Alt History

Painting, by Zdzisław Beksiński

Alt History

Mark Wegierski considers the science fiction subgenre of “counterfactual history” or uchronia

It is important to note that alternative history pertains to events that are in the past at the time when the narrative is being written. So, for example, the 1920’s projections of Hugo Gernsback about the 1980s cannot be properly termed as alternative history – even though his vision of the world of the 1980’s is much different from what has actually occurred.

One common type of alternative history is the “Hitler Victorious” scenario. A prominent work of this genre is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), now a U.S. television series. Clearly, most commentators today condemn Hitler and Nazism. However, there is less agreement about the irredeemable evil of the Old South, although several treatments of “Dixie Victorious” have envisaged the upshot as negative. Two exceptions to this trend are Sheldon Vanauken’s The Glittering Illusion (1985) and Winston Churchill’s famous story, “What if Lee had not won the battle of Gettysburg?” Churchill believed that the South’s victory would have been congenial to both conservatism and to old-fashioned liberalism. Vanauken, likewise, hypothesized that a victorious Dixie would have joined the British Empire, the eventual result being a quick Allied victory in World War I, with a more traditional modernity following in its wake. It is customary for conservatives to suggest that slavery would have been quickly abolished in the South, and that black-white relations would have actually been better without the association of black advancement with triumphant Northern aggression.

However, the notion that in the wake of a Southern victory, slavery would have rapidly disappeared in the South is not generally endorsed, given the racist character of the actual South of the 1950s (let alone of the 1850s!). The alternative-history television series proposed by the producers of The Game of Thrones, to be called Confederate – was likely to have portrayed the South after successful secession as an American Third Reich. It would doubtless have served a similar function in pop-culture to Margaret Atwood’s dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale, now also a major television series.

Critical Turning points

Keith Robert’s Pavane portrayed an England centuries after the successful landing of the Spanish Armada. Another critical turning point was the English Civil War. Had Charles I won that conflict, how might subsequent history have turned out? Another possible turning point was the dethroning of James II in 1688-1689 – which might not have happened had the so-called “Protestant wind” not successfully conveyed William of Orange’s fleet to England.

The 1745 Rising (centered in the Scottish Highlands) led by Bonnie Prince Charlie against the Hanoverians in England, came close to success. Had Charles Edward Stuart continued his march to London, instead of falling back to regroup (on the basis of poor advice), he might have triumphed. Some Tory traditionalists have suggested that the failure of the Stuarts has had calamitous effects on the subsequent history of the British Isles, and of world-history as a whole.

One of the more absurd (albeit entertaining) alternative histories is S. M. Stirling’s Draka. The central premise is that in the aftermath of the American victory in the American Revolutionary War — instead of heading for Canada, the United Empire Loyalists go south-eastward to the Cape Colony. There, they establish an ultra-racist, ultra-white-supremacist society, calling themselves the Draka. The Draka are in favor of genetic engineering and manipulation. Expanding rapidly northward, by the twentieth century they have conquered most of the world.

The premise of this particular alternate history is sociologically and historically unsound, as the historical Loyalists were predominantly whiggish gentlemen and placid farmers, not proto-Nazis. Had the Loyalists gone to the Cape Colony, the society that would have emerged would probably have been similar to contemporary Canada. Indeed, a larger British population would have meant that the Boers would have had less influence and the epoch of “apartheid” South Africa might well have been entirely avoided.

One of the most prominent alternative-history subgenres is so-called “steampunk” – which portrays an alternative Victorian era with esoteric technologies, such as “Babbage engines”. The paradigmatic example of this subgenre is The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine – in contrast to a great deal of “steampunk” that is definitely “sunnier” – is dystopic. The term “steampunk” has also been applied to some non-AH fantasy settings where magic and steam-age levels of technology co-exist, such, for example, as the Iron Kingdoms role-playing game. Another prominent role-playing game that portrays a steampunk alternative Earth with the presence of magic and fantastical races and creatures is Castle Falkenstein.

In their writing of alternative history, conservative authors have cast about for a set of historical circumstances – apart from the abominable alternative of the triumph of Hitler — that could have forestalled the subsequent rush into a dystopic late modernity. Various scenarios of “Hitler Thwarted Earlier” are of considerable appeal to conservatives. Had Hitler been defeated earlier, presumably much more of the older European order would have survived, especially in East-Central Europe. Some authors, however, have voiced the negative conclusion that had Hitler and Nazism not arisen in Germany – or been quickly defeated by a more determined France and Britain — the Soviet Union would have come to dominate most of the world.

It is somewhat specious to claim that if only Poland had given Danzig (Gdansk) to Hitler, world-history would have taken a better course, as has been recently argued by Pat Buchanan. In reality, the territorial appetites of Hitler and Nazi Germany were virtually limitless in the East. Indeed, in the pre-war period Hitler continually made ever bolder demands, while solemnly declaring that these were his “last” claims.

Nevertheless, it could be argued that had Poland ceded Danzig to Hitler, it would have persuaded him to attack France in the autumn of 1939. But whether the French would have prevailed in defending themselves in 1939, or, if they would have been as thoroughly defeated as in 1940, is questionable. In the wake of defeating France, Hitler could then have dealt at leisure with Poland, demanding further territories (such as the entire so-called Corridor, Posen (Poznan), Upper Silesia, etc.) Poland’s situation would have become ever more untenable despite their having made an attempt to accommodate Hitler’s initial demands.

Had France and Britain acted more decisively against Hitler earlier in the 1930’s (e.g., in 1936 or 1938) the coming world war and its attendant slaughters could have possibly been averted. But Britain and France were clearly unwilling to go to war to defend Czechoslovakia, foisting the Munich Agreement on it. Unfortunately, Poland short-sightedly played a role in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia – rather than trying to establish a close alliance with it, against Nazi Germany. (Polish-Czech relations had been poisoned by Czechoslovakia’s seizure of Cieszyn — or the so-called Zaolzie – “Trans-Olza” — at the height of the Russo-Polish War in 1920.)

The Allies could have also possibly won the war in 1939, had France then struck hard against the almost undefended Rhineland. In fact, virtually the entire German army and air force were deployed to attack Poland in September 1939. But the French were paralyzed into a defensive stance by the fear of incurring once again their colossal casualties of the First World War. This had also persuaded them to invest vast resources into the fixed defences of the Maginot Line rather than in tanks and aircraft. In the event, in 1940 the Germans out-flanked the vaunted Maginot Line. In 1939, the under-equipped and smaller Polish armed forces actually held off the Germans almost as long as the combined armies of France and Britain and the Low Countries later did in the 1940 Battle of France. In 1939, there might have been enough time for a massive French offensive in the West!

Perhaps the Polish Second Republic was not foredoomed by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Had the Polish military performed more credibly against the German onslaught, Stalin might not have moved his troops into eastern Poland. It is difficult to envisage Stalin joining the Allies at this time, under any circumstances. Poland’s alleged intransigence towards the Soviet Union is sometimes unfairly blamed for contributing to Stalin’s decision to conclude a pact with Hitler. Nevertheless, it is clear that, located between the two totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, the Polish Second Republic would have required superhumanly prescient leadership and considerable luck, to survive in such turbulent waters.

Finally, the isolationist influences in U.S. politics and culture (which, from August 1939 to June 1941, were reinforced by American Communists) played a negative role in keeping America disengaged from Europe, at a time when such engagement was profoundly needed. To have intervened in Europe at this juncture would not have constituted American imperialism or adventurism; it would have been the salutary defence of a shared and increasingly beleaguered Western civilization.

Head Sculpture, by Zdzisław Beksiński

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and researcher

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3 Responses to Alt History

  1. Stuart Millson says:

    A fascinating article – I greatly enjoy these speculations of “what might have been” (which is actually the title of an Andrew Roberts-inspired anthology of counter-factual history – the Spanish Armada triumphs, the Trent incident leads to Britain’s involvement in the American Civil War etc).

  2. Stuart Millson says:

    One interesting “what if”: if Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, had succeeded in winning support for a Union attack upon Canada – and Britain had sent (as it was preparing to do if such an eventuality occurred) massive reinforcements to its North American dominion, World War One might well have been fought on the American and not European continent…

  3. David Ashton says:

    Some often overlooked facts about the invasion of Poland:
    (1) Hitler’s actual demands on this occasion were quite reasonable, but of course he had lost credibility over previous actions. He asked the Poles to move civilians in Warsaw to a safe area and later publicly praised the courage of their soldiers.
    (2) The Russo-German Pact encouraged the Nazi attack and reduced the already slim possibility of an Allied rescue. while raising an alternative geopolitical solution to the previous historic Lebensraum demands. The deportation into the USSR of both Gentile – and Jewish – people from Poland has been numerically reduced by specialist studies, but its horrors during transportation and settlement are little known to the general public.
    (3) The Soviet Union occupied a larger area of Poland than Germany, and invaded five other countries in the process with relative impunity. During the Pact the Comintern instructed communists overseas discreetly to work for “revolutionary defeatism” that included preventing the USA from entry on the Allied side, Earl Browder publicly specifying and attacking Jewish groups as inciting intervention, and assisting attacks on Britain.
    (4) The ultimate outcome of the war, after Unconditional Surrender and the savage retaliation by the USSR, was the domination of most of Eurasia by regimes still committed to active world revolution; from triumph to tragedy, facing what Good Old Winnie in a sober moment called a “greater peril”.

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