Let’s hope that no one looks back at 2020 and thinks: Those were the good old days. That implies there are going to be worse days.
Still, as bad as 2020 has been, there were countless really bad years in recorded history. There have been so many bad years, how do we really choose? If we choose death as a yardstick, we really should narrow that down. Do you want death by war, disease, bad policy, starvation, drought, or what? Or maybe we choose sheer brutality. Tons of choices there. Or, how about choices that seemed okay at the time, but had long-lasting terrible ramifications? Maybe, natural disasters?
Here are four really bad years plucked out of history for their general awfulness:
- Disease and Natural Disaster Award: 1300s. In 1315, Europe’s warm period of prosperity ended with a bang. Possibly because of volcanic activity, winters became brutal and summers cold and rainy. Crops failed. About 80 percent of animals died of infections. Famine took hold. Life expectancy was about 29 years. Cannibalism, infanticide, and mass starvation were characteristics of a 60-year period in that century. As for disease, 1348 was a banner year. The terrifying black death visited not just on struggling Europe, but also the world. In 18 months, up to 200 million people worldwide died. Bodies were unburied in the streets where animals tore them apart. Survivors lived in fear, stench, and desperation with no understanding of the Plague and no way to fight it.
- Political Chaos, Disease, Social Unrest Award: 1919. In the economy, inflation and unemployment skyrocketed after World War I. Influenza killed 500,000 Americans. The bloody summer of 1919 was filled with race riots, with 500 wounded and 38 dead in five days of violence in Chicago. Across the country, 76 black Americans were lynched. A million workers went on strike, affecting the steel and coal industries, and even the Boston police force. Bombs were mailed to federal officials and fear gripped the nation.
- Dashing of Hope Award: 1968. Mass demonstrations for civil rights both buoyed and frightened Americans. A sense of positive change was in the air. But the worst moments were yet to come: The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. The riots at the Democratic National Convention in August shook the nation.
- Cruelty Award: 1943. In Germany, systematic deportation of Jews to extermination camps was well underway. Everyone knew about it. No one stopped it. In the U.S., 240 instances of interracial battles in cities and military bases terrorized communities. But, according to historian Matt Delmont, public awareness of atrocities did not prevent them from continuing.