What Was the Worst Year in History?

And why beauty still matters during disaster...

Read time: 5 minutes

What was the worst year in human history? 

To answer that, we first have to ask how you even define what constitutes the “worst.” Is it the loss of life, or the scale of suffering?

Or is it a different kind of damage altogether? The destruction of hope and meaning that make life worth living, washed away in a larger destruction of culture? Sometimes, all this occurs simultaneously.

Here are my top three contenders — and why beauty still matters at the very brink of disaster…

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The Volcanic Winter, 536 AD

In 536 AD, the sun went dark.

A volcanic eruption (or perhaps several) in North America threw clouds of ash and sulfur into the sky, blocking out the light of the sun. The resulting darkness settled over almost the entire world, with surviving written accounts of the disaster from China, the Middle East, Europe, and even Peru. 

The darkness lasted 18 months. Byzantine historian Procopius characterized it as an unending eclipse, during which “the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year.”

While many contenders for the worst events in human history comprise famine, war, and disease, this disaster involved all three.

With crops unable to grow in the dimmed light of the sun, whole continents went hungry. Towns and nations invaded each other in desperate attempts to find food. The year of darkness is even suspected to be connected to the Plague of Justinian, an outbreak of deadly contagion that occurred five years later.

As Procopius wrote, “Men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death.

Peak of the Black Death in Europe, 1348

The sheer loss of life (half of Europe’s population) was only the beginning of the devastation wreaked by the Black Plague. 

The constant threat of death led many survivors to abandon the balanced Christian worldview that formed the foundation of the Middle Ages, turning either to frenetic hedonism or obsessive religious fanaticism. 

Desperate to stem the tide of lives lost, Europeans blamed Jews, foreigners, beggars, and lepers as scapegoats for the plague, sometimes leading to persecution and massacres of whole communities. The intricate balance of faith, community, and work that gave Medieval culture its unique character dissolved completely.  

Unlike other entries on this list though, the Black Death wasn’t without its benefits. The population collapse shook loose the remnants of the rigid feudal system, allowing peasants more freedom to move, seek new opportunities, and improve their state in life.

The reduced population left the survivors more farmland, which they worked with new labor-saving machines, leading to a wealthier peasantry. Some even argue that the Renaissance wouldn’t have flourished as it did without the newfound wealth and freedom that blossomed in the aftermath of the Plague. 

Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1945

By 1945, President Truman faced a terrible choice. 

Germany had already surrendered. Her ally, Japan, knew she couldn’t win the war, but refused all terms of peace. The ongoing fight had no clear objective and was projected to cost millions of lives. 

In the midst of this, Truman had his finger on the trigger of a weapon unlike anything the world had seen before — a weapon whose terror would almost certainly end the war. It would cost fewer lives than a military invasion of Japan, but those lives would belong to innocent civilians.

Eventually, the decision was made to employ this weapon. The first atomic bomb was dropped on August 6th, decimating the city of Hiroshima. When this failed to elicit a surrender, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. Japan’s surrender followed swiftly. 

The total death toll from the bombs was 225,000 — a high number indeed, yet one which pales in comparison to the death toll exacted by other modern disasters like the Holocaust, the Holodomor, and Soviet extermination policies.

So what makes the atomic attack a contender for one of history’s darkest events?

The bombs may have ended the war, but they inspired a new horror: the awareness that the world’s most powerful nations can wipe out entire cities full of innocents.

While the reality of war means that policies designed to protect civilians and noncombatants often get pushed to the side in the heat of combat, politicians still generally try to justify those losses as collateral damage from attacks on primarily military targets.

But in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these justifications were thrown out the window, entirely. Yes, there were also military targets in each city, but the bombs were intended primarily to cause sheer terror.

With this in mind, the world’s last remaining faith in the ideal of doing battle with honor (an ideal already much weakened by two consecutive world wars) was lost. It was a cultural wound that struck directly at the heart of Western civilization, and it remains with us to this day.

Keeping the Fire Alive

In considering the tragedies of history, we might be led to ask certain questions:

  • Why create beautiful sculptures that would be lost beneath the next Vesuvius?

  • Why compose music when the paper it’s written on is so fragile it can be destroyed in a moment of violence?

  • Why work to create or safeguard culture at all?

The fragility of culture is part of its nature. One year, or even one day, can wipe it all away. But that means preserving the fire of culture is an even more noble and crucial task. After all, culture’s purpose isn’t to help avoid tragedy — it’s to prepare you to face the worst with courage and integrity. 

C.S. Lewis offers some insight on this point:

“Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.

“If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.”

Culture is there so that when the world seems to be ending — whether the sky has gone dark or you’re facing an insurmountable personal tragedy — you can draw on the consolation of beauty, hope, and moral courage. 

In the trenches of WW1, Lewis noticed this:

“The nearer you got to the front line the less everyone spoke and thought of the allied cause and the progress of the campaign…

“If you suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better.”

In other words, beauty consoles us right at the brink of disaster, and keeps us from going down a path of irrationality. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you’ll simply fall into sensual ones.

Lewis knew that human beings are made for more than survival:

“The war will fail to absorb our whole attention because it is a finite object, and therefore intrinsically unfitted to support the whole attention of a human soul.”

Art of the Week

Guernica, Picasso (1937)

Perhaps more than any other work of the 20th century, Picasso’s Guernica captures the experience of the tragedy of war. After the titular Spanish town was bombed during the Spanish Civil War, Picasso painted his masterpiece — an intimidating 25 feet long — for the Spanish display at the 1937 World Fair in Paris. The work successfully drew international attention to the suffering of the Spanish people. 

While the horse and the bull are essential elements of Spanish literature and folklore, Picasso denied any symbolic meaning behind them. The chaotically presented elements resist intellectual interpretation, keeping the focus on the visceral reaction that the painting elicits. 

The painting’s blocky elements are supercharged with frantic energy that strains against the limits of the canvas, giving the sense of an enclosed, suffocating nightmare. The animals and people have no escape from the violence that rips them apart. 

The focus of the painting is not merely destruction, but chaos — a chaos that is unleashed not only during war, but in the midst of all great tragedies.

And what if the chaos itself is indeed the greater tragedy?

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