Calamities and Catastrophes: The Ten Absolutely Worst Years in History by Derek Wilson

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Calamities and Catastrophes: The Ten Absolutely Worst Years in History by Derek Wilson

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Ten of the worst years, as identified by the author, in world history, from the great plague of 541-2, to the genocide in Rwanda-Urundi of 1994.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Short Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1907595455

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As Wilson rightly points out, history is generally written by the winners. This book turns the tables by looking at ten of the worst episodes from the point of view of those who were on the losing side, from the sixth to the late twentieth centuries. Starting with the plague and war of 541-2 which accelerated the collapse of the Roman Empire, to the recent Rwandan genocide in which the death toll over just a few months probably exceeded a million, history has had an uncomfortable habit of repeating itself.

Because of the shifts of political power, and differences in population between one era and another, it is difficult to compare and measure mass human disasters from each era. Yet it is illuminating to read of the sheer havoc and devastation wrought by the Thirty Years' War fought in Europe between 1618 and 1648. Although it claimed fewer lives than the Second World War, in which 60,000,000 or 3.5% of the population of the nations involved perished, in the seventeenth century holocaust the figure was 7,500,000, or 35% of the population of the combatant nations. In one Swedish village alone 230 men went to fight between 1621 and 1639, and only fifteen returned home, five of them crippled for life.

The Great Freeze of 1709 came little less than a century later. While it may not loom large in the pantheon of disasters or feature prominently in the standard chronicles, it resulted in one of the most significant migrations in Western history, with over 100,000 men, women and children leaving Germany alone to settle elsewhere. It also transformed the political balance in the East and North, and killed more people than all the wars that had raged for half a century or more.

There is no chapter on the First World War. However, there is one on the American Civil War, which had the unpleasant result of 'free, democratic America' giving birth to terrorist organizations just as bestial as those which threaten modern Western society in the present age. Moving on nearly a century, for the Second World War we have an account of events surrounding the 900-day siege of Leningrad at its worst in 1942, the result of Hitler's attempt to exterminate communism and Stalin's fightback, a desperate battle of wills between two regimes that set no store by human suffering. The tales of human suffering and cultural devastation in these pages are horrifying. As Wilson observes, the siege should stand as a warning as to what can happen when the 'glory of rulers and races' and the tyranny of ideas are allowed to control international relations.

Being at school in 1968, I was only dimly aware of the undercurrents throughout Europe and America that year, and this book's chapter on those cataclysmic months provided for me what was perhaps the most fascinating reading. On 1 January the United Nations declared it 'the Year of Human Rights'. Ironically it would prove to be a year in which rights were often paid scant respect and dissent ruthlessly crushed, throughout the eastern bloc in Europe and during a Democratic Party Convention in Chicago, where teargas was fired into crowds of innocent bystanders while television screens were carrying coverage of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. Ironically it occurred during one of the worst weeks of the war in Vietnam, when 1,442 American troops were killed or wounded. That summer no winners emerged, but throughout the world there were millions of losers, not to say casualties.

I found this a useful and very readable volume of history, with fascinating sidelights on several episodes of which I had known hardly anything. It does however seem to be a book designed mainly with the casual reader in mind. There are no illustrations, lists of dates, or even an index which surely limits its use as a work of historical reference. As background reading and to anyone with a general interest in history it is certainly recommended, but the presentation is not really aimed at the serious student.

Our thanks to Short Books for providing Bookbag with a review copy.

For another volume of relatively light reading on the same subject, may we also recommend [History Without the Boring Bits by Ian Crofton]]. Bearing in mind that much of the subject matter is not exactly light, the episode on which the last chapter is based is explored in more depth in A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide - The Killers Speak by Jean Hatzfeld.

Buy Calamities and Catastrophes: The Ten Absolutely Worst Years in History by Derek Wilson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Calamities and Catastrophes: The Ten Absolutely Worst Years in History by Derek Wilson at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Calamities and Catastrophes: The Ten Absolutely Worst Years in History by Derek Wilson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Calamities and Catastrophes: The Ten Absolutely Worst Years in History by Derek Wilson at Amazon.com.


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