocide (1914–1 915)
Death toll: around 1.5 million deaths

Armenian Genocide
The Ashjian family, all killed in 1915 in the Armenian Genocide

The Armenian genocide was a campaign of deportation and mass killing of Armenians in Turkey. These attacks were initiated by the Young Turk government, who had taken control of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War (1914–18). Since the campaign specifically targeted Armenians, most considered it to be genocide, despite objections from the Turkish government.

This internal conflict only worsened in January 1915 during the Ottoman battle of Sarıkamış against the Russians. The battle became the worst Ottoman defeat of the entire war because of harsh conditions and terrible tactical leadership.

However, the Young Turk government chose to blame this loss on Armenian treachery. All the Armenian and any non-Muslim soldiers in their army were immediately relocated to labor battalions. These disarmed Armenian soldiers were eventually murdered by Ottoman troops and became the first victims of the Armenian genocide.

After this, mass killings were carried out in several Armenian villages on the Russian border. Women and children were taken on death marches. Armenians were summarily shot, burned, and drowned in rivers.

Stalin’s Gulags (1922–1953)
Death toll: as high as 20 million deaths

Stalin's Gulags
Wall of Sorrow on the victims of Stalin’s Gulag

One creation of depravity under Joseph Stalin was the Gulag. This was a network of forced labor camps that brought the oppressive outlook of the Soviet Union to life. These notorious terrifying prisons held millions of people during their existence.

At its peak, the Gulag system was comprised of hundreds of these labor camps, each containing 2,000 to 10,000 prisoners. To state that conditions at these prisons were inhumane is a massive understatement. Prisoners were forced to work fourteen-hour days, and they did so in harsh weather. Many of them died of disease, starvation, or just plain exhaustion — and some were openly executed. Many froze to death.

It is estimated that some twenty million people perished in Stalin’s labor camps. In addition to the harsh conditions, the prisons were incredibly overcrowded. Violence was a daily occurrence among prisoners. Most prison populations were a blend of political prisoners and hardened criminals.

Hitler’s Holocaust (1933–1945)
Death toll: 6 million

Hitler's Holocaust
Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland

Hitler’s Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored murder and persecution of approximately six million Jewish men, women, and children by the Nazi regime. In 1933, when the Nazis assumed power in Germany, they embraced an ideology that regarded the German nation as racially superior to other societies. One of their main objectives was to establish an ethnically pure state.

They saw Jews as an inferior race that was a threat to the German culture. There were several reasons for this. One reason was that several Jewish people had established successful businesses in Germany when many Germans suffered from the Great Depression. Secondly, many blamed the Jews for Germany’s failures in the First World War.

During the Holocaust, German authorities began the depraved execution of prisoners in their concentration death camps. While most of these were Jewish, they also targeted and murdered other groups of people they saw as inferior. These included Germans with disabilities, Slavic peoples (Russians and Poles), and gypsies. The Nazis even executed people they saw as having questionable ideological, political, and behavioral views — such as Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.

The Rape of Nanking (1937–1938)
Death toll: 300,000 deaths

Rape of Nanking
Iwane Matsui enters Nanking

December 1937 was a very dark month for humankind. This was when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the Chinese city of Nanking — which was China’s capital at that time. Japanese troops then proceeded to slaughter 300,000 out of the city’s 600,000 citizens.

This was followed by six weeks of the worst atrocities ever recorded in human history. This carnage was later coined as the ‘Rape of Nanking.’ Many consider it the most heinous act of human depravity during World War II — which included the Holocaust and Stalin’s Gulags.

After Nanking capitulated to the invaders, Japanese soldiers were given the order to ‘kill all captives.’ Furthermore, they were allowed to rape and torture the city’s citizens as they wished. This stance resulted in obscene violations of humanity in Nanking. Not only were the actions of the Japanese soldiers too hideous to even be described here, but they were also terrifying examples of how deranged and cruel humans can become.

Cambodia’s killing fields (1975–1979)
Death toll: around 2 million deaths

Cambodia's killing fields
Stela of skulls, Cheung Ek Killing Fields site, near Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge was a radical communist movement that reined over Cambodia during the years 1975 through 1979. Their power was the result of a brutal brand of guerrilla warfare. It was believed that the movement was established in 1967 as an armed wing of the Kampuchea Communist Party.

During a civil war that raged on for almost five years, the Khmer Rouge eventually migrated into the various areas of the Cambodian countryside that fell under their control. Then, in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge soldiers attacked the capital city of Phnom Penh and were able to establish a new national government for Cambodia.

Pol Pot, the military commander of the Khmer Rouge forces, suddenly became prime minister of this new Cambodian government. During the following four years, the evil reign of the Khmer Rouge over Cambodia resulted in some of the worst excesses from any Marxist government during the entire 20th century.

The Khmer Rouge were so brutal that around two million Cambodians died during their rule. Pot ensured that all members of Cambodia’s professional and technical class were murdered to minimize any potential retaliation.

The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979, as Vietnamese troops invaded the country. They then temporarily installed a puppet government in order to establish order.

Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992–1995)
Death toll: 200,000 deaths

Gravestones at the Potočari genocide memorial near Srebrenica

The tension within the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina arose from conflicts between their three major ethnic groups. These were the Croats, the Serbs, and the Muslims. Unrest ultimately reached a boiling point when the Serbian genocide was committed against the Muslims in Bosnia.

These tensions had been developing for a long time when a Serbian named Slobodan Milosevic rose to power during the 1980s. He was a former Communist who promoted nationalism and religious hatred in order to amass power. From the very start, he inflamed long-standing disagreements and tensions between Muslims and Serbs within the independent province of Kosovo.

Then, during 1991, a new Croatian government, under the leadership of Franjo Tudjman, seemed to follow the old Mussolini style fascism. This new government even established discriminatory laws intended to target Orthodox Serbs. However, by the year’s end, a United States sponsored cease-fire pact was brokered between the Croats and Serbs who were fighting in Croatia.

However, in April of 1992, the United States and the European Community recognized Bosnia’s independence. At that time, Bosnia was primarily a Muslim nation where Serbs made up 32% of the total population.

Milosevic answered Bosnia’s new independence with an attack on Sarajevo, the capital city, the same city that had hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. Sarajevo soon became a city infested with Serbian snipers who continually shot down helpless civilians in the streets, even killing some 3,500 children.

The Muslims of Bosnia were incredibly outgunned. As the Serbs obtained new ground, they started rounding up Muslims — much the same way that the Nazis had done during World War II. The Serbs engaged in mass shootings, forced the repopulation of entire towns and villages, and placed men and boys in concentration camps.

The Serb’s actions were quickly labeled as an ‘ethnic cleansing,’ which was a term that caught on and is still used today by the international media.

Rwanda’s genocide (1994)
Death toll: around 1 million deaths

Rwanda's genocide
Monument over Mass Grave. Nyanza Genocide Memorial Site, Kicukiro District. Kigali, Rwanda

When the 1994 Rwandan genocide broke out, members from the Hutu ethnic majority, located in the east-central African country of Rwanda, executed as many as one million people, primarily from the Tutsi minority. This bloody genocide spread throughout the nation with shocking speed and brutality, as ordinary citizens were instructed by local officials to take up arms and attack their neighbors.

By the time a Rwandese Patriotic Front, led by the Tutsis, recovered control of the nation, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans lay dead due to the attacks. There were also about two million refugees that had fled Rwanda, which only exacerbated this immense humanitarian crisis.

These violent activities were sparked on April 6, 1994, when an airplane carrying Habyarimana, president of Rwanda, and Cyprien Ntaryamira, president of Burundi, got shot down over the city of Kigali and leaving no survivors. Within an hour after the deadly plane attack, the Presidential Guard, along with various Rwandan armed forces, set up barricades and roadblocks and started slaughtering Tutsi’s at will.

These mass killings quickly spread from Kigali to the rest of Rwanda. Government-sponsored media and radio stations began urging Rwandan civilians to execute their neighbors. Three months later, around one million citizens had been slaughtered.