They claim that it’s wrong to laugh at other people’s misfortunes. But let’s be honest – we all love it when someone cocks something up. Dennis Norden has made an entire career out of it. Perhaps it’s something about the British sense of humour that enables us to laugh at ourselves? Throughout history, people have for various reasons made appallingly bad decisions. Sometimes on a monumental scale. Stephen Weir’s History’s Worst Decisions is an entertaining examination of some of the most infamous of these.
Weir has put together a list of fifty of what he claims are the most idiotic decisions made throughout time. Whether one can class them all as “decisions” is perhaps debateable, with some of his examples being more a combination of circumstances than actual decisions. There is little doubt (without wishing to get into the debate as to whether they actually existed) that Adam and Eve’s decision to eat the apple was, on the scale of things, a massive misjudgement. However, the operator shutting down the Chernobyl power plant (and thereby causing the resulting disaster thanks to “a peculiarity of the design”) was not making a decision as such, but following an agreed procedure.
To give the reader an idea of the general causes behind each catastrophe (its “Motivation”), Weir categorises each by means of the “Seven Deadly Sins”, so for example General Custer and Little Bighorn was motivated by greed and pride; Nero and the Burning of Rome by gluttony, greed and lust; and Mao and the “Great Leap Forward” by faith and pride.He also names and shames the main culprit along with the damage done and a brief insight into why. By doing so, Weir prepares the reader who may not know much about, for example, Johan de Witt – the man who effectively swapped what is now Manhattan island for a small Indonesian island where he believed he could grown nutmeg. In this respect, Weir ensures that his material is accessible.
On the whole, Weir’s offering provides an entertaining insight into some of the blunders that have plagued history. One does find oneself quite often asking whether we would have acted in the same fashion under the circumstances, and perhaps this is the most valuable aspect of the book – it provokes one to consider one’s own decisions. Provided it is taken to be just that, some of the short-sighted opinions (e.g. Hannibal and his crossing of the Alps) can be forgiven.
About The Author
Jonny Mardling is the Editor of The History Herald. He has a keen interest in Second World War and Cold War history, and with a great grandfather who was killed during the Battle of the Somme, he also has a fascination with First World War history. Read more about Jonny »