Having read the Harry Potter series three or four times, I understand that Voldemort caused some serious damage to England. He led two wizarding wars, killed a lot of people, and in general was not a very nice person.
But how bad were these wars really?
As it turns out, a lot worse than JKR lets on. Sure, reading the book, you get a general understanding of how bad it was; Remus and Sirius speak at length regarding how little people trusted each other, and wizards and witches constantly went missing. But does that really capture the impact of the war?
Not at all.
An Estimate of the Wizarding Population
Let’s do some numbers. How many wizards are there in England at this time? Somewhere between 4 and 10 thousand. A quick, back of the envelope calculation for the more skeptical amongst you:
- Educating your children at a school is nearly universal in the JKR universe
- Most Brits send their children to Hogwarts
- Hogwarts accepts ~40 students per year
- Average life expectancy of a wizard is around 140 years
40 wizards & witches / year * 140 years = 5600 wizards and witches Let’s leave some extra padding just in case and call it
7000 wizards and witches in England. Remember, these are conservative numbers.
Deaths Due to Voldemort
Estimating the exact number of deaths in the wizarding wars is not easy, particularly because of the clandestine way Voldemort operates. Unlike Grindelwald who seemed to offer a more traditional style of warfare (setting up clear headquarters / prisons, having a literal army, etc), Voldemort has evolved to guerrilla tactics. He strikes in targetted, isolated events to spread general fear and distrust amongst the population.
As a result, we have extremely sparse data. Still, some conclusions can be made. The war went on for roughly eleven years, and Sirius is known for saying the following:
Every week, news comes of more deaths, more disappearances
But how many deaths? How many disappearances? Based on several wizarding battles and encounters, we can safely say that, absent an ambush, wizards can hold their own. In most battles, only 1 wizard usually ends up dead. Note that we exclude the massive battle taken place at Hogwarts at the end of book seven, since that is not typical of the war as a whole; indeed, that final battle reverts to Grindelwald’s style of traditional warfare.
This, combined with the fact that the second ‘wizarding war’ had very few deaths comparatively, we can estimate the deaths for which Voldemort was responsible. Remember that Sirius’ quotation is really the only data we have here, so I’m taking it literally - that every week, somebody went missing or died. Voldemort ruled for 11 years, or 572 weeks. To be conservative, let’s just say 500 weeks. Perhaps in the first couple weeks he didn’t kill as many, or maybe he was just getting set up and wasn’t as bold. Either way, let’s use 500 weeks for the sake of easy arithmetic.
We can establish a lower bound using our knowledge of wizarding battles. Remember, in general, wizards can hold their own. So assuming the worst case that all of these were battles, we can use 1 death per week, giving us ~500 deaths. Of these, Voldemort himself killed at least 35 people.
But what’s our upper bound? The key fact is that these were not, in fact, wizarding battles, but ambushes. Voldemort and his people were particularly good at causing fear in the population, and, having unsettled them, abmushing them - usually in their own homes. And ambushes are significantly more effective than straight battles.
But how much more effective?
Since wizards don’t have bombs or missiles, their ability for destruction is significantly smaller than their muggle counter parts. We know, however, thanks to Peter Pettigrew that a single spell is at least capable of killing 13 people via the Confringo, that seemed particularly popular during the Wizarding Wars. So our upper bound seems to be 13 people, every week.
But of course that’s not realistic, and furthermore it doesn’t really answer our question. We have a range now between 500 and 6500 people (7 - 92%). Peter likely hit a gas line, and it’s almost certain that it was a one-time, lucky shot. It seems very unlikely that the blasting curse would regularly kill 13 magical humans every week - remember that these were Muggles Peter killed, and in fact Sirius himself was relatively unscathed (presumably, even a basic Shield Charm would stop this?).
So let’s narrow this down. There is a wonderful discussion of successful ambushes, and they all seem to have two things in common: an ambush causes relatively few casualties for you, and allows you to overcome an enemy even when you’re outnumbered by up to a factor of 10 or more!
Remember that we can use these historical examples since these were ambushes between forces that had equal technologies for the most part, and since we’re measuring relative casualties, absolute destruction does not matter.
So with this, we can make a reasonable guestimate that a successful ambush kills up to 10 wizards / squibs / what have you, and an unsuccessful one perhaps only kills 1. Assuming that Voldemort only has 1 successful ambush for every 3 weeks, we get roughly 2000 deaths. I say once every three weeks because Voldemort himself (liar though he is) claims to not want to waste magical blood needlessly. So perhaps some weeks he takes it easy, or perhaps the aurors prevent an attack some weeks. Regardless, I think once every three weeks is a reasonable hypothesis.
Remember that this is in the first wizarding war alone. Estimating the second wizarding war is much higher, and some estimates give a combined total of up to 2500. Frankly, I doubt that 500 people were killed in the seven canon books; I think it’s likely more like 200, with many of them being in the final battle at Hogwarts or perhaps the skirmishes that took place when Voldemort freed his Death Eaters from Azkaban.
So we have a reasonable estimate of somewhere between 2000 and 2500; I think 2200.
Think about that for a second.
Thirty percent of the magical population of England. And what’s more impressive about this, is that it wasn’t a traditional war. It was a guerrilla war that killed thirty percent of magical England!
This is on the scale of another Black Death.
Dumbledore was really understating Voldemort’s ability to cause panic and fear. One in three people were dying - and with the Dark Mark floating above people’s houses, the cause was not uncertain. It’s little wonder that England didn’t become a failed state!
A Historical, Muggle Comparison
Combining the Order of the Pheonix and the Death Eaters (excluding the Ministry of Magic, since there were spies on both sides in the ministry and we don’t want to double count,) there were about 500 people directly involved in the war. Again, that’s almost one in ten people directly fighting for one side or another.
To give some historical context, this is roughly the amount involved in the American Civil War - the war responsible for the most American lives lost of any war in history. We know that during this time, the US population was 31 million (22 million in the union, 9 million from the confederacy). The total soldiers amounts to roughly 3.1 million - again, 10%, where 2.08 million come from the north, and 1.08 come from the south.
The casualties, on the other hand, was far steeper in the wizarding wars. The Civil War, due to its conventional nature, killed 2% of the population. Most of the deaths were soldiers, and this intuitively seems fair: if you sign up for the army, there’s a good chance you might die. In Voldemort’s case, bystanders account for the overwhelming majority of the deaths. Thus, that same 10% killed off nearly 30% of magical England.
In other words, the wizarding war was fifteen times more deadly than the American Civil War.
Did that come across on your first read of the books?
Keeping these facts in mind, a great number of things becomes more clear. I always hated Fudge for denying Voldemort’s return, but in light of this, it makes a lot more sense. Who wants to think about the possiblity of thirty percent of your population at risk again? Of course you’d deny the word of some fourteen year-old.
Would you honestly trust the word of a high-schooler that a third of your population was going to vanish? It would be outlandish.
Crouch Senior Explained
In this new light, the Auror desperation to finally end Voldemort’s spree a la Crouch Senior’s methods makes a lot more sense to me. Remember, the police force was effectively authorized to torture and kill during this period. A blanket anything necessary issued to stop the crisis. And with the scale of the crisis now abundently clear, it suddenly makes more senes to me why Crouch’s methods were so popular.
It’s hard to have a moral high ground against torture when a third of the populace is dying. (Not that this speaks to the efficacy of torture in the slightest - just that the general populace, caught up in fear, may prefer such a security theater, ineffective as it may be.)
Muggle Indifference Explained
It also, believe it or not, explains the Muggle indifference to Voldemort. Ignoring, for the moment, that most Muggles don’t believe in magic or Voldemort, let’s calculate the number of estimated deaths from Death Eaters over the course of Voldemort’s activities.
Somewhere between 1000 and 5000 muggles died; this estimate is based on the few interactions we have of wizards actively killing Muggles en masse (think Peter Pettigrew, etc). Since Muggles are fairly defenseless in this world while paradoxically wizards cannot kill to the same scale as bombs / missiles / guns, we estimate a ratio of roughly 5-10 Muggles dead in each of these interactions.
Looking at the population demographics, over eleven years, this wouldn’t even be a blip! We’re talking at most 450 deaths a year. With the Muggle ministry passing a large majority of these off as gas explosions or car accidents or what have you, most Muggles like the Dursleys would simply shrug and move on… Kind of like what they do in the books.
Sidenote: The Most Dangerous?
Did I know that I had just met the most dangerous Dark wizard of all time? No.
This from a man who’s defeated one of the most dangerous dark wizards of the recent centuries, and undoubtedly one of the top three most powerful wizards in the recent centuries. Safe to say he knows what he’s talking about.
And yet, he boldly proclaims that Voldemort was the - not one of the, but the - most dangerous dark wizard of all time.
He wins this title over Herpo the Foul (the inventor of Horcruxes), Emeric the Evil (a former owner of the Elder Wand, something Voldemort never managed), Morgana la Fay (quite possibly the best at self Transfiguration), Merwyn the Malicious (inventor of most hexes and jynxes used today), and quite possibly Salazaar Slytherin (though he seems to be up for debate).
Did I forget someone?
Gellert freaking Grindelwald. Conquered almost all of Europe. Invented the Inferi that Voldemort loved so much. Created an army of them. Master of the Elder Wand for quite some time. Master of Transfiguration. Creator of the only wizarding prison in the world with a 100% succcess rate: Nurmengard. Conquered Durmstrang, one of the three most prestigious magical schools in Europe, and possibly the world.
And yet, despite all of this, “Gellert Grindelwald (c. 1882-1998) was considered one of the most powerful Dark Wizards of all time, second only to Tom Marvolo Riddle”. Why no love for Grindelwald? Er… Why not more hate for Grindelwald?
A couple hypotheses:
Obviously, the series as a whole has a single focus: England. It’s written by an English author, set with English character, set in? England. So, obviously, it would have an English bias.
Although Grindelwald was ravaging most of Europe (particularly Bulgaria - poor Krum), England was relatively untouched. So who cares about Grindelwald, right?
And, of course, the speaker of the quotation, Dumbledore himself, is British.
Bias of Victory
It very rarely happens in history that two people, both at their primes, both good at the same things, get to face each other. This happened for Dumbledore and Grindelwald, which is what makes their duel one of the most epic in all of magical history.
Think about it. By the time Voldemort and Dumbledore face, Dumbledore is well past their prime, and their duels have never really successfully ended one way or another. Furthermore, their styles are completely different. Dumbledore himself freely admits Voldemort knows of many magics (presumably dark ones) that he himself is woefully ignorent. (The opposite is probably true as well, with Dumbledore knowing many magics of which Voldemort knows nothing.) Voldemort is a mystery to Dumbledore, having grown up entirely with his own style.
On the other hand, Gellert and Albus grew up together for a time and learned from each other and ‘specialized’ (if there is such a thing in magic) in the same things more or less. Gellert was a known problem. And, fundamentally, it’s hard to fear a known problem when you have an unknown one that lurks about and operates in secrecy.
All of this is leading to say that Albus’ victory over Gellert has blinded him to how dangerous his former flame really was while possibly exaggerating the threat Voldemort poses.
Speaking of former-flame, it’s possible that, given his love interests, Ablus refuses to beleive that the man he loved could be the darkest wizard of all time. Would it not be in Dumbledore’s style to believe in a chance of redemption? Isn’t that why he doesn’t kill Gellert?
Even worse, who wants to own up to the fact that the man they fell in love with was literally the worst person in magical history? What does that say about one’s own self?
No, much better I think to pin that title on someone else. Someone… more recent, perhaps. More ingrained into people’s memories.
Voldemort came more recently. It’s harder to remember the atrocities that happened two generations ago when most of that generation is already dead.
Voldemort’s crimes are remembered every day by students who miss their parents, and parents who miss their children. It’s possible that, with Cedric Diggory and many others still fresh in Dumbledore’s mind, he decides that Tom Riddle is a much worse threat at the time he’s talking to Harry.
The biggest and clearest distinguishing factor is the way these two operate. The reader seems to get the impression that Voldemort operates the black of night, kidnapping people like the Boogeyman, while Gellert was more of a Hitler or Stalin. I think most people would be more afraid of the Boogeyman. Hitler and Stalin are people. People can be killed. People are seen. The Bookeyman is a concept that haunts people and incites fear. Much harder to kill.
Ultimately, it may very well be true that Voldemort is a better duelist and more knowledgeable in the dark arts than any wizard in magical history. Dumbledore himself had never gotten a victory over him, with most of their duels ending in draws.
So who knows. And without a clear answer for Gellert’s casualties, it’s hard to determine what metric is being used for “the most dangerous Dark wizard of all time”, but without a doubt Voldemort is up there.
It was super fun writing this. All of these thoughts had been swirling around in my head for quite some time, and it was nice to get them all down somewhere.
As you can tell, I’ve been getting into Harry Potter again - something that seems to happen every other year, for some reason.
I think there’s a lot of potential in this world, but also many cracks. Which is to be expected, quite frankly - it’s not easy to come up with an entire universe.
I’ve started reading Methods of Rationality, which does a particularly good job of questioning many of these cracks - like making money off of arbitrage opportunities between Muggle worth of gold versus galleon and other things. That’s probably a separate blog post for later, though.
Ta-ta for now.
Several people have requested a more detailed explanation of how I arrived at 2200; I have edited the article to provide this.
It has quite rightly been pointed out that I conflate England / Britain / Great Britain / United Kingdom / British Isles. I can only ask most humbly that you all forgive this ignorant American for not fact-checking the most basic geography.