Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston
Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine

2020 Was Awful, But Was It the Worst Year in History?

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Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston
Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine

Historical Hardship

It's fair to say 2020 was a lot of things: traumatic, stressful, challenging, and — for far too many — heartbreaking. "2020 has been the perfect storm of stress," says Seth Gillihan, a clinical psychologist, bestselling author, and head of therapy at the self-therapy app Bloom. "It's brought disease, deaths, lockdowns, job losses, and financial stress, plus culture wars and bitter political divisions. The only small consolation might be that we now have better tools than we used to for dealing with it." But while it might have been the worst year many of us can remember, history will likely prove it to be far from the worst year ever. Bloom consulted 28 American and British historians for their opinions on the most stressful years in history. The results, starting with the most recent, provide a lot of perspective. 

Related: 50 Facts You Learned in School That Are Actually Lies

Shocked New Yorker Watches the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001
Andrew Lichtenstein / Contributor / Corbis Historical / Getty Images CC

2001

For Americans, 2001 ranks among the worst for being the year of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which caused nearly 3,000 fatalities, more than 25,000 injuries, substantial long-term health problems for many, and at least $10 billion in infrastructure and property damage.

Related: The American Flag's Most Iconic Moments

Protestor Confronts National Guardsmen Outside Democratic National Convention
Santi Visalli / Contributor / Archive Photos / Getty Images CC

1968

A pivotal year for the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, 1968 is remembered for unrest that resulted in riots and protests in many U.S. cities, including Washington, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and more. It also saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Related: 12 Things You Didn't Know About Martin Luther King Jr.

A US Navy P-2H Neptune of VP-18 flying over a Soviet cargo ship with crated Il-28s on deck during the Cuban Crisis.
USN - Dictionary of American Naval Aviation Squadrons Volume 2: The History of VP, VPB, VP(H) and VP(AM) Squadrons

1962

For more than a month in the fall of 1962, many collectively held their breath during the Cuban missile crisis. This confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union was widely considered the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear war.

Related: 29 Destinations That Defined the 1960s

Child Survivors Of Auschwitz
Galerie Bilderwelt / Contributor / Hulton Archive / Getty Images CC

1944

In world history, this year ranks among the worst. The Holocaust was at its height, and much of the world was engulfed in war. In a period spanning mid-May to early July of this year alone, about 437,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to concentration camps, mostly to Auschwitz, where a vast majority were murdered.

Related: 31 Historic Places You Can Tour Virtually

Huge crowds outside the Sub Treasury Building (now Federal Hall National Memorial) and the statue of George Washington, opposite the Stock Exchange, New York, at the time of the Wall Street Crash, October 1929
Keystone / Staff / Hulton Archive / Getty Images CC

1929

In the fall of this year, the worst stock market crash in U.S. history occurred, kicking off the Great Depression, which would last nearly a decade and fuel misery and hardship for many Americans for years.

Related: 12 Things We Can Learn From the Great Depression

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston
Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine

1919

The Spanish Flu gripped the world as it continued reeling from the trauma of World War I. Bloom's report noted that this year also saw "race riots, labor strikes, and the start of Prohibition." The pandemic would ultimately claim an estimated 20 million to 50 million lives around the world, including 675,000 Americans.

Related: 2020s vs. 1920s: Will History Repeat?

Battle Of Antietam
Alexander Gardner / Stringer / Hulton Archive / Getty Images CC

1862

More than one historian consulted by Bloom named this the worst year in U.S. history. It included the Civil War's Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in U.S. military history, which took a terrible toll of more than 3,500 killed and more than 17,000 wounded. "That was the darkest year in the Civil War, when it was clear that the price had already been high but the Union might still break apart permanently," says Philip Parker, historian and author of "World History: From the Ancient World to the Information Age."

Related: 15 Photos of Awe-Inspiring Memorials and Other Places Honoring Our Vets

1838
raksybH/istockphoto

1838

This year marks a dark stain on U.S. history: the Trail of Tears, resulting in the deaths of about 4,000 Cherokee. These only added to the many more Native American lives taken during the government's forced relocations following the 1830 passage of the Indian Removal Act.

Related: The Deeper Meaning Behind Route 66

Two Men by the Sea (1817) by Caspar David Friedrich
Wikimedia Commons

1816

This is often called "The Year Without a Summer" after the massive 1815 eruption of Indonesia's Mount Tambora. The millions of tons of dust, ash, and sulfur dioxide spewing into the air resulted in harsh climate abnormalities that caused the coldest summer on record between the years of 1766 and 2000. The outcome: major food shortages and starvation across the Northern Hemisphere, most acutely in New England, Atlantic Canada, China, and parts of western Europe.

Related: The Deadliest Hurricanes and Other Natural Disasters in the United States

Louis II de Bourbon, Prince of Condè at the Battle of Freiburg. By H. Grobet
Wikimedia Commons

1644

This was a turbulent year for much of the world. The Thirty Years' War continued to rage in Europe (death estimates for that war range from 4.5 million to 8 million). In China the nearly 300-year-old Ming Dynasty collapsed, due to a number of factors that included natural disasters, economic crisis, peasant uprisings, and more.

Sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410 by JN Sylvestre 1890
Wikimedia Commons

410

Although it's chronologically out of order on our list — we're saving the worst for last — 410 marked the first time in almost 800 years that Rome fell to a foreign enemy. Many believed that the sack of Rome by the Visigoths foretold the end of the world.

Citizens of Tournai bury plague victims
Wikimedia Commons

1348

COVID-19 is awful, but it doesn't hold a candle to the Black Death, which peaked in this year, killing a third of the European and Middle Eastern population, with a final tally of up to 200 million. This was the year that most of the historians consulted chose as the one "likely to have been the toughest, most difficult, and stressful individual year for those who lived through it," says Parker, who served as consultant historian on Bloom's study. "The devastation wrought by the Black Death in 1348 was so absolute that it was hard to choose any other year as the worst in world or British history."