Turning Points
November 28, 2009 8:58 AM   Subscribe

What are some turning points in history?

Mr RedEmma is developing an innovative freshman seminar idea, but we're getting stuck on listing moments in history where a small group of people or a meeting of leaders could have changed the course in history had their minds been turned another way.

Something like the summits on the Treaty of Versailles... Any others?
posted by RedEmma to Education (64 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Declaration of Independence?

Or do you mean places where the course of history could have been changed but didn't?
posted by kylej at 9:03 AM on November 28, 2009


Any of the long history of peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians.
posted by beagle at 9:07 AM on November 28, 2009


Here's another moment from US history

The compromise of 1850 (some say that if this hadn't occurred, the civil war would have started ten years earlier and the north would have been much less prepared for war, possibly resulting in a southern victory)

If the south won, the United States would be split, and would have very profound consequences during World War 1 and 2
posted by kylej at 9:07 AM on November 28, 2009


Yalta, perhaps? If Churchill had won over Roosevelt, there might not have been an Eastern bloc in Europe.
posted by Bromius at 9:11 AM on November 28, 2009


Contantine's conversion to Christianity?

The foundation of the Roman Republic? (your wife could go over the Twelve Tables)
posted by oinopaponton at 9:17 AM on November 28, 2009


Any revolution, ever? I'm with kylej; are you asking for times when a few people did change history, or are you asking for times when things could have gone the other way?
posted by runningwithscissors at 9:19 AM on November 28, 2009


The Cuban Missile Crisis, which very well could have started a US/USSR nuclear war if one of any number of things went differently (such as Kennedy deciding to attack & invade Cuba, which is what his Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly recommended).
posted by castlebravo at 9:19 AM on November 28, 2009


Your question made me think of this collection of essays edited by Niall Ferguson: eight historians write (fairly English-history-centric, but interesting) essays asking "What if X had gone the other way? What could have happened instead?"

The introduction is also one of the better things I've read on the topic of counterfactual history.
posted by besonders at 9:31 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the ideas so far. If clarification is necessary, we're looking for both--events where a few people did change history and times when things could have gone the other way.

I'm thinking for instance of the US Constitutional Convention in regards to the inclusion of African-Americans and women within the scope of those with rights. Or the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

How about events that are not so Western-oriented: South America (rainforest devastation? revolutions? assassinations?), Africa, or Asia?
posted by RedEmma at 9:32 AM on November 28, 2009


You could talk about when Japan purposefully isolated themselves from the rest of the world in the 1600s.

There's also the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.
posted by kylej at 9:44 AM on November 28, 2009


The Council of Ten ; civic virtue; Florence
posted by effluvia at 9:59 AM on November 28, 2009


Any of the long history of peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians.

Although it's only one moment in a long history, had the Balfour Declaration not been issued it's very possible that the ninety years which have followed may have looked much different.
posted by Adam_S at 10:01 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'd say the appointment of a President by the Supreme Court of the United States will be looked at as a seminal moment in history. 100 years from now it could very well be seen at as trumping all those past turning points combined considering all that transgressed (or didn't) in the wake of that fateful decision.
posted by any major dude at 10:01 AM on November 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Gregorian Reformation, which (arguably) created the first Western legal system and in some sense established "the West" as a unique thing? Have a look at Law and Revolution by Bermann for a great read, if you're into that sort of thing.
posted by ellF at 10:02 AM on November 28, 2009


The invention of the printing press is easily one of the biggest events in history. It liberated the written word.
posted by smitt at 10:04 AM on November 28, 2009


The Berlin Conference was the point at which many African nations' borders were decided by soon-to-be colonial powers in Europe.
posted by carmen at 10:09 AM on November 28, 2009


Russian history is full of moments when the leadership almost got their act together but didn't quite manage it. The Mongol invasion of Rus is probably the biggest. The Rus may have been strong enough to resist the invasion if the nobility hadn't been so busy fighting each other. Without the 200 years of separation from Western Europe during the Tatar Yoke, Russia might have developed along the same lines as the rest of Europe and might have ended up with a reasonable model of government and a middle class. If they had, the Bolshevik Revolution would have been incredibly unlikely and the 20th century would have been completely different.
posted by Dojie at 10:15 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nailing of the Ninety Five Theses.
posted by fire&wings at 10:18 AM on November 28, 2009


...moments in history where a small group of people or a meeting of leaders could have changed the course in history had their minds been turned another way...I'm thinking for instance of the US Constitutional Convention in regards to the inclusion of African-Americans and women within the scope of those with rights.

I really don't think that would have been possible. Setting aside the fact that the delegates at the convention never would have done this, they would have been undercutting their own authority with their constituents if they had tried.

I'm not bringing this up to be snarky. The "small group of people" thing just doesn't apply to your example.
posted by bingo at 10:26 AM on November 28, 2009


The Battle of the Plains of Abraham took about an hour and involved fewer than 10,000 soldiers on both sides. Half of North America changed hands because of this battle and its aftermath.

Does the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria count?
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 10:32 AM on November 28, 2009


Henry VIII's conversion to Protestantism, and the ensuing English Reformation. The "conversion" of a king (even if it was just so he could get a divorce and bed Ann Boleyn) lent legitimacy to Protestant Christianity. Ann Boleyn is on my list as one of THE most influential people in western history.
posted by motsque at 10:33 AM on November 28, 2009


There are good examples from the history of science. For instance, a small group of physicists agitated for the development of nuclear weapons during the second world war.
posted by jjray at 10:35 AM on November 28, 2009


I think an important aspect to this question is that some of the things that have been mentioned triggered major events, but that in many cases those events were inevitable. To pick one example, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand did start a cascade of events which led to the first World War (perhaps the most important event in modern history) but if it hadn't been the death of Ferdinand it almost certainly would have been something else. So I'm trying to pick things which realistically could have gone differently and furthermore would have had major and unpredictable effects on all that followed. Yeah, it's Euro-centric. 'Cause that's what I know about.

323 (b.c.): Early death of Alexander of Macedonia at age 32 fractures his empire.
33 (a.d.): Conversion of Saul of Tarsus to Christianity.
312: Conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity.
627: Mohammed establishes dominance in southern Arabia at Siege of Medina
732: Carolus Martellus decisively halts Muslim expansion into France at Battle of Tours.
1066: William I crushes Saxon resistance at Battle of Hastings.
1422: Henry V dies suddenly at age 35, preceding the frail and sickly Charles VI by two months and thus failing to inherit the French Crown.
1571: Holy League halts Muslim expanse into Eastern Europe at Battle of Lepanto.

etc I could go on but this is a lot of military stuff and I'm not sure how useful that is to you. Well it's hard to get much more turning-pointesque than a decisive military engagement which results in a massive strategic defeat. But since you specifically mentioned small groups of people, meetings, etc, I'll throw in:

325 a.d. Council of Nicea establishes uniform Christian doctrine. Sounds boring, is actually monumentally important and full of intrigue and politics.

1919: Treaty of Versailles. Germany treated like defeated aggressor despite decisive German victory on the Eastern front and cease-fire occuring while Germany still occupied parts of France. Set the stage for the Second World War. Either forcing a German surrender or a more charitable peace may have prevented or delayed WWII.
posted by Justinian at 10:44 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the Munich Agreement of 1938, with its broken promise of "peace for our time," is one such example.

Though who knows--it might've just brought the war to a start one year earlier.
posted by j1950 at 10:46 AM on November 28, 2009


Martin Luther could have been arrested and killed in 1521; had he been, the Protestant Reformation would probably have withered away, as the Hussites and Lollards had disappeared in previous times. A later reform movement might have had more success, but the course of European history would have been completely different.

Henry V of England died young, of dysentery; he was succeeded by the infant Henry VI and decades of misrule. Had he lived a few years longer, the Hundred Years War could have been concluded earlier in an English victory. That would transform the history of Europe as well.
posted by WPW at 10:47 AM on November 28, 2009


D-Day
Allied Expeditionary Force Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower had tentatively selected 5 June as the date for the assault. Most of May had fine weather, but this deteriorated in early June. On 4 June, conditions were clearly unsuitable for a landing; wind and high seas would make it impossible to launch landing craft, and low clouds would prevent aircraft finding their targets. The Allied troop convoys already at sea were forced to take shelter in bays and inlets on the south coast of Britain for the night.It seemed possible that everything would have to be cancelled and the troops returned to their camps (a vast undertaking because the enormous movement of follow-up formations was already proceeding). The next full moon period would be nearly a month away. At a vital meeting on 5 June, Eisenhower's chief meteorologist (Group Captain J.M. Stagg) forecast a brief improvement for 6 June. General Bernard Montgomery and Eisenhower's Chief of Staff General Walter Bedell Smith wished to proceed with the invasion. Leigh Mallory was doubtful, but Admiral Bertram Ramsay believed that conditions would be marginally favorable. On the strength of Stagg's forecast, Eisenhower ordered the invasion to proceed. Unfortunately, prevailing overcast skies limited Allied air support, so no serious damage was done to the beach defenses on Omaha and Juno.

The Germans meanwhile took comfort from the existing poor conditions, which were worse over Northern France than over the Channel itself, and believed no invasion would be possible for several days. Some troops stood down, and many senior officers were away for the weekend. General Erwin Rommel, for example, took a few days' leave to celebrate his wife's birthday,[8] while dozens of division, regimental, and battalion commanders were away from their posts at war games.
posted by forforf at 10:50 AM on November 28, 2009


Perhaps an unpopular opinion but I don't think D-Day was all that critical. If it hadn't been the 6th it would have been later. And even if it hadn't the Russians still would have taken Berlin.
posted by Justinian at 10:55 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


In 1241, the Mongol Army was within sight of the walls of Vienna. Europe was wracked with an internal struggle between Holy Roma Emperor Frederick II and a series of popes, and the Mongols had already overrun the much stronger Russian world and shattered the Islamic world (that had repelled the Crusades a few generations earlier). There was little to keep the Mongols from rolling on through Hungary to Rome and Antwerp and Paris and destroy the burgeoning societies that would give birth to the Renaissance in a few centuries.

When Ogadai Khan, the son and heir of Genghis Khan, died suddenly in December of 1241, the Mongols had to return home to elect a new khan. Early in 1242 they turned east and never returned to Europe, afterwards focusing on China and Persia. If Ogadai had lived, the last seven and a half centuries of European history would be vastly different from what we know.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:00 AM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Several Central Asians who reshuffled Western civilization:

Attila the Hun, invaded Gaul and Northern Italy, caused the westward movement of the Goths and Visigoths into western Europe. Contributed to the fall of Rome.

A later invasion of Russia and Eastern Europe by Genghis Khan caused another westward migration of many cultures into Europe. The death of Genghis' successor Ogedai in 1241 caused all of the Mongol invaders of the Near East and Eastern Europe to turn back to Central Asia, sparing further expansion into Europe

Ogedai's grandson(?) Kublai Khan opened the Far East to trade with Europe.

Another relation of Genghis, Tamerlane later pushed the Ottoman Empire into the Balkans, and led (IIRC) to one of the crusades.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 11:00 AM on November 28, 2009


My Euro-Centric high school history teacher gave us 7 to remember:
1. Fall of the Roman Empire in the West
2. Mohammed's flight from Mecca to Medina
3. The Great Western Schism
4. Defeat of the Spanish Armada
5. Luther's 95 theses

Can't remember the other two. Maybe the fall of Constantinople?


As far as South American history, I would suggest the many coups of the second half of the 20th century. Chile, Argentina, Brazil, etc.
posted by nestor_makhno at 11:01 AM on November 28, 2009


(ricochets off the biscuit)
posted by kuujjuarapik at 11:02 AM on November 28, 2009


The Tennis Court Oath of 1789, in France. Afterwards, the Congress of Vienna.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:02 AM on November 28, 2009


Search the political science literature for the term "critical juncture."
posted by proj at 11:08 AM on November 28, 2009


I always wondered how or if things would have been different in Afghanistan today if Ahmad Shah Massoud hadn't been massacred. 9/11 would have still happened, but I've always wondered if we would have had a better chance of corner bin Laden with Massoud alive.
posted by jeanmari at 11:08 AM on November 28, 2009


Firing on Fort Sumter. Others won't have it, but without that emotional call to arms, the north might well have just yawned and the secession might just have worked.

Roger Cowley did a bunch of books on the whole premise of what might have been. He'll want to check these and other out.

Perhaps an unpopular opinion but I don't think D-Day was all that critical. If it hadn't been the 6th it would have been later. And even if it hadn't the Russians still would have taken Berlin

I don't fully disagree, but it raises the question - later when? And would it have gone so well? The German's initial response in early June was abysmal - it might not have been later that season. And if the Russians had had more time, who's to say have far west they might have gotten- and how much they would have held on to having gotten it?
posted by IndigoJones at 11:08 AM on November 28, 2009


1990 - The Advent of the Internet
posted by watercarrier at 11:14 AM on November 28, 2009


Jefferson going ahead with The Lousiana Purchase.

Also, some would argue that Hitler's decision to attack Soviet Russia (Operation Barbarossa), ultimately lead to the Nazi defeat in WWII.
posted by gudrun at 11:14 AM on November 28, 2009


What a huge question
Battle of Lepanto 1571 This Turkish defeat stopped Turkey's expansion into the Mediterranean, thus maintaining western dominance, and confidence grew in the west that Turks, previously unstoppable, could be beaten. If the Turkish navy had stayed protected in Lepanto Harbour there would have been no battle.
Similarily in 1683 The Battle of Vienna saw the diminishing power of the Ottomans and the rise of Hapsburg power in Central Europe.
1668 saw The Glorious Revolution considered by many as being one of the most important events in the long evolution of the respective powers of Parliament and the Crown in England.
posted by adamvasco at 11:41 AM on November 28, 2009


December 12, 1979. I don't know a name for the event, but a handful of Soviet brass decided to enter what would be a disastrous war in Afghanistan. Had they not done this the USSR would have at least held out a good while longer if not held together.
posted by cmoj at 11:44 AM on November 28, 2009


Woohoo! A Coke from kuujjuarapik!
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:44 AM on November 28, 2009


Perhaps the assassination of Huey Long?- this may well have saved America from a fascist dictatorship.
posted by jenkinsEar at 11:53 AM on November 28, 2009


Churchill selection as PM instead of Lord Halifax. It was a near thing, and Halifax would probably have been easier for the Tories to swallow.

Halifax probably would have accepted Hitler's peace terms after Dunkirk.
posted by spaltavian at 12:10 PM on November 28, 2009


Battle of Tours famously, though of course there's those as argue it wasn't.
Humiliation of Jinkang marked the beginning of centuries of northern tribal interventions into the settled Chinese polity which is alleged to restrained China's development into modernity ahead of the West.
posted by Abiezer at 12:12 PM on November 28, 2009


Firing on Fort Sumter. Others won't have it, but without that emotional call to arms, the north might well have just yawned and the secession might just have worked.

This really isn't accurate. Lincoln was committed to keeping the country together.
posted by kylej at 12:19 PM on November 28, 2009


Hannibal failed to besiege Rome due to the lack of a siege train. Had he constructed one, then Carthage, and not Rome, might have been the dominant power in the Mediterranean for a thousand years. Carthage was a trade empire, akin to Britain, and so would have made less of an impression on its subject nations.

Had Pontius Pilate sold Jesus into slavery instead of making a martyr of him, there might have been no Christian religion.

The Prophet Muhammed was nearly killed in battle by pagan Arabs from Mecca who had already defeated his troops. Had they followed up their victory either by finding and killing the Prophet, or taking Medina, that might have been the end of Islam. (In fact much of the early history of Islam is fairly miraculous; had the Roman and Persian empires not just fought each other to a bloody standstill, the Arab armies would never have made headway in either direction.)

Genghis Khan's invasion of most of the world occurred because of a series of provocations by neighbors of his who were unwilling to treat the Mongols with respect (e.g. a caliph murdered his trade envoy). Had he not been provoked, it it's possible it would not have occurred to him to invade Central Asia.

Had King George III offered the American colonists any sort of representation in Parliament in 1774, there might have been no American revolution. (Hence no Civil War, either, since the anti-slavery North would have been backed by the even more anti-slavery British.)

Had France mobilized upon Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland, I have heard, Hitler's generals had a plot to overthrow him. (They didn't feel ready to take on France.) No World War II, no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.
posted by musofire at 12:56 PM on November 28, 2009


Sykes-Picot Agreement. Without it, the Middle East is a very different place.
posted by TheRaven at 2:15 PM on November 28, 2009


The Truth And Reconciliation Comission, without which the violence between black majorities and white powerful minorities may have continued.
posted by pwnguin at 2:28 PM on November 28, 2009


without which the violence between black majorities and white powerful minorities may have continued.

... in South Africa.
posted by pwnguin at 2:28 PM on November 28, 2009


The failure of American intelligence and law enforcement to apprehend the 9/11 hijackers during their preparations. Had they been caught: no invasion of Afghanistan, possibly no invasion of Iraq. On the other hand: a freer hand for binLaden/Taliban to do different damage elsewhere.
posted by beagle at 3:11 PM on November 28, 2009


For WWII, I'd have to go with The Battle of Britain. Everything started going downhill for Hitler after that.
posted by gb77 at 4:13 PM on November 28, 2009


The Battle of Khalkin Gol. It resulted in Japan's decision to occupy SE Asia and the Pacific instead of pushing into Siberia. Had things gone the other way WWII would have been... Different.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 5:02 PM on November 28, 2009


Kim Stanley Robinson has a great novella about Hiroshima that would fit perfectly with this theme called "The Lucky Strike." Check it out.
posted by gerryblog at 5:04 PM on November 28, 2009


Most of mine will be sino-centric; it's certainly not small group of people.....


Battle of Changping Qin army achieved decisive victory over Zhao and massacred most of the 400,000+ prisoners. The Qin's unification of China became inevitable

Battle of Fei River 300,000+ barbarian army of Former Qin was defeated by 80,000 Eastern Jin army. This battle ensured China will continue to be divided for next 200 years.

Anshi Rebellion After losing court intrigue Tang general An Lushan decided to rebell and launched eight years war that destroyed Tang dynasty as a superpower.

Battle of Huan Er Tsui Considered to be most important battle in the history of Mongol empire.

Tamerlane Planned Invasion of China. He was on the way with army of 200,000 when he died of fever and plague in 1405.
posted by Carius at 5:08 PM on November 28, 2009


battle of salamis
posted by moorooka at 5:27 PM on November 28, 2009


If in 1983 Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov hadn't decided the ICBMs his computer was telling him the U.S. had launched were a false alarm, we might well have had a nuclear holocaust.
posted by cerebus19 at 6:31 PM on November 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


If a Union soldier in 1862 hadn't noticed a package on the road and picked it up, and then realized he'd found Confederate marching orders and given them to his colonel, the North very well might've lost the war. Because, you see, once Gen. McClellan had those plans he was able to eke out a victory (a pyrrhic one to be sure, but still a victory) at Antietam, which he might well have lost otherwise. And it was the victory at Antietam that gave President Lincoln the ability to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which in turn both allowed the government to seize property from rebel states and prevented Britain and France from helping out the South (because they found slavery abhorrent).
posted by cerebus19 at 6:39 PM on November 28, 2009


I like this thread.

Vladimir Lenin's eventually fatal complications from an assassination attempt had a profound effect on the history of the Soviet Union.

Lord knows Lenin was no angel, but if NEP had been allowed to continue, the Soviet Union may have gone a rather different direction in the years between the World Wars.

How would WWII have been different had Lenin been in power? Would the Nazi-Soviet Pact gone deeper than a handshake? Likely not---but it seems not impossible that Lenin would have been prepared for Barbarossa. A fully mobilized Soviet Army to meet the Wehrmacht in the Ukraine could have drastically changed the war.

Or perhaps, Hitler, realizing this, would have not been so bold in his attempts to realize his dreams of Slavic lebensraum.
posted by Darth Fedor at 9:18 PM on November 28, 2009


Letting my national colors fly on this one: The 1989 Round Table Talks between Poland's communist leadership and the opposition set the stage for the non-violent fall of the Iron Curtain (with the exception of Romania, of course).
posted by jedrek at 10:48 PM on November 28, 2009


A lighter one- when Australia Federated, the New Zealand colonies were included in the vote. They voted 'No', and hence became a separate country. Its hard to say if it would have affected history if they voted 'Yes', but at the very least we would be unstoppable if Australia and New Zealand shared a cricket team...

When Darwin was bombed during World War 2, the plan of last resort if Japan made a serious play for the Australian mainland was to withdraw the military to defend the cities in the south, allowing Japan to take the Northern Territory. That would have left Japan in control of one of the largest uranium deposits in the world.

(Now, this is what I remember from High School history, so take it with a grain of salt).
posted by PercyByssheShelley at 11:04 PM on November 28, 2009


I don't want to derail from the notions of history developing here [say, national identities], but what about a little bit of time in the seminar series to consider some different views of 'history'?

I don't have the time to look up links, but Rosalind Miles' "The Women's History of the World" is a text I have used with students when discussing 'turning points' in history. She captures moments that haven't been widely documented or celebrated. It's fascinating and is great to remind us that 'history' is often narrative driven, and a construct, privileging a certain angle of vision on 'what happened'.

Also, I would suggest, in this vein, a text like Ronald Wright's "Stolen Continents" for some post-colonial views of history. I don't get antsy about deconstructing history, or advocate a critical position or pile on theory, but I think it is a really interesting part of the exercise to consider what we call 'history', and to maybe contest some of the focuses here.

Nietzsche wrote about different kinds of history - the idea of a 'monumental history' seems to be the main focus of this thread. His ideas about history are worth reading.
posted by honey-barbara at 3:28 AM on November 29, 2009


Battle of Lepanto 1571 This Turkish defeat stopped Turkey's expansion into the Mediterranean, thus maintaining western dominance, and confidence grew in the west that Turks, previously unstoppable, could be beaten

Turks had been stopped plenty of times before this: Vienna (1529), Guns (1532), Malta (1565) and elsewhere.

As to Lepanto itself (since it is twice mentioned above), I've my doubts. The Ottomans had already taken Cyprus the year before, which pretty much gave them all of the eastern Med. Would they really have tried for the west? Hard to say. (Certainly the victorious Holy League didn't make any headway in the east - but that's another question.) Pretty much everything the Ottomans had done in that area up until then had been raids, not conquest. What conquest that had been done was on the North African shore line, and almost all of that was done pretty much by proxy by Barbary Corsairs, mostly by 1571. Thereafter, dominance of the waves was pretty much in the hands of said Barbary corsairs (and a few Christian pirates) until the French quashed Algiers in 1830. (Europeans from sixteenth century made alliances with the corsairs in hopes of damaging other European rivals - it got complicated.)
posted by IndigoJones at 6:54 AM on November 29, 2009


No bombing of Pearl Harbor, of course.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:55 AM on November 29, 2009


Thanks everyone!
posted by RedEmma at 10:14 AM on November 29, 2009


Canada: The Kitchen Accord. (Or, as Quebec nationalists know it, the Night of the Long Knives).
posted by ewiar at 9:12 AM on November 30, 2009


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