Originally published Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 2:56 PM

Book review

World history's most horrible of horrors

Historian Matthew White's "The Great Big Book of Horrible Things," an attempt to document history's worst atrocities, is best used as a reference, given its unrelenting focus on "atrocitology," mass killings of mankind.

The Washington Post


'The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities'

by Matthew White

Norton, 669 pp., $35

A 17th-century Mughal emperor of India was unable to urinate for three days. Miserable as he may have been, however, the emperor's plight is not one of the "horrible things" in Matthew White's new book; rather it's what came next. Thanks to a convoluted series of misconceptions and outbreaks of aggression, the emperor's blockage led to the Deccan War, in which as many as 4.6 million people may have died, giving it 23rd place on White's roster of the worst atrocities in history.

With ample material to choose from, White, who is the creator of the online "Historical Atlas of the 20th Century," has combed the records with an eye toward what he calls "atrocitology," the study of how vicious people can be to each other on a grand scale.

He doesn't take sides so much as report the facts — and the death tolls. Thus the American Civil War finds its way into White's 100, regardless of whether its nearly 700,000 deaths (soldiers and civilians combined) can be justified as the price for preserving the Union and freeing slaves.

With its unrelenting focus on horribleness, the book might best be used as a reference work, and it is full of fascinating information on parts of the world little-known to most Westerners.

For example, White's chapter on the Deccan war puts it in the context of regional religious conflict: "When Guru Nanak Dev founded the Sikh religion in the 1500s, he had originally hoped to bring peace to India and reconcile Islam and Hinduism by reducing the rival faiths to their common moral elements and fusing them into a single pacifistic religion. Unfortunately this only created a ... third religion for everyone to fight over."

Dennis Drabelle can be reached at