10 People Who Changed History
The Face of Evil
A Look at Some of the Secret Weapons Designed by the Nazi's.
10. Adolf Hitler: 1889-1945
Adolf Hitler, undoubtedly the most controversial name to appear on this list, but I can assure you that his place on this list is well deserved, so bear with me. In order to explain his inclusion, we must go back to the beginning, or near beginning. Hitler was a veteran of the Great War who felt deeply let down by his country leaders who, in the opinion of many in the German army had accepted a humiliating armistice agreement in 1918. As a result Germany became burdened with reparations that were simply impossible to pay, a staggering 269 Reichmarks or 11 billion pounds.
Towards the end of the war, waves of workers’ strikes crippled munitions factories across the country. In Hitler’s mind these strikes snatched defeat from the jaws of certain victory. His anger wasn’t directed at the workers in general but instead Socialist Jewish Marxists, whom he believed were responsible for trying to cripple Germany.
The aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles saw Germany plunge into an unprecedented economic depression, hyperinflation was rife with the now famous images of men carrying home their pitiful wages in a wheelbarrow. The Weimar government that presided over German affairs at the time was weak, many including Hitler’s fledgling Nazi party tried to overthrow the government. For his part Hitler was thrown in jail, and it was during his time in captivity that his hatred of Jews and Bolsheviks grew even more. He believed that Jewish bankers were responsible for the rises in capitalist powers, through their money lending and pursuit of profit.
Eventually, Hitler became obsessed with the notion of restoring all life on earth to some sort of supposed natural order. He attempted to re-create a supposed master human race of blond hair and blue eyes that could eventually breed ‘impure stock’ out of existence. These ghastly ideas led to a second global war that stimulated the advance of modern technology, especially nuclear energy and rocket technology. You could say that Hitler’s global war helped to speed up the onset of the space race, and also the development of advanced computers, plus industrialised agriculture which has simply transformed the world. That’s why he’s on this list.
The Man With an Idea
9. Karl Marx: 1818-1883
Karl Marx, the Jewish German philosopher and economic theorist, who wrote a very famous Manifesto during a time when successive rebellions crippled Europe during the mid 19th Century. The cause was obvious to Marx; he stated that human history was a continuous series of struggles between rich and poor. As a result of industrialisation, that struggle was now being waged between greedy capitalist businessmen and impoverished factory workers. But the capitalist ideology that fuelled the growth of Europe and America was now teetering precariously on the brink. Marx confidently stated that capitalism was close to collapse, the aftermath would spawn the development of a new social order across the world, a world where the masses were seen as equals and afforded all the same freedoms as the elite.
Marx’s Communist Manifesto inspired revolutionary leaders’ right across the world, from Lenin to Mao to Castro, and of course led to various ideological struggles between modern civilisations. Even today, all of the debates we see and hear that relate to globalisation, poverty, inequality, environmental damage, obsession with consumerism all lead directly from a battle of ideas that dates from Karl Marx. On the one hand you have the capitalists who still pursue naked profit, with little regard to brutality and morality, and on the other you have the advocates or partial advocates of ideas initially laid down by Karl Marx.
Read the Communist Manifesto in Full
A Giant of Science
8. Charles Darwin: 1809-1882
Charles Darwin, one of the greatest names in science, and a man who forever changed the way that we perceive ourselves and all other life on Earth. For most of human history, when trying to explain the history of the world, we’d mostly refer to religious texts that told us plainly that we were created by some supernatural being in our present state. Up until a point of course, Darwin was no different; he was as devout a Christian as anybody else.
But those beliefs began to crumble on his famous voyage in the Beagle. Darwin examined fossils of long dead ground sloths in South America that dispelled the myth that no kind of animal went extinct naturally. He observed the rheas- huge flightless birds that showed rather superficial variations in plumage and behaviour in accordance to where they lived. The most famous part of his voyage was his stop off on the Galapagos Islands, where he observed the incredible dozen or so species of Finch, each with a different bill suited to a different task.
It took Darwin a further twenty or so years before he gained enough confidence to publish his ideas, and that was only prompted by the news that his friend Alfred Russell Wallace had effectively stumbled upon the same ideas as Darwin whilst in the Asian jungle. The theory of evolution by natural selection suggested that species become extinct frequently, and it also provided almost unquestionable evidence that the Earth is billions of years old, and that every living thing was descended from a common ancestor. Perhaps, more shockingly for a Victorian society was the idea that man shared a common ancestry with Chimps, thus dispelling the myth that humanity was somehow cut above the rest of nature. Now we were just another kind of animal, an ape.
On The Origin of Species- Narrated by Donald Sutherland
7. Friedrich Wohler: 1800-1882
In 1828, something quite remarkable occurred. A German scientist called Friedrich Wohler discovered that chemicals produced by life itself could be recreated artificially in a laboratory. He did it while trying to concoct the ammonia cyanate, but quite by accident he managed to synthesise something else completely. Until then, people had believed that some sort of fundamental force separated animate from inanimate matter. The artificial creation of a chemical of nature, such as urea, out of inanimate substances in a laboratory had been considered totally impossible.
Wohler’s discovery spawned a second front in man’s knowledge of how to use the same materials as nature, but for his own means. Life’s modelling clay is constructed using mainly carbon and hydrogen that can combine with traces of other elements and oxygen in an almost infinite variety of chains, curls and rings to produce the diverse stuff of living things. One of the richest sources of such is crude oil. Wohler’s amazing discovery now meant that it was now possible for mankind to learn how to model with life’s clay too; of course we weren’t capable of creating life yet. But we now had the ability to synthesise new, useful but wholly unnatural materials.
The discovery ultimately led to the concept of organic chemistry, from which derive almost everything that makes our modern world possible, everything from plastics, synthesised drugs, explosives and artificial fertiliser.
The Man Who Kick-Started the Industrial Revolution
6. Richard Trevithick: 1771-1833
In 1801, Cornish inventor Richard Trevithick turned up the pressure on his ‘Puffing Devil’ steam engine, creating a high pressure steam. This was a truly significant moment in human history. For the first time somebody had created a machine that did not rely on any of the Earth’s forces at all. The steam meant that the engine could be mounted sideways on a track and be made to pull a wagon just by using energy rich raw materials from the Earth itself (coal, oil and natural gas).
By simply burning wood or coal in the oxygenated atmosphere, water could be heated in a high pressure kettle to produce a fully independent source of portable power. From this moment on, human beings became a true force of nature, competing with nature itself for the Earth’s finite resources. Though, while nature used these resources to create, sustain, recycle and evolve. Humans now exploited them to maintain a comfortable lifestyle and increase their numbers far beyond natural limits.
One of the First Vehicles Powered by the Earth
The Man Who Conquered the Aztec Empire
5. Hernan Cortes: 1485-1547
In the spring of 1519, a Spanish mercenary and conquistador called Hernan Cortes landed on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico with eleven ships, carrying around 110 sailors, 530 soldiers, a doctor, a carpenter, a few women and some slaves. He was actually defying a last minute order from the Spanish governor of Cuba to abandon his mission. The governor knew of Cortes’ ambitions and tried to revoke his commission shortly before he was due to leave. But it failed and Cortes landed in the New World with the ambition of conquest in the name of the Spanish King.
At the time of his arrival, the land that we now call Mexico was ruled by the Aztec Empire which in turn was ruled by a king called Moctezuma, who was renowned for his hospitality. His palace had more than 100 bedrooms, each with an en-suite bath. His grounds contained zoos, elaborate botanical gardens and even an aquarium. Within just 18 months though of Cortes’ arrival, the great city that was the key to the entire Aztec Empire was in Spanish hands. Despite initially welcoming the Spaniards as guests, the Aztec Emperor soon found himself a captive inside his own palace. The Spanish quickly set about emptying the palace of treasure and slaughtering hundreds, if not thousands of the local population.
Cortes himself took little part in the capture of the palace, as he was forced off to fight off Spanish troops sent by the governor of Cuba to arrest him for his earlier defiance. Cortes did manage to persuade many of the troops to switch sides by regaling them with tales of riches and gold. But among the arresting party was an African slave carrying smallpox. This highly infectious disease was all too familiar to Europeans, but nothing like it had ever appeared in the Americas, thus the Native Americans lacked the necessary immunity against it. Unsurprisingly, within a year of its appearance, more than 40 per cent of the Aztecs were dead. Over the coming centuries, the native population would crash by around 90 per cent from the 500 million it had been just before the arrival of Columbus. The actions of Hernan Cortes and contemporaries such as Francisco Pizarro, who wiped out the Inca Empire, resulted in the most devastating conquest in all of human history.
The Guns, Germs and Steel Documentary
The Symbol of a Prophet
4. Mohammed: 570-632 AD
Mohammed is one of the most instantly recognisble names in all history. He was a prophet and the founder of Islam, a religion that has helped change the course of human and natural history. Around 1400 years ago, this merchant who hailed from the Arabian city of Mecca was seized by a series of visions in which he saw the Archangel Gabriel reveal the true and final word of Allah. His family and followers then proceeded to write down these revelations in a series of verses called the Koran. Today, there are more than a billion Muslims in the world, making it the second most popular religion behind Christianity.
During his lifetime Mohammed built up a loyal community of followers, although the Jews stubbornly refused to part with their own traditions and texts, remaining highly sceptical about the possibility of a non-Jewish prophet. Even so, it seemed as though nothing would stem Islam’s growth, within a century of Mohammed’s death its simple and powerful message had penetrated the whole Middle East. By 651 AD, it had engulfed the previously strong Sassanid Empire of Persia and had reached the north of what is now Pakistan. Further west, Muslim armies conquered North Africa and Spain, and if not for a miraculous victory in 732 AD by the Frankish ruler Charles Martel at Poitiers, they may have conquered Western Europe. Islam’s greatest legacy was the rise and spread of political and trading empires spread over vast swathes of Eurasia that ultimately helped to connect both the Eastern and Western cultures.
3. Jesus Christ: 2 BC- 36 AD
From one religious giant to another; Jesus Christ was the son of a Jewish carpenter, whose miraculous powers helped to convince his followers that he was the son of God. He was a highly charismatic man who delivered a rather simple message, be peaceful. Love your neighbour as yourself. If someone strikes you on the cheek, don’t hit back but offer them the other. Don’t worship false idols such as money or material possessions, and above all, be humble for one day the meek will inherit the Earth. Amazingly, Jesus is only ever known to have lost his temper once, in the Temple of Jerusalem, where markets had been set up for traders to make a profit.
His followers saw him perform unbelievable miracles and quickly came to regard him as the earthly incarnation of God, which had been prophesied by Isaiah and others in the Jewish Torah. However, this soon caused consternation among the Jews as it was believed that the Israelites had been identified as God’s people. Yet, here was a man, whose followers already claimed he was King of the Jews; here was a man who offered eternal salvation to anyone and everyone regardless of their colour, creed or race.
Eventually Jesus was given over to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate as a heretic who condemned him to die by crucifixion like a common criminal. However, the act of crucifying Jesus only served to strengthen his message and image. Three days later, his body mysteriously vanished from the tomb he’d been incarcerated in. His followers wrote about these events, calling it the Resurrection and believed it was their divine mission to spread the good news about the son of God coming down to Earth and dying on a cross so that everybody who believed in him might have an everlasting life.
The legacy of Jesus Christ was the development of Christianity as the world’s biggest religion, with more than two billion claiming to practice it. Its spread wasn’t quite as fast as Islam, but within three centuries of his death, the Roman Empire had adopted it as a state creed.
The First Ethical Ruler in History
2. Ashoka: 304-232 BC
Ashoka, a great Indian King started out his reign as a typically ruthless and violent ruler, controlling his Empire through the threat of force. Indeed his name means ‘without sorrow’ in Sanskrit. But in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest wars of the time, he underwent a profound and complete conversion.
The Kalinga War ended with the famous Battle of Kalinga which left more than 100,000 dead on the battlefield. A day later, Ashoka walked out across the city where, as far as his eye could see, the only sights were burned out houses, dead horses and scattered bodies. At that moment, he let out a cry, saying ‘What have I done?’ over and over again.
From that moment hence, Ashoka committed his life and his reign to non violence. He became a devout Buddhist and over the next twenty years devoted himself to spreading the message of this powerful religion. Prisoners were freed and given their land back, the unnecessary slaughter of animals was forbidden as was hunting for sport. Branding animals was also outlawed and vegetarianism was encouraged as official policy. Ashoka built rest houses for travellers and pilgrims, universities so people could become more educated and hospitals for people and animals alike throughout India. Ashoka was the first ruler in history to put animal and human rights on an equal footing.
A Look at one of the Pillars of Ashoka Still Standing Today
1. Hammurabi: 1810-1750 BC
Hammurabi, the famous King of Babylon set out a code of laws that helped transform and stabilise his city into the most powerful of all Mesopotamia. A copy of his code of 282 laws was prominently displayed on an eight foot tall slab of stone in the centre of the city, so that everyone could see it, thus ignorance of the law was never accepted as an excuse, this principle lives on in most societies today. Hammurabi had the laws chiselled on to stone so that they were unchangeable; this is where we get the phrase ‘set in stone’ from to describe something permanent.
Hammurabi’s laws were copied by other civilisations and they set several important principles that are still cornerstones of justice in many parts of the world. For example, they established the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty. But to maintain proper order, these laws were necessarily harsh, for example: ‘If a man put another man’s eye out, his eye should be put also.’ Another one that probably didn’t give them the biggest incentive to study medicine was as follows: ‘If a patient dies in or after surgery, the doctor’s hand will be cut off.’
Of course, the laws were useless if no one could read them. So for the rules to gain effectiveness, a strong emphasis was placed on education. Most Mesopotamian cities had public libraries. Both men and women were encouraged to learn how to read and write. However, the golden age of Babylon wasn’t to last, the people soon learned that living life in a fixed place wasn’t sustainable. After many generations of intensive farming, the land became less and less fertile, until finally all of the nourishment was exhausted. By 2000 BC, the land around the mouth of the Euphrates and Tigris was as it is today, a barren desert. The once great cities of Ur and Uruk fell into permanent decline.
Who Was The Greatest?
Which of these people made the biggest impact on history?
Questions & Answers
© 2012 James Kenny