In a new book titled The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, amateur historian Matthew White ranks the worst atrocities of all time. First on the list: World War II, with 66 million victims. In second place, in a tie with Mao's Great Leap Famine-ward: Genghis Khan, whose armies crushed 40 million victims in the 13th century.
White also ranks history's megadeaths as a percentage of the earth's population, rather than by absolute numbers; by this reckoning, the Second World War falls to sixth place, having killed 2.6 percent of the population, while Khan's plunder rises high above the rest, having sent 11 percent of the living to their graves. (Second place: the An Lushan Rebellion in eighth-century China, with 6 million victims, some 6 percent of the population.)
To be sure, White's carefully researched numbers are estimates. But they throw a contrarian light on the celebratory new offering at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Genghis Khan: The Exhibition. Assembled by the Mongolian Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, it shows the upside of the globe-spanning khanate, including its contributions to religious freedom and open trade. Which may be an important corrective to the ethnocentrism of terrified medieval Europeans, who dubbed Khan a "barbarian" while memorializing the home team's Alexander of Macedonia (half a million dead) as "Great."
In any case, no one today sheds tears over thousand-year-old genocides, so perhaps the lesson to draw is the old chestnut that tragedy plus time equals comedy. One can imagine our descendants, a millennium from now, in orbit around Alpha Centauri, peering at an exhibit about the great contributions to rocket science by an ancient 20th-century Germanic warlord. —Marc Maximov