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The Most Important Person in World History?

Updated on November 29, 2016

Unintended Consequences

The first world war was over one hundred years ago. Yet the actions taken a century ago are still shaping the way we live today. And whilst we may think they were shaped on the fields of the western front, it is possible trace other actions of the war whose effects have lasted longer. I am going to put forward three contenders for the most important person in world history, seen through the lense of our lives today.

Gavrilo Princip

The bizarre circumstances of the beginnings of the first world war probably wouldn’t pass muster if they were put forward as a screenplay. It all began when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the progressive crown prince of Austro Hungary was shot whilst on an official visit to Sarajevo. The Black Hand, Serbian nationalists, or terrorists depending on your point of view planned to assassinate him by throwing a bomb at his car. Princip was just one of the six conspirators. The attempt quickly descended into farce as one bomb bounced off the car, injuring standers-by, one conspirator lost his nerve and another threw himself in the river after eating a cyanide capsule. The plan was rumbled and the assassination called off. However, on the way back from visiting the hospital to check on the people injured by the bomb blast, The Archduke’s car stalled outside a cafe where Princip was having a snack. The Archduke’s car stalled just 1.5metres from Princip who pulled out his gun and shot Franz Ferdinand and his wife. A crazy escalation followed when Austro Hungary declared war on Serbia, who they blamed (almost certainly correctly) for being behind the assassination. Russia stepped in to defend its slav ally. Germany backed its German ally and launched a preemptive strike on France, Russia’s ally, and the UK joined in on the pretext of maintaining Belgian neutrality. Four years later, millions lay dead and the conditions that would lead to the second world war had been set.

Princip did not organise the assassination but without him happening to be at the cafe at the time that the Archduke’s car stalled in front of him, none of this would have happened. Making Gavrilo Princip possibly the most important person in history.

Gavrilo Princip - If only he hadn't been hungry!
Gavrilo Princip - If only he hadn't been hungry!

Erich Ludendorff

As the defacto leader of the german state during world war one Ludendorff undoubtedly played a major role in the outcome of the conflict. Ludendorff made his name in the early stages of the great war by taking key strongholds in Belgium which were holding up the initial german assault to secure victory in the West. When Russia attacked in the East, he and Paul von Hindenburg were sent to secure the Eastern border. Their success in defeating the Russians at the Battle of Tannenburg made them into heroes. Hindenburg, the aristocrat become the figurehead of the German army whilst Ludendorff pulled the strings.

Yet his greatest impact didn’t lie in his genius as a military commander, but instead in a fateful decision to interfere in the collapse of Tsarist Russia. In 1917, with Russia in turmoil and the Tsar captured, but no clear direction for which way Russia would go in the war, Ludendorff arranged for Lenin to be transported from Switzerland through to Finland. Ludendorff knew that Lenin would want to pull Russia out of the war, and that more moderate forces in Russia were not so sure. By arranging passage for Lenin he was instrumental in creating the building blocks of the Soviet Union. A communist regime that may have been responsible for more deaths than Nazi Germany. Which, by spreading its influence across Eastern Europe in the following 80 years created the conditions for the cold war and the nuclear standoff that almost did for us during the Cuban missile crisis.

Without Ludendorff providing passage for a fringe radical like Lenin to enter Russia when he did, our world could have been very different.

Erich Ludendorff. The unintentional communist revolutionary?
Erich Ludendorff. The unintentional communist revolutionary?

Lawrence of Arabia

We all know T E Lawrence from the eponymous film of his exploits. Lawrence, the illegitimate son of an Irish Baronet became a first class honours student of history and then an Archeologist specialising in the middle east. When war broke out in 1914, his knowledge of Arabic gained the attention of the British Military and he was co-opted to work for them to help foment an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, the ally of the Germans and Austro-Hungarians.

The Ottoman Turks had held control of the middle east and Arab peninsula since the end of the crusades. There was no great opposition to their rule overall as the disparate tribes of the Arabic world were never able to sufficiently unite against their overlords to provide effective opposition to their rule.

When the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers, the Allies, struggling on the Western Front were looking for ways to take the conflict wider. Through Lawrence they were able to start a guerilla war with the Arabs as their men on the ground which ultimately led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire

The post war settlement saw the middle east divided up amongst Britain and France and awarded large sections to their partners on the ground. These false Kingdoms put Sunni and Shia muslims together under rulers not always equipped to deal with factional strife. Combined with British support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine (the Balfour Declaration) a tinderbox was built and is still exploding on a regular basis today. The intervention of Lawrence indirectly led to the problems in the middle east today, which led to the rise of Al Qaida and ISIS. So perhaps without Lawrence as the key figure in the Arab revolt, relations between the West and Middle East would be very different.

T E Lawrence. Can we link his actions to the Twin Towers?
T E Lawrence. Can we link his actions to the Twin Towers?

Don't mess in other people's business

What joins each of these figures from history was they were all acting in their national interests. But by interfering in the interests of other nations, they set off chain reactions which are still being felt today. Surely there are lessons here for present day!

The baddest man in history

Who do you think had the greatest impact on modern day?

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    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 11 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I watched every episode. Loved it. I hear they are doing a series on Victoria too. (I'm hooked on your monarchy.)

      I'm not writing an article - it's a novel. Don't expect it anytime soon, but thanks.

    • Mallory Eyres profile image

      Mallory Eyres 11 months ago from UK

      Thanks Kathleen. Yes, the study of unintended consequences through history is a fascinating area and makes you question our ability as humans to act as rational beings! I look forward to reading your article about Edward and Mrs Simpson. There is no doubt that if he had stayed King we would have had a very different country, if nothing else it probably wouldn't have remained a monarchy for very long.

      If you haven't already, I recommend watching "The Crown" on Netflix which gives a very accurate account of the state of the monarchy and the UK post WWII.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 11 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      "Unintended Consequences" or how our best intentions come back to bite us in the butt! This is one of the most amazing revelations as you study the history of our country and our world.

      That phrase caught my attention because I'm starting a new series of historical fiction with this very theme. The novel I'm working on right now is about how the disaster of Wallis Simpson and King Edward actually saved England in the long run by putting his brother on the throne during WWII.

      Thanks for this interesting hub. Looking forward to more of your work.