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A Guy Fakes mask

Failed conspiracies that would have changed the world

Image: John Williams RUS /

Remember, remember the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot, it was after all one of the greatest failed conspiracies of all time.

Annually, we still burn effigies of Guy Fawkes on bonfires across the country, remembering the unsuccessful attempt by a group of Catholic dissidents to blow up the houses of parliament in 1605. It’s a rare cultural event in our calendar, one that exists to remember a failure. However, had Fawkes and his fellow conspirators succeeded, the course of history would have been changed forever.

To mark this year’s fifth of November, we’re taking a look at some of history’s other unsuccessful conspiracies and pondering what our world might look like had they actually gone to plan.

1. Thirteen minutes that saved Hitler

There were many assassination attempts on the life of Adolf Hitler, none more famous than the 1944 '20 July Plot', which was the basis of the 2008 movie Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise. If it weren’t for a rather large table leg absorbing the blast from a hidden bomb and subsequently saving Hitler’s life, the war might have ended a year earlier than it did.

However, there is another lesser-known assassination attempt on his life that if successful could have ended the war some five years earlier, just two months after it had started. That is the story of Georg Elser, a 36-year-old carpenter who wanted to ‘prevent even greater bloodshed’ and stop the war through his deed. That deed was the placing of a time tomb at a Munich Beer Hall in which Hitler was making his annual speech.

Elser spent up to 35 nights working in secret in the Beer Hall, hollowing out the pillar next to the speaking platform in order to hide his self-made bomb in it. In the end, fate would be on the side of the Fuhrer, who decided to start his speech early and cut the length of it down in order to return to Berlin and plan the imminent war with France. Hitler ended his speech at 21:07, the bomb detonated at 21:20. Eight people were killed due to the blast with over 60 injured.

Elser would be apprehended shortly after and spent the next six years in a concentration camp, before finally being executed in 1945 on the orders of Hitler.

Had Elser been successful, historians have argued that the war would have been significantly shortened and the mass persecution of the Jews greatly reduced. Millions of lives could have been saved if that bomb had gone off 13 minutes earlier.

2. Napoleon’s infernal device

Like Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte faced many assassination attempts on his life. The most famous conspiracy of them all occurred in Paris in 1800. The conspiracy was known as the 'Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise'. Its main aim was to assassinate Napoleon, who at the time was the First Consul of France.

On the night of Christmas Eve, royalists placed a cart filled with explosives along the route Napoleon’s carriage was about to take to an opera. The fuse lay some distance away. Napoleon’s coachman that night drove exceptionally fast, some say due to alcohol, and the speed at which the carriage appeared caught the conspirator’s off-guard. A slow fuse didn’t help their cause either, meaning the 'infernal device' didn’t detonate until after Napoleon’s carriage had passed and before the one carrying his wife Josephine had arrived.

If 'The Little Corporal' had met his maker that evening, he would never have become Emperor four years later. As Emperor, he made France the dominant power in Europe, without him the geopolitical landscape of 18th century Europe would have been drastically different. It would also have meant the disappearance of some of history’s most famous battles and campaigns - Trafalgar, Waterloo and Napoleon’s infamously flawed invasion of Russia to name but a few.

3. A tale of two Presidents

So far, America has had 45 Presidents. Just short of 10% of those have been assassinated, the first being the 16th President, Abraham Lincoln in 1865. However, the 'Great Emancipator' might well have never been given the chance to earn that title had an 1861 plot to kill him come to fruition.

In November of the previous year, Lincoln had been elected to the Presidency. He then planned a tour of 70 towns and cities to end with his inauguration in Washington, D.C the following March. It was on his route through Baltimore, then part of a slave state, that an alleged secessionist conspiracy, later to be known as the Baltimore Plot, had come to the attention of incorruptible lawman Allan Pinkerton the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Pinkerton had been hired by railroad officials to investigate any suspicious activity along Lincoln’s route.

Pinkerton became convinced that a plot had been hatched to stab the President-Elect as he switched trains in Baltimore. As such, Lincoln’s travel plans were changed at the last minute to ensure his safe passage through the city, which Lincoln did in disguise.

Historians regularly agree that the most important President in US history was Lincoln. Had Pinkerton failed to keep him safe, a great deal of things would have turned out differently. The US Civil War could well have had a different outcome, and the slaves might not have been freed for many years later than they were.

If that wasn’t enough of a sliding doors moment for America, an even greater one occurred some 90 years earlier. In 1776, some 13 years before Founding Father George Washington became US President, he nearly fell foul of a conspiracy to have him killed. If successful, it was said at the time that the plot would have 'made America tremble', and been as much of a blow to the country as the Gun Powder Treason plot would have been to England.

George Washington

At that time Washington was a General in the Continental Army, the fighting force that represented the Thirteen Colonies in their revolt against the rule of Britain during the American Revolutionary War. The British fleet was en route to New York to quell the rebellion. A conspiracy of Continental soldiers, as well as the Mayor and Governor, were preparing to aid the British in their landing and to assassinate Washington during the ensuing chaos. The assassination fell to one of Washington’s very own bodyguards, a soldier called Thomas Hickey.

If it hadn’t been for Hickey’s inability to keep his mouth shut, the conspiracy might never have been discovered. As it was, he bragged about what was about to happen and as such he ended up hanging in front of a large crowd for treason.

Washington’s leadership during the Revolution was crucial, the role he played later in helping to ratify the country’s constitution was absolutely pivotal. The US might never have become the country it has, had Washington been killed by those conspirators.