The polls are in, historians, statisticians, and ancient scroll all agree: under the leadership of Genghis Khan, the Mongolian army killed around 40 million people, an estimated 10% of the world’s population at the time. And without going into the exceedingly gory details, I assure you that he didn’t do it nicely.
No doubt we should be cursing his very name! Burning effigies of him on the street, spitting on every tomb we think is his! But we don’t, and odds are we won’t. Why not? What separates Khan from, say, Adolph Hitler? What magical property of time carries away the sins of our ancestors? Or is it not a question of time, but rather of human psychology—and by extension, history? And finally, (dare I even ask it?) will Hitler’s name be met with admiration rather than abhorrence in the distant future?
For those who don’t feel like reading on, here are my answers to the above questions: Hitler lost, Khan won; limited mental storage capacity creates need for a heuristic to determine historical relevance, heuristic is based on how many people that leader killed; Hitler will at first be remembered indifferently, but eventually we will all be forgotten. So it goes. (Poo-too-weet?)
Genghis Khan vs. Hitler: Perception in the USA Today
As we all know, history is written by the ‘winners’, and Hitler was (on many dimensions) not a winner—my nose, self-deprecation, and Bar Mitzvah certificate are living testaments to that fact. Moreover, you, dear reader, have almost definitely heard of Jews, Gypsies, and mentally disabled people—all groups Hitler tried to eliminate—but have you ever heard of Khwarezmians? Unless you’re a serious history buff, probably not. That’s because Genghis Khan literally deleted them from the face of the earth. Destroyed their empire completely and mercilessly—gone Ozymandias style. And that’s just one example; Khan’s entire M.O was unification through destruction: rally together all the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia, call them the Mongolian army, invade Eurasia with said army and destroy any civilization or group that doesn’t voluntarily bow and kneel. But unlike Hitler, Khan was widely successful. At the time of his death, he had conquered virtually all of Eurasia, in addition to ‘central Asia and China’; after his death, the Mongol Empire, run by his sons and grandsons, became the ‘largest contiguous empire in history.’
Hitler, I’ll gleefully remind you, lost. At the time of his suicide, Soviet troops were quickly advancing on his underground bunker (aptly named the Führerbunker) in Berlin, all communications with the rest of Germany were severed, and his dear friend and idol Benito Mussolini has just been executed in the brick streets of Italia. The Allied Forces, with the United States of America proudly among them, had defeated the Nazis.
From the end of WWII until now, through the political machinery of public schooling, the USA has succeeded in demonizing Hitler and the Nazis, downplaying any positive things they may have done for Germany—such as fixing the economy by doing away with the Wiemar Republic —while magnifying the atrocities they committed (not like they needed much magnifying, anyway). I’m not stating this as a ‘good or bad’ thing, but merely as a fact. I’m sure at this very moment you feel a twinge of guilt in even thinking, much less acknowledging any examples, of any ‘good’ that Hitler’s done.
What little is taught of Genghis Khan in public school is usually just a hodgepodge of mythologized caricatures painting him as a fierce and ruthless conqueror. To be entirely honest, before last year my knowledge of Khan started and ended at Disney’s Mulan. And while I can’t be certain, I’m confident that this is the case with many of my fellow armchair historians.
The Problems with Learning History
History is a notoriously murky and difficult subject to study. The first real, ‘objective’ historian, as we’ve come to understand the term, was an ancient Greek army general by the name of Thucydides (c. 460 – c. 395 BC), who wrote a detailed account of the 5th Century BC war between Sparta and Athens. His method of ‘scientific history’ called for careful cause-effect analysis of the events preceding and surrounding the war; an approach which was at the time revolutionary because it included no mention of Gods or Goddesses. Historians today go about their practice very much in the spirit of Thucydides. But despite being a huge, positive leap forward from the old method, even scientific history is not good enough: human interactions are hopelessly complicated, and the scarcity of reliable information from the past is a massive and often insurmountable mountain for modern historians to climb.
Furthermore, it’s a general truism that the longer we humans are on this earth, the more history we will have. For academic historians, this won’t be a problem (more history PhD students); but for the average intelligent man of the future who wishes to culture himself by studying history, this poses a serious dilemma—namely, the fastest method by which to determine historical importance. In other words, imagine I handed you some sort of divine chart, containing the name of every ‘relevant’ historical figure, which included statistics like ‘how much land conquered’, ‘how many people killed’, how many years ruled’, etc, etc. Now imagine that I asked you to quickly sort these people into a different chart, this time listing them in order of ‘importance’ (i.e. greatest impact). Most important on top, least important on bottom. You would need a heuristic (a reliable mental shortcut) to do this. My personal heuristic would be looking at ‘number of people killed‘. Assuming that most historical leaders killed people as they were invading, this statistic would correlate highly with ‘amount of land conquered’, and therefore the size and scope of the empire, and therefore the impact of the leader.
Rather than being some fanciful thought-experiment, I believe that this is the actual heuristic people use, and will continue to use in the future. Keep this assertion in mind as we enter into the last paragraph of the article.
Conclusion and Predictions for the Future
Time is the ocean that drowns out the sins of our ancestors. It washes away the blood and vomit and tears of obliterated souls; it erodes the complexity of human affairs into a smooth list of simple, linear, easily-remembered events; and finally, perhaps worst of all, it forgives evil and simply remembers action. I mean evil in the vague, undefinable sense that all Westerns know well: mass murder, torture, imperialism, despotism, etc,etc. I mean action in the way we all use in day-speak: something done, a deed, an act carried out. Hitler will be remembered for a number–11 million– and people will associate political failure with his name; similar to how we now remember Genghis Khan for the number 40 million, and associate his name with political and militaristic success.
As the generations fly by, nations will rise and fall, taking all their systematized venom and socio-political narratives with them. Who will be around to hate Hitler when all the Allied Powers dissolve? As a Jew myself, I can’t help but wonder: will my people always be around to lament the Shoah? And while it’s a depressing thought, someday we will all be forgotten—a few slower than most.
Leo Kozachkov (Staff Writer, Rutgers University) Leo Kozachkov is an undergraduate at Rutgers University, studying physics and mathematics. He is currently working as an Aresty Research Assistant under Professor Thomas V. Papathomas. He enjoys writing, drawing, creating/playing music, going on long walks with his beloved dog, and reading/hoarding books.His grandest hopes are to discover a new physical law, have a mathematical theorem feature his last name, and to write many books.