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Atrocitology: Humanity's 100 Deadliest Achievements Hardcover – 20 Oct 2011
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"A fascinating read, hard going by necessity, but extremely thought provoking on every page" (The Skinny)
"Full of the sorts of facts and figures that men like to have at their fingertips when they are at the pub...I'd never heard of the Time of Troubles, but White explains the hows and whys rather brilliantly" (Toby Clements Daily Telegraph)
"An affecting volume" (Time Out)
"A serious book, written with a light touch, on the hundred worst things humans have done to each other (that we know of)." (Guardian)
'Compulsively readable . . . A major work . . . White is that rare phenomenon - a serious amateur who does important scholarly work that none of the professionals have taken up. He is thorough, unbiased, sophisticated, rigorous, authoritative, and, I hasten to add, tremendously entertaining. He is a real wit, with a flair for language, and a gift for the pithy, trenchant observation. The book is outstanding.' - Steven PinkerSee all Product description
Top customer reviews
If you've ever opined in a pub that wars are caused by religion, or that Stalin killed more people than Hitler, or been annoyed by the people who do, then this book at the very least will settle those questions. (The answers are, about 10% of them are, and directly yes but indirectly no). But the subject is much more important than settling arguments. For example, as a matter of public policy, we need to understand whether going to war against Saddam Hussein saved more lives than it cost, or not simply because we may be faced with a similar choice in the future. As importantly, Atrocitology enables us to put history into a different kind of context from the one we ordinarily absorb. More people died, for example, in the Roman Gladiatorial Games than in Pol Plot's regime in Kampuchea, under Idi Amin and under Saddam Hussein added together, while the famines in British India, albeit over a much longer period, cost more lives than than all of Stalin's victims.
Some of the sections, especially the earlier historical events, are quite brief. You might be misled into thinking they are sketchy, until you discover the 100 pages of notes and other apparatus at the back of the book, many of them quite extensive and going into significant detail not otherwise covered in the text.
Naturally, this is a potentially highly controversial book. Author Matthew White makes the point very clearly that one atrocity being smaller than another atrocity does nothing to reduce its impact, but some will certainly see it that way. Equally, categorising the Armenian genocide as part of the First World War is likely to create controversy on both sides. This is one reason why White expends so much time explaining his methodology. You may not agree with the result, but you can at least be sure it was arrived at by a consistent method with no axe to grind.
White in his conclusion debunks a large number of myths about what 'causes' atrocities, finding very little in the way of overall patterns. However he does, in his introduction, put forward three key results of his studies. First, chaos is more deadly than tyranny, second, the world is more disorganised than we imagine and, third, war kills more civilians than soldiers.
Although at 669 pages, huge, Atrocitology only scratches the surface of White's research and of the subject. You can get more in his online Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century. As importantly, if you're thinking of citing this book, White's research has already been cited in forty-five books and over eighty scholarly articles. In other words, he's a respectable source, even if you don't end up agreeing with him.
I've never seen anything quite like this book before. It addresses questions which I've often heard referenced in political debate, and just as often in pub conversations, but which, as far as I know, have never been answered authoritatively in this way.
This is going to be one of my top recommendations for 2012 for anyone with any involvement in politics or diplomacy.
Given the range and depth of the subject covered, its a very wordy tome 640 pages, including index), and given the nature of the subject covered, not one you want to read in one sitting, even if you are the sort of person who always sees the glass half empty. If you do want to get a good understanding of man's inhumanity and sheer cruelty, and prepared to take a stand back and observe these kind of behaviours I would strongly endorse this book.
The book ends with a 30 page discussion of the patterns emerging from the research and lessons to be learned. I would recommend starting with that: it is a fascinating and gripping read. This is where you will learn that hereditary rulers tend to be less brutal than those who earn their power, that 85% of deaths in wars are of civilians, and that about 50 million people have been slaughtered in the name of religion - but that this is relatively small on the scale of mankind's atrocities.
The rest of the book is probably best for dipping into. I think it is unfair to criticise the level of historical analysis. The book is primarily about statistics and you can hardly present a thorough analysis of 100 different historical episodes in one book.
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Not quite as interesting as I had hoped for
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