Changing History

If you could change a single event in history, what would it be?

That’s the premise of a column in The Guardian responded to here.

I think that by and large history is more durable than that. I sincerely doubt, for example, that staying Gavrilo Princip’s hand and saving Archduke Ferdinand would have stopped the Great War. Or that if Von Stauffenberg had placed his bomb on the other side of the table that history would have been greatly changed. That was already too late, for one thing.

The suggestion of assassinating Adolf Schicklgruber in 1920 is probably closer to the mark. Would the horrors of the Third Reich have come about in just the way they did without Adolf Hitler?

The idea that you can prevent an invention is fatuous. When it’s time to railroad everybody railroads. Being able to persuade somebody to do something differently may be equally ill-conceived.

Prevent Lincoln’s assassination? Preserve Gandhi from the assassin’s bullet? Stop the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr? Save Pushkin? Nurse Mozart back to health? Phone in a warning about the nineteen guys getting on planes on September 11, 2001?

I might think smaller. I might have engaged the person from Porlock in conversation for a half hour or so. At least we might have more of a great poem.

If you could change some single event in history, which would it be?

8 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    I’d save William Henry Harrison from catching a cold at his inauguration. My thesis is that permitting Whig policies to be enacted at their moment of ascendancy could have promoted nationwide economic diversity that could have reduced the slave power and provided a path towards non-violent emancipation.

    I agree with the notion that saving Archduke Ferdinand would have done anything at all. All of the great powers knew a war was coming; they were just looking for an excuse. Hitler is more interesting, but the notion of Lebensraum and a war lost by internal betrayals seems to be a part of the times and likely to go ugly places anyway.

    Saving great people is a kindly gesture, but it’s not clear to me whether their greatness is behind them at some point.

  • Jeff Medcalf Link

    I’ve often said that I would happily strangle Rousseau in the cradle, and afterwards sleep the sleep of the just. At his feet I lay the ills arising from the concept of the perfectability of human nature by the collective, and all its murderous offspring..

  • I’ve written a couple of time-travel novels, so I’ve been down this road. In my version the heros had a shot at Mr. Schickelgruber. But since they had already earlier changed history he was just a somewhat aged German army driver. And Germany wasn’t the enemy.

    Unsolicited advice for writers: stay away from time travel. It makes your head explode.

  • Is there some reason that you deleted my previous post?

  • I’ll try again….

    In every action that we take, we change history. History is not fixed. History is not merely a collection of facts about what has occurred. Facts have no meaning without context. It is only within a context that the facts of some event can make any sense… and this context is continually being recreated as the world changes. In our present actions, we have the ability to affect and change the milieu in which we live, and as this changes history is rewritten. That is our power as human beings. We have the choice and the ability to take seemingly terrible things and use them as reason and purpose to make a better world.

    Think of Lance Armstrong’s cancer, or Aron Ralston’s cutting off his own hand, and the positive changes that came about from their will and power to use what appeared to be tragedy to better themselves and/or the world. So rather than pondering changing a single event, I think we are better served by pondering what we can personally do to mitigate the effects of past events and actions, and then act with powerful purpose. Events do not stand alone in this thoroughly connect world. By viewing history as a collection of events in the past beyond our control, we relinquish our power to create the world in the things we do each day of our lives.

  • Brett Link

    If you wanted to simply have the biggest of all possible outcomes from the change, good or bad, assassinating Mohammed early on probably would do it. The events that followed, including the rise of the 7th and 8th century Caliphates and the Islamic areas as we know it, were heavily dependent on his actions while alive.

    Without him, it’s extremely unlikely that you’d get something similar occurring, because the situation occurred during a period of major weakness for both the Byzantine and Persian Empires. You might get a tribal federation of Arabs, since they were waxing at the time, but the Byzantines had defeated them before, and they wouldn’t have the glue of religion to hold them together. Without that threat, the Byzantines possibly recover and hang on to Egypt and their North African lands, and all of history is changed.

    As for my personal choices, here are a few –

    1. Prevent the attempted invasion of Sicily and Syracuse by the Athenians. Although the Athenians had been suffering, this was the event that really broke them – if Thucydides is to be believed, they lost a majority of their fleet and army.

    2. Have McClellan move more decisively against Lee’s Army after getting a hold of his plans. McClellan was an excellent organizer (he basically made the Potomac Army what it was, at a time when virtually all of its junior officers and men were green), but a reluctant fighter. He got a lovely gift when he found Lee’s plans wrapped to a cigar, but due to his timidity Antietam arguably still ended up as a stalemate, rather than a decisive victory.

    3. Have Harry Dexter White’s turncoatedness towards the Soviets come out while he was still alive, in 1943-44. This is more a “what if?” on my part – I’d love to see what would actually happen were this case.

    4. Have Teddy Roosevelt get the Republican nod at the 1912 Convention. Although Roosevelt probably would have pulled the US into World War I at some point, just like Wilson, he at least didn’t share Wilson’s penchant for heavy-handed domestic repression (the Palmer Raids) and racism. Hopefully he would prevent Wilson from ever taking the Presidency. Speaking of which-

    5. Wilson dies or is permanently incapacitated by his first stroke. Wilson had several strokes over his lifetime, the last of which effectively incapacitated him. Had his 1906 stroke been much more severe, we might have been spared his Presidency.

    The suggestion of assassinating Adolf Schicklgruber in 1920 is probably closer to the mark. Would the horrors of the Third Reich have come about in just the way they did without Adolf Hitler?

    Hard to say. There were strong pro-nationalist, pro-fascist under-currents in post-World War I Germany, where they were competing with the Communists for influence. My guess is that we probably would have seen a right-wing authoritarian German government arise, although it would lack Hitler’s special touch (namely, his campaigns against Jews, Gypsies, Poles, etc).

    Ironically, Germany might have ended up stronger in the short term from all of that, particularly if it led them away from trying a massive European conquest towards merely regaining some of the territories they’d lost (plus Austria). After all, the Allies didn’t lift a finger until he actually invaded Poland – Germany could have probably gotten away with taking Austria and the Sudentland.

    The idea that you can prevent an invention is fatuous. When it’s time to railroad everybody railroads. Being able to persuade somebody to do something differently may be equally ill-conceived.

    That usually goes for scientific discoveries as well, where you often get more than one scientist discovering something and converging on a common position – take Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both coming on to the Theory of Evolution from different angles and research approaches. Or Newton and Leibniz both discovering differential calculus.

    Prevent Lincoln’s assassination?

    That probably would have helped reconciliation with the South, although I’m not entirely sure about the results – I largely agree with what the so-called “Radical” Republicans were trying to do.

    Phone in a warning about the nineteen guys getting on planes on September 11, 2001?

    A direct warning might have helped (although there had been several warnings already), but my impression was that 9/11 was fundamentally a failure of cooperation and imagination on the part of America’s intelligence agencies.

    That said, stopping 9/11 would lead to some interesting alternative consequences. The US had already shrugged off several terrorist attacks on its personnel and facilities overseas, like the Tanzanian Embassy Bombing, so had the attack been stopped, it’s possible that

    A)We simply would have had another attack elsewhere, if the fundamental issues with intelligence aren’t resolved, or

    B)The discovery of the attack spurs greater intelligence capabilities, and we avoid such attacks.

    In the latter’s case, the world is very different from now. Besides the War on Terror and the War in Iraq (plus a host of smaller-scale anti-terrorist actions around the globe), Bush’s main legacies would be No Child Left Behind and the Tax Cuts. I almost question as to whether or not he’d be re-elected in 2004.

  • Harry Iraethin Link

    I’d like to prevent the destruction of the collection at the Library of Alexandria in the first century BC. Preferably by having some biblio-minded person arrange for copies to be made and kept at a second site, such as Rome.

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