When news of the truck killings in Nice, France, broke last week, I started seeing variations of the same sentiment on Twitter and Facebook: Is this the worst year ever, or what? (“Dear 2016,” one meme asked. “Y U No End Soon?”) Terror attacks, Zika, Brexit, police shootings, Syria, Trump, record-hot temperatures, the losses of Prince and David Bowie—this has been one unrelenting turn around the calendar. Have terrifying events truly piled up on each other in 2016, in a way they didn’t in any other year in human history? Or is it impossible to judge the awfulness of a year while it’s still unfolding? Do we just notice negative happenings more these days because of our high levels of connectivity? And what does “worst year” even mean—“worst year” for Americans, for humanity, for the planet?
The question of how to determine a “worst year” in history piqued my interest. So I decided to ask a group of historians to nominate their own “worst years” and to reflect on what constitutes a “really bad year.” Ten brave souls agreed to play this parlor game with me. Here are their picks.
Circa 72,000 B.C.
There are plenty of “bad years” in the history of the universe, but the worst year in human history would probably be the year humans came closest to extinction (thus far). One year, around 72,000 B.C., there was a volcanic super-eruption on the island of Sumatra in present-day Indonesia. The explosion was massive. Where there was once a mountain, there is now a lake. It exploded with the force of 1.5 million Hiroshima-size bombs. Rock and magma were hurled continental distances. A layer of volcanic ash approximately 15 centimeters (about six inches) thick settled over Asia with traces as far as our homeland in East Africa. The skies darkened and global temperatures fell.
The “long night” descended, and something analogous to a nuclear winter began that year and lasted for many years afterward. Food sources died off, and DNA testing indicates that the human population was reduced to between 3,000 and 10,000 people. From this tiny group of survivors, no bigger than a small town, all 7 billion people on Earth today are descended, making us one of the most numerous but genetically close species in nature.
David Baker is the author of Crash Course Big History.
People talk about 2016 being a particularly disastrous year, but for a historian, there’s nothing new about people fighting for power or useless leaders with bad ideas gathering widespread support. All the current political upheaval is nothing compared with 1348, when the Black Death took hold.
The disease spread quickly along the Silk Roads and then across the trade routes crisscrossing the Mediterranean. In the space of 18 months, it killed at least a third of the population of Europe. “Our hopes for the future have been buried alongside our friends,” wrote the great Petrarch. It seemed like the end of the world was coming. Some advised avoiding “every fleshly lust with women,” others that marching barefoot while self-flagellating would help. One writer in Damascus recorded that plague “sat like a king on a throne and swayed with power,” killing thousands every day. Dogs tore at the bodies of the dead that lay unburied in the streets.
That, I think, is what hell on Earth really looks like—and I’d rather be alive in 2016 than 1348.
If there’s one consolation, incidentally, it’s that the Black Death spurred one of the most golden of golden ages in history. Plague led to sharply reduced inequality, a spending boom, and a flowering of the arts. Storms do sometimes give way to sunshine.
Peter Frankopan is author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.
Ought we measure the “worst year in human history” by some calculus of human suffering? By sheer number of deaths? By the geographical extent of misery? Any of these metrics provide ready candidates. I will suggest, however, that the worst year ought to be the beginning of a world-historical process that once started, offered little chance for reversal. I nominate 1492.
That year, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella completed their conquest of Moorish Granada. Within a few years, the roughly half-million Muslim inhabitants of the territory would be killed, converted, enslaved, or expelled. The kingdom also expelled its Jewish population, resident since Roman times, providing a blueprint for similar persecutions and expulsions in years to follow. Spanish actions helped create the idea of a geographically distinct “Christian Europe,” replacing the more than two millennia of political and religious identities that connected different Mediterranean shores.
The most significant event of that year, however, was the first American voyage of Christopher Columbus. Columbus wasn’t the first European to reach the western continents, but his voyages were the first to become widely known. As a result, Spain and its rival powers accelerated their overseas contest for trade and territory. By the early 16th century, Old World diseases made their inevitable drift to the Americas, beginning the series of plagues that ultimately caused the demographic collapse of some 90 percent of the indigenous population by the mid-19th century, and for many groups, the utter obliteration of society itself. Worse still, as the indigenous labor force disintegrated, Europeans turned to Africa for new sources for New World enslaved labor.
Few years in human history are so freighted with catastrophic consequences.
Peter Shulman is author of Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America.
War on two fronts, in Florida against the Seminoles and in Alabama against the Creeks. One Georgia volunteer was toasted on July 4 for taking “an Indian’s scalp.” Toward the end of the year, the United States began preparations to invade the Cherokee Nation and forcibly remove its residents. After the state-sponsored mass deportations—the first in the modern era—who would cultivate the land? The 1830s, if not precisely 1836, represented the peak of the interstate slave trade, with a quarter of a million enslaved people marched or shipped west to labor on fields that only a few years earlier had belonged to Native Americans. In Congress, pro-slavery politicians refused to hear anti-slavery petitions, passing the first gag rule in May 1836. In the words of one white Southerner, these were “flush times,” rife with speculation in Native American land and black slaves.
The year marks a high-water mark in the confluence of the nation’s darkest legacies: racism and reckless capitalism. The speculative bubble would collapse the following year, leaving behind hundreds of ruined banks and millions of dollars of worthless debt. The financial system would recover, but there was no second chance for the dispossessed.
Claudio Saunt is the author of West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776 (Norton, 2014) and is at work on Aboriginia: Mass Deportation and the Road to Indian Territory.
My nod for the “worst year ever” goes to 1837, mostly because it was dreadful for nearly everyone in the United States. Andrew Jackson left office, and even though Martin Van Buren had been elected to replace him without much difficulty, within months of his taking office the nation was plunged into what was then the worst economic depression it had ever seen. Van Buren acquired the nickname “Martin Van Ruin,” and the impact of the Panic of 1837 was devastating. The financial prospects of millions of white citizens were crushed, and the panic significantly escalated the ongoing dislocation of black peoples’ lives as whites sold them in untold numbers, often at a discount, in desperate efforts to pay off debts. Alternatively, whites dragged enslaved people off to Texas, where the influx of Americans only increased pressures on Native Americans in the region.
Native Americans, of course, had been suffering from white incursions for years, but they saw their dispossession continue in 1837 thanks to the ongoing Seminole War (itself unpopular among whites) and the beginning of forced removal of the Chickasaws from the southeast to Oklahoma. The Cherokee Trail of Tears would take place the following year. Meanwhile, in the Midwest a mob of whites in Illinois lynched the abolitionist minister and editor Elijah Lovejoy, escalating what was already widespread harassment and abuse of anti-slavery activists from routine violence to murder and keeping the politics of slavery aflame. Almost no one got out of 1837 unscathed. Certainly there are other fine candidates for the worst year ever, but that one was pretty darn terrible.
Joshua Rothman is the author of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson.
1876 was the worst year ever. The split presidential election set the stage for the bargain that ended Reconstruction. I would have nominated the highest casualty year of the Civil War as the worst, but the failure to defend racial equality in the South after so many lives were sacrificed seems far more tragic. Also, in ’76 you have the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the destruction of the great human experiment of bison-hunting equestrianism on the Great Plains. The fall of Reconstruction and the rise of Plains reservations are enough for a really bad year, and then you add race riots in South Carolina, and Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia forming the Intercollegiate Football Association, and you have a true stinker that will resonate for decades in bad race relations and head trauma.
Jon T. Coleman is the author of Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation.
As a historian, I am wary of the #worstyearever, which of course may vary depending on one’s personal misfortunes or world historical catastrophic events. A quick Twitter poll conducted by @evankindley declared the not-yet-over 2016 the worst year of the 2000s. I suspect its victory has a lot to do with the unending spate of terrorist attacks all over the world and the current state of presidential politics and police killings and retaliatory cop assassinations in the United States. If Donald Trump is elected president, 2016 may well become the uncontested winner until the end of the century.
But before that cataclysmic hopefully nonevent, we might consider the worst year ever in the historical longue durée: perhaps the year of the Black Death in Europe, famines in Asia and Africa, the start of the extermination of native populations in the Americas or the trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves, the rise of European imperialism and Hitler?
A 19th-century U.S. historian might even posit 1877, the year Radical Reconstruction was overthrown and set back the creation of an interracial democracy by more than 100 years. Our present woes have a lot to do with that fateful year.
Manisha Sinha is the author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.
America had won the First World War but effectively lost the peace. An isolationist Senate refused to ratify the League of Nations treaty while President Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke. Meanwhile, as the government ended wartime spending and regulations, inflation skyrocketed and unemployment shot up to 20 percent. An influenza epidemic, one of the worst in history, killed a half-million Americans. The 18th Amendment introduced Prohibition and a decade of lawlessness. More immediately, the infamous “bloody summer of 1919” saw race riots in cities across the country: Chicago erupted in five days of brutal violence that left 500 wounded and 38 dead. Meanwhile, lynchings continued to rise, with 76 black Americans killed, including 10 veterans.
The fall of 1919 featured massive labor strikes: 350,000 steelworkers in Indiana, 425,000 miners in coal country, most of the Boston police force, etc. To many, such strikes signaled that America was poised for a revolution like the Bolsheviks had just pulled off in Russia. Fear turned to panic with mail bombs sent to prominent Americans like Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and John D. Rockefeller. In November, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, himself the target of a bomb, launched the first Red Scare, a massive series of arrest raids against suspected radicals, anarchists, and communists that turned into the biggest violation of civil liberties in a half-century.
All told, 1919 was a year of political chaos, social unrest, economic disasters, health epidemics, bloody race riots, giant labor strikes, and brutal government overreach. Definitely a contender.
Kevin Kruse is the author of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.
Amid a world at war, 1943 stood out as an awful year. The Holocaust grew more deadly by the week, and Nazis had systematically deported and killed more than 1.3 million Jews by spring 1943. News of these atrocities circulated internationally, but the Allies lacked the political will and military capacity to rescue European Jews. Szmul Zygielbojm, a Jewish-Polish politician who took his own life after his wife and son were killed in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, wrote in his suicide letter, “By my death I wish to make my final protest against the passivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the annihilation of the Jewish people.”
WWII also prompted an increase in food exports from British India to feed British soldiers and citizens, which produced a massive famine in the Bengal province, which killed an estimated 3 million people.
In the United States, racial violence raged across the country. During the summer of 1943 there were more than 240 reports of interracial battles in cities and at military bases, including the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles and riots in Harlem and Detroit. Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP chief counsel who went on to become the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, penned a report titled “The Gestapo in Detroit” that castigated city officials for not addressing decades of police violence against blacks. “Much of the blood spilled is on the hands of the Detroit police department,” Marshall wrote.
I chose 1943 not just because bad things happened but also because these histories are a depressing account of the capacity of humans to stop or prevent cruelty. 1943 shows that public awareness of atrocities does not necessarily prevent them from continuing and that there is no golden era of race relations in the United States.
Matt Delmont is the author of Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation.
I don’t know about the worst year ever, and I’m answering as an old person, not as a historian, but I give you 1968. By Dec. 31, I was literally too pessimistic to say “Happy New Year.” We had to grapple with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, urban insurrections in many American cities, the occupation of Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring, the demise of the Paris student revolt, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the many deaths and injuries that each of these phrases represents. Oh, and Richard Nixon was elected. All this against the background of news every day about the horrors in Vietnam. In retrospect, I’ll add the My Lai Massacre, though we didn’t learn about it until the next year. And while social media has its own way of making everything feel immediate, so did the network news when there were only three channels and everyone was watching the death and destruction with their dinners.
My vote is for 2003, as measured by long-term consequences for democracy.
In February of that year, as the Bush administration and its allies geared up for war, protesters eager to speak out against the mobilizations swamped cities around the world in the largest global demonstration for peace in world history. In Manhattan, more than 100,000 protestors from all walks of life swamped the city, stopping traffic in the middle of the street, and assembling in a vast throng near the U.N. building. European cities saw even larger protests.
The U.S media, still dominated by major networks, barely covered the event. In New York, the nightly news showed images, instead, of a sympathy protest in Baghdad—a damning substitution. The failure of the captive media to cover the protest—and, more broadly, to aggressively question the Bush administration on the lies and half-truths used to rationalize the war—was catastrophic. And the quiescence of both political parties when confronted with the even-then very dubious link between 9/11 and the war in Iraq revealed the power of macho patriotism to sweep away partisan dissent and intelligent thinking, and to cow the news into submission, a power that has proved durable and dangerous.
The war went on as planned. And the terrible world we live in—jingoistic, bomb-scarred, drone-addled, and armor-clad—is the consequence.
Matthew Pratt Guterl is the author of Seeing Race in Modern America.