6 Tiny Mistakes That Shaped Huge Parts of Modern History
History books are a parade of great people planning wars and inventing shit and in general dictating what the world is going to be like for the rest of us. Some of them are good and some are evil, but we like to think they all knew what they were doing. After all, they made history, didn't they?
But the truth is much more mundane and perhaps frightening -- sometimes, major moments in history are influenced by something as dumb as a guy dropping a sandwich. In fact, many of the most important chapters in your history books wouldn't have been written if not for a tiny blunder, like ...
The Titanic Sank Because Someone Forgot a Locker Key
The reason people are still debating exactly why the Titanic sank is that most of the people who actually knew went down with the ship (you've seen the movie, right? The captain stands there and drowns while sad music plays?).
That old couple took their secrets to their watery grave, the selfish pricks.
But one prominent theory is that the guy who was in charge of, you know, watching for icebergs didn't have access to a pair of binoculars. That guy was Fred Fleet, who was in fact one of the few crew members to survive. He was the first to spot the iceberg, and he testified to a senate inquiry that, if he'd had access to binoculars, he might have seen it soon enough to avoid it. The ship would have never sunk, and that one guy would have never fallen hilariously onto the propeller on the way down.
"Eh, could have been worse."
But here's the thing: the binoculars were on the ship. But they were locked up, and the key to the locker didn't make the trip. That's because right before the Titanic sailed, the company that ran the cruise made a split-second decision to replace the ship's second officer, David Blair, with another guy, Charles Lightoller, who had more experience working on giant ships and was thus less likely to, say, get them all run aground on an iceberg. So Blair missed out on the cruise of a lifetime, but as he waved goodbye to the departing Titanic, he neglected to realize that the locker keys were still in his pocket.
Beside a now-useless drink coupon.
He probably got a good laugh and a forehead slap out of it after he got home and emptied his pockets on the kitchen counter. The key remained a souvenir in his family to remember the cruise he narrowly missed, and nobody saw it again until it came up for auction in 2014. Meanwhile, back in 1912, the crew aboard the fateful ship soon realized that they couldn't get into the locker but opted not to turn around for the sake of a cheap pair of binoculars. After all, the lookout crew had a perfectly good set of eyes, and the Titanic was unsinkable.
The oversight, which might have become known as BinocularGate if it had occurred later in history, was a notorious blunder in the Titanic tragedy. In 2012, on the 100th anniversary of the disaster, an anonymous prankster left a pair of binoculars on Fleet's grave with an apology note for the late delivery. Too soon, asshole.
A Bureaucrat Stumbling Over a Reporter's Question Brought Down the Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall was such a perfect symbol of the split between Democracy and Communism that, when it fell in late 1989, it almost seemed too on-the nose, like the ham-fisted climax in some post-apocalyptic YA novel. But most people don't remember exactly why the momentous event actually happened -- was it a popular uprising that overwhelmed the government's guards? Or did the commies agree to take it down, bowing to the inevitable march of freedom?
Did the Gipper smash through it with a single pelvic thrust?
Well, there's a reason the story gets confusing at that point: the whole thing was sort of an accident.
After nearly 30 years and no sign of the wall coming down, East Germany had decided to show their people how charitable they were by slightly loosening travel restrictions for a little while. Gunter Schabowski was an East German politician charged with holding the press conference that would alert Germany to the new, minor changes to the travel code. On Nov. 9, 1989, Schabowski was handed a piece of paper that he expected to be so business-as-usual that he didn't even read it before he approached the podium.
"The state of the division is strong, may atheism bless the GDR, blah blah, the usual."
As expected, the speech was so tedious and uninteresting that it nearly put the crowd to sleep, until ears perked up at references to relaxing travel between the borders. Through either poor wording or boredom-induced lapse of concentration, some journalists got the impression that Schabowski was implying they were to drop the restrictions entirely.
When someone asked him when this was to take effect, Schabowski flipped through the speech he hadn't read, and unable to find the answer, and probably feeling like his fly was undone in front of the world's press, he shrugged and said, "Immediately, right away." The press ran back to their typewriters and visors and declared to the world that East Germany had just canceled the Berlin Wall, effective, like, right fucking now.
Their cameras conveniently doubled as sledgehammers.
The resulting frenzy at the border was too much for authorities to handle, and although they considered firing on the crowd, they decided that doing so would escalate the situation to an all-out heads-in-guillotines revolution. So the military fell back, the wall came down, communism ended, David Hasselhoff sang a song, and politicians everywhere learned how important it was to read the goddamn speech before a press conference.
The Nazis May Have Lost Normandy Because Their Commander Took a Weekend Off
At the risk of making the classic social faux pas known as "Praising the Nazis," Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was a great battlefield tactician -- even his enemies admitted it. That's why, near the end of the war, prior to D-Day, Rommel was put in charge of defending Europe from the Allied invasion that everyone knew was coming.
"So seriously, stop those feuchten 'Did Nazi that coming' jokes."
The invasion did come, on June 6, 1944 ... but Rommel wasn't there. That's because the day before he decided to go home to surprise his wife on her birthday. He (and others in the German command) felt confident that the weather wouldn't allow an Allied landing that day, so he went home for the birthday bash and other senior commanders left to go participate in a training exercise far away from where, unbeknownst to them, huge boats were about to start puking Allied tanks onto the shores of France.
Survivors from the German side recount that, had Rommel been present during the invasion, the result of the battle may have been very different. But by the time Rommel got back to his headquarters, the Allies had already captured all five beaches, and that was that -- all that was left was for everyone on the Nazi side to pick their suicide methods.
In "German roulette," you load your gun with one live round and five cyanide capsules.
To make things worse, the military evidently tried to call Hitler himself to get permission to release the Panzer tanks that might have turned the battle around, only to be told that Hitler was asleep, and nobody wakes up Hitler (hell, would you?). Between Normandy and the disaster on the Eastern front, the Nazis started to look less like an unstoppable force of evil and more like the nameless horde of stock bad guys that American action heroes kill for a living. On the plus side, we hear that Mrs. Rommel's cake was awesome.
And speaking of dumb battlefield disasters ...
The Bay of Pigs Invasion Failed Due to Time Zone Confusion
When the communists took over Cuba, the United States was faced with the terrifying reality of their mortal enemies having an outpost right on their doorstep, so naturally there was a lot of hand-wringing over what to do about it. After a bunch of diplomacy failed to convince Fidel Castro to renounce his communism, America decided to do that "secretly overthrow a dictator and install a friendlier one" thing that never, ever goes wrong.
"Worked in Havana 1961, will work again in Dallas 1963!"
The idea was that a group of 1,500 U.S.-trained Cuban mercenaries would sneak in and reclaim Cuba from the Reds while the U.S. provided air support from a nearby aircraft carrier and from an Air Force base in Nicaragua. After months of careful planning, the U.S. launched its operation in April 1961 to retake Cuba in the name of good old American freedom.
But despite meticulous planning, the U.S. forces made one rookie mistake -- they didn't synchronize their watches. The aircraft from Nicaragua arrived a full hour after the party, simply because nobody had thought to account for the time zone difference between Nicaragua and Cuba. As a result, the ground forces didn't have the air support they were promised and were quickly overwhelmed and either killed or imprisoned for life. Later, the air support arrived, bombed the now-silent battlefields, and returned home to wonder what all the fuss was about.
Officially, they blamed the delay on "weather" ... the same excuse they give when we ask them about UFOs.
So, Cuba got to carve another notch in the tiny nation's belt against the mighty U.S., and the whole affair led to increased tensions between the two countries. That eventually culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which you might remember as the closest the world ever came to mutually assured nuclear annihilation. Other than that, it was no big deal.
Germany Lost World War I Due to a Ridiculous Rumor
Yes, it's poor Germany again. They were a two-time loser at the World War business, as you know, but you could argue that they came close to winning both times. If not, that is, for a few pretty ridiculous mistakes.
Specifically, it's possible that the only reason the Germans lost WWI was because they believed a baseless rumor that Russian soldiers were mobilizing in England to help hand Germany's own ass back to it. That supposed mass incursion of Russians was little more than the result of a bunch of hilarious misunderstandings.
Haha! Those wacky Cossacks and their famous Russian humor.
In one example, in the early days of the war, when each side was still sharpening their bayonets, a train full of Gaelic-speaking Scottish soldiers arrived in England. A nosy train porter asked where they had come from, and the soldiers, with their weird clothing and funny accents, said Ross-shire, a county in the Scottish highlands. But the porter heard "Russia" and went on to spread the rumor that the Ruskies had arrived.
On another occasion, it's speculated, a telegram notifying London of an incoming shipment of eggs from Russia, which read simply "100,000 Russians now on way from Aberdeen to London," may have been intercepted and understandably misinterpreted. Another rumor said that a vending machine had been found jammed with a Russian coin.
Fact: Vending machines kill more people annually than sharks and Russians combined.
Soon, tales of a Russian incursion became mainstream. The British military knew they were bullshit, but why debunk a story that was scaring the Germans shitless? Germany actually altered their war strategy to account for the hundreds of thousands of nonexistent Cossacks and wound up holding two divisions back from the Battle of Marne because of it. Unfortunately for them, the Battle of Marne turned out to be a deciding battle of the war, which could easily have gone the other way ... if Germany had sent just two more divisions.
And speaking of world-changing consequences due to silly misunderstandings ...
America Won the Revolutionary War Because of an Unread Warning Note
It's easy to imagine that the world might look a little different today if America had lost the Revolutionary War. For example, Mel Gibson's The Patriot would just be the tale of a terrorist's senseless murder spree, and The Avengers would have assembled under the leadership of a guy named Captain United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland. This came close to being a reality, as 1776 was a depressing year for the newly minted Continental Army. A year of constant defeats meant that support was dwindling for George Washington and the war effort, with many militiamen wondering if it wasn't easier to just pay the fucking tea tax.
Now, you may know from history class that what helped turn things around was this:
They rowed extra slow so the painter could keep up, but it was worth it, dammit.
That, of course, is Washington crossing the Delaware to launch a surprise Christmastime attack on the highly trained Hessian soldiers that held the town of Trenton. The story you were taught was that the Hessian troops were living it up, having watched Washington's myriad failures and believing that the war would probably be over by New Year's. That, and it was December, and nobody in their right mind would launch an attack in the dead of winter. Luckily for America, Washington was not in his right mind, and the enemy was caught completely unaware.
But, in reality, they had been warned.
You see, as Washington and his troops marched toward Trenton, a loyalist farmer spotted them and quickly rushed off to warn the Hessian commander, Colonel Johann Rall. Guards prevented him from seeing Rall because the colonel was in chillax mode, so the farmer was forced to write a note to the commander instead. Rall was handed the note, but it was written in English, so the German couldn't decipher its bizarre hieroglyphs. Rather than grab a translator, he assumed it was probably some unimportant gibberish and went back to his card game.
And no German ever made an error again.
The next morning, Washington marched into Trenton and achieved a spectacular victory against the probably hungover Hessian army, providing the crucial morale boost that planted the seeds for America. So what we're saying is, when you get those emails written in some strange language, Google Translate that shit. Sure, it's probably a scam, but it might just be the one warning humanity gets about an impending alien invasion.
You can email Alexander Pan at firstname.lastname@example.org while he sits and waits for a historical and monumental moment to finally catch up to his mistakes in life.
For more great catastrophes started by small things, check out 5 Tiny Computer Glitches That Caused Huge Disasters and The 7 Most Disastrous Typos Of All Time.
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