Who was worse, Adolf Hitler or Genghis Khan? An odd question, perhaps—but after finishing prolific historian White’s compendium, it’s one readers will be better prepared to entertain.
The answer, of course, is that both were quite terrible. Between the two dictators, something on the order of 100,000,000 people died during their regimes—most of them noncombatants. “War kills more civilians than soldiers,” writes the author. “In fact, the army is usually the safest place to be during a war.” That said, White patiently works his way through 100 atrocities, examining each with a tone that’s sometimes waggish, sometimes even flippant, but never less than smart. He reckons, for instance, that the dreaded Persians, whom the Greeks supposedly kept from destroying Western civilization, really weren’t such bad guys, even if their military machine dispatched many a foe. Timur, known to the West as Tamerlane, was similarly a pretty good guy, at least if you were on his good side. By one of history’s little ironies, those who were on his bad side were usually co-religionists: “He was a devout Muslim who almost exclusively destroyed Muslim enemies.” Stalin? A rotter. Mao? Perhaps worse. Hitler? Well, to the conservatives who insist that we were wrong to ally with Stalin against Hitler, White writes that “the world went to war against Hitler because he was dangerous, not because he was evil,” adding, “when you start invading your neighbors, the rest of the world gets jumpy.” Observing that nothing will prompt a fight more quickly than a set of numbers, White merrily quantifies the grimmest records humans have set—and if there’s any overarching lesson to take from his book, it is that our species is little more than a pack of chimps with guns and murderous intent. Fight or not, White is an equal-opportunity quantifier, showing that if Zulu chief (and sometime hero) Shaka had plenty of innocent blood on his hands, so did the French and British imperialists, to say nothing of Robert McNamara.
A strange, brilliant and endlessly arguable book, one every student of history needs to have close at hand.