For centuries, history has glorified mistakes as one of the greatest factors that influenced its course through the years. After all, it was only through a conceptual ‘mistake’ that the American continents were ‘discovered’ by Columbus, and a mistake that penicillin was ‘realized’ by Dr Alexander Fleming. It is obvious that new ideas and discoveries sprout from cerebrations outside the conventional method of thought, these ‘new’ methods of thinking originating from, more often than not, ‘mistakes’. However, the definition of ‘mistakes’ cannot be confined to the simplistic definition of an unintended effect. The very issue of the question concerning the effect ‘mistakes’ had on history lies in the query, to what extent do we consider certain actions to be a mistake? In this essay, mistakes can be defined with the following premises:
- moral view: was the act morally wrong, or sacrifice more lives than necessary?
- economic view: did the act negatively affect the financial state?
This essay aims to briefly introduce two instances, each addressing the aforementioned premises, where mistakes altered the course of history.
1. Salem Witch Hunt
The Salem Witch Hunts were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts through the years 1692 and 1693. After a group of young girls claimed to be possessed by the devil, the deeply religious Puritan population of the Salem village in Massachusetts took to a witch-hunt frenzy that resulted in the executions of twenty people and the imprisonment of many more, most of them being local women. The Salem population then consisted mostly of displaced citizens fleeing the raving conflicts brought on by King William’s War: this placed a strain on Salem’s resources. Tensions arose between the wealthy, who held ties to the port of Salem, and the agricultural families. And with the supernatural ‘fits’ that seized the young accusers, the xenophobia, religious extremism, and long-brewing social tensions finally exploded to the surface, finding their victims in the impoverished and the different.
Nearly four centuries later, the Salem Witch Hunt’s brutal accusations came to light with renewed efforts to exonerate ‘all accused, convicted or executed for witchcraft’ in Salem. The Massachusetts Witch-Hunt Justice Project was carried out in an attempt to compensate for the mistake instituted. The victims of the witch-hunt were finally given the right to representation and to claim innocence until proven guilty. The accusers were thoroughly cross-examined. And by 2022, the last of the accused took the stand and was declared innocent of the charge, finally bringing an end to the Salem Witch Hunt.
Xenophobia, religious extremism, and social tension are social issues that our modern world continues to battle. Especially in times of hardship — the most relatable event being the COVID-19 pandemic — do these issues come into play, another round of blame game initiated, the weak sacrificed for the majority. The Salem Witch Hunts stand today as a reminder of the dark corners of humanity’s pursuit of justice, as well as a message against the dangers of mass hysteria and the manipulation of fear.
2. Weimar Germany’s Hyperinflation Crisis
Suffering from the crippling aftermath of the First World War, Germany was already teetering into a state of financial despondence. The staggering £6.6 billion Germany had to pay as reparations only exacerbated the impact of the $45 billion she spent in the total mobilization of all her resources during the First World War. Having lost a large proportion of their population and thus their manpower due to the war and the peace treaties formed afterwards, Germany was rendered financially incapable of delivering the reparations. As Germany began to default on her payments, France and Belgium forcefully took control of the Ruhr, a vital industrial area rich with coal, to settle the defaulted payment through the profit the Ruhr got. The Weimar government encouraged the passive resistance and civil disobedience of the German workers in Ruhr, to protest the forceful foreign occupation of German land, only to be buried deeper in the forthcoming financial crisis. Not only had the passive resistance had absolutely no effect on the French and Belgian occupation, but the Weimar government had to pay for the now unemployed German workers in the Ruhr, which they did by printing extreme amounts of paper currency Marks. This only resulted in the amplification of the hyperinflation crisis that took hold of Weimar Germany between 1921 and 1923.
Desperate times call for desperate measures: as the value of the German mark plummeted, the German population began to lose trust in the Weimar government, which could not resolve the crisis. Instead, they turned to extremist parties, the main examples being the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) and NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party, otherwise known as the Nazis). And with the subsequent rise of Hitler and the Nazis came one of the most devastating wars known in history, the Second World War. Not only had the hyperinflation crisis amounted to financial chaos, but also to the rise of a dictator who would come to kill millions.
Mistakes, and the transformation that they trigger, have lasting consequences on our world. It can bring light to novel technology or incite a war. History and its mistakes teach us to learn from damaging mistakes in order not to repeat them, and change our reality for the better. This is the purpose of history: to evaluate your past actions, avoid the wrongdoings and advance on your success.
Seowoo (Cathy) Kim
Member of the History Society