The unfortunate reality is that the pages of our history books are lined with stories of greed. While much is made of the greed of leaders and dictators like Hitler, Napoleon, and Mussolini, it is easier to overlook the greed shown by the soldiers and thugs that made these regimes possible. For example, in Elie Wiesel's Night, we learn that Wiesel's gold crown is removed with a rusty spoon, simply because a foreman wants it. Wiesel lost his tooth as a result of greed and a successful power play. Such theft was common in the concentration camps, and if captured, Jewish families would lose just about all their wealth to Nazi greed.
Looking further back into the annals of history, another great example of greed can be found in King Henry VIII of England. While he is most famous for his six wives, he is also infamous for his greed. Greed was a driving force behind Henry's destruction of the monastic system, which allowed him to gain all the wealth and property of the monasteries, which had owned more than a quarter of all England's cultivated land.
In more recent history, one could look at Bernie Madoff as an example of exceptional greed. Madoff was the brains behind the largest Ponzi scheme ever executed. While no one can be exactly sure how long the scheme ran for, the fact that Madoff was forced to forfeit $170 billion when he was imprisoned in 2009 gives an indication of the height and breadth of his greed.
Jacob Bronowski does not use the word, greed, in this short video, but I think he means that war is an organized form of greed.
Examples of greed abound throughout human history. A cursory glance at the pages of any history book provides us with numerous cases in which greed of one sort or another has entered into the soul of man and made him do unspeakable things to his fellow man.
A particularly notorious example of such avarice comes to us by way of the conquistadors, Spanish explorers who set out for the New World in search of gold. For many years, Europeans had been excited about the legend of El Dorado, a city of gold that was supposed to exist in what is now modern-day South America. And the Spanish conquistadors set sail for the Americas in the hopes of finding this mythical city.
In the event, they didn't find El Dorado, but they certainly found an awful lot of gold, not to mention lots of silver. The problem, however, was that these precious metals rightfully belonged to indigenous peoples, such as the Incas and the Aztecs. The Spaniards got round this problem by conquering these civilizations and taking the gold and silver for themselves.
As a consequence of the conquistadors' insatiable greed, these ancient civilizations, which had stood for thousands of years, were destroyed and their people treated like slaves. The Spaniards' treatment of indigenous people was notoriously bad. Many were put to death or forced to convert to Christianity. In addition, many native people died due to illnesses brought over from Europe, such as smallpox. Ultimately, most of this suffering was down to nothing more than pure, unadulterated greed.
Check out Napoleon's reign. He even had to return some Egyptian artifacts that he had stolen.
I would say Hitler's decision to invade Russia was a clear instance of greed. He had conquered most of Europe and there is a good chance he could have consolidated his areas and defended them against Great Britain and the United States effectively if he didn't have to fight WWII on two fronts. His greed led to his ultimate defeat.
One clear example of greed, to me at least, was the policy of Indian removal in the Southeast (and really everywhere else.) In the Southeast, though, Indian peoples, especially the Cherokee, had done everything the government asked of them in terms of assimilating to western culture. Many of them had adopted plantation agriculture, they came up with an American-style constitution, and a written language. Yet despite this, and even a very unambiguous ruling by the Supreme Court to the contrary, removal of the Cherokee continued apace. There was no justification for this beyond those based on race, power, and the alleged right of white people to the riches that the Cherokee nation made possible.
Our entire human history has been driven by greed, but the time of imperialism might be on the strongest examples. The European countries decided that they deserved to take over the world, and they sent out representatives who proceeded to decimate, enslave and exploit populations of other continents. We still feel the effects of it. The African slave trade might not have been the first, but it has certainly made a great impact.
You can say that all of human history centers around greed of one sort or another. One obvious example of greed would the Spanish conquest of the Incas. The conquistadors were so greedy for gold (and other things) that they ruthlessly destroyed the Inca Empire and took it for themselves.
How about the Great Recession that we are supposedly slowly coming out of now? I'm not an economist, but I believe at least part of the cause was due to mortgage based investments that were risky but made a lot of money for people who sold them and then washed their hands of them. Eventually the mortgage market collapsed and other people were stuck holding the bag (which no longer had any money in it).