Whatever terminology you’re partial to using — Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, Diyu, Jahannam, Naraka or just Hell — history is clearly littered with depictions, responses and references to Hell. From East to West, Hieronymus Bosch to the Miraj-Nama, Dante to the Epic of Gilgamesh; Hell has been widely depicted in the Art and Literature of societies the world over. Sometimes, however, these cultural masterpieces have been rendered to seem trivial when compared to the devastating experiences of some Earth dwellers in reality. These hellish, tragic moments in history would submit the luckless individuals involved to the utmost pain, suffering and terror endurable by a human. Continue reading to discover the 10 most Horrific examples of Hell on Earth…
1. The Swamps of Ramree. 1945
WWII’s Asian theatre saw a truly horrifying battle in the February of 1945, an adaptation of which could truly rival Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
Japanese soldiers garrisoned in the Island fortress of Ramree in southern Burma were forced to retreat into the mangrove swamps after being overrun by a Royal Marine contingent. Had the estimated 1000 soldiers who entered the swamp known the Hell they’d find themselves in they would surely have surrendered to the British.
The fleeing Japanese, many of whom were already wounded and low on ammunition, were set upon by the swamp’s overwhelming population of Saltwater Crocodiles, averaging 15 feet in length. The man-eating capabilities of these crocodiles is well documented and the glut of blood from the battle only catalysed the feeding frenzy. British naturalist Bruce Wright, who was attached to the Marine squadron, observed that “of about 1,000 Japanese soldiers that entered the swamps of Ramree, only about 20 were found alive.”
2. The Great Revolt, 66 C.E
The Great Revolt of the Jews in 66 C.E against the Romans who had for so long been their oppressors saw the former masters come back to make an example of those who attempted to undermine the European juggernauts. For a long time the anti-Roman sentiment held among Jews had been mounting, severely catalysed by the radical actions of the crazed Roman Emperor Caligula. Even years after the death of Caligula the dissent remained among the Jews. In 66 C.E, after Romans relieved the Jewish Temple of vast quantities of silver, the oppressed Jews rioted, annihilating the small Roman garrison stationed in the city.
Wanting to swiftly stifle this insurrection, Rome dispatched 60,000 heavily armed, hardened legionnaires. The Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, finally overcoming the city’s defences in 70 C.E. The incensed Romans killed, raped and pillaged indiscriminately; to them all Jews were to be considered a party to the original uprising. One shudders to think of the Hell experienced by the Jews once the Roman’s siege was triumphant. Many of the city’s inhabitants were killed, crucified or sold into slavery. Though records vary, the Great Revolt is thought to have killed over one million Jews as well as leading to the well documented destruction of the sacred Temple.
3. Colonisation of the Aztec Empire, 1500s
To be an Aztec, or for that matter any Mesoamerican, in the 16th century was truly to experience Hell on Earth. Prior to the Spanish invasion of Central American led by the unerring Hernán Cortés, the Aztec people had only been used to warring against their primitive rivals such as the Totonac and Tlaxcaltec peoples. Now they faced the Spanish invasion force sporting guns whose technology the Aztec’s had never encountered or indeed imagined.
It’s not surprising that the Spanish overwhelmed the Aztec people. However, the violent methods they used against the whole populace rather than just the fighting men was what made the invasion truly hellish. The startling fact that there was a Papal debate as to whether the inhabitants of Central America were human explains this cruel treatment. Alongside the invasion, the Spanish invasion force’s introduction of Smallpox killed countless more Aztecs as, having never encountered the disease before, they had developed no immunity.
4. Disaster on the K-19, 1961
The ordeal the crew of the Russian nuclear-submarine K-19 endured can only be described as Hell underwater.
On July 4th 1961 while conducting exercises near the coast of southern Greenland, there was a major leak in the reactor coolant system which threatened to kill everyone on-board. Making matters worse, the ill-fated submarine’s long-range radio facility had malfunctioned preventing them from making contact with Moscow. Thus, the crew found themselves several hundred metres below sea level with nuclear radiation slowly contaminating the entire ship with no means of requesting help.
Imagining a more devastatingly isolated scenario is a difficult task. Surrendering themselves to a nearby American warship was out of the question for Zateyev, the ship’s captain. He feared that by surrendering themselves to the Americans they would uncover all the confidential documents on the submarine. To prevent a mutiny he confiscated all of the ship’s small arms except for 5 pistols, distributed to the five most trusted officers.
In a desperate bid to rescue the ship from full nuclear contamination, a team of 8 crew-members were tasked with entering the highly contaminated section of the ship and welding a new water-supply pipe to the damaged coolant system. The temporary fix bought the crew enough time to be evacuated by a diesel submarine. All eight members of the repair team died shortly after; in the ensuing years, 15 more of the crew would fall to radiation poisoning.
5. The Black Death, 1348-50
Peaking around 1348-50, the Black Death is thought to have killed up to 200,000,000 people in Europe; a staggering 60% of the total European populace. The summer of 1348 was particularly wet across Europe; sodden grain lay rotting in the fields and there was widespread unrest at the impending food shortages. This issue was to be dwarfed however, by the outbreak of bubonic plague across Europe. The epidemic spread like wildfire, particularly in cities where the overcrowding and terrible sanitary conditions only catalysed the rate at which ill-fated city dwellers succumbed to the fatal illness.
The infected would find bulbous, fist-sized boils at the site of flea bites, most commonly found around the groin, armpits or neckline. These intensely painful swellings would at first be red before turning black, giving the epidemics its name. Once you developed these boils, you were expected to be dead as quickly as two days later.
The experience of those living in the mid-fourteenth century during the Black Death outbreak was truly to be living in Hell on Earth – even if you were in the minority of people to somehow survive. Indeed, to witness the painful death of all your friends and family, seeing corpses rotting in the streets and being constantly burdened by the fear of contracting the disease yourself may have been a fate worse than succumbing to the plague.
6. The Battle of Stalingrad, 1942-43
Though those involved were to find themselves the victim of extreme cold as opposed to the traditional heat of Hell, there can be little debate that the experience of the German 6th Army at the Battle of Stalingrad was utterly hellish. The Germans assaulted the city on August 23, 1942 and found themselves embroiled in a dogfight with the Russians which only ended with the Nazis finally surrendering on February 2, 1943.
Between these dates, both warring factions endured the full force of the bitter Russian winter, though it is irrefutable that the underprepared, ill-supplied Germans truly went through Hell on earth.
A two pronged pincer movement by the Red Army meant some 230,000 German troops found themselves trapped and surrounded in the city’s centre; this site would become the frozen tomb of many of their number. Not wanting to concede the strategically invaluable city, the German high command forbade retreat. Instead they attempted to supply the 6th Army by the air though providing supplies to such a large number proved impossible. Lacking adequate supplies of food and winter clothing, the Germans who didn’t perish by starvation were forced to endure Hell. Accounts reveal that some men’s fingers were so swollen from the cold that they were unable to enter the trigger guards of their rifles.
7. Great Chinese Famine, 1949
Some ten years after the Communist took power in China in 1949, arguably one of the most catastrophic manmade disasters of the 20th century befell the already impoverished Chinese populace. Even to this day – over half a century later – many of the Chinese people struggle to come to terms with their memories of the hellish famine, referring to it euphemistically as the ‘Three Years of Difficulties’.
The largely agrarian nature of mid-20th Century Chinese society makes estimating the total death toll a difficult task – most scholars agree the figure to fall somewhere between 20-40 million. The cause of the famine is widely believed to be a result of the combined effects of the radical agricultural changes implemented by Mao’s communist party and a series of widespread draughts, catalysed by China’s unfettered population growth.
As well as the unimaginable death toll the famine gave rise to a number of hellish stories. A small village of 45 inhabitants had 44 of its number perish from the lack of sustenance. The only survivor, an elderly woman, was plunged into madness caused by the Hell she was forced to endure. Another account tells of a teenage girl in an orphanage killing and eating her four-year-old brother.
8. Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1500s-1800s
Though the remnants of race hatred still remain in some pockets of society today, it is undisputable that humanity has come a long way since the despicable, man-made Hell that was the Transatlantic Slave Trade – to be forcibly ripped from your ancestral home, driven to undergo the Middle Passage across the Atlantic (a voyage which often resulted in starvation for those unlucky enough to endure it) and then to work in terrible conditions for a thankless master.
We were reminded very bluntly of the hellish reality faced by slaves in the United States last summer in Tarantino’s painfully candid film Django Unchained. Tarantino’s vision of American slavery regrettably does not deviate far from the truth. Indeed there have been many terrible accounts from the slave era which even rival Django Unchained in their hellish nature. Perhaps the worst is that of Margaret Garner who – having briefly escaped her oppressors with her young child – decides to kill her child and liberate her from the Hell on earth that was slavery.
9. Rwandan Genocide, 1994
The violent struggle between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups in Rwanda had taken place long before its catastrophic escalation in 1994 in the Rwandan Genocide.
The Hutu, the group to which the majority of Rwandan citizens belonged, had seized power in 1962 from the Tutsi. Over the next 30 years, the racial tensions between the two groups would mount, finally spiralling out of control in 1994 when the assassination of the Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana led to the mass killing of Tutsis as well as Tutsi-sympathisers. Over the next 100 days the Hutus would attempt a genocide of their age-old rivals resulting in the death of nearly one millions Tutsi.
As if this relentless killing of their fellow Rwandans wasn’t hellish enough, extreme Hutu added a despicable, sickening weapon to their arsenal. Having murdered the husbands of many Tutsi women, the Hutu would ensure that these women were not able to ever replenish the Tutsi numbers. There are numerous accounts of women being sexually mutilated with knives, machetes, boiling water and acid, nullifying their childbearing capabilities. Equally as horrifying, the Hutu enlisted many HIV-infected males to rape the widowed Tutsi, often gloating at their denying the women a quick, painless death.
10. Holocaust, 1945
It is quite saddening that the Holocaust was inevitably going to find itself at the top of this list; this is indicative of the true extent of the misery of the darkest episode of human history. To say the experience of the Jews in mainland Europe was hellish is to somehow understate the true horror of the Holocaust. No religious description or artistic imagining of Hell adequately captures the terror of the systematic, industrialised attempt by the Nazis to eradicate the existence of Jews in Europe. The statistic that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust doesn’t help to elucidate the terrifying logistics and machinery behind the Nazi killing machine.
At first the Nazi’s used the rather primitive method of filling a large building with captive Jews and sealing all windows before starting several fuel building engines around the site. The result was to slowly poison the Jews with Carbon Monoxide. The Nazis would refine and develop this idea into their Zyklon-B gas chambers used in the Extermination camps like Auschwitz, Bełżec and Chełmno. If they weren’t put to death immediately, the Jews were subjected to excruciating slave labour to fuel their enemy’s floundering war effort.
Though there are a plethora of horror stories finding their genesis in the Holocaust, the one which strikes me as the most disturbing are the accounts of Josef “The Angel of Death” Mengele. Mengele, a graduate in Anthropology and Medicine, conducted a number of human experiments on the captives of Auschwitz, including attempting to change eye colour via various injections to the iris, amputations of limbs and conjoining two people to become “twins”. The lack of value this terrible man placed in human life is truly unsettling. The fact that the Nazis attempted to destroy all evidence of the death camps once their defeat seemed imminent betrays their knowledge of the depravity and inhumanity of their actions. It is very strange to think these events took place less than a century ago; the humanitarian in me hopes and prays that society will never slump to these depths, deep below Hell, again.