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Was 2020 the worst year ever? Historians weigh in.

So, just to recap, the following events occurred in 2020:

-- The coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, killing more than 1.7 million people (so far), including more than 337,000 (so far) in the United States.

-- The president of the United States was tried and acquitted, after being impeached at the end of 2019.

-- Protests stemming from several police killings of unarmed Black Americans erupted throughout the country, including just outside the White House, where federal law enforcement officers used tear gas on US citizens.

-- Wildfires devastated the US West Coast and Australia.

-- The president of the United States contracted the coronavirus and then dismissed it.


-- Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter died in a helicopter crash.

-- The president of the United States disputed the valid results of a peaceful election. (He lost.)

-- Alex Trebek died.

-- Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, broke up with the royal family.

-- Murder hornets arrived.

As the year finally, mercifully, comes to a close, the above events — and more — have inspired the Internet’s meme machine to declare that 2020 is the worst year ever.

But it’s not just the Internet meme machine that thinks 2020 was the worst year ever.

Earlier this month, Time magazine ran an extraordinary cover image with a big red X drawn over the number 2020. “THE WORST YEAR EVER,” the cover line read. Time certainly wasn’t alone. A recent headline from the Hill: “Why 2020 really was the worst year ever.” Even the York Daily Record of Pennsylvania wondered: ’'Was 2020 the worst year ever? With pandemic, social unrest, election chaos, it’s in the running.’'

Historians demur.

In a clever bit of marketing, the self-therapy app Bloom recently asked 28 historians from Yale, Oxford, Stanford, and other major universities to choose the worst year in history — or, as they put it, the most stressful. British historian Philip Parker led the effort. Following a depressing dive down the rabbit hole of historical misery, Parker compiled a list of the top worst/most stressful years in world, British, and US history. Then the historians made their picks.


The worst year in world history wasn’t even a close contest.

It was 1348, the height of the Black Death, during which as many as 200 million people died. That would be like wiping out about 65 percent of the US population. The Holocaust in 1944 ranked second, followed by 1816, when a volcano eruption in Indonesia blocked out the sun, starving millions. 2020 ranked sixth.

In US history, 2020 was well down the list at No. 8, just behind the 2001 terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the tumult of 1968′s riots and assassinations, the 1918 flu pandemic, the Trail of Tears of 1838, the 1929 stock market crash marking the beginning of the Great Depression, and at the very, very top, 1862.

That was, most historians say, the grimmest year of the Civil War, when the country’s total collapse seemed imminent.

“It’s a symbol of a time when the nation almost broke apart,” Parker said in an interview, “and that, really, goes to the essence of what it is to be a country and a society. It’s almost like a dagger to the heart of the country.”


In many ways, Parker said, we’re still too close to 2020 to understand what its real ranking will be, seen through the lens of time passed.

“As Chairman Mao is reputed to have said about the French Revolution,” Parker said, “it’s a little too early to say.”