What Was the Worst Year in History?

From the Dark Ages to Star Trek

Graham Roumieu

Peter Ward, paleontologist, University of Washington

Some 65.5 million years ago, the Chicxulub asteroid struck what would one day be Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. It ended up incinerating all life for hundreds to thousands of miles and causing a perhaps mile-high tsunami that wiped the East Coast of North America as clean as a billiard ball. And that was just the first day of a very bad year—it got worse.

Baratunde Thurston, CEO and co-founder, Cultivated Wit; author, How to Be Black

Sometime in the 1100s, the Chinese invented firearms. We would have been better off sticking with fists and knives. Thanks, 1100s, for enabling genocidal levels of violence for centuries.

Charles C. Mann, author, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

In 1520, smallpox hit the Americas, eventually killing between 60 and 90 percent of the continents’ original inhabitants. At the same time, the epidemic was key to the beginning of Europe’s colonial empires. So depending on where you stood, the year was a tragedy or a triumph.

Harold Cook, professor of history, Brown University

The Sack of Antwerp in 1576 not only destroyed thousands of lives and a great city, but created economic chaos in Europe. The same year saw the rise of the Holy League in France. Self-righteousness, plots, and spies were everywhere.

Nathaniel Philbrick, author, Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution

In 1675, the considerable promise of the First Thanksgiving in 1621 was destroyed by a devastating Native American–English clash. On a per capita basis, King Philip’s War was the bloodiest conflict ever fought on American soil.

Peter Segal, director, Anger Management, 50 First Dates, and Grudge Match (out December 25)

Definitely 1848, the year gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Until then, you could find a nice piece of land in California, pitch your tent, and call it home. The housing market here has been a living hell ever since.

Margaret MacMillan, warden, St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford

Until the end of July 1914, Europe was rich, prosperous and peaceful. By that December, hundreds of thousands of men lay dead across the Continent and, although the world did not know it, Europe faced another four years of a conflict that would cast a long and poisonous shadow over the future.

Mark Kurlansky, author, Ready for a Brand New Beat: How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem for a Changing America

There’s a direct connection between 1914—which saw the outbreak of World War I and the initial embrace of modern warfare—and World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq, and even today’s drones.

John Barry, author, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

The year 1918 saw not only the butchery of World War I but a worldwide influenza pandemic. Credible estimates of the death toll range from nearly 2 percent to well over 5 percent of the entire world population. It’s possible that influenza killed more people in September, October, and November of 1918 than AIDS has killed in all the years since it entered the human population.

Lisa Randall, professor of physics, Harvard

Despite being the year after World War I ended, 1919 wasn’t so great. It planted the seeds for World War II as well as for many of the Middle East problems we face today. Plus, between 1918 and 1920, influenza killed a significant fraction of the world’s population.

Molly Crosby, author, The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History

The year 1918, when man’s technological advances culminated in one of the deadliest conflicts in world history. Then, in an ominous reminder of the real enemy, a strain of flu killed as many as 50 million people.

Erik Larson, author, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

The first 10 months of 1918 were consumed by world war, and even after the war ended, than the Spanish flu epidemic continued.

Niall Ferguson, professor of history, Harvard

The high tide of the Axis powers—and the most lethal year of the Holocaust—came in 1942, as the Germans ran amok in the Soviet Union and the Japanese smashed the Western empires in Asia. The same year, the tide turned in favor of the Allies at Stalingrad, Guadalcanal, and El Alamein, but think how much longer the war still had to go! What a bloody awful year.

Garry Wills, author, Lincoln at Gettysburg

The year 1943, when the Holocaust was at its fiercest.

Edward Tenner, author, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences

For a legacy of global misery and instability, nothing beats 1979. High inflation, U.S. encouragement of jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the turn to fossil fuels after Three Mile Island, jingoist sentiments inflamed by the Iranian hostage crisis—all still cast a shadow on our future.

Tig Notaro, comedian

Personally, it should have been 2012, when I lost my mother unexpectedly, lost the ability to eat after contracting a bacterial infection, lost my romantic relationship, and then lost both of my breasts due to invasive cancer. It really should have been, but it wasn't. I'm alive.

Wyatt Cenac, comedian

Probably 2267 [in Star Trek years], when Khan Noonien Singh was reawakened from suspended animation, setting forth a disastrous chain of events that ended with the death of Mr. Spock.

This is an expanded version of December 2013’s Big Question. Readers have been sharing their answers on Twitter—here are some of our favorites.

@bowtiebolden: 48 BC (or whatever of the several options you choose) -- Burning of the Library of Alexandria

@leeglandorf: 1347 black plague hits Europe. 75-200 mill die by 1350 PLUS the middle ages in general were rough

@felixfallacks: 1582 because in that year they realized all previous dates in history were wrong.

@badassbradash: For the US it was definitely 1863-1865, bloodiest years in US history

@Tingwall: 1945: Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, killing & burning so many & showing what devastation humans are capable of

@DanielPWWood: That has to be 1994. Hootie and the Blowfish had a #1 album. Those were dark days

@nickrallo: 1999, when Star Wars: Episode 1 the Phantom Menace was released.

@NickEsquer: 2013, the year in which #selfie and #twerk were the top two words in the English language. #fml #GameOverAmerica