Perspective and alternate history

One of the things I’ve always liked about alternate history is how, when it’s done well, it challenges you and forces you to really look at your assumptions. A good example is the Battle of Vienna in 1683. It’s often said in histories of the battle that the lifting of the siege of Vienna was a key moment in European history, halting the inexorable Ottoman conquest of the Continent.

This necessarily implies an alternate history (or a counterfactual, to use the more academic term): that if Vienna had fallen to the Ottomans, the Turkish empire would have swept onward, swallowing Germany and Italy and Poland, and maybe even France and Spain or Britain. When historians or the popular imagination label a historical event as significant, that label often carries such an implicit counterfactual: we’re saying that the event is important because a change in its outcome would have resulted in a very different subsequent history from the one we know.

This is especially easy to do with battles, as a battle can tip the course of events from one extreme to the other in a single afternoon. Our history books are full of places and dates that we’re sure are significant fulcra on which the world we live in balances: Tours 722, Hastings 1066, the destruction of the Spanish Armada 1588, Saratoga 1778, Trafalgar 1803, Waterloo 1815, Gettysburg 1863. Vienna 1683.

But do such assumptions always hold true? In the case of the siege of Vienna (and, most emphatically, the Battle of Waterloo), not really. The idea of endless hordes of Ottoman warriors spilling across the Alps isn’t a sustainable one.

Victorious in Arabia, North Africa and much of Slavic Europe, the Ottomans had already reached and passed the limit of empire they could successfully govern; the defeat at Vienna forced them to make a significant retreat and retrenchment over the next fifteen years. In that period they lost Hungary and Transylvania to Austrian occupation, the beginning of a slow whittling away of the Ottomans’ empire until its final dissolution in 1923.

A victory at Vienna would have marginally delayed this two-and-a-half-century decline rather than preventing it. Besides, the fall of Vienna and a Turkish invasion of the Germanies would have forced France to sit up and take notice of the Ottoman threat, much as the Confederate victory at First Bull Run galvanised the American North, alerting them that the South posed a more formidable opponent than they’d originally thought and steeling their resolve to win the conflict whatever the cost. France had a huge population advantage over the other European states in the seventeenth century and would have beat back an Ottoman invasion of Germany, so we’d be left with a French-dominated Central Europe–but France dominated Central Europe anyway until Napoleon abdicated the French throne in 1814.

Europe would have certainly looked different had the Turks taken Vienna, but the differences would have been far more subtle (and therefore probably far more interesting) than an Islamic conquest of the Continent. The idea that the German and Polish armies in 1683 saved Christendom simply doesn’t hold up.

Alternate history, of course, is looking at the world and asking, “What if?” But that’s a question we already ask, by the nature of historiography, when we study real history–only we often don’t realise that we’re asking it. Because of that, our answers can be careless, cursory and full of unsustainable assumptions. If we pause and ask “What if?” deliberately, then we can refine those answers and make them far better–which not only lead to some fascinating discussions, but also can end up altering our understanding of real history and the world it has created.

I

4 Responses to Perspective and alternate history

  • Matthew says:

    Kim bought me this for Christmas:

    http://www.amazon.com/Collected-Eminent-Historians-Imagine-Might/dp/0399152385/ref=pd_sim_b_6

    I've enjoyed it so far. The essayists are encourage not just to speculate on what would have happened otherwise, but also to explain why this particular historical event could have gone either way.

    For example, you can imagine a world in which Germany won WWII, but could it even have happened? It simply isn't possible for Germany to have match the long-run industrial might of the US and USSR and would have been ground down eventually no matter what. On the other hand, a single blocked axe swing kept Alexander alive at the Battle of Granicus and there's no reason to think the Greeks would have managed a conquest if not motivated by Alexander's will.

  • I says:

    Is that all the Cowley anthologies collected together? I have the original volumes, I think.

    The point about Alexander is an important one, I think. If Alexander had been killed so early on, people would dismiss the idea of a single Greek army spending a decade marching through Iran, Egypt and India, conquering the entire Persian Empire, as ridiculous.

    Similarly there's the Texas War of Independence, where the Texans were repeatedly crushed by the Mexican army but won their independence essentially because they happened to take Santa Anna captive.

    It's important for alternate historians to distinguish between no-probability events (like, say, a Nazi invasion of Britain, or Napoleon going on to establish a new French empire after a victory at Waterloo) and low-probability events, which happen with a fair frequency–we just don't think of them as low-probability anymore after they've actually happened.

  • Timmy says:

    Very good read, I love how you put the attention on the reader on some points, great stuff.

    man and van in London

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