12 Events With Major Unexpected Historical Consequences

List Rules

Vote up the unexpected happenings that had the biggest influence on history.

History doesn't exist in a vacuum, and without a doubt, the past has a way of connecting to future happenings. At the same time, it's difficult to argue that one historical event causes another, especially with so many other factors to consider. However, this doesn't mean there aren't times when one minor thing in history seems to make a far-reaching impact. 

Call it a “trigger” event, part of a larger domino effect, or an example of path dependence - one historical incident can appear to fan the flames of major subsequent events. A death that sparks a war, perhaps. Or an unlikely meeting that changes one's life trajectory. Seemingly small occurrences can have large - and often unexpected - consequences.

The extent to which the events here affected future history (an oxymoron, admittedly) isn't clear. But take a look and decide for yourself which unexpected happenings had the biggest influences. 

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  • The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was a key event in the leadup to WWI, one often considered to have started it all. In truth, tension among European powers was intense by the time Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, visited Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The demise of both may never have happened had it not been for a wrong turn.

    Franz Ferdinand was heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and visited the capital of Bosnia to oversee military drills. Slavic nationalists in the region, many of whom were in the Black Hand, wanted to establish an independent state and rid Bosnia of Austro-Hungarian occupation. The Black Hand was determined to make this happen - with violence, if necessary.

    The group stationed members all along the Archduke's motorcade route. Three conspirators failed to eliminate Franz Ferdinand during the morning hours of June 28: one neglected to throw a bomb, another didn't pull out his pistol, and another bomb thrown at his car missed. 

    Later that day, a discussion to detour from the Archduke's planned route went untranslated to the driver of his car. As a result, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie's vehicle took a wrong turn onto a road it never should have traversed. 

    On that road, Gavrilo Princip was waiting. He saw the Archduke, fired a pistol at the car, and hit both Franz Ferdinand and his wife, who both succumbed to their injuries. 

    Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia exactly one month later. Russia then mobilized to support Serbia, which resulted in Germany declaring war on Russia on August 1. By the time Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia on August 6, Germany had already declared war on France (one of Russia's allies), which prompted Britain to declare war on Germany

    The extent to which Franz Ferdinand's demise caused the conflict - or triggered a larger domino effect - remains a topic of discussion among historians and the general public alike.

  • Had Hitler Died On The WWI Battlefield, WWII Could Have Been Much Different - Or Not Happened
    Photo: Richard Harvey / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    One "what-if" scenario about Adolf Hitler revolves around whether his acceptance into art school would have changed history - he was rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in 1907. According to reports, his sample drawings were "unsatisfactory" with “too many heads.”

    The world will never know what would have happened if the Austria native had been able to live out his artistic dreams. Another lesser-known event involving Hitler that may have taken place during WWI certainly could have changed history. 

    In September 1918, Private Henry Tandey came face-to-face with a wounded German soldier on a battlefield in France. By his own account, he later claimed that man was Hitler. After the two locked eyes, Tandey reportedly let the soldier flee.

    Hitler was said to have seen a picture of Tandey in the London Gazette after the latter won the Victoria Cross in 1918 for bravery at the Battle of Ypres. As a result, Hitler acquired a painting of the battle done by Fortunino Matania. 

    When Neville Chamberlain visited Hitler in 1938, he asked the German leader about the painting, to which Hitler replied:

    That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again, providence saved me from such devilishly accurate fire as those English boys were aiming at us.

    Some historians reject that this ever happened, attributing it to misidentification, a complete fabrication, or urban legend. For Tandey's part, he said in 1940: 

    I didn’t like to shoot at a wounded man… But if I’d only known who he would turn out to be... I’d give 10 years now to have five minutes of clairvoyance then.

  • A Monkey Bite Altered The Trajectory Of The Greco-Turkish War
    Photo: Charles Chusseau-Flaviens / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Alexander I of Greece only ruled for three years, but between 1917 and 1920, he was generally considered to be an inexperienced puppet. His father, Constantine I, had been removed from the throne by Allied powers who sought to control Greece during WWI. 

    With Alexander as king, Eleftherios Venizelos essentially ran the country. By 1918, Greece had expanded its borders and, when the Allies met at the Paris Peace Conference, Venizelos was there. He negotiated the treaties of Neuilly and Sèvres with Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, respectively, securing new lands in Thrace and Smyrna as well as islands in the Aegean.

    Venizelos wanted to keep chipping away at the Ottoman Empire as it was being partitioned after WWI and, as a result, Greece and the new Turkish state went to war. By mid-1920, Greek forces were moving deep into Anatolia.

    In October 1920, Alexander was bitten by a groundskeeper's pet Barbary macaque while in his garden in Athens. The king intervened when the monkey attacked his dog; while his wounds initially seemed non-life-threatening, infection set in, followed by sepsis. Alexander passed October 25, changing the dynamic in the region entirely.

    He had no heirs, and national elections removed Venizelos from office that November. When the new Greek government brought back Constantine I as king, the Allies pulled support for Greek efforts in Turkey because he had favored the Central Powers during WWI.

    In 1921, war with Turkey escalated and a coup removed Constantine I; the following year, the destruction of Smyrna by Turkish forces resulted in the deaths of thousands of Greeks. The resulting border changes of Greece's defeat displaced millions of ethnic Turks and Greeks alike.

    Regarding Alexander's demise, Winston Churchill later said "it is perhaps no exaggeration to remark that a quarter of million persons died of this monkey bite" - a remark indicating the bloodshed of 1921 and 1922 could have been avoided had Alexander lived and Venizelos kept his office. 

  • The Death Of Ögedei Khan May Have Saved Europe From Mongol Rule
    Photo: Rashid al-Din / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The empire established by Genghis Khan (d. 1227) spanned across Eurasia and, when he passed, was ruled by his sons: Jochi, Chaghatai, Ögedei, and Tolui. Ögedei succeeded his father as Great Khan in 1229 and focused on extending Mongol influence into the Middle East, China, the Caucasus, and Europe. 

    By 1241, Mongol forces invaded Hungary and were poised to attack Vienna. When Ögedei passed in December of that year, his nephew, Batu, redirected the Mongols and headed back to the capital at Karakorum. Batu wanted to participate in the election of the next Great Khan (although he never arrived). The retreat by the Mongols has been viewed as a reprieve for Europe, one brought on by Ögedei's demise. 

    Had the Great Khan not passed, some historians theorize the Mongols would have kept pushing into Europe and taken an untold amount of land and control in the continent. In 2016, researchers argued climate factors were the cause of - or at least a major reason for - the Mongol withdrawal. 

    According to researchers Ulf Büntgen and Nicola Di Cosmo, tree-ring data suggests floods and marshy land were especially problematic in Eastern Europe between 1230 and 1250. Di Cosmo explained this was "evidence that they were not happy with the terrain where they were operating" and ultimately why the Mongols pulled back. With this in mind, whether or not Ögedei's death was still a factor remains unclear.