Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History

D.G. Hewitt - December 15, 2018

Human history has had plenty of ups and downs. For every great triumph, there has been a great disaster. What’s more, history isn’t necessarily linear, with things getting better all the time. Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence to show that sometimes things can get worse – a lot, lot worse. But still, pinpointing single years as being shining examples of badness is very difficult. It’s much easier to identify terrible periods for humanity, that is, times of war or centuries where not much happened at all, with people’s lives equal measures boring and terrifying.

That said, however, some years were certainly worse than others. Some were standalone bad years – 12 months in which it all seemed to go wrong for humanity. Other bad years were simply nadirs set within a longer period of misery. That is, they were the real low points, the worst years of famines or wars or genocides. Of course, the question of what actually was the worst year in all of human history is one that is constantly up for debate. Indeed, there really is no right or wrong answer, no matter what some scientists or anthropologists might say. All we can do is put forward suggestions and back up our claims with facts and other historical evidence.

So here we have 17 years that may well have been the worst in all of human history:

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
The late Roman Empire under Justinian was hit by a terrible plague. Wikimedia Commons.

17. 542 saw the start of one of the most devastating plagues in human history – and even the Roman Emperor it’s named after almost died from it.

Halfway through his reign, the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I fell seriously ill. He pulled through and went on to stay in power for another decade. However, many of his citizens were not so lucky. Indeed, the plague that ravished large parts of the world between 541 and 542 led to an estimated 25-50 million deaths. This means that around a quarter of the world’s population was wiped out in the space of two years. However, despite being one of the most devastating plagues in human history, the Justinian Plague has largely been forgotten.

While it peaked in the year 542, the plague lingered for another 200 years, and not just in the densely-populated city of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and where as many as 5,000 people a day were perishing. Notably, this was the first time that contemporary historians recorded a plague as it spread and took root. Thanks to them, we know that the Justinian Plague not only killed millions, it also led to a massive spike in grain prices, causing huge numbers of people to go hungry. All in all, then, 542 was a bad year to be alive, even if you were lucky enough to be one of the 60% who survived the plague.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
Some historians have argued that the Sack of Antwerp was more than just a single day of bloodshed. Pinterest.

16. 1576 saw the Sack of Antwerp, a bloody but isolated event that was to have a longer-term impact on European history.

In November of 1576, Spanish soldiers stationed in the Belgian city of Antwerp rose up. The men were far from home, fighting against the Dutch in the name of the Spanish king. However, they hadn’t been paid for months. Frustrated, they snapped and went on a rampage. For three days, they laid waste on the historic city, killing large numbers of citizens. In all, it’s believed as many as 7,000 people died, many of them thrown into canals or simply chopped down with swords. But the so-called Sack of Antwerp was to have a far wider impact.

The events of that day led to a Europe-wide economic crisis. Antwerp ceased to be a major trading power, allowing Amsterdam to rise up. What’s more, Spanish troops – and, therefore, Spanish people, were henceforth portrayed as ruthless savages. This Black Legend was to endure for centuries, shaping Spanish history both at home and abroad. According to Brown University’s Professor Harold Cook, 1576 was a truly terrible year, not least considering it also marked the rise of the Holy League in neighboring France. Combined, this condemned much of Europe to a period of poverty, uncertainty and widespread violence.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
Millions starved to death in India after a volcano erupted thousands of miles away. Pinterest.

15. 1783 saw millions of people die from starvation in large parts of Asia- all thanks to a volcano erupting thousands of miles away.

In 1783, the Laki volcanic region of Iceland erupted. Huge volumes of ash and other volcanic particles were spewed into the atmosphere. And the effects were felt all over the world – most of all in India, which was already reeling from an unusually cold winter. Thanks to El Nino and the fallout of the Icelandic volcanoes, large parts of the Northern Hemisphere didn’t experience a real summer in 1783. Alaska, for instance, endured its coldest year in four centuries. Fortunately, few people were living there. That wasn’t the case in heavily-populated northern India.

Here, an estimated 11 million people starved to death between 1783 and 1784 in what’s become known as the Chalisa Famine. The Delhi region experienced huge losses. Indeed, according to some estimates, 1 in 3 villages was completely wiped out. The following year was then unseasonably hot. The presence of such large amounts of sulfur dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere meant that the vital monsoon rains never came. What’s more, soaring temperatures across Northern India meant that rivers and lakes dried up, making matters even worse. It would be two long years until the Indian climate returned to normal.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
The revolutions of 1848 led to violence and instability right across Europe. Wikimedia Commons.

14. 1848 looked like being a pivotal year, but it ended up being little more than 12 months of violence, revolutions and finally famine.

During the spring and summer of 1848, the people of Europe rose up. The year came to be known as the Year of Revolution, with movements demanding change in numerous countries, most notably in France, the states that would become Germany, Denmark and Austria and Hungary. In all, the records show that 50 different nations were affected by the unrest. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people were killed as the streets of Europe’s historic capitals flowed with blood. However, whether it was all worth the sacrifice remains the source of much historical debate.

The French monarchy did indeed fall (again), while many of Europe’s middle classes earned greater representation. However, in many places, the old orders clung onto power having made just a few token concessions. Moreover, the heightened nationalism would bubble under for decades to come, eventually being unleashed with a vengeance during the First World War – indeed, one of the main consequences of the 1848 uprisings was the foundation of the powerful German confederation. What’s more, 1848 also represented the height of the Irish famine which left hundreds of thousands dead and caused many millions to leave their homeland for good.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
2001 saw the uneasy peace brought about by the end of the Cold War come to an abrupt end. YouTube.

13. 2001 brought a period of relative peace and stability to an end and the year will live on in infamy, not just for Americans, but for people of the world.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Soviet Union ushered in what can be seen as a period of relative stability. One scholar even confidently predicted ‘the end of history’ since all major conflicts and ideological clashes had seemingly come to an end. Such relative peace and the associated sense of optimism came crashing down on September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks in the United States left thousands of people dead in both New York City and Washington D.C.

What’s more, the infamous events of 2001 led to wars across the Middle East, most notably with the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq. Furthermore, much of the war, violence and instability still being experienced in the Middle East today can be arguably traced back to 2001. The ‘War on Terror’, launched in 2001, has also been blamed for clampdown on civil liberties in numerous countries around the world. So, while 2016 or 2018 may appear to be grim, even compared to some more recent years, the present really isn’t so bad.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
Spanish Flu killed millions around the world, even after the slaughter of WWI had come to an end. Wikipedia.

12. 1919 may have brought peace, but millions died from Spanish flu, and in retrospect, it can be argued war was only put on hold for 20 years.

It should have been a year of triumph. After all, the First World War, the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen, came to an end in November of 1919. The peace treaty that officially ended the slaughter should have ushered in a century of peace. However, the Treaty of Versailles did quite the opposite. The end of the war came as a shock to many people in Germany, as did the idea that their nation was actually the loser. This single document planted the seeds for the Second World War, with Hitler able to take advantage of the widespread mistrust of politicians, resentment and thirst for revenge.

What’s more, 1919 also saw Russia descend into its own bloody Civil War, a conflict that would lead to the creation of the Communist Soviet Union. Moreover, the end of the First World War also led to the maps of the Middle East being re-drawn, creating grievances that are still fought over to this day. And then, of course, there was the Spanish Flu. Though at its peak in 1918, millions also died in 1919. Indeed, an estimated 500,000 Americans died as a result of the epidemic during those 12 months alone. And those who survived were unable to toast their good luck – after all, the 18th Amendment, which introduced Prohibition, was passed in 1919.

Related: How the U.S. Dealt with the Spanish Flu of 1918.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
In 1520, European colonizers were able to easily defeat Native people after bringing smallpox to the Americas. Wikimedia Commons.

11. 1520 was the year Europeans brought smallpox to the Americas, leading to the deaths of millions of indigenous men, women and children

For the Spanish conquistadores, the year 1520 was one of triumph. For the native inhabitants of modern-day Mexico, however, this was a very dark year indeed. In fact, it could be argued that, due to the chaos and misery it led to, this was the darkest year in the history of the native peoples of the Americas. By this point, Hernan Cortes has already been in the Americas for a year. However, in April 1520, another group of Spaniards arrived into Veracruz, fresh from Hispaniola, bringing smallpox with them. Cortes defeated these newcomers, but one of his men contracted the disease. This meant it was brought right into the heart of the Aztec Empire.

Between 1520 and 1521, smallpox killed millions of native inhabitants of this part of America. Indeed, between 60-90% of the people are believed to have been killed. In his journals, the Spanish monk Motolinia recalled: “As the Indians did not know the remedy of the disease…they died in heaps, like bedbugs. In many places, it happened that everyone in a house died and, as it was impossible to bury the great number of dead.” Inevitably, Cortes was able to defeat the Aztecs with ease. The Incas shared the same fate, with smallpox doing far more damage than muskets ever could.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
1492 would have been considered a dark year by many indigenous Americans. Wikipedia.

10. 1492 may have been a high point for European explorers, but it was a very dark year for the native peoples of North America.

As most students of history know, 1492 was the year Christopher Columbus set sail to the Americas for the first time. Of course, he wasn’t the first European to make it across the Atlantic Ocean. However, he was to have the greatest impact on history. And, according to some scholars, 1492 was a ‘catastrophic’ year, not least for the indigenous people of what would become the United States. Columbus and his men brought Old World diseases to the New World. The native people were helpless and died by the millions.

It’s believed that 1492 marked the beginning of the end for many indigenous people. Between then and the start of the 16th century, 90% of the indigenous population was wiped out, with many cultures lost for good. As if that’s not bad enough, back home in Europe, Columbus’ sponsors, the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, conquered Moorish Granada in 1492. After that, they would kill, enslave or expel some 500,000 Muslims in Spain. It could be argued that the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ started that year, bringing 2,000 years of relative peaceful cohabitation of religions in Europe to an end.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
As millions struggled in America, Germany’s parliament granted Hitler absolute power in 1933. YouTube.

9. 1933 was a bad year for millions, from unemployed Americans struggling through the Depression to Germany’s Jews who saw Hitler named dictator.

The year 1933 was a miserable one for millions of ordinary people all around the world. What’s more, looking back, it’s clear that the year marked a wider descent into dictatorship and towards war and genocide. For many Americans, it began with poverty and uncertainty. The Great Depression, which had begun with the Wall Street Crash four years earlier, reached its peak. Some 15 million Americans were unemployed – around 1 in 4 adults – and half the nation’s banks had defaulted. On the plus side, President Roosevelt was elected and began to turn things around, while beer was also made legal again!

Things were nowhere near so good in Germany. In February of 1933, the national parliament, the Reichstag, burned down. A Jewish man was blamed, and the Nazis used this as an excuse to tighten their grip on power. That March, the Enabling Act was passed, effectively confirming Hitler as all-powerful dictator. More ominously, 1933 also saw the opening of the first Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, while trade unions were banned, books burned, Jewish businesses boycotted, and the feared Gestapo secret police established. Meanwhile, Japan quit the League of Nations. Looking back, it can be argued 1933 set the world on the path to unavoidable war.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
Peasants died by the million, and even the king went hungry, in England in 1316.

8. 1316 was one of Europe’s darkest years as the harvests failed for a second time, leading to widespread starvation.

The 14th century was a pretty tough time to be alive, period. If you weren’t lucky enough to be born into wealth, you would have had to endure a life of discomfort, uncertainty and misery. However, the year 1316 stands out due to the extra grimness, especially in England. The harvests had failed in 1315. This happened again the following year, causing widespread hunger. Countless numbers starved (the exact number is unknown as records simply weren’t kept) as it carried on raining right across Europe, preventing new crops from being grown and harvested.

Even King Edward II of England found no bread to eat when he arrived in the city of St. Albans that summer. Before long, people were taking desperate measures to survive. Animals used to work the field were slaughtered and eaten. Seed grain was also eaten in both risky short-term measures. Many of the surviving sources from the time note that many peasants turned to cannibalism, and families would abandon their children to look after themselves, a brutal turn of events that inspired the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. Eventually, after two devastating years, the weather returned to normal in the summer of 1317.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
Some say 536 was the worst year to be alive, thanks to a perfect storm of intolerable conditions. MSN.

7. 536 was the worst year of the worst century in human history some scientists believe, thanks to freakish weather, famines and widespread warfare.

The 6th century was a pretty grim time to be alive, even if you were lucky enough to have been born into royalty. Not for nothing is this period referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’. And, according to one 2018 study, one year was darker than them all – literally so. The year 536 was, it’s believed, the worst of the worse. Across Europe, the Middle East and large parts of Asia, people were plunged into darkness. Scientists have shown that a huge volcanic eruption – possibly in Iceland, but perhaps in El Salvador – caused temperatures to plummet as ash blocked out sunlight for most of the year. At the time, however, most people would have simply attributed the freakish weather as an act of God, most probably fearing the end of the world was upon them.

As if freezing temperatures, a lack of sunlight and the total failure of crops weren’t enough, large parts of the world were also engulfed by war. Both halves of the Roman Empire had finally fallen, leaving chaos and uncertainty in their wake. Moreover, even if you made it through the hell that was 536, a whole decade of misery was in store. It’s believed that there were other large volcanic eruptions in 540, plus bubonic plague broke out in 541. “It was,” says Harvard University’s Professor Michael McCormick, “the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year.”

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
Russians died by the millions after crops failed again in 1601. Wikimedia Commons.

6. In 1601, a volcanic eruption in Peru led to millions of people starving in Russia and many more enduring a summer with no sunshine.

The Bengal Famine may be better remembered, but the famine that devastated Russia from 1601 onwards was every bit as deadly. While the exact number of fatalities will never be known, it’s believed as many as two million people starved to death, many of them during the first year of the disaster. This meant around one in three Russians died in the space of just two or three years. Moreover, the famine led to serious social and political disruption, including the downfall of Boris Gudunov, who had declared himself Tsar of all Russians.

And it wasn’t just Russians who went hungry in 1601. In 2008, scientists revealed that the effects of the eruption of a volcano in Peru in 1600 were felt the world over. Sunlight levels fell globally, hitting harvests in countries including France, Switzerland, Japan and China; even if Russia was the worst hit as temperatures plummeted. The records show that 127,000 people were buried in a mass grave in Moscow between 1601 and 1602. There were also stories of people killing their pets in order to eat them and wear their furs, plus the inevitable tales of people becoming cannibals in order to stay alive.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
In 1943, the Holocaust was at its height, while the whole world was at war. Wikimedia Commons.

5. 1943 was arguably the worst year of the Second World War, not least since the Nazi genocide machine was in full flow.

There really were no ‘good’ years between the start of the Second World War in 1939 and its conclusion in 1945. But 1943 was arguably the worst of the lot. Not only was the fighting at its peak but the Holocaust reached a climax as well. For years, the Nazi regime had been planning the annihilation of the Jewish people and, by the summer of 1943, they had perfected their sick system of efficient, systematic slaughter. Within the first half of 1943, an estimated 1.2 million Jews had been deported from Nazi-occupied lands, many of them sent to death camps.

By this point of the war, of course, the Allied powers had an appreciation of what was happening to Europe’s Jews. However, they lacked the military capability or, according to other, more-critical voices, the political will, to stop it. What’s more, 1943 also saw Britain increase the volume of food it took from its Indian colonies, with around 3 million then dying of starvation in the Bengal province. And in the United States, meanwhile, racial violence spiked right across the country as men of color were drafted into the Army to fight overseas without being given full rights at home.

Also Read: SS Officer’s Dramatic Trial Confessions Claimed He Joined the Nazi Regime to Save Jews.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
After a bright start, 1914 saw the outbreak of the First World War, a conflict that killed millions. YouTube.

4. 1914 began brightly, with Europe enjoying unprecedented peace and prosperity, but it ended in carnage and bloodshed.

Given the massive contrast between how it started and how it ended, it could be argued that 1914 was one of the worst years ever. At the beginning of the year, Europe was at peace. Moreover, most of its societies were stable and prosperous. Looking back, it’s hard to see any hint of the carnage that would soon follow. Indeed, in June of 1914, just before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – the spark that set the world ablaze – the German Kaiser had been invited to inspect the British naval fleet, a sign of good, if not overly-friendly, relations between the two nations.

By the end of 1914, however, hundreds of thousands of men lay dead on European battlefields. Hopes that the war would be short and glorious were soon dashed. In this way, 1914 marked the start of modern warfare. The widespread introduction of modern killing technology, including machine guns, mortars, airplanes and poison gas, changed the face of warfare forever. For some military historians, the tactics and methods of the Vietnam War, the Second World War, the Iraq wars and even present-day drone warfare, can all be traced back to 1914.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
Unsurprisingly, the so-called ‘year without a summer’ of 1816 inspired numerous artists and poets. Pinterest.

3. 1816 has come to be known as the ‘year without a summer’, as volcanic ash covered skies around the world, bringing misery and starvation

It’s gone down in history as ‘the year without a summer‘. But to millions of people at the time, it appeared like the world was coming to an end. In Europe, as well as in North America, snow fell during June, and temperatures fell below freezing in July. The skies remained almost permanently dark and crops fell, leading to famine and unrest. The reason? In April of 1816, Mount Tambora, a huge volcano in Indonesia, erupted, spewing millions of tons of ash and sulfur into the atmosphere. The effects were felt the world over.

As if the unseasonable weather and the near-constant darkness wasn’t enough, as global temperatures dropped by as much as 3 degrees, a number of diseases started to break out. What’s more, people panicked as religious preachers forecast the end of the world. Countless numbers decided to pack up and move in the hope of escaping the impending apocalypse – of course, at least 12,000 Indonesians had no chance of moving since they were killed outright by the volcano’s eruption. At the same time, however, many people stayed put and either prayed or found inspiration – famously, Mary Shelley was moved to write her famous Gothic tale, Frankenstein, thanks to the year with no summer.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
1968 was a dark year, not just in America where Civil Rights campaigners were hit by Martin Luther King;s death. Wikimedia Commons.

2. 1968 saw the hopes of millions dashed with two tragic assassinations, while Nixon got elected and America got sucked deeper into the Vietnam War.

For many who lived through it, 1968 marked an end to the hope and optimism of the 1960s. In the United States, a country still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy – seen by many to be the best chance of ensuing JFK’s dream of a progressive America would be realized – was killed in Los Angeles. What’s more, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, an icon to millions, was also assassinated. The latter’s death, combined with ongoing civil rights struggles, as well as job insecurity, prompted urban unrest in numerous major cities. Plus, by the end of the year, Richard Nixon had been elected President, while bad news from the Vietnam War was sent home on a daily basis.

Outside of the United States, 1968 was a year of hope but ultimate disappointment in Europe. Youthful revolts across Europe had hoped to bring about significant change, not least in Soviet satellite states such as Czechoslovakia. By the end of the year, however, Soviet troops had brought the Prague Spring to an end and were tightening their grip on the country. Freedom would have to wait for a few more decades. In Paris, meanwhile, the student revolt petered out without causing any real change to politics or society. What looked like being a great year turned out to be the end of the vibrant, progressive 1960s.

Countdown: Worst Years to Be Alive in History
It’s believed the Black Death wiped out up to 60% of Europe’s total population. YouTube.

1. 1347 was the peak of the bubonic plague, with around 60% of all Europeans dying swift, but agonizing deaths.

The year 1347 marked the high point of the bubonic plague in Europe and parts of Asia. For months it had been killing thousands of poor souls in the Black Sea region. Then, at the start of 1347, it was brought to the rest of Europe on trade ships and went pandemic. According to one contemporary quip, victims would enjoy lunch with their friends at home, and then dinner with their ancestors in heaven, such was the speed with which it killed. Quite simply, if you got the plague, your chances of survival were minimal.

Estimates on the total number of casualties vary. However, most guesses put the total number of victims at 200 million, meaning as much as 60% of Europe’s population was wiped out in a few months. But it didn’t just have a physical impact. The psychological burden was huge, too. People living past the year 1347 were scarred for life. Doom-mongers and religious leaders blamed the plague on a loss of faith. For the next few hundred years, fear and superstition would reign across Europe – indeed, according to some observers, the physiological scars of 1347 were only really healed with the dawn of the Enlightenment towards the end of the 18th century.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Two of History’s Deadliest Plagues Were Linked, With Implications for Another Outbreak” National Geographic, January 2014.

“200 years ago, we endured a ‘year without a summer’.” USA Today, May 2016.

“The Great Flood and the Great Famine of 1314.” Historic UK.

“The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever.” History Today.

“The volcano that changed the world.” Nature News, April 2008.

“How a volcanic eruption in Iceland caused a terrible famine in India leaving 11 million dead.” Patheos, July 2012.

“Great Depression History.”

“Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive'”. Science Mag, November 2018.