Seven people that might have changed history

Monday, May 04, 2009

If you've ever read the biographies of some people like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and others born during that time, you'll notice that a great deal of them served in World War I but were lucky enough to return home and live out their lives afterward. At the same time though, a huge number of people from the same generation were not lucky enough to do so:

Tolkien was invalided to England on 8 November 1916. Many of his dearest school friends, including Gilson and Smith of the T.C.B.S., were killed in the war.
It's a bit sobering to think of just how many potential Tolkiens, Lewises, Einsteins and all the rest had their lives cut short at a young age on the battlefield, how one stray bullet or a fatal disease contracted while in the trenches would have resulted in a world without Lord of the Rings (The Hunt for Gollum, released today, would never have been created for example). At the same time it's also sobering to think of all the Ramanujans in the world that never were or have yet to be discovered, but on the other hand it's nevertheless great to have these people as examples of those that have succeeded in overcoming adversity and making their mark on the world.

At the same time though, there are a lot of people that were almost successful in what they did, those that reached the cusp of putting their mark on history, but ended up failing and thus ended up mostly forgotten. As can be seen in elections, the difference between winning and losing is huge, even when the victory at the time was a thin one. Who, for example, remembers Charles Evan Hughes? However, his opponent and the 28th president of the US, Woodrow Wilson, is well remembered.

Hughes certainly had a successful political career by any account (he was the governor of New York, after all), but in the mind of the public he barely exists.

In that light, here are seven people (why seven? No reason - naturally there are thousands of others) that could have and wanted to make their mark on history, but failed for one reason or another and thus ended up in near obscurity. Let's take a quick look at each of them and imagine what the world might have been like if they had succeeded.

#1 - Marcion of Sinope

Unless you're a historian or a Biblical scholar, you've probably never heard of Marcion, nor the term Marcionism. Marcion (85-160) was one of the earliest Christians, lived during a time far before the Bible as we know it was compiled, and the church he founded was far different than the Christianity we know of today. Ever heard someone talk about the vast differences between the character of the God of the Old Testament and that of the New Testament? Well, Marcion noticed this too and decided that the only logical reason for this was that the God of the OT was in fact a completely different god, a so-called lesser demiurge and an evil creature.
Not only did Marcion reject the entire Hebrew Bible, he also argued for the existence of two Gods: Yahweh, who created the material universe, and the Heavenly Father of the New Testament, of which Jesus Christ was the living incarnation. Yahweh was viewed as a lesser demiurge, who had created the earth, and whose law, the Mosaic covenant, represented bare natural justice: i.e., an eye for an eye. Jesus was the living incarnation of a different God, a new God of compassion and love, sometimes called the Heavenly Father. The two Gods were thought of as having distinct personalities: Yahweh is petty, cruel and jealous, a tribal God who is only interested in the welfare of the Jews, while the Heavenly Father is a universal God who loves all of humanity, and looks upon His children with mercy and benevolence. This dual-God notion allowed Marcion to reconcile the apparent contradictions between the Old Testament and the tales of Jesus' life and ministry.
The church Marcion founded was thus in stark opposition to the early Catholic church, which saw the OT as a kind of base to build this new religion upon, not something to be rejected outright. At the time it was hard to tell which school of thought would prevail and become the main branch of Christianity, but eventually Marcionism lost its former prominent position and has largely been forgotten.
The church that Marcion founded had expanded throughout the known world within his lifetime, and was a serious rival to the Catholic Church. Its adherents were strong enough in their convictions to have the church retain its expansive power for more than a century. It survived Christian controversy, and imperial disapproval, for several centuries more.
Now just imagine Christianity today if Marcionism had become the main branch, while Catholicism had been branded as heresy and left in the dust bin of history.

#2 - Georg Elser
Georg Elser is an easy one. He was a steadfast opponent of Nazism from the beginning:
Elser was opposed to Nazism from the beginning of the regime, and after 1933 refused to perform the Hitler salute, or to join others in listening to Hitler's speeches broadcast on the radio. Nor did he vote in the Third Reich's pseudo-elections or referendums.
His opposition was initially motivated by his concerns about working conditions, and the lowering of working wages. His understanding of politics was influenced strongly by his political associations. He detested the restrictions on civil rights. He especially despised Nazi restrictions on workers' freedoms, such as the choice of employment and the right to organize. Equally, he loathed the Nazis' propaganda and their total control of the educational system, as well as the curtailing of religious freedoms.
and nearly succeeded in assassinating Hitler in 1939.
Elser chose the next anniversary of the Hitler Putsch, when Hitler would return to Munich, and decided to kill him with a bomb during his speech. After he had constructed the bomb, Elser travelled to Munich again. He managed to stay inside the Bürgerbräukeller after closing hours each night for over a month, during which time he hollowed out the pillar behind the speaker's rostrum, and placed the bomb inside it.
While he was making these preparations, World War II broke out on 1 September 1939, proving his estimations correct. Elser, being focused on his work, hardly noticed this.[citation needed] Unbeknownst to Elser, Hitler had cancelled his planned speech at the Bürgerbraukeller because of the war, but then changed his mind, and agreed to attend the anniversary after all. This was on the condition that he could return to Berlin that same night. Since fog prevented a flight back to Berlin, Hitler decided to take the train, which meant finishing his speech earlier than expected. On 8 November, 1939, the bomb exploded at 21:20, exactly as Elser had planned, but Hitler had already left the room thirteen minutes earlier. Eight people died and sixty-three were injured, sixteen of them seriously, and Elser's plot to assassinate Hitler had failed.
Claus von Stauffenberg is another person that attemted to assassinate Hitler, but this was near the end of the war as opposed to the beginning when Elser made his attempt.

Ironically, the Holocaust also resulted in a huge weakening of the status of the German language as the numbers of people using Yiddish (a language derived from German) dropped dramatically from 11-13 million, to its current 3 million or so after the war.

At the same time, note that most are in agreement that if Hitler had been assassinated before he had the chance to declare war on Europe he would have been remembered as one of Germany's greatest leaders considering the rebuilding of the economy, bringing in the Olympics, the Volkswagen, etc. etc., so it's hard to say exactly what would have happened in Germany if he had been assassinated. One thing's for sure: people would still be naming their children Adolf.

#3 - Mohammed Mossadeq

The overthrow of Iran's former Prime Minister Mossadeq is a textbook example of outside interference bringing about tragic results. Though it's not possible to place the blame for the Islamic Revolution in Iran solely on outside interference, hindsight shows this to have been a bad move. As the page on the 1953 Iranian coup d'état states:
The 1953 Iranian Coup d’état was the Western covert operation that deposed the democratically-elected Government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq; the CIA and MI6 effected it by aiding and abetting pro-West Iranians and mutinous Iranian army officers. CIA's man Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., organized Operation Ajax to aid retired General Fazlollah Zahedi and Imperial Guard Colonel Nematollah Nassiri to establish a pro–US and –UK government, by bribing Iranian government officials, reporters, and businessmen.

This Anglo–American coup d’état was to ensure Western control of Iran’s petroleum and to prevent Eastern (USSR) hegemony upon Iran. Moreover, the Iranian motivations for deposing PM Mosaddeq included reactionary clerical dissatisfaction with a secular government, fomented with CIA propaganda.

Originally, the Eisenhower Administration considered Operation Ajax a successful secret war, but, given its blowback, it is now considered a failure, because of its "haunting and terrible legacy" of anti-American terrorism. In 2000, Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, apologised to Iran, saying that intervention by America in the internal affairs of Iran was a setback for democratic government. This anti-democratic coup d’état was a "a critical event in post-war world history" that destroyed Iran’s post-monarchic, secular parliamentary democracy, by re-installing the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, as absolute ruler, replacing an elected native democracy with a pro-foreign monarchic dictatorship. In the event, in 1979, it provoked the Iranian Revolution, which deposed the Shah and replaced the monarchy with an anti-Western Islamic Republic.
Iranians on the whole are not a very conservative people even today (except perhaps in the east), as can be seen by these pictures of Iran during the 1970s and this documentary, along with the fact that the democratically elected Mossadeq was a secularist. It's hard to say what sort of country Iran would have become if Mossadeq had remained in power, but perhaps it would be something similar to the Turkey of today.

#4 - Harold Godwinson

Harold Godwinson was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England until the Norman Invasion in 1066, when he died at the Battle of Hastings. Due to this loss and the subsequent rule of England by the Normans, the language of the ruling culture changed from English to Norman (a dialect of Old French), and the English language underwent some huge alterations as a result, changing from a highly inflected language with grammatical gender to one with no grammatical gender, a much more fixed word order, and much more non-Germanic influence. Without this three centuries of Norman influence it's likely English would have become a language like Dutch, or perhaps even like Icelandic (Old English and Old Icelandic were sufficiently close enough to be mutually comprehensible). At the very least this large change (or more precisely, lack of change) in the English language would have kept the Germanic languages much closer to each other than they are today.

This site gives a bit of an idea what English might have looked like, but remember that the word order and lack of grammatical gender are still identical with modern English.

#5 Buyeo Pung (Fuyo Hōshō)

Buyeo Pung? Who's that? Well, he was one of the sons of the king of Baekje, a country located in what is now the southwest part of Korea. At the time (7th century and before), there was no unified Korean nation but rather a number of countries that sometimes warred with each other:

Kaya (Gaya) was taken over by Shilla (spelling is on purpose - I dislike the current romanization for 신 and refuse to write it as sin) in the 6th century and so eventually there were three countries. Baekje was a huge ally of Japan, while Shilla was allied with the Chinese Tang Dynasty. In fact, Baekje was not only a close ally of Japan but also a contributor to the Japanese imperial bloodline:
In 2001, Japan's emperor Akihito told reporters "I, on my part, feel a certain kinship with Korea, given the fact that it is recorded in the Chronicles of Japan that the mother of Emperor Kammu was of the line of King Muryong of Paekche."
(Paekche is another spelling for Baekje. It's called Kudara in Japanese)

So keep in mind that at the time there was no such thing as Korea and Japan as we know them today; to Baekje, Japan was the friendly neighboring country that it shared a lot in common with, and Shilla and Tang were enemies.

To make the story short: in 660 Shilla and Tang brought about the fall of Baekje, and those from Baekje and Japan worked furiously to try to restore the country including a huge amount of military aid from Japan, culminating in the Battle of Baekgang. After this loss Buyeo Pung fled to the friendlier Goguryeo, was later captured, and he disappeared from history. Had the battle gone the other way though and Baekje had prevailed then he would have become king of the restored nation, and if this situation had continued or if the peninsula had been unified through Baekje instead of Shilla it's anyone's guess what the current borders and languages would look like today.

#6 Bahrām Chobin

Bahrām Chobin was a military commander during the Sassanid Empire, the last Persian Empire before the Islamic conquest of Persia, which eventually led to Islam becoming the majority religion in the region and the beginning of the downfall of Zoroastrianism, the former official religion of the empire.

The fall of the Sassanid Empire however was an event that could have been prevented with a fair amount of sound judgment beforehand, something one of the last kings (Khosrau II) lacked. Khosrau II spent a lot of time and resources on campaigns that overextended the empire. Wikipedia tells this part of the story better than I can:
Although hugely successful at first glance, Khosrau II's campaign had in fact overextended the Persian army and overtaxed the people. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius (610–641) drew on all his diminished and devastated empire's remaining resources, reorganised his armies and mounted a remarkable counter-offensive. Between 622 and 627 he campaigned against the Persians in Anatolia and the Caucasus, winning a string of victories against Persian forces under Khosrau, Shahrbaraz, Shahin and Shahraplakan, sacking the great Zoroastrian temple at Ganzak and securing assistance from the Khazars and Western Turkic Khaganate...He then marched down the Tigris, devastating the country and sacking Khosrau's palace of Dastagerd...The impact of Heraclius's victories, the devastation of the richest territories of the Sassanid Empire and the humiliating destruction of high-profile targets such as Ganzak and Dastagerd fatally undermined Khosrau's prestige and his support among the Persian aristocracy, and early in 628 he was overthrown and murdered by his son Kavadh II (628), who immediately brought an end to the war, agreeing to withdraw from all occupied territories. In 629 AD Heraclius restored the True Cross to Jerusalem in a majestic ceremony. Kavadh died within months and chaos and civil war followed. Over a period of four years and five successive kings, including two daughters of Khosrau II and spahbod Shahrbaraz, the Sassanid Empire weakened considerably. The power of the central authority passed into the hands of the generals. It would take several years for a strong king to emerge from a series of coups, and the Sassanids never had time to recover fully.
This is the situation in which the weakened empire faced the newly united Arabs when they began their conquest of Persia in 632. One of the largest mistakes Khosrau II made was the alienation of the neighboring Lakhmids, who were Christian Arabs located just to the west of the Persians (that is, in between the Persians and the Muslim Arabs that were to arrive later). 602, the last Lakhmid king, Nu'man III, was put to death by the Sassanid king Khosrau II because of a false suspicion of treason, and the Lakhmid kingdom was annexed...It is now widely believed that annexation of Lakhmid kingdom was one of the main factors behind the Fall of Sassanid dynasty to the Muslim Arabs and the Islamic conquest of Persia, as the Lakhmids agreed to act as spies for the Muslims after being defeated in the Battle of Hira by Khalid ibn al-Walid.

This map shows just how valuable it was to have this kingdom as a buffer zone:

The decisive engagement bringing about the fall of the Sassanid Dynasty was the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah, a battle the Persians certainly should have won:
The Persians fielded a much larger force (sources disagree on the exact size: 60,000 to 100,000 are cited below) and looked certain of victory. Again according to Arab accounts, at dawn of the fourth day a sandstorm broke out – blowing sand in the Persians' faces turning the tide and forcing the Sassanid centre to give way, particularly with the help of Arab archers...(long explanation here of how leader was decapitated)...Seeing their respected leader's head dangling before them, the Persian soldiers lost nerve and begin to flee, leading to a devastating rout. Most of the Sassanid soldiers lost their lives in this melée, with a sizable number announcing their conversion to Islam.
So even after all the years of terrible rule by Khosrau II and then ineffective king after king after his rule, the Sassanid Empire was still strong enough that it still could (or should) have won this battle.

Okay, so what is Bahrām Chobin's role here? Well, back in 590 he managed to be king for a year, but eventually lost out to Khosrau II (the king that ended up squandering the empire's resources and weakening it), because he failed to get the support of those that preferred a weaker king:
Bahrām’s hopes were unfulfilled. Many nobles and priests preferred to side with the inexperienced and less imposing Ḵosrow (Khosrau), who, in return for territorial concessions, had obtained a Byzantine force of 40,000, and was now marching toward Azerbaijan, where an army of over 12,000 Armenians under Mūšel and 8,000 Iranians gathered and led by Bendōy and Bestām awaited him. Hoping to prevent a union of those forces, Bahrām left Ctesiphon with a much smaller army, but arrived too late. The two sides fought for three days in a plain near Lake Urmia, and on the eve of the fourth, Bendōy won over Bahrām’s men by pledging, in the name of Ḵosrow, their pardon and safety. In spite of his bravery and superb generalship, Bahrām was defeated, and his camp, children, and wives were captured. He himself left the battlefield, accompanied by 4,000 men, and since Ḵosrow had in the meantime sent a force to Ctesiphon and had secured it, the only road open was eastward. Bahrām marched to Nīšāpūr, defeating a pursuing royalist force and an army of a local noble of the Kārēn family at Qūmeš. Ceaselessly troubled, Bahrām finally crossed the Oxus, and was received honorably by the Ḵāqān of the Turks, entered his service and achieved heroic feats against his adversaries. Ḵosrow could not feel secure as long as Bahrām lived, and he succeeded in having him assassinated.
It's not entirely certain that Bahrām as king would have definitely resulted in a stronger Sassanid Empire at the time the Islamic conquest began, but considering the countless examples of bad judgment on the part of Khosrau II compared to the countless examples of good military strategy and judgment on the part of Bahrām, the case could probably be made that the empire would have been well served by him on the throne. In fact, the same source linked just above makes the same argument.

Given time and opportunity to deal with internal problems, Bahrām would have probably achieved no less than Ardašīr I had done, but he was faced with too many odds. It was not Ḵosrow but his superior Byzantine mercenaries who defeated Bahrām. The betrayal by his own brother, Gordōy, and the capture of his family severely limited his maneuvering ability. He was handicapped by the lack of cooperation from the bureaucrats, and the animosity of nobles unwilling to serve one of their own equals. His own chivalry in letting Ḵosrow’s supporters leave the realm unmolested, and in ignoring the escape of the resolute Bendōy, turned against him by giving his enemies the possibility to unite. His religious tolerance alienated the powerful clergy.
So in short: had Bahrām stayed on as king in 590 until 632 when the Islamic conquest began, it's possible that the world today would still have Zoroastrianism as a major religion, with Islam limited to various areas west of Persia/Iran. The Persian language would also not use the Perso-Arabic script as it does now.

#7 - L. L. Zamenhof

Zamenhof is fairly well-known for being the creator of the language Esperanto, the most successful IAL (international auxiliary language) or constructed language to date. At the same time though, being the most successful constructed language (Esperanto has a few hundred thousand speakers) does not equal being a success, as the language was created to be the world's second language, one that anyone could easily learn and then use to communicate with others that have a different linguistic background, and it's clear that Esperanto is nowhere close to achieving this.

This naturally brings forth the question: could the proponents of Esperanto have done anything different in the language's early history to have made the language a success? I think the answer is yes, and one example can be seen here in Zamenhof's Reformed Esperanto. Constructed languages are different from natural languages in that since they are created before a community develops, it is very easy to tweak the language here and there in order to "improve" it, whereas with a natural language there's no way you could get away with simply making a change and expecting others to follow. Esperanto had and has a few issues that many believe have kept it from being a success, such as having six accented letters (which made it hard to print literature in the language), adjectival agreement, and so on. In response to some of these concerns Zamenhof spent a year working on a reformed version of the language, which was then voted down, and he later regretted the year he spent working on it.

Therein lies the error: there's no reason in agreeing to reforms if you don't intend on going through with them, as it legitimizes the idea that the product is imperfect while at the same time doing nothing to change the product itself. It would have been better to either simply reject the idea of reforms in the first place (and use this year in producing more content and promoting the language), or going the other way and putting all one's effort into putting the reforms through, no matter what. The creation of the language Ido in 1907 (a reform of Esperanto) was also based on changes to the language that reflect Zamenhof's proposed reforms to a certain extent, and with a reformed version of the language already in place and endorsed by the creator it's very likely that the community would not have been split as it did at the time when Ido was first created. here's a comparison of the three:

Reformed Esperanto
Standard Esperanto
Patro nose, kvu esten in cielo,
Patro nia, qua esas en la cielo,
Patro nia, kiu estas en la ĉielo,
Sankte estan tue nomo.
tua nomo santigesez;
Via nomo estu sanktigita.
Venan reksito tue,
tua regno advenez;
Venu Via regno,
estan vulo tue,
tua volo facesez
plenumiĝu Via volo,
kom in cielo, sik anku sur tero.
quale en la cielo tale anke sur la tero.
kiel en la ĉielo, tiel ankaŭ sur la tero.
Pano nose omnudie donan al nos hodiu
Donez a ni cadie l'omnadiala pano,
Nian panon ĉiutagan donu al ni hodiaŭ.
e pardonan al nos debi nose,
e pardonez a ni nia ofensi,
Kaj pardonu al ni niajn ŝuldojn,
kom nos anku pardonen al nose debenti;
quale anke ni pardonas a nia ofensanti,
kiel ankaŭ ni pardonas al niaj ŝuldantoj.
ne kondukan nos versu tento,
e ne duktez ni aden la tento,
Kaj ne konduku nin en tenton,
sed liberigan nos de malbono.
ma liberigez ni del malajo.
sed liberigu nin de la malbono.

It's very possible that a larger language community in the beginning could have given the language an unstoppable momentum, especially in the beginning of the 20th century where no language was king and people were very open to the idea of a way to get over this linguistic impasse. Looking at the early history of Esperanto there are quite a few instances where the language was on the verge of some sort of large success (the usage of Esperanto as a working language in the League of Nations, the creation of a small state in Neutral Moresnet are two examples), and the argument could probably be made that with more skilled handling of whether to reform or not to reform in the beginning could have kept the Esperanto community focused on its shared goal: the promotion and usage of the language.

Interested in the idea of a universal second language? Here are a few places to start looking: Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua, Occidental, Novial, Lingua Franca Nova, Latino sine Flexione, Sambahsa-mundialect, Lingwa de Planeta, Europaiom...the first three are the only ones that have a large enough community to hold annual gatherings, however.


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