I read a lot of news/politics sites, and one of them, although I don’t agree with it a lot of the time, is The Daily Beast. A few days ago Dean Obeidallah penned an article titled “Summer 2014 Was The Worst Ever.” This is not the first or only article I’ve seen in the last week or so that has pronounced 2014 the “worst summer ever”; Erin Gloria Ryan of Jezebel.com wrote one titled “Worst F*cking Summer Ever.” These articles spew forth a litany of the mega-bummers that unquestionably made this summer a mean and depressing season: the Hobby Lobby case, racism and violence in Ferguson, the attacks by ISIS in the Middle East, the suicide of Robin Williams, the Ebola outbreak in Africa, and the war in Gaza. I agree that all of these things are awful, and summer 2014 was uncommonly depressing. But worst summer ever? Puh-lease.
Without disputing the awfulness of everything that happened this summer, I am going to give you (and Mr. Obeidallah, and Ms. Ryan) five brief examples of summers that sucked much, much worse than 2014. I don’t know if this will make anyone feel better, but it’s at least worth thinking about.
Talk about bad summers–or really any season of the year–1348 was pretty effing horrific. Summer 2014’s body count includes innocents in Gaza, Ukraine and Ferguson, Missouri, as well as Robin Williams and at least one (possibly two, as of today) reporters beheaded by ISIS, but 1348’s body count numbers in the millions. The Black Death had been raging throughout Asia and the Middle East for years already, but it 1348 was the year it hit its stride, and summer months are always worse for epidemics than fall, spring or winter. In June 1348 the plague arrived in England on a ship from Gascony. Within a few weeks cases popped up in London. Scary as Ebola is, the Black Death, Yersinia pestis, was arguably worse. For one thing, it was pneumonic (contracted by breathing), which the 2014 Ebola outbreak thankfully is not. It destroyed communities–corpses piled up so fast there weren’t enough gravediggers, resulting in “plague pits” full of skeletons that archaeologists are still digging up nearly 700 years later. France, Germany, and much of Eastern Europe was at the height of the epidemic just as it got started in England. In many places, communities of Jews were blamed for the disease, and so many pogroms were directed against them that Jews in Europe had to (theoretically) fall under the protection of the Pope. The Black Death also decimated Cairo in the summer of 1348. Ferguson is depressing, yes, but can you imagine what living (or dying) in the Black Death would have been like?
If medieval misery is just too far in the past for you, let’s skip ahead to the final summer of the U.S. Civil War. This summer about 2,100 people have died in the Israel-Gaza conflict. In the summer of 1864, there were several single battles that approached or exceeded that level of carnage. Take, for example, the battle of Cold Harbor, where General Grant kept throwing wave after wave of Union troops at a Confederate position. The fighting around Atlanta, culminating in a siege, was also pretty horrible, and chewed up a couple thousand more troops. And the Civil War was not the only, nor even the biggest, war going on during summer 1864. In China, the Taiping Rebellion was roaring to its climax, with bloody house-to-house fighting in Nanking going on in July. A war was also going on in Europe between Prussia and Denmark. If it’s politics that depresses you, check out the 1864 Presidential race between Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan, which devolved into petty mudslinging, much of it racist in nature. There wasn’t much good happening in the summer of 1864.
Basically you can pick any summer out of the First World War and easily trump 2014 for horrificness, but 1916 was probably about the worst. Most of the summer was taken up by the Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1 and continued off and on until November. More than 100,000 people died in this battle. Pretty horribly, too. All the tropes you expect of World War I–mud, gas, barbed wire, gangrene, rotting corpses, rats, disease, etc.–take them and imagine enduring them when it’s blazing hot. Add to this riots and unrest in Russia, a terrorist bomb in San Francisco and a horrifying string of shark attacks in New Jersey, and I’d put 1916 up against 2014 confidently any day.
“Summer 2014 Was The Worst Ever.” I would say the 500,000+ Jews who used to live in Hungary–most of whom were deported to Auschwitz in an astonishing frenzy of genocide in the summer months of 1944–would probably disagree. Indeed, summer 1944 was the climax of the Holocaust, and of World War II generally. The gas chambers of Auschwitz ran day and night and so many corpses poured out of them that the Nazis couldn’t incinerate them fast enough. While trains full of condemned Jews rattled across Europe, Allied troops were slogging their way across the hedgerow country of France, and Soviet troops battling Nazis on the steppes of Russia. The Warsaw Uprising also occurred in the summer of 1944, and for good measure that’s when Germany started dropping V-2 rocket bombs on London. For even more gratuitous human carnage, the Hartford Circus Fire killed hundreds of people, mostly children, in Connecticut. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another summer in human history worse than 1944.
In the more recent past, bummer summers don’t come much more bummery than 1968. For a summer that began with the senseless assassination of Robert Kennedy, extinguishing what tiny ray of hope might have existed to get American political life under control, ’68 grew rapidly worse. You had the Glenville Shootout, increasing incidents of racial tension in the United States, and the awful spectacle of the Democratic Convention in Chicago which can easily rival Ferguson for the heavy-handed brutality of the police response. Outside the U.S., summer 1968 offers us the coup in Iraq that brought the Ba’ath party (Saddam Hussein’s gang) to power, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR to crush the Prague Spring, and an escalating spiral of violence in Vietnam. If bad summers are your thing, your cup runneth over in 1968.
Look, this summer has been horrible. I won’t dispute that. Ebola, Gaza, racism, Robin Williams, political gridlock, Putin, Ukraine, gun massacres–all of this is really, really bad. But if history gives us one comfort, it’s this: however bad things are, you don’t have to look very far to find somewhere, some situation that was much, much worse. 2014 may suck, but I’d rather live here than in 1944 or 1864. I have a feeling, if pressed, Mr. Obeidallah and Ms. Ryan might too.