This article was first published in the January 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine
Josef Stalin: “I’ll work with my allies”
In the year following the end of the Second World War, Stalin should have resolved to work more closely with his erstwhile allies. Aged 67 in 1946, he was set in his ways but, like Lenin, capable of shrewd calculation. In the 1930s he had attempted detente with the western democracies. He could have done so again.
Seven months had passed since the defeat of Germany. Much goodwill towards the Soviet Union remained in the west, where the Red Army’s soldiers were seen as liberators. The security of the USSR was greater than in 1941, with a powerful Red Army. The Soviet Union, as Stalin himself put it, had passed a crucial “examination”. Victory built a stronger base of popular support at home than ever before.
Instead, Stalin wasted the opportunity. The USSR tightened its grip on eastern Europe, creating a permanent friction in its relations with the west. An arms race, meanwhile, swallowed massive amounts of money, while living standards stayed low. The over-emphasis on heavy industry continued – an economic model that would lead to repeated crises and, in the end, to the collapse of Stalin’s system.
Evan Mawdsley has written widely on Soviet history. A new edition of his Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War, 1941-1945 has just been published by Bloomsbury
Douglas Haig: “I’ll transform the Tommies”
In January 1916 Douglas Haig – who had been commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force for less than a month – should have resolved to devote more time to sorting out the BEF’s training.
As 1915 turned into 1916, there was no centralised body devoted to examining the lessons of the fighting, using them to inform doctrine, and then training the army accordingly. Unfortunately, Haig did not prioritise training, and it was not properly reformed until early 1917.
However, we know from his diary that Haig did make one resolution, and that was to promote the best talent – regardless of whether he got on with them or not. “I had no ‘friends’ when it came to military promotion, and I would not tolerate a ‘job’ being done.”
In 1916, Haig largely stuck by this resolution. He had an uneasy relationship with General Sir Henry Rawlinson, whom Haig thought was devious and lacking in integrity. Yet Haig recognised ‘Rawly’s’ skill as a soldier, and gave him the lead role on the Somme in July 1916. Rawlinson’s record at the Somme was patchy, but he grew into the job and proved a highly effective commander in the victorious 1918 campaigns.
Gary Sheffield’s biography of Haig is set to be revised and republished as Douglas Haig: From the Somme to Victory by Aurum Press in 2016
Elizabeth I: “I’ll name James VI as my heir”
The question of who would succeed Elizabeth I was a thorny one – and her new year’s resolution of 1586 should have been to settle the issue by naming James VI of Scotland as her heir. The two monarchs had endured a fraught relationship over the previous six years, but by then they were negotiating a treaty of alliance, and James desperately wanted a guarantee that he was next in line for the English throne to be included among its terms.
Though there was a danger that the king might engage in plots against Elizabeth to hasten his accession, it was more likely that he would wait patiently for her death, secure in the knowledge that his right was formally recognised in England. But Elizabeth resisted the pressure. As a result, Anglo-Scottish conflicts and tensions continued after the Treaty of Berwick was signed in July 1586, and political and religious uncertainty marked the final decade of Elizabeth’s reign.
Elizabeth’s refusal to make provision for the succession also harmed her reputation both at the time and since. For a queen who purported to care deeply for her subjects, it showed a remarkable insensitivity to their fears and concerns.
Susan Doran is a senior research fellow in history at Jesus College, Oxford, specialising in the reign of Elizabeth I
Franklin D Roosevelt: “I’ll respect the political system”
As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt contemplated the start of presidential election year, he would have been well advised to resolve to respect the place of the US supreme court in political life.
In the 1936 election, FDR convincingly defeated his Republican opponent Alfred Landon. By then, the American people were willing to credit the sitting president with ameliorating mass unemployment and providing leadership in intensely troubled economic times.
However, Roosevelt’s post-election plan to pack the court with his supporters – FDR requested congressional authority to appoint a new supreme court member for every justice aged over 70 and who had served for at least 10 years – was a step too far. Roosevelt was transparently seeking to shore up his liberal New Deal legislation against conservative judicial action.
The reform plan failed, and instead brought together conservative Democrats, civil-liberty advocates and Republicans in opposition to the president and to the later New Deal. Though judicial opposition to the New Deal was soon in retreat, the ‘packing’ plan was conceived in hubris and executed with an uncharacteristic high-handedness that caused significant damage to Roosevelt’s presidential reputation.
John Dumbrell is professor of government at the University of Durham’s School of Government & International Affairs
Cnut: “I’ll roll the dice and head for London”
At the start of 1016, Cnut was a landless Viking prince with the English kingdom in his sights. By the end of 1016 he was established in London as ruler, and his rival, King Edmund Ironside, was dead – but getting there had involved a hard fight. Cnut could have saved himself a great deal of trouble if he’d made a dash for England’s principal city sooner.
Edmund’s father, King Æthelred (‘the Unready’), had begun the year in London, where the English army was calling vainly for him to lead it. Cnut had received supplies from the royal heartland of Wessex in 1015, so was in a good position to strike. However, during the spring of 1016 his attention was taken by affairs in the north of England.
It seems that Æthelred was ill. If Cnut had known that, and headed straight for London, he might have invoked his legitimacy as the son and heir of the Anglo-Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard (who ruled 1013–14), and applied pressure on Æthelred.
As it happened, Æthelred died before Cnut arrived in London in April, but the delay allowed Æthelred’s son to declare himself king. That meant that Cnut had to fight, before making peace with Edmund. It was only thanks to Edmund’s sudden death at the end of 1016 that Cnut avoided the complications of a kingdom ruled by rival kings.
Ryan Lavelle is a reader in medieval history at the University of Winchester
Anne Boleyn: “I’ll make friends with Cromwell”
Anne Boleyn would have been glad to see the back of 1535, which had been something of an annus horribilis for Henry VIII’s second queen. There is evidence to suggest that she had suffered a second miscarriage in early summer; her marriage was rapidly deteriorating; and she was increasingly at loggerheads with the king’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell.
Though Cromwell had helped Anne secure Henry’s hand and shared her reformist tendencies, they had fallen out badly over the Dissolution. Anne had argued that funds from the monasteries should be diverted to charitable causes rather than to the royal coffers, as Cromwell had arranged. She had made no secret of the fact that she “would like to see his head off his shoulders”.
By the end of 1535, though, Cromwell was by far the most powerful man at court and, crucially, had the king’s ear. When Henry instructed his chief minister to get him out of the marriage after Anne’s miscarriage early the following year, Cromwell used this as an opportunity to get rid of her for good. He concocted a case of adultery – involving not just one but five men, including her own brother – and she was condemned to death.
If Anne had made it her new year’s resolution to forge an alliance with Cromwell in 1536, it might have saved her life. The ever-resourceful minister could have applied his brilliant legal mind to having her marriage to the king annulled. He might even have persuaded Henry to give Anne a second chance.
Tracy Borman is a historian whose new book, The Private Lives of the Tudors, will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in May
Edward VIII: “I won’t marry Wallis”
With his father almost on his deathbed, the soon-to-be King Edward VIII’s new year’s resolution should have been: “I must marry a suitable wife, have children and thus ensure the succession.” Given his total infatuation with Wallis Simpson, the most that could have been hoped for was: “I must not marry an unsuitable wife.” The prime minister, Stanley Baldwin hoped for no more – he was resigned to serving a bachelor king with a mistress kept more or less discreetly in the background. He had no such luck.
There can be not the slightest doubt that Edward’s resolution was, in fact: “I must marry Wallis, and marry her as soon as possible!” This was his all-consuming preoccupation – there was no room in his mind for any lesser issue.
Philip Ziegler is a historian and author of the official biography Edward VIII (Harper, 2012)
Harold Godwinson: “I won’t be so hasty”
During the first nine months of 1066, Harold did well – and his success was in large part because he’d stolen a march on his rivals. When Edward the Confessor died on 5 January, Harold immediately had himself proclaimed king, and was crowned the very next day. When his troublesome younger brother Tostig invaded in May, Harold hurried down to Sandwich to see him off, and when Tostig returned in September with the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada, Harold rushed north to surprise them at Stamford Bridge, winning a famous victory.
Naturally, therefore, when Harold heard soon afterwards that Duke William of Normandy had landed in Sussex, he thought that speed would be his friend, and sought to repeat his earlier success, hoping to catch William off-guard. But a swift engagement was precisely what his rival wanted. As invaders, the Normans had poor supply lines, and no local support of the kind that Tostig and Harald had enjoyed in the north.
Had Harold waited just a little longer, he could have assembled a larger army and watched as the Normans struggled to keep their army fed by foraging. Instead, he rushed into battle at Hastings – and looked up at precisely the wrong moment.
Marc Morris is a historian and author of numerous books including The Norman Conquest (Hutchinson, 2012)