Genghis Khan was the greatest conqueror the world has ever known. A legendary figure in history, known by everyone as a symbol of the barbarian fighter. Genghis Khan remains an extremely important character of universal history, but a controversial one. How do we perceive today Genghis Khan? Like a cold-blooded killer, responsible for millions of casualties or as an extraordinary leader, the creator of the largest empire in history?
Genghis Khan and his sons defeated peoples from the Adriatic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, arriving in territories that today belong to Austria, Finland, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Vietnam, Japan and Indonesia. The Mongol Empire had a stretch of 30 million square meters, as much as Africa.
To make a comparison, it is enough to say that the Roman Empire reached only half of the continental America (without Alaska). Until 1240, the Mongolian conquests stretched in almost every known world (except Africa), which is almost all of Asia and Europe combined.
The brutal genius waged wars simultaneously on two fronts. They managed to conquer the Russian territories during the winter (a success at which Napoleon and Hitler aspired, but they never reached it). So, how it was possible for such a victory for a nomadic people of only 2 million?
The answer lies in the extraordinary military technique that the horse archers used it. Also, the speed and the mobility of the Mongolian archers, the accuracy of their distant strikes and the extraordinary way of controlling the horses made them so famous, fearful and invincible (“Surrender or die!”).
According to Liddell Hart, a military historian, and theorist, Genghis Khan was a military innovator on two key issues: he realized that the cavalry doesn’t need infantry support and understood the importance of the artillery barrage.
Many historians claim that this achievement has been the result of bloodthirsty massacres and bloodshed as they have never seen in history until the 20th century.
Genghis Khan, responsible for the brutality of Reconquista?
John Keegan, a military historian, wrote that Genghis Khan was somehow responsible for the Spanish Reconquista against the Moors and the massacred committed in America against the Aztecs and Incas (happened three centuries later). How is that?
Well, Mongols would have imported a special brutality into Islam, which they later “transmitted” it to the Crusaders. However, Donald Ostrowski contradicts him, arguing that this ferocious brutality was introduced into Islam by the Crusaders.
Anthropologist Jack Weatherford offers a different perspective on Genghis Khan’s monster. He doesn’t focus on the numerous victims of Mongolian conquests, but instead, he talks about the attitude of Mongols towards women. The fact that these communities avoided torture and the way they transmitted their culture and arts.
These modern perspectives seem to be a projection in time, of completely different visions of Mongolians. For example, Mathew Paris (1200 – 1259), an English chronicler, considered that the Mongolians were demons. For Roger Bacon, an English philosopher, the Mongols represented the triumph of science and philosophy.
How many victims were left behind?
Because the most known image of Genghis Khan is a brutal conqueror, we must ask: how many people died because of his wars and conquests?
Of course, nobody can give an exact answer, and that is for three reasons. When the medieval chronicles wrote about the Mongols, the usually exaggerated the number of the victims by up to 10-15 times. Then, the estimation can only be made when there are accurate demographic statistics, and the medieval censuses are not reliable sources. Finally, this type of estimation is hard to do even in modern times (think about Stalin’s victims).
The European conquests of 1237-1242 probably made several million deaths and the subjugation of today’s territories of Iran and Afghanistan (1219) about 2.5 million. It is much more difficult to estimate the number of the victims during the conquests in the Chinese territories (1211-1234) because historians don’t really have reliable information on the demographic situation of North China at that time. Probably the most accepted estimation is around 60-90 million people.
Why the number of victims is so great and why the Mongols were so fearful?
Over the years, specialists have put forward various arguments: the Mongols spread terror and cruelty around them because they had a divine purpose, to conquer the entire world for their supreme god.
The simplest explanation of their “surrender or die” policy is that these people, who didn’t pass 2 million, was obsessed with protecting their own population. For them, the best scenario was when a city or community surrendered without war. This explains why many of the cities that surrendered to the Mongols were treated with indolence.
Even so, their cruelty wasn’t a psychopathic nature, as it was suggested. For them, it had a precise purpose. In addition, we must judge the Mongols according to the standards of the 13th-century behavior, not the 21st century.
Thus, compared to other Asian and European leaders who committed massacred at the time, Genghis Khan was pretty much the same. And let’s not forget that all the great military leaders in history have sent thousands and hundreds of thousands of soldiers to war for causes, that to an outsider, may not seem at all “noble”.
Another example: Julius Caesar’s campaign in Gallia, which lasted for 10 years, probably left behind up to one million casualties, but he is reminded as a leader, military genius, and writer.
Pros and Cons of Genghis Khan: What advantages did the Mongol Empire brought to the world?
The pro-Genghis Khan community claims that Mongol’s actions from China brought these nomads into contact with the Islamic world. Then, the trade and the code of laws were the main pillars of Mongolian peace. After 1220, the Mongolians prosperity to trade saw a significant increase. In other words, the Mongols were more preoccupied with trading than wars.
Until the middle of the 13th century, there was a narrow vision in the West that established the end of the earth at Jerusalem. But the trips of Marco Polo gave rise to a new and more open perspective to the world.
The educated people of that time have realized how big and how populated the world is.
Those who consider the Mongols as “demons”, have their own arguments. They say that the so-called period of peace is overestimated. They claim that the pro-Mongols only focus on a period of 20 years when there was peace and ignore the period of the collapse of the Mongols.
It is also a theory that the Mongols brought the great plague of the 14th century. Another argument against the Mongols is that even if they were extraordinary warriors, their system was inherently unstable because they didn’t trade or produce, they were living only for the surplus of their conquests.
Finally, the culture of the Mongol Empire was strongly unstable. Even though they had advanced tremendously in terms of military technology, surpassing the Europeans, they did not have educated persons among them.
Genghis Khan, the illiterate nomad, has been a genius in many ways, especially when we think about his achievements have been born from nothing. All the other great conquerors of the world were cultured people and had a cultural heritage and traditions behind them.