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The Top 10 Worst Genocides in History

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

From the Bangladesh Genocide to the Holocaust, this article ranks the world's deadliest genocides.

From the Bangladesh Genocide to the Holocaust, this article ranks the world's deadliest genocides.

A List of Infamy

Throughout world history, a number of mass-killings and crimes against humanity have taken place throughout various sectors of the globe. From the Darfur Genocide to the Holodomor, this work examines the 10 worst genocides in human history. It provides a brief history of each event, as well as an analysis of their overall social, political, and economic impact. It is the author’s hope that a better understanding (and knowledge) of these horrific events will accompany readers following their completion of this work. This is crucial, as forgetting crimes of this magnitude is an unforgivable offense that dishonors those who were forced to die for no fault of their own.

Selection Criteria

In order to rank the world’s deadliest genocides, a number of basic criteria were necessary for the extents and purposes of this work. First and foremost, each of the genocides described below is ranked according to their estimated death toll. While some of these death toll numbers are only estimates (with wide-ranging estimations), the author has attempted to remedy this solution by relying solely on acceptable scholarly estimates.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it is crucial to understand that not all genocides result in mass-killing. Some genocides result in the forcible transfer of an entire population from one location to another, whereas others were devised to prevent births within a specific group of people or culture. Likewise, deaths from genocidal acts may present themselves several years later as a result of the harsh conditions that victims were exposed to. This is especially true for victims of famines (in particular, government-sponsored famines). For these reasons, it was imperative for the extents of this work to consider possible deaths that resulted as a direct result of genocidal campaigns but aren’t counted in the official “death tolls” listed by scholars and historical records.

While these criteria have a number of shortcomings that are evident, the author believes them to be the best means for ranking the 10 worst genocides in human history.

What is a Genocide?

Defining the term “genocide” is often a difficult endeavor for scholars and legal analysts. Nevertheless, current definitions by the United Nations define it as a deliberate intent to destroy (in whole or in part) a “national, ethnic, racial, or religious group” (ushmmm.org). Five categories of genocide have currently been identified:

  1. Killing members of a specific group.
  2. Infliction of serious harm (either mental or physical) upon members of a specific group.
  3. Calculating and attempting to bring about physical destruction upon specific groups.
  4. Imposing specific measures which aim to prevent births within an ethnic group or people.
  5. Forcibly transferring (internally or externally) groups of people to another area as part of a relocation program, or attempting to assimilate them with others.

The 10 Deadliest Genocides in History

  • Bangladesh Genocide
  • Darfur Genocide
  • Rwandan Genocide
  • Armenian Genocide
  • Circassian Genocide
  • Khmer Rouge “Killing Fields”
  • Holodomor
  • The Holocaust
  • The Great Leap Forward
  • Mongol Invasions and Conquests
Families remembering the 1971 Bangladesh Genocide through a candlelight vigil.

Families remembering the 1971 Bangladesh Genocide through a candlelight vigil.

10. Bangladesh Genocide

  • Date of Event: 26 March 1971
  • Location: East Pakistan
  • Estimated Death Toll: 200,000 to 3,000,000 People

The Bangladesh Genocide was a mass killing that occurred on 26 March 1971, following the launch of “Operation Searchlight” by Western Pakistan. Serving as a “military crackdown” against the Eastern wing of the country (now known as Bangladesh), Bengalis were systematically raped, tortured, and killed by both the Pakistani military and Islamic extremist militias due to their desire for self-determination and independence.

The state-wide killing spree lasted for approximately 9 months, before finally coming to an end in December of that same year. Although the genocide was officially denied by Pakistan for several decades, attempts by various army officers (along with international pressure) have succeeded in bringing a number of its active participants to justice. Nevertheless, with thousands of individuals participating in the slaughter that ensued, scholars are quick to point out that the vast majority of individuals who partook in the bloodshed are still at large.

Impact of the Bangladesh Genocide

The overall death toll for the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971 is difficult to determine due to the lack of credible sources (and censorship by the Pakistani government). Nevertheless, it is currently estimated that approximately 200,000 to 3 million Bengali men, women, and children were killed during the crackdown. One of the worst crimes perpetuated by the Pakistani government was the public call for Bengali women to be raped. As a result, it is estimated that anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 women were sexually assaulted (with many being killed after the act was performed).

In addition to mass killing and rape, the conflict served to displace millions living within the area. Approximately 8 million Hindus fled to neighboring India, while an additional 30 million people were internally displaced with no home or shelter. To date, the Pakistani government continues to deny wrongdoing in the event. Scholars are quick to point out, however, that the mass killing was a clear case of genocide, fitting the original United Nations definition set forth decades prior. As such, the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971 is certainly one of the worst genocides carried out in human history, as its death toll, level of violence, and displacement of millions are virtually unparalleled.

Map showing the affected regions of the Darfur Genocide.

Map showing the affected regions of the Darfur Genocide.

9. Darfur Genocide

  • Date of Event: 23 February 2003 to Present
  • Location: Darfur, Sudan
  • Estimated Death Toll: 80,000 to 500,000 People (and climbing)

The Darfur Genocide refers to an ongoing mass killing of ethnic Darfuri people in Western Sudan. First beginning in February 2003, the conflict quickly spiraled out of control, resulting in one of the worst genocides of the modern age. Both the Khartoum government and Janjaweed are believed to be the two primary perpetrators of the event, who have used prior civil wars and social unrest as an excuse for their systematic killing of the Darfuri people. Of the numerous tribes involved in the mass killing, the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa tribes appear to be the primary victims of this disastrous situation.

Despite indictments by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as well as the United Nations against the Khartoum government (and its cadres), mass killing continues to unfold on the ground today; albeit at a much slower pace than in years prior. This is due, largely, to the fact that the United Nations has refused to intervene with peacekeepers, or to enact sufficient sanctions against the Sudanese government to prevent such actions from occurring. Thus, in many respects, the Darfur Genocide is an act of terror that has transpired with little interference from the outside world.

Impact of the Darfur Genocide

To date, it is currently estimated that the Darfur Genocide has been responsible for nearly 80,000 to 500,000 deaths in Sudan (with some scholars arguing that these numbers are too small). However, these figures obscure the total number of people that have been affected by atrocities committed by the Khartoum government and Janjaweed (such as rape, torture, and displacement from their homes). As of March 2021, it is estimated that nearly 3 million people (including men, women, and children) have suffered systematic beatings, rape, and torture at the hands of these political entities. Likewise, it is also important to note that these numbers are continuing to rise (albeit at a relatively slow pace for the time being). For these reasons, the Darfur Genocide is perhaps one of the worst genocides to have occurred in modern memory. Without outside assistance, it is likely that the atrocities will continue for the foreseeable future, with devastating results for the Sudanese people.

Pictured above is an American convoy delivering fresh water to Rwandan refugees.

Pictured above is an American convoy delivering fresh water to Rwandan refugees.

8. Rwandan Genocide

  • Date of Event: 7 April to 15 July 1994
  • Location: Rwanda
  • Estimated Death Toll: 800,000 People

The Rwandan Genocide refers to a mass killing that occurred during the Rwandan Civil War in 1994. For a period of 100 days, members of the Tutsi minority were systematically slaughtered by a Hutu-led campaign of mass murder. Aided by the Hutu-led government, police officials, and soldiers, militias (using rifles and machetes) went from house to house searching for Tutsi men, women, and children, slaughtering any individual that they came across with no mercy. To date, it is considered to be one of the worst genocides in modern history, with a level of violence that exceeded anyone’s expectations.

Although the origins of the mass killing were originally blamed on the assassination of Rwandan President, Juvenal Habyarimana (whom the Hutu falsely claimed had been murdered by Tutsis), the conflict’s actual origins can be traced to decades prior. During Belgian rule, the colonial government instituted a separation of Hutus and Tutsis, favoring the Tutsis and placing them in greater leadership roles within the country. The systematic divide led to tremendous resentment in the years that followed, culminating in unresolved tension that provoked the Hutus to steal, rape, and kill for greater rights.

Impact of the Rwandan Genocide

According to most modern estimates, the Rwandan Genocide is estimated to have claimed approximately 800,000 men, women, and children in its aftermath. This figure, however, does not account for the millions who were displaced, tortured, and raped as a result of the genocidal campaign carried out by the Hutus. Scholars currently estimate that nearly 2 million people fled the country, while an additional 1 million individuals lost their homes, businesses, and traditional way of life within Rwanda. The psychological effect of the tragedy was also extremely detrimental to the children that survived. It is currently believed that over 75,000 children lost at least one (or both) of their parents in the violence, leaving them orphaned and forced to fend for themselves in a country bent on their suppression. When taken together, it is not difficult to see why the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 was one of the worst manmade disasters in history.

Group of Armenians being prepared for deportation by the Ottoman Empire.

Group of Armenians being prepared for deportation by the Ottoman Empire.

7. Armenian Genocide

  • Date of Event: 1915 to 1917
  • Location: Ottoman Empire
  • Estimated Death Toll: 600,000 to 1.5 Million People

The Armenian Genocide refers to a mass killing (and “ethnic cleansing”) that occurred between 1915 and 1917. Perpetuated by paramilitary units of the Ottoman Empire (during the waning years of the First World War), Ottoman forces carried out a systematic slaughter of Armenian Christians following their invasion of Russian and Persian territory during the war. Ottoman leaders justified the mass murder of civilians on the false belief that Armenians were part of a broad “conspiracy” to resist and secede from their rule (similar to Adolf Hitler’s depiction of the Jewish people, following his rise to power).

To carry out the mass-killing campaign that followed, Ottoman soldiers were ordered to round up all Armenians (including men, women, and children) and to either execute them via firing squad or march them on long “death marches” through the Syrian Desert. Occasionally, women and children were sometimes allowed to live, if they openly denounced their Christian faith and converted to the Ottoman brand of Islam. To this day, the Turkish government (formally the area that comprised the Ottoman Empire) denies that the genocide and ethnic cleansing ever occurred.

Impact of the Armenian Genocide

The overall impact of the Armenian Genocide is difficult to put into words, as the immense suffering and tremendous loss of life were horrifying. As of 2021, historians estimate that approximately 600,000 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire, with 1.2 million being the average figure cited by most scholars. As with many of the genocides described in this list, however, these figures are a bit misleading as they do not account for the psychological effects of the ordeal on survivors, those who were raped and committed suicide, or those who were permanently displaced from their homes and country. Current estimates state that approximately 200,000 women and children were forcibly converted to Islam, and were integrated into Muslim households to ensure compliance. Likewise, an additional 200,000 Armenians are believed to have died from starvation in the years following the mass killing, as the new Turkish government refused to allow them food and shelter.

In terms of displacement, nearly 90 percent of the Armenian population was eliminated from the Ottoman Empire. It is currently unknown how many families were deported (forcefully relocated); however, most estimates place the figure in the 500,000+ range. As such, the Armenian Genocide was clearly one of the worst atrocities ever perpetuated by the human race, and one of the worst crimes committed in the Twentieth Century.

Circassian mountaineers abandoning their village before Russian troops arrive.

Circassian mountaineers abandoning their village before Russian troops arrive.

6. Circassian Genocide

  • Date of Event: 1830s to 1870s
  • Location: Circassia
  • Estimated Death Toll: 800,000 to 1.5 Million People

The Circassian Genocide refers to a Russian-led massacre (and mass killing) of Muslim Circassians living alongside the Black Sea. Occurring for a period of nearly thirty years (1840 to 1870), a large contingent of Russian and Cossack forces led a brutal campaign to expel (and murder) the Circassian people from their homeland to parts of the Ottoman Empire. Ubykhs, Abkhaz, Arshtins, Ossetians, and Chechens were also included in the genocide that transpired, leading to countless numbers of people killed before the campaign was concluded in 1870. To date, it is considered one of the worst genocidal events in human history due to the unrivaled brutality and viciousness perpetuated by the Russian Empire.

The Circassian Genocide’s origins are largely attributed to the Russo-Circassian War. Following the almost century-long conquest of the Caucasus by Russian forces, the Russian Empire decided to forcefully deport the native Circassian people to make room for ethnic Russians moving into the region (colonists). To date, the Russian government continues to reject requests for “comment” on the disaster, despite overwhelming proof of wrong-doing and murderous intent by the Tsarist government in decades prior.

Impact of the Circassian Genocide

To date, scholars remain split on the number of overall deaths perpetuated by the Russian Empire against Circassians. Nevertheless, the accepted range for most experts is between 800,000 to 1.5 million deaths. As with all the genocides on this list, however, these numbers are a bit misleading as they do not take into consideration the number of individuals exported from Circassia, as well as the total number of deaths that occurred as a direct result of their expulsion (a number that is impossible to calculate given the event’s tremendous scale). Most contemporary historians agree, however, that Circassia experienced an overall population drop of approximately 80 to 97 percent, with non-Russian ethnic groups dropping from 1,661,000 people (prior to the genocide) to nearly 71,155 people after its conclusion. For these reasons, it is not difficult to see why the Circassian Genocide was one of the worst crimes against humanity in history.

Pictured above is the leader of the Cambodian Genocide, Pol Pot.

Pictured above is the leader of the Cambodian Genocide, Pol Pot.

5. Khmer Rouge "Killing Fields"

  • Date of Event: 7 April 1975 to 7 January 1979
  • Location: Cambodia
  • Estimated Death Toll: 1.5 to 2 Million People

The Khmer Rouge “Killing Fields” (also known as the “Cambodian Genocide”) refers to a mass killing of Cambodians between 17 April 1975 and 7 January 1979. Lasting for nearly four years, these crimes were carried out by the Khmer Rouge (government forces) led by the Communist dictator, Pol Pot. In an attempt to radically turn Cambodia into a “socialist agrarian republic,” Pol Pot and his cadres quickly seized control of the country through a radical campaign of mass executions (of supposed “troublemakers”), forced labor, torture, and starvation policies.

The killings that occurred were primarily carried out against Chinese Cambodians, Muslims, and Vietnamese Cambodians throughout the campaign’s arduous four years. Of the individuals killed, direct execution accounted for approximately 60 percent of all deaths, indicating that the Khmer Rouge played a very personal role in the killings. The genocide would have likely continued into the 1980s if not for the invasion of Vietnamese forces into the country, which resulted in the removal of Khmer Rouge officials from power. To date, it is considered one of the worst acts of barbarism committed by humans in history.

Impact of the Cambodian Genocide

While total deaths are difficult to estimate for the Cambodian Genocide, most scholars agree that approximately 1.5 to 2 million people were systematically killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. These figures account for nearly 25 percent of Cambodia’s total population. Nevertheless, these numbers mask some of the other issues that occurred with the genocide, including the mass outflow of refugees who sought escape through Thailand and Vietnam. Likewise, a number of young children were conscripted into the Khmer Rouge’s ranks through desensitization processes and brain-washing regimens. It remains unclear how many children became accomplices in their killing sprees; however, the number is thought to be extremely high. For these reasons, the Cambodian Genocide is clearly one of the most devastating genocides carried out in world history, with effects that are still seen (and felt) in the present day.

The current memorial symbol of the Holodomor.

The current memorial symbol of the Holodomor.

4. Ukrainian Famine of 1932 (Holodomor)

  • Date of Event: 1932 to 1933
  • Location: Ukraine
  • Estimated Death Toll: 3.5 to 10 Million People

The Ukrainian Famine of 1932 (also referred to as the “Holodomor,” “Great Famine,” or “Terror Famine”) refers to a man-made famine devised by the Soviet Union against Ukraine between 1932 and 1933. In an attempt to eradicate Ukrainian nationalism (and the potential for an independence movement in the country), Joseph Stalin and his cadres led a massive collectivization program that stripped the area’s peasants of nearly 100 percent of their grain and food to achieve an overly-ambitious “Five Year Plan” for the Soviet economy. Using collectivization brigades to carry out their newfound policy, thousands of government forces poured into the Ukrainian countryside, beating and killing anyone that opposed their grain confiscation. The end result was mass starvation and intense hunger, leading to countless deaths in the year that followed, as no food (or aid) was provided by the government to sustain the local peasants.

To this day, both western and eastern scholars continue to debate whether or not the Holodomor can be considered an act of genocide by the Soviet regime. Given modern definitions of the term, however, it is not difficult to see that the mass deaths occurred solely from government-sponsored policies, leaving little doubt that the Ukrainian Famine of 1932 was a clear case of genocide.

Impact of the Ukrainian Famine of 1932

Overall deaths from the Ukrainian Famine of 1932 are difficult to estimate given the famine’s tremendous scale within Ukraine. Moreover, Soviet officials continuously denied that the famine had even taken place, and covered their tracks through the destruction of government documents, execution of potential sympathizers, and the modification of census records that would have provided greater insight into the famine’s aftermath. Nevertheless, most experts agree that approximately 3.5 to 10 million people likely perished as a result of the Soviet regime’s collectivization policies. Of these, nearly 6.1 million deaths are attributed to birth defects and malnourishment effects that led to early deaths. These figures are slightly misleading though, as an additional 1.8 million kulaks (wealthy peasants) in Ukraine were also systematically arrested and sent to the gulag as part of collectivization policies. Of these, it remains unclear how many individuals perished under forced labor and extreme conditions in Siberia. Thus, taken together, it is not difficult to see why the Holodomor was one of the worst genocides and famines in human history.

Jewish prisoners arriving at Auschwitz.

Jewish prisoners arriving at Auschwitz.

3. The Holocaust

  • Date of Event: 1941 to 1945
  • Location: German Reich and German-Occupied Europe
  • Estimated Death Toll: 7 to 11 Million People

The Holocaust (also known as “the Shoah”) refers to a horrific genocide carried out against European Jews during the Second World War by Nazi Germany. Originating with the radical antisemitism presented by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, persecution of Jews and so-called “undesirable” elements of Germany began in the early 1930s following the rise of Hitler to a position of power. Over the next twelve years that followed, Jews and other minority groups were systematically imprisoned in either labor camps or death camps, where they were beaten, deprived of food, humiliated, and ultimately killed by their captors.

Pogroms, mass shootings, death marches, and extermination camps all served as the primary means of murder for the Nazi regime against Jews and other minorities, as Hitler believed that their elimination would pave the way for the rise of a master race. Fortunately, Hitler’s dreams were never fully realized as the Allies made rapid territorial gains in 1944 and 1945, respectively. Nevertheless, the death toll by the war’s end was catastrophic and represented one of the worst losses of human life in recorded history.

Impact of the Holocaust

The impact of the Holocaust is difficult to describe in only a short amount of space. Nevertheless, it is estimated that nearly 6 to 7 million Jews were killed by the Nazi regime, representing approximately one-third of the entire Jewish population worldwide (and two-thirds of European Jewry). In addition to this horrifying figure, several million non-Jewish individuals were also killed by the Nazis as well. These included Soviet civilians and prisoners, Poles, Romani, as well as various political and religious opponents from within German itself. In terms of genocides, few events in human history have ever matched the barbarism and murderous rage inflicted by Hitler and his party toward a particular ethnic group(s). As such, the Holocaust is truly one of the worst episodes of human history, demonstrating mankind’s potential to inflict serious harm against others when allowed.

Communist forces preparing to enter the countryside.

Communist forces preparing to enter the countryside.

2. Great Leap Forward

  • Date of Event: 1958 to 1862
  • Location: Communist China
  • Estimated Death Toll: 55 to 60 Million People

The Great Leap Forward (sometimes referred to as the “Second Five Year Plan”) refers to an economic and social plan carried out by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party between 1958 and 1962. The campaign, which aimed to reconstruct the country’s agrarian society into an industrialized communist society (through the formation of “people’s communes”) was later viewed as one of the most horrific genocides of human history. Through excessive grain-collection policies that left Chinese farmers with nothing to eat (similar to the Holodomor in Ukraine), starvation quickly ensued across the countryside leading to famine conditions (later known as the “Great Chinese Famine”). Although Mao and the Communist Party would later claim that the famine was the result of bad weather conditions, it was actually a result of bad planning and unnecessary social and economic policies that placed political ambitions over the sanctity of human life.

Impact of the Great Leap Forward

The overall impact of the Great Leap Forward is difficult to describe in words, as tens of millions of individuals perished as a result of its implementation. The ensuing famine that devastated China as a result of this catastrophic “advance” is widely regarded by many scholars as the worst to occur in modern human history. As of 2021, most scholars agree that approximately 55 million people perished as a result of this genocide. However, a number of historians have also pointed out that these figures may be as high as 70 million when considering the number of individuals that likely perished as a result of malnourishment and famine-related diseases in the years and decades that followed.

While some scholars argue that the Great Leap Forward cannot be considered a genocide (since they claim that Mao never intended for such mass death), it is difficult to reconcile this argument with the fact that government forces did absolutely nothing to remedy the plight of starving peasants. Rather than helping to alleviate their suffering, Mao’s cadres simply continued in their policies, with devastating effects. For these reasons, the Great Leap Forward clearly constitutes an act of genocide, and is certainly one of the worst crimes against humanity recorded in human history.

Artistic portrayal of the Mongols invading China.

Artistic portrayal of the Mongols invading China.

1. Mongol Invasions and Conquests

  • Date of Event: 13th Century
  • Location: Asia and Eastern Europe (Eurasia)
  • Estimated Death Toll: 60 to 100+ Million People

The Mongol invasions (commonly known as the “Mongol Conquests”) refers to a series of widespread terror and destruction that took place during the 13th Century. Perpetuated by the Mongol army, the mass invasion of Eurasia that ensued resulted in the deadliest act of mass killing in human history. To this day, no other genocide has exceeded its barbarity and overall scope.

Killing and plundering wherever they rode, the Mongols travelled from region to region over the centuries that followed, expanding their control in a rapid fashion. As expert horsemen, the Mongols were afforded a tremendous advantage over most of their victims, allowing them to quickly subdue their enemies (victims) with relative ease. Through battle, sieges of entire cities, as well as large-scale massacres of civilian populations (once in control), the Mongol Empire was truly a force of evil that brought great harm and devastation to nearly everything it touched.

Impact of the Mongol Invasions and Conquests

As with many of the genocides included in this list, it is difficult to determine the overall impact of the Mongol invasion and conquests. Nevertheless, the estimated human costs of the invasion are staggering. Many scholars have concluded that the Mongols were responsible for killing approximately 11 percent of the world’s population during their conquests. This translates to approximately 60 million people throughout Eurasia that lost their life. In addition to widespread death and destruction, the invasions also marked one of the largest population displacements in human history. This is particularly true in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, where entire populations were forced from their homes through both terror and panic (thus, achieving one of the secondary categories of what constitutes a genocide).

What is perhaps most staggering about the Mongol invasions and conquests, however, is the fact that this figure of 60 million deaths does not include the bubonic plague victims. As an early carrier of the disease from China, the Mongol Empire is often credited with spreading the disease throughout its empire due to its widespread contact with other people. As such, it is likely that the bubonic plague first arrived in Europe as a result of Mongol interference on the world stage. With this in mind, the Mongols were also (unintentionally) responsible for millions of more deaths via the spread of germs. For these reasons, their conquests and invasions of the known world are easily the worst case of genocide ever experienced by mankind.

Works Cited

  • Marples, David. Russia in the Twentieth Century. New York, New York: Pearson Educational Limited, 2011.
  • Slawson, Larry. “Crime and Punishment: Peasant Resistance in the Ukraine, 1927-1933.” Thesis. University of North Carolina at Charlotte. 2018.
  • Slawson, Larry. “Origins of the Russian People.” OwlCation. 2019.
  • United Nations. "Definition of the Crime of Genocide." Accessed 10 November 2021.
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "What is Genocide?" Accessed 10 November 2021.

Images/Photographs:

  • Pixabay Commons
  • Wikimedia Commons

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Larry Slawson