Paul Bryant's Reviews > Atrocitology: Humanity's 100 Deadliest Achievements

Atrocitology by Matthew   White
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's review
Jan 10, 2013

it was ok
bookshelves: really-big-timeconsumers, history-will-teach-us-nothing
Read from January 20 to 30, 2012

This book isn't in the best possible taste. Like one of those countdown programmes on cheesy tv - 2011's 100 Most Shocking Celebrity Moments it ranks massacres, wars and man-made catastrophes of limitless human suffering and discusses them all in a slightly unnerving jokey chatty unhistorianlike manner :

The Germans had come so close to winning the First World War they couldn't believe they didn't.

Communism lasted longer than fascism, jazz, John Wayne, Bonanza and the American Motor Corporation.

Believe me, I don't want to discuss Shaka's penis any more than you want to read about it

It's not all like this, the rest of it is breathlessly potted history - there's more history in this book than 20 others put together, and often very obscure history too - and naturally the poor reader is going to suffer from factual brain overload if he reads this from page 1 to page 565, so this is for dipping into.

But who wants to dip in and read about an event which caused the death of 2 million people and rates 18 on Matthew White's list? Er, so what's this book for? To settle really morbid pub arguments?

"Derek, I think you will find that the Haitian Slave Revolt killed far more people than the Albigensian Crusade."

"Marjorie, Marjorie - before we go any further I think we should consult our well-thumbed copy of Atrocitology, don't you?"

The best parts of this odd book are the essays thrown into the mix. Here are some interesting conclusions from Mr White, who has thought about men, women and children dying in huge numbers more than is surely healthy for anyone -

1. Chaos is deadlier than tyranny.

2. The world is very disorganised - soldiers and nations change sides in the middle of wars, it's often hard to tell where one nation stops and another starts, and same goes with actual wars.

3. War kills more civilians than soldiers and more people than oppressive governments do. This last point will not please libertarians.

4. If you are a tyrant who has killed millions (you know who you are out there in Goodreadsland), you have a 49% chance of dying peacefully whilst still in power and an 11% chance of retiring from office and dying peacefully in retirement. The rest of you will be shot. That's not bad odds.

5. Let's hear it for India and Hinduism - the most peaceful nation & religion, based on its nearly complete absence in these pages. The only atrocities inflicted in India have been by non-Hindus.

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04/05 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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message 1: by Kay (new)

Kay I hope you never delete this. This is exactly what goes through my head after every single purchase on Amazon. Except for the Kindle part. =)

message 2: by Mariel (new)

Mariel To impress people! Girl or guy comes over. "That's a lot of books."

message 3: by Mariel (new)

Mariel And burn for warmth when the next ice age comes.

Paul Bryant Well, it's a double edged sword. The guy or girl comes over - Wow! What a load of books! (Thinks - I'm out of here). Possibly you may not have wished to inflame that person's anti-intellectual tendencies quite so soon in the relationship.

message 5: by Mariel (new)

Mariel There should be a bad ass gun on the library wall in case. To impress! Not shoot.

message 6: by James (new)

James Piper What's going on with goodreads and amazon? When I look at the details for this book I get this warning saying, in effect, we don't like amazon and kindle and they won't be on this db in the future.

message 7: by Drew (new)

Drew I second Paul on the double edged sword. In my experience, anywhere between 10 and 20 books gets you an appreciative "That's a lot of books." If you own a bookshelf with multiple shelves, only one should have books on it. Others should be filled with hoodies or sports memorabilia. (Or a bad ass gun) And if you have more than 20 books, you get a "That's a lot of books" that actually means "That is far too many books."

message 8: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I would never fuck a guy who didn't own at least 20 books.

message 9: by Tuck (new)

Tuck Miriam wrote: "I would never fuck a guy who didn't own at least 20 books."
hear hear. likewise i'm sure.

message 10: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant Kay - I didn't delete my previous remarks, I stuck them on my profile as a kind of manifesto.

message 11: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant Yes, this guy claims to have all the figures, he started from the numbers and built upwards. He knows this one will tweak the noses of the libertarian wing and he says the argument descends into a question of terminology as in "I put this 2 million over here but they put them over there".

message 12: by Dale (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dale Muckerman Paul, It seems you dislike the gallows humor that Mr. White throws into his survey of horrible deeds. Is it possible, however, that some kind of gallows humor comes naturally with the subject matter? Would you prefer he rant and moan like some kind doomsday preacher who has given up all hope. Is it possible the gallows humor is a healthy reaction to this sort of material? I think it even roused some gallows humor in you!

message 13: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant Yes, hundreds of pages of jocularily about widespread death became a bit of a problem, but that wasn't my criticism - I couldn't quite see who would want to read this book from cover to cover and actually I very much doubt anyone would. The essays are good though.

message 14: by Case (new) - rated it 4 stars

Case Caysie Dale wrote: "Paul, It seems you dislike the gallows humor that Mr. White throws into his survey of horrible deeds. Is it possible, however, that some kind of gallows humor comes naturally with the subject matt..."

Very good point. Wish I'd said that.

message 15: by Case (new) - rated it 4 stars

Case Caysie This a very interesting and factual tome. Have learned and been inspired to learn more history than in college days. Thanks Matthew.

Heather Kagey I fully agree with you.

message 17: by Traveller (new)

Traveller This thread makes no sense at all. Actually I think a book like this would be interesting, especially to put things into perspective.

In any case, addressing Paul's sentiments in the review about the book under review: Paul, not reading about bad things is not likely to prevent them from recurring, but reading about them and taking cognizance of them, actually might.

message 18: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant I dunno - reading about the Golden Horde's depradations in the Tartar region in the 13th century may not be very germane to today's sociopolitical complexities, don't you think?

message 19: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Paul wrote: "I dunno - reading about the Golden Horde's depradations in the Tartar region in the 13th century may not be very germane to today's sociopolitical complexities, don't you think?"

I disagree! I love "overviews" of history to seek out trends. Are what we think is a huge genocide these days, perhaps not simply a commonplace occurrence in antiquity, for instance?

I think that though ideas about human rights change, human nature does not. Or does it?

Man, I really must try to squash in the Steven Pinker book that the Science group read this month...

message 20: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant Well, we may have to agree to disagree - as you know, my shelf of history books is called History Will Teach Us Nothing.... that's what I think, mostly, but of course that shouldn't put anyone off reading the stuff. As an example of history not teaching us anything : the Iraq invasion of 2003; as another example : the invasion of Afghanistan; as a third example : the next invasion of a Muslim country by a Western nation.

message 21: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel Traveller wrote: "Paul wrote: "I dunno - reading about the Golden Horde's depradations in the Tartar region in the 13th century may not be very germane to today's sociopolitical complexities, don't you think?"

I di..."

(I think at least one edition of this book has a forward by Pinker... and to tie in, I think the Pinker book you're talking about is about how human nature HAS changed...)

Anyway, I've not read this book but I'll defend it anyway, because it's a great website (well, it has great content, I find it terrible to navigate).

Yes, there's a point to being able to know whether X was better or worse than Y. Because history informs our attitudes toward the present. In particular, we are taught a very Eurocentric view of history - the only conflict is between the Eurocentrism of 'Europe is wonderful!' and the Eurocentrism of 'Europe is terrible, look all the things we did to those poor noble people!'. I think that knowing the facts is a good way to try to get a more balanced view of reality.

Here are a couple of highlights:

- China has had many calamitous events, on a scale that reminds the reader that from the fall of Rome to the rise of Britain, China was the centre of the human world.

- In particular, contemporary Chinese policy toward religious groups makes a lot more sense when you realise how much bloodshed in Chinese history was caused by religious groups and associated secret societies. Westerners look at Falun Gong and see a slightly weird, secretive Christian sect that's doing no harm. Which may be true... but then you can remember that the Taiping Rebellion was also caused by a slightly weird secretive Christian sect that seemingly was doing no harm, and that the Taiping Rebellion was the sixth worst thing in history and killed as many people as Stalin and more than WWI. Which maybe makes their paranoia about it a bit more understandable.

- the horror of colonialism is largely overlooked. Mostly it's famine, which was probably incompetance rather than malice... but we're never taught about the hundreds of thousands of rubber tappers worked to death by private companies in the Amazon, for instance. And we're never taught that the Leopold II, to whom there are statues throughout Belgium, who was voted the second greatest belgian of all time, also orchestrated a genocide bigger than hitler's. The bloodshed in the Congo Free State may have been twice as large as the Holocaust.

- contrariwise, we're taught about the atlantic slave trade, but we forget that the arab slave trade killed more people (albeit more slowly). That's not just a 'they're worse than us' thing, the point is that our histories largely present a passive Africa that was suddenly discovered and exploited by european slave traders in the age of discovery; in fact, Africa was riddled with slave societies, and had been connected to Europe through the slave trade for a thousand years by that point, albeit by a different route.

- the flawed implementation of captialism in russia in the 1990s killed more people than the flawed implementation of communism in north korea.

- by far the worst genocide of the 20th century, in terms of deaths relative to the population, was the Herero War, which nobody has heard of

- in general, there is no pattern behind the death tolls. Religion, communism, capitalism, nationalism, totalitarianism, democracy, all seem to produce bloodshed.

- on the other hand, anything's better than being pre-agricultural. Studies show that hunter-gatherers, rather than being happy noble savages, have a death rate from war and murder an order of magnitude greater than 'civilised' societies - every day is WWII!

- the 20th century was one of the worse centuries in terms of bloodshed, but proportionally wasn't particularly notable compared to previous centuries.


Anyway, the point in general is: we hear about X, Y, Z bad things happening, but we generally have no sense of relative scale, so it's far too easy to distort the events into our own system of prejudice. Taking the example that started this discussion, the Expulsions: most people admit that they happened, but people don't appreciate just how incredibly massive they were. They're handwaved away as a little inevitable local unpleasantness, which I guess, compared to WWII, they were. But compared to modern attitudes, those war crimes utterly dwarf anything in recent memory. We're talking about an event that killed more people than the rule of the Khmer Rouge - an event that in a couple of years killed TEN TIMES as many people as Saddam Hussein managed to kill in his entire reign (if you exclude the Iran-Iraq War and just look at the internal tyranny).

White's figures aren't a perfect antidote, of course. They're hard to take in, and they're always going to be flawed. But they provide a solid bit of ballast in what can otherwise be a very fluid arena.

[I like the touch of gallows humour on his website, which is the only way I think to deal both with the atrocities in question and with some of the sources he deals with, and the popular misconceptions he addresses. I can see how it might become too much in a larger prose form, though - although myself, his detachment is part of why I trust him at all. He doesn't come across as too commited for or against this group or that (which is handy when you have situations where the victim one decade becomes the perpetrator the next...)]

message 22: by Traveller (last edited Jan 28, 2014 07:16AM) (new)

Traveller I agree with Wastrel. But besides it helping us to put things in context as to who to "blame" more, and for helping us see reasons in attitudes; I need to orient my own existence in space and time.
The more I can learn and find out about the place I live, (earth, our universe and the physical and other rules that govern it), the better. ..and finding out more about the history of earth and the space around it, helps to inform us about our place in time and space.

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