They say that to err is human, and while certainly true, some have shaped history, as well as the way things are today. The following mistakes, if avoided, could have left us with a far different world than the one we live in. We’ve put them more or less in chronological order, but do you agree with our choice for ‘history’s ten greatest mistakes’?
1) Alexander the Great Refuses to Name a Successor (323 BC)
Alexander took the obscure Greek kingdom of Macedonia and defeated the Persian Empire. He then went on to conquer Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan, and the Indian state of Punjab. As he lay dying in 323 BC, he was asked to name his successor. Instead of naming his son, Alexander IV, he said: “The strongest.”
What followed was two centuries of war as his generals fought to do just that. An opportunity for a peaceful dynastic succession, as well as to meld the cultures of the East and West was lost.
2) King Vortigern Hires Mercenaries (440 AD)
Vortigern was a British king who was under constant attack by marauding Picts and Scots, so he hired Saxon, Angle, and Jute mercenaries to deal with the problem. The foreign mercenaries successfully repelled the Picts and the Scots, at which point Vortigern realized they were also better than his men.
When it came time to pay, a dispute arose, and the chieftain was forced to give his daughter in marriage to Hengist (a Jute), but it was not enough. By 457, the native Britons were besieged by waves of incoming Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.
3) Ala’ad Din Muhammad Angers Genghis Khan (1218)
Emperor Ala’ad Din of the Khwarezmi Empire ruled parts of Iran, Samarkhand, and Afghanistan. Genghis Khan wanted to open trade negotiations, so he sent emissaries to Ala’ad Din, but the latter thought it was an invasion ploy and executed the ambassadors. Genghis sent another embassy to protest and demand compensation, but they were also executed. The following year, Genghis avenged his ambassadors by depopulating the Khwarezmi Empire — a retaliatory measure considered brutal even by his standards.
- 4) Christopher Columbus Miscalculates the Earth’s Size (1492)
People already knew the earth was round because it casts a round shadow on the moon. Hindu and Arab scholars even knew the size. Columbus hoped to circumvent the Islamic control of the maritime route to Asia, but failed to convert the longer Arabic mile to the shorter European one. He concluded that the earth was only 15,000 miles in diameter and believed that the Orient was mere weeks away to the West. He found the Americas, instead.
5) Germany Supports the Bolshevik Revolution (1917)
During World War I, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and his fellow communists were wanted men, so they were stuck in neutral Switzerland. German Army Intelligence decided to take the trapped communists, send them back to Russia in secret, and give them money to start a revolt. The idea was to give Czarist Russia ample reason to kill the agitators, but no one expected the Bolshevik Revolution to succeed.
6) The Allies Forgot to Synchronize Their Watches (1915)
The Allies tried to secure the Gallipoli peninsula to access Russia, but despite their superior weaponry, they were defeated by the smaller and weaker Ottoman forces. The reason for their losses (which spanned eight months, instead of a few days) was because they failed to synchronize their watches.
In March, a naval force tasked with bombarding the coast to protect 600 Australian men ended their attack seven minutes too early. This allowed the Ottomans to mow them down. Thanks to their victory, Turkish national identity developed. Eight years later, the Ottoman Empire was replaced by the Republic of Turkey.
7) British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain Appeases Hitler (1936)
In the aftermath of World War I, Europe was traumatized by war, but none more so than the broke and defeated Germans. Then Adolf Hitler took over, but Europe ignored his treatment of minorities. In 1936, Hitler rejected the Treaty of Versailles and took back the Rhine, but Britain and France decided to ignore it even though Germany was still weak.
Emboldened, Hitler annexed Austria, but there was still no response. So Hitler went on to absorb part of Czechoslovakia, becoming even stronger. Chamberlain believed that Hitler would be satisfied and that the continent could then settle down and enjoy peace.
8) Hitler Focuses on Bombing London (1940)
In 1940, the Royal Air Force had been drained due to German bombardment of British bases and aircraft factories. Truce was being considered and there were plans to move the government to Canada. Lord Dowding suggested that Britain could hold out for a few more weeks before there’d be no more RAF.
When three German bombers accidentally dropped bombs on London, Britain retaliated by bombing Berlin. Hitler responded by ordering the Luftwaffe to focus on London, ignoring the provincial factories which allowed the British to rebuild their devastated RAF. Before this, Germany stood a good chance of claiming Britain and winning the war.
9) Joseph Stalin Ignores the German Threat (1941)
British and Russian intelligence informed Stalin that the Germans planned to invade, but he believed that Hitler would maintain the truce they signed. He also believed that it was a British ploy to involve him in the war. When some 2 million Wehrmacht soldiers stood on Russia’s borders, Stalin ordered his troops to avoid provoking them. As a result, millions of Russian soldiers and civilians paid with their lives.
10) US Secretary of State Dean Acheson Ignores Korea (1950)
On 12 January 1950, Acheson gave a speech at the National Press Club vowing to protect the territory from Indonesia to Japan against communism. Any interference by communist nations in those regions would be seen as an act of war.
China and Russia interpreted this to mean that the Korean peninsula was not covered. Several months after Acheson’s speech, the two nations gave Kim Il Sung (communist leader of North Korea) their go ahead to launch the invasion of South Korea, bringing about the Korean War and splitting the peninsula in two.