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Calamities and Catastrophes - Derek Wilson

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Hardcover: 272 pages / Publisher: Short Books Ltd / Published: 1 Sep 2011 / Language: English

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      29.06.2013 13:48
      Very helpful



      Ten of the most disastrous episodes in world history


      You've all heard of the horrible histories. As a variation on the theme, here is a history, and quite a serious one at that, of some of the horrible years.

      THE BOOK

      As Wilson rightly points out, history is generally written by the winners. This looks at ten of the worst episodes, generally from the point of view of those who were on the losing side, from the sixth to the late twentieth centuries. Starting with the plague and war of 541-2 which accelerated the collapse of the Roman Empire, and ending with the Rwandan genocide of 1994 in which the death toll over just a few months probably exceeded a million, it shows that history has had an uncomfortable habit of repeating itself.

      Because of the shifts of political power, and differences in population between one era and another, it is difficult to compare and measure mass human disasters from each era. Yet it is illuminating to read of the sheer havoc and devastation wrought by the Thirty Years' War fought in Europe between 1618 and 1648. Although it claimed fewer lives than the Second World War, in which 60,000,000 or 3.5% of the population of the nations involved perished, in the 17th century holocaust the figure was 7,500,000, or 35% of the population of the combatant nations. In one Swedish village alone 230 men went to fight between 1621 and 1639, and only fifteen returned home, five of them crippled for life.

      The Great Freeze of 1709 came little less than a century later. While it may not loom large in the pantheon of disasters or feature prominently in the standard chronicles, it resulted in one of the most significant migrations in Western history, with over 100,000 men, women and children leaving Germany alone to settle elsewhere. It also transformed the political balance in the East and North, and killed more people than all the wars that had raged for the previous half a century or more.

      Surprisingly there is no chapter on the 1914-18 conflict. However, there is one on the American Civil War, which had the unpleasant result of 'free, democratic America' giving birth to terrorist organizations just as bestial as those which threaten modern Western society in the present age. Moving on nearly a century, for the Second World War we have an account of events surrounding the 900-day siege of Leningrad at its worst in 1942, the result of Hitler's attempt to exterminate communism and Stalin's fightback, a desperate battle of wills between two regimes that set no store by human suffering. The tales of human suffering and cultural devastation in these pages are horrifying. As Wilson observes, the siege should stand as a warning as to what can happen when the 'glory of rulers and races' and the tyranny of ideas are allowed to control international relations.

      Being at school in 1968, I was only dimly aware of the undercurrents throughout Europe and America that year, and this book's chapter on those cataclysmic months provided for me what was perhaps the most fascinating reading of this volume. On 1 January the United Nations declared it 'the Year of Human Rights'. Ironically it would prove to be a year in which rights were often paid scant respect and dissent ruthlessly crushed, throughout the eastern bloc in Europe and during a Democratic Party Convention in Chicago, where teargas was fired into crowds of innocent bystanders while television screens were carrying coverage of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. Ironically it occurred during one of the worst weeks of the war in Vietnam, when 1,442 American troops were killed or wounded. (The figure for the entire year of 1968 was 14,589 soldiers killed - in a war that the majority of Americans had no longer believed in for a long time).

      That summer no winners emerged, but throughout the world there were millions of losers, not to say casualties. It carried on until the autumn, when there were protests (and subsequent fatalities) in Mexico, where the Olympic Games were being staged, Moscow, Albania, Roumania, Hungary, Finland - and closer to home, in Derry. It might be quicker to list the countries which remained protest-free.

      The gory roll-call went on and on. Just when you would think that things could hardly get any worse came the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Nobody emerges from this one with any credit either, least of all the British and American governments. Space in this review does not allow for a full summary of the story, but as Wilson suggests, delaying tactics by both at UN headquarters allowed the Rwandan Patriotic Front to gain military dominance and therefore political control, in which case both administrations 'stand condemned of complicity in one of the most appalling examples of genocide in modern history.'

      Has this book been written a few years later, there is little doubt that a few pages on 9/11 and its consequences would have merited a place.


      I found this a useful and very readable volume of history, with fascinating sidelights on several episodes of which I had known hardly anything. Wilson conveys the atmosphere of each age, and states the basic facts clearly and concisely. It does however seem to be a book designed mainly with the casual reader in mind. There are no illustrations, lists of dates, index, or even a bibliography or suggestions for further reading. All these factors surely limit its use as a work of historical reference.

      As merely background reading and to anyone with a general interest in history it is certainly recommended, but perhaps as one to borrow rather than buy, as it looks as if the presentation is not really aimed at the serious student. It could however be regarded as an introduction designed to whet the appetite to seek out further volumes elsewhere.

      [This is a revised version of the review I originally posted on other sites]


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