As if the disarray from times of war is not enough, the tumultuous times also make it easy for people to forsake their humanity and turn to vicious war crimes. These are just four of the most brutal war crimes in history, showing the cruel side of human nature.
During the American Civil War, the Confederate commander Henry Wirz ran Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Georgia, which kept Union prisoners of war. Although the camp only had a maximum capacity of 10,000 inmates, some 32,000 prisoners of war were crammed into its quarters, having living quarters that were only six square feet large. Of course, the overcrowding meant that food was also scarce, and prisoners were often left to go hungry. The only available water was contaminated with the fecal matter of diseased and dying men, leaving many prisoners with scurvy, dysentery and diarrhea. Sanitation at the camp was horrendous, spreading diseases like wildfire.
Moreover, the living standards were not the only killer. The prison was rampant with several gangs, one of which was the Andersonville Raiders. Prisoners were freely attacked and sometimes murdered for their few possessions. There were prison guards on duty, but they would often simply shoot the inmates without cause.
The death toll from the camp is believed to have been 900 monthly and a total of 12,000 – more than a third of the camp’s population – over the years of 1861 to 1865.
Henry Wirz was the only person who ever stood trial for this war crime. When he was condemned to death, he claimed that he was only following orders.
T4 Euthanasia Program
The Tiergartenstrasse 4, T4 for short, was a program started by Adolf Hitler. In August 1939, healthcare providers all over Germany were told to report all every newborn infant under the age of three who appeared to suffer from severe physical or mental disabilities. The healthcare providers would then persuade parents to send such children to “pediatric clinics” in Germany and Austria for treatment – but instead of being helped, the children would actually be killed.
This program came about due to the Nazi belief that all members of society should be useful and productive. The officials argued that funds could be put to better use if they were spent on those who were not insane or suffering from a terminal illness, and if anyone was unable to work, they were fit only to die.
In order to decide who had a “life unworthy of life”, a panel of physicians was assembled and charged with the process. T4 planners distributed surveys to all kinds of healthcare providers including public health officials, hospitals, institutions and elderly homes, requiring them to fill in their patients’ capabilities, especially their ability to work.
Patients who did not fit the contribution criteria, especially children, were rounded up and sent off to “clinics”, where they were placed into gas chambers disguised as “shower facilities”. The bodies were burned in ovens, with the ashes sent back to their families together with a falsified cause of death.
The T4 program officially ended in 1941, having killed at least 5,000 disabled German children. It was the first mass killing undertaking by the Nazis, who would then go on to massacre millions more in the extermination camps years later.
Unit 731 occurred around the same time as the T4 Euthanasia program. Beginning in 1937, the Japanese Lieutenant-General Ishii Shiro started a research group, with the aim to use his knowledge of science to turn Japan into a global, formidable power. Following the government’s interest in biological weapons, Shiro decided to formulate human experiments and test them on the population of the recently acquired Manchuria. The tests were also conducted for the purposes of developing new treatments for medical problems faced in the Japanese army. Researchers would vivisect prisoners without anesthesia, inject diseases into them such as syphilis, gonorrhea and anthrax, use them as live firing targets, burn them alive and rape women so that they would have fetuses to conduct tests on. The military also experimented with introducing plague-carrying fleas onto Chinese villages for the study of how diseases would spread.
Up to 250,000 people died in each camp over the Unit 731 experimentation period. Additionally, these testing procedures did not only occur within Unit 731 but were in fact considered routine practice by doctors.
Despite the inhumane procedures, the Unit 731 researchers were never tried for their war crimes. They were instead granted immunity by the United States, which was itself eager to expand its arsenal of lethal weapons. In return for the immunity, the researchers would give the United States the data they gathered from their experiments. Records show that the United States eventually paid over $2.3 million in today’s currency for the information. The research was then used by the United States to further their war efforts in biological weapons.
The Congo faced civil war that spanned decades towards the end of the 20th century, creating numerous child soldiers and sparking cannibalism and mass rape. In fact, sexual violence was so widespread that in later studies of the Congo wars, the United Nations decided to consider rape as an instrument of war instead of a mere side effect. According to a 2011 study by the American Journal of Public Health, up to 1.8 million women in the Congo have been victims of rape – a shocking statistic that averages out to approximately 48 women being raped per hour. The rapists do not discriminate on age, with victims ranging from 18 months of age to 80 years old. Some women were also forced to undergo genital mutilation and their families were made to watch.
Being raped is terrible enough, but the victims of the Congo rapes were often abused not just once or twice – as much as ten to twenty times repeatedly by gangs of men, including those in the military. The victims are often left with disfiguring fistulas and sexually transmitted infections, and on top of it all, a lifetime of emotional trauma.
One Congo woman well known for her fight against sexual abuse was Rebecca Masika Katsuva, who herself was the victim of four rapes. She also witnessed her two teenage daughters and younger sister being raped by soldiers. They murdered her husband in front of her and forced her to eat his body parts. If her experience was not horrific enough, she and her daughters were later disowned by her husband’s family when they were looking for shelter. Katsuva went on to set up a home for rape victims and their children born out of rape, taking care of some 180 women and helping over 6,000 survivors of rape.
The Congo war was officially brought to a close in 2013 with a United Nations peace treaty, but not before five million people had died since the start of the war two decades earlier. 39 men were tried for 130 counts of rape, with more than a thousand rape victims offering to join the case and provide their testimonies. However, only two men ended up being convicted five months later, each charged with just one individual rape.