As usual, it all comes down to perspective.
We know intellectually that people who lived through history didn’t know what the future held for them, and we probably have no problem grasping that when we talk about moments of great crisis. We can understand, for instance, that when George Washington led the defeated remnants of the Continental Army into hiding in the woods after the Battle of White Plains, then had them flee across the Hudson River under cover of rain and fog, that a lot of people on both sides probably thought they’d just seen the end of the American rebellion and that British rule would be restored in the colonies shortly. And we can understand why Joseph Kennedy, ambassador in a London that was being pulverised nightly by an overwhelming German air force while the German army stood in control of all Europe from the Spanish border to the Russian, sent dispatch after dispatch back to Washington telling FDR that Britain was completely finished and Germany already had the war won—even as we smugly snigger at him for how wrong he was.
But as humans, we’re psychologically incapable of stopping ourselves from forgetting that people’s view of the future has always been like this all the time, not just in those instants when all the pieces are thrown up in the air. It was inevitable, we insist, that once the threat of French colonies in Canada and Louisiana had been removed, once Parliament had determined on extracting revenue from the American colonies, that those colonies would revolt from British rule; but the colonists certainly didn’t think that was a likely or even a realistic outcome until fairly late on in the day. It was inevitable, we’ve been saying ever since the East Berliners climbed over that wall in December 1989, that we would win the Cold War, that the Eastern Bloc would collapse under their own economic inefficiency. But we never said that during the Cold War, because we didn’t think it was true. We thought the Cold War and Communism were going to go on indefinitely; the 1984 Doctor Who story “Fury From the Deep” depicts them as still alive and kicking in 2084. If anything we thought the Communists probably had the edge on us; you don’t come up with something like the domino theory if you think the natural advantage lies with democracy and the free market.
Of course normally when I talk about this sort of thing, I’m talking about it in relation to alternate history. But I want to make the point that this is important to consider when looking at real history instead. I wrote a novel set in Berlin in 1946, under Allied occupation, right after the end of the Second World War. Read any account of that time and the one thing that comes across very strongly is just how actively uncertain everyone was about what the world would look like in the coming days or months or years. People were uniquely conscious of how impossible it was to see into the future, both on the personal level (where had their loved ones gone, were they still alive somewhere, would they ever return?) and the geopolitical (was Hitler still alive? Would the Russians stay in Europe? Would the Americans? Would the Allies demolish all the German cities and leave its people to live as peasant farmers for ever? Would there even be such a thing as Germany ever again?) It’s really difficult to convey that uncertainty on the page because the reader, of course, already knows the answers to all those questions, and so doesn’t feel the tension over them naturally.
Next time I want to talk about what James Wilkinson can tell us about how Americans saw their republic and its future during its first generation of life. But before I did that, I thought it was important to establish why and how he can tell us it. And the answer to that is all about that magical P-word: perspective.
There’s a word that I’ve seen in alternate history discussions, and I like it a lot—overdetermined.
Essentially, a historical event or phenomenon is overdetermined if its likelihood of happening remains robust across different alternate timelines—that is to say, if the event remains likely to happen even in timelines where prior events that led up to it have been changed.
The French Revolution would seem to be overdetermined, in that after 1750 (and very possibly before), there’s very little that can be done to change it. No matter what change you make, France still has a brittle, inadequate fiscal system held in place by very strong forces of social inertia. The Seven Years’ War is still going to push that system to its limit, no matter how you change the war’s outcome; and French participation in the next general European war (in real history, that was the American Revolutionary War, but even if you somehow remove it, there’ll be a different war to fight in) is still going to push French finances beyond that limit. Therefore the French monarchy will have to initiate some sort of drastic fiscal reform, which will necessarily entail also attempting social reform, which will almost certainly unleash the same revolutionary forces that it did in real history; all this will happen somewhere between five and ten years after the end of the American Revolutionary War or whatever war replaces it.
Similarly, the historical consensus would probably be that the outbreak of the First World War was overdetermined after, oh, probably 1870. After a German victory in the Franco-Prussian War, it becomes almost inevitable that, once Bismarck eventually falls from power (1891, in real history), the European Great Powers will eventually crystallise into two armed systems of alliances; and once that happens (say, by 1905), it becomes overwhelmingly likely that one of the series of crises that gripped Europe during the period will eventually spark a general conflict. It could have happened in the Moroccan Crises of 1905 or 1911; or in the Balkan crises of 1908 or 1912–13. In the event it happened with the Sarajevo Crisis of 1914, but even if it hadn’t, well, Sarajevo was the fifth in nine years, so there’s no reason to think there wouldn’t have been several more such incidents in the next several years to light the touchpaper.
I don’t know if there’s a word to describe the opposite end of the spectrum from “overdetermined”; if not, I recommend overcontingent. An overcontingent event would be an event, not necessarily that was unlikely in real history (though many of them are), but rather that becomes unlikely to the point of impossibility when you change previous events.
It’s slightly harder to identify overcontingent events because we are human and therefore inevitably subject to confirmation bias—that is, we inevitably feel like most events, even the genuinely overdetermined ones, were more determined, to one degree or another, than they actually were. But I’ll throw out one possibility: the Mexican–American War of 1846–48, by which the United States conquered from Mexico about one third of the area of the contiguous forty-eight states (the presentday states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado).
The Mexican war only broke out because of series of events in Texan, Mexican and American history of the preceding decade, plenty of them producing fairly unlikely outcomes. This starts with Texas even managing to win its independence in the first place in 1836, which only happened because of a combination of a wise commander (Sam Houston) and an exceptional stroke of luck at the Battle of San Jacinto. Then you’ve got the defeat of Mexico’s one serious attempt to reconquer Texas during the next nine years (in 1842), despite outnumbering the Texan army by eight to one. There’s the death of President William Henry Harrison from pneumonia one month into his term, after insisting on delivering his two-hour inaugural address in the freezing rain; without succeeding Harrison as President, Vice President John Tyler would never have had the standing to make Texas annexation the major issue of the 1844 election, and the election would have been contested by two anti-annexationist candidates (Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren). And even with annexation as the election’s major issue, 1844 was still one of the closest elections in American history; give Clay only 2600 of his opponent James K. Polk’s votes in New York (out of half a million cast), and he wins the state and the presidency. Even once Polk won the presidency and annexed Texas, war didn’t become inevitable until he decided on pursuing his territorial ambitions against Mexico in the most brusque, aggressive manner he could.
Most people assume the American Revolution was an overdetermined event, and from time to time to time I’ve talked about why I think they’re wrong and that the Revolution was, quite the contrary, fairly overcontingent. I’d also give the Allied victory in the First World War as an outcome that, while not necessarily overcontingent, was at least contingent, in that it was a conflict where (unlike alternate history favourites like the Second World War and American Civil War) it was a fairly evenly balanced affair and the losing side had about the same chance to win it (by taking Paris in September 1914, by winning the Battle of Verdun in 1916, by not adopting a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, by taking Paris during Operation Michael in Spring 1918) as they did of losing it.
So I guess I’m curious what other people think, what other events people think are particularly overdetermined or overcontingent. What do you think was bound to happen, and will show up in timeline after timeline? What do you think was a fluke of history, and will take only a small tweak to abort?
I’m reading Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766, a history of the French and Indian War by Fred Anderson. The first thing I noticed about the book was the date range—specifically, that the book covers up to 1766. That’s well after the British conquest of Canada (1760) and the end of the French and Indian War; it’s after the Treaty of Paris (1763), which ended the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France of which the French and Indian War was a theatre; it’s after Pontiac’s Rebellion (1764), the bloody American Indian uprising against British rule in the Old Northwest that usually forms the epilogue of American histories of the war.
In fact, it’s a broad enough period that it firmly includes the Stamp Act 1765 and the crisis that followed it, the first instance of Parliament attempting to tax the British colonies and the colonists responding by uniting against such taxation, a pattern that would repeat itself regularly, as we all know, until the Second Continental Congress declared the colonies’ independence on 4 July 1776. As such, the Stamp Act is pretty much never considered as a part of the Seven Years’ War but, rather, is always the first chapter of any history of the American Revolution.
Anderson’s introduction to the book explains why he chose to place the endpoint of his narrative so long after the war’s end: so that it would allow him to include the war as an early cause of the Revolution and, by extension, bring forward the starting date for “causes of the American Revolution” from 1763 to 1754.
This immediately put me on my guard. I already think 1763 is too early a starting point for the teaching of the American Revolution, not because I don’t think the Stamp Act and the Stamp Act Congress weren’t important first steps in Parliamentary overbearance and colonial cooperative resistance—they were—but because treatments of “the causes of the American Revolution” always assume that the Revolution and American independence were the obvious and most logical outcomes—indeed, even the only logical outcomes.
But you can only assume that if you’re starting with another assumption, that the British, in Britain, and the Americans, in the colonies, were already two distinct peoples in 1763 with two distinct national identities, and that independence was therefore an inevitable recognition of that. That’s an easy assumption for us to make; after all, we live in a world where Britons and Americans are quite obviously two separate peoples, and have been for over two hundred years. But those two separate national identities were a product of the Revolutionary War; they didn’t exist in the 1760s. For the most part, the men attended the Stamp Act Congress and the First Continental Congress and who authored Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania and organised committees of correspondence would have vigorously (and truthfully) denied that independence was either a desirable or a likely outcome of their efforts.
When we miss that, we misunderstand the American Revolution and we misunderstand the men who undertook it. We divide them into Americans and British, a distinction they wouldn’t have liked and that they certainly wouldn’t even have understood the way we apply it—Tom Paine was no more an American than William Franklin was British.
To broaden that misconception to also include the Seven Years’ War, then, makes me pretty leery, since the war is pretty much the height of the colonists’ identification with the British Empire. When George Washington led a war party into the Ohio Country in 1754, and when he returned a year later as the aide-de-camp to a British general at the head of two regiments of Irish soldiers, he didn’t think of himself as securing Ohio as American territory; he thought of it as securing it as British territory. (He did think of it as securing it for Virginia, but that’s something different.) When Benjamin Franklin proposed a common federal government for the British colonies to the Albany Congress, with a grand council elected by the colonial legislatures and a president for all of British America, he proposed it as a measure that would strengthen Britain for her coming war with France, and he did it with the hope that such a union would be enacted by Parliament in London, because he thought that the colonies could only ever be united if it happened under Parliament’s guidance. When General Wolfe—an Englishman from Kent who had spent his entire career fighting in Germany and Scotland—was killed on the Plains of Abraham, commanding the British assault that conquered Quebec from France, he became the American colonies’ greatest national hero just as he became a national hero in Britain, because the colonists knew that they were just as much a part of the Britain he conquered Quebec for as were the people of the Isles.
Then I read the introduction and I discovered Anderson agrees with me on that, and that’s exactly why he’s written a history of the war that runs all the way up to 1766:
Virtually all modern accounts of the Revolution begin in 1763 with the Peace of Paris, the great treaty that concluded the Seven Years’ War. Opening the story there, however, makes the imperial events and conflicts that followed the war—the controversy over the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act crisis—into precursors of the Revolution. No matter how strenuous their other disagreements, most modern historians have looked at the years after 1763 not as contemporary Americans and Britons saw them—as a postwar era vexed by unanticipated problems in relations between colonies and metropolis—but as what we in retrospect know those years to have been, a pre-Revolutionary period. By sneaking glances, in effect, at what was coming next, historians robbed their accounts of contingency and suggested, less by design than inadvertence, that the independence and nationhood of the United States were somehow inevitable.
(I love that phrase “By sneaking glances … at what was coming next”.)
Anderson writes a history of the Seven Years’ War and the Stamp Act, then, not to include the war in the “pre-Revolutionary” narrative, but rather to reframe those “pre-Revolutionary” events into their proper context, not as the prelude to a revolution, but as the aftermath to a war that had redefined the entire North American continent. “Examining the period from a perspective fixed not in 1763 but in 1754 would necessarily give its events a different look and perhaps permit us to understand them without constant reference to the Revolution that no one knew lay ahead, and that no one wanted.”
This hits on something really important in history: perspective. It’s difficult and counterintuitive to divorce our understanding of historical events from our knowledge of what comes next, but if we fail to do so, we cannot have a real understanding of the people we’re learning about or of how they might have seen the events as they participated in them.
This is one of the reasons I love alternate history, but it’s also one of the challenging things about alternate history. Alternate history can get you to look at things differently than the conventional view has them, can get you to reevaluate your preconceptions and try to place yourself in the heads of the people you’re considering. But that can also be really hard to do, and it can be almost impossible to notice that we’re failing to do it because we’re too anchored in our own preconceptions to realise that they are simply our own preconceptions rather than How Things Were.
The American Revolution is my favourite example of this because it’s such a glaring instance of us imposing our own image on the “pre-Revolutionary” timeline instead of seeing on its own, postwar terms. By insisting on seeing Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and George Washington in 1765 as nascent Americans, foreigners to Great Britain, rather than as men united by “their common connection with what they thought of as the freest, most enlightened empire in history”, we, as Anderson puts it, “rob [them] of their contingency”—we impose 4 July 1776 on them beforehand, rather than respecting the transformative journey it took for them to get there on their own.
Get involved in any sort of community or discussion forum for alternate history, and sooner or later, the American Civil War’s going to come up. It has to; at least among Americans, it’s the second most popular topic in the genre. And if you’re in the sort of discussion that approaches the topic rigorously and historically, sooner or later someone’s going to bring up that will face the Confederacy in any sort of Southern Victory timeline: slavery.
Slavery would cripple the Confederacy’s relations with Europe, and probably with the Union, too–which, considering that the Confederacy’s entire economy rested on trade with Europe and the Union, bodes ill for Confederate prosperity. Furthermore, the widespread practice of slavery deadens any drive for progress or innovation, as Alexis de Tocqueville noticed during his tour of the United States in the early 1830s: the spirit of optimism, of an improving world, that drove so much American prosperity vanished as soon as Tocqueville crossed the Ohio River, from the free North to the slave South. The Confederacy would soon have found itself left behind by rising standards of living in the Union and Western Europe, reduced, economically, to an undeveloped, colonial backwater.
So if slavery is so quickly going to become such an albatross around the Confederacy’s neck, the obvious thing would be for them to get rid of it, right? That’s what happened in the North, after all–for all the abolitionist moralising from Northerners about the evils of the practice in the South, the fact is that the Northern states successively abolished slavery because there was little to no economic incentive to keep it. It’s much easier to condemn the moral evil of a system when you get no financial benefit from it.
This is the tack that Harry Turtledove’s recent ten-volume series about a Confederate victory takes. The series opens with a second, brief war between Union and Confederacy, in the early 1880s. The South’s first move when war is declared is to ask for military aid from Britain and France. (In this timeline, it was Anglo-French military intervention that won the war for the Confederacy in the first place.) The two European powers happily agree to enter the war–on the condition that the South abolishes slavery. And the South … agrees, quite readily. It’s covered in one fairly quick scene very early on in the first novel in the series.
But, the obvious objection is going to be, the Confederacy can’t just give up slavery, because it’s too emotionally invested in it. It just fought the bloodiest war in American history to preserve it, after all. White Southerners invested a lot of their identity in the defence of slavery before and during the Civil War–insisting that it was a positive moral good both for whites and blacks; that even if it hadn’t been, it was still their right to own slaves, a right with which no national government–whether in Washington or Richmond–could interfere; that the emancipation of the South’s slave population would lead to the end of civilisation in America and the destruction of the white race. So the Confederacy simply abandoning slavery within twenty years, a la Turtledove, rings just as hollow as any sort of timeline where the Confederacy grows and flourishes while still practising chattel slavery.
With all that as background, therefore, I was fascinated to find a discussion of Southern abolition in the final chapter of Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning history of the American Civil War. I think it’s fairly common knowledge that in 1865, when it was in its death throes, the Confederacy raised, armed and fielded several regiments of black slaves, who had received the promise of freedom if they’d fight for the South. But this, of course, was in the last days of the war, when Southerners were facing the utter failure of their cause. Desperation makes people do funny things, try alternatives they never would otherwise. The idea of arming or emancipating slaves earlier, when the war was still in the balance, would never have been countenanced, right?
There were those who advocated recruiting slaves into Confederate armies from the war’s earliest days, but they were a fringe minority, an outgrowth of the tremendous cognitive dissonance that Southern whites maintained regarding the peculiar institution–insisting loudly and unceasingly that blacks wanted to be enslaved, that they enjoyed a satisfying and happy existence under white ownership, while simultaneously living in irrational, unthinking fear of what would happen were blacks to gain access to arms, literacy and other things that would allow them to rise up against their masters. (Witness the hysteria that followed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.)
By the latter part of 1863, however, there were a lot more voices joining in with this talk. Including editors of Southern newspapers. These quotes are from editorials that originally appeared in the Jackson Mississippian but were reprinted in papers throughout Mississippi and Alabama: “We are forced by the necessity of our condition to take a step which is revolting to every sentiment of pride, and to every principle that governed our institutions before the war. … It is better for us to use the negroes for our defense than that the Yankees should use them against us. … We can make them fight better than the Yankees are able to do. Masters and overseers can marshal them for battle by the same authority and habit of obedience with which they are marshalled to labor.” The editor of the Mississippian conceded that this could lead to abolition, “a dire calamity to both the negro and the white race”, but insisted “that it is a question of necessity–a question of a choice of evils.”
Similar sentiments were being voiced by generals in the Army of Tennessee, the main Confederate force in the Western Theatre. In January 1864, General Patrick Cleburne circulated a memo to division and corps commanders in which he said that slavery “has now become, in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.” He recommended the recruitment of slave soldiers and “guarantee[ing] freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy”–in other words, the abolition of slavery. He received endorsements from twelve brigade and regimental commanders within his division.
To be sure, most of his colleagues disagreed with him. One division commander called it a “monstrous proposition … revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, and Southern honor.” A corps commander described it as “at war with my social, moral, and political principles”, while a brigade commander declared that “its propositions contravene the principles upon which we fight.”
But the most striking thing to me about these editorials and General Cleburne’s proposal isn’t some idea that it was widely embraced at the time, but simply that it was a substantive part of the conversation. This is late 1863 and the first month of 1864, after all–long before the fall of the Confederacy had come into sight. To be sure, the tide had begun to turn against the South in summer 1863 with the fall of Vicksburg and the Battle of Gettysburg, but the writing was far from on the wall.
Indeed, it was a common view at this time that the South had only to hold out another year, and it would secure its independence. As 1864 progressed, the war congealed into two great Union sieges of Southern metropoles: Grant at Petersburg (the gateway to Richmond) and Sherman at Atlanta. And with the Confederate defenders having the best of it in both cases, many observers both Northern and Southern–including Abraham Lincoln–concluded that Lincoln was sure to lose reelection in November, and that his defeat by George McClellan would guarantee the opening of peace negotiations by the Union. (Whether or not McClellan really would have capitulated is immaterial–the actors in question believed at the time that he would.) It wasn’t until Atlanta fell to Sherman in September that Lincoln’s re-election seemed the more likely outcome.
And yet, with Southern victory apparently still obtainable without such measures, general emancipation was already being contemplated in the waning days of 1863. Does that mean I now suddenly think the Confederacy would have been only too happy to chuck slavery as soon as it became more convenient in the 1880s or 90s? Of course not. But it does make me think that many Southerners would have been more willing to come around to the idea of some sort of emancipation more easily than serious practitioners of alternate history often assume.
… “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the American declaration of war upon Great Britain, marking the outbreak of the War of 1812.
For such a small, obscure war, it sure has a potential to start online flamewars. Woe betide anyone who asks, in a forum frequented by both Britons and Americans, who it was that won the War of 1812. (The truly remarkable thing to me about Britons getting so exercised over that question is that it proves there really are Britons who have heard of the war.) And the comments on the Facebook link to my last post spawned a pretty lively argument about the war’s proper context in relation to the Napoleonic Wars.
As an alternate historian, it took me a while to realise the wealth of possibilities in the War of 1812, but they’re there. A few of the most high-profile ones:
The Indians. 1812 represents probably the last solid chance for the American Indians to hang onto any sovereignty east of the Mississippi. There was Tecumseh’s Confederacy, a coalition of tribes forged by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet. The Confederacy had already suffered a serious blow with defeat to an American army under William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, but Tecumseh and his brother remained charismatic and iconic leaders in Indian eyes. His Confederacy’s death knell came when Tecumseh himself died fighting on the side of the British in 1813.
Tecumseh’s Confederacy was north of the Ohio; the major Indian power south of the Ohio were the Creek, who also allied with Britain. But the War of 1812 marked the end of their power, as well, after Andrew Jackson defeated them at Horseshoe Bend in 1814.
And lastly there was Lacunia, the Land of Lakes. When the two sides sat down at Ghent (at the time in France, soon to be incorporated into the new United Kingdom of the Netherlands, and now in Belgium) to negotiate a peace treaty, the initial British demands included the creation of an Indian state in the Great Lakes region, to serve as a buffer between the United States and British Canada. It was only when news was received of the American victory at the Battle of Plattsburgh that the British became willing to drop demands for concessions and accept a white peace.
The Hartford Convention. Somewhere along the line, a lot of American students got told that the Hartford Convention was a gathering of leaders of the (anti-war) Federalist Party, which dominated New England the way the Republican Party dominates the American South today, to discuss the New England states seceding from the Union and concluding a separate peace with Great Britain.
This is an exaggeration, but in trying to debunk it, many historians exaggerate too far in the opposite direction, insisting that any talk of secession by the convention delegates was meant only as a rhetorical debating tactic. The truth is (as is usually true) somewhere in between the two. There certainly was a radical faction that was pro-secession (the Governor of Massachusetts had already opened negotiations with Britain for a separate peace), but the majority of delegates held a more moderate, pro-compromise position. We can say the same thing about the First Continental Congress–when it convened in Philadelphia in 1774, just a year before Lexington and Concorde and two years before the Declaration of Independence, few people would have thought that breaking away from the British Crown and establishing a republic through six years of war were what the colonial leadership were going to do.
So why didn’t the Hartford Convention mark the beginning of a series of events like the First Continental Congress did? Because in 1774, the situation kept getting worse for the colonists, radicalising many of them and making independence from Britain seem an attractive option. Whereas in 1814, the end of the war removed the stresses that had led to calls for secession in the first place, and the news of Andrew Jackson’s defeat of a superior British force at New Orleans destroyed the political influence of those who had been advocating it (and also effectively ended the Federalist party).
But what if things hadn’t taken such a sudden turn? What if, say, a British victory at Plattsburgh had opened the way for a British occupation of New York, splitting New England off from the rest of the Union? What if Britain and Russia weren’t quarrelling at the Congress of Vienna, thereby freeing the Duke of Wellington up to lead a massive British army across the Atlantic to North America (meaning, incidentally, that the British would no longer have an army handy to face Napoleon at Waterloo)? Secessionism would have suddenly seemed much more politically credible in New England.
New Orleans. It’s a myth that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the end of the War of 1812; it was fought after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, but unusually for a treaty of that time, the war did not end until after the treaty’s ratification by both parties. But since Congress ratified the treaty without any changes, it is true that New Orleans had no effect on the war’s outcome. A British victory there wouldn’t have changed the final settlement.
Or would it? I’ve heard it argued that Britain didn’t recognise the Louisiana Purchase, because they didn’t recognise France’s right to dispose of Louisiana in the first place. Britain was allied to Spain in a war against France, after all, and Spain’s original cession of Louisiana to France prior to the Purchase had been about as “voluntary” as Czechoslovakia’s cession of the Sudetenland to Germany in 1938. So if Edward Pakenham’s redcoats had defeated Andrew Jackson and taken New Orleans, this argument goes, then once it turned out that peace had been established, the British would most likely have turned New Orleans over, not to the Americans, but to the government that we considered its rightful owner–Spain.
I should state that I’ve only heard this brought up in casual conversation. I’ve looked for citations on it and haven’t found any, but I haven’t found any to disprove it, either. So it might be complete bunkum, but it’s still an intriguing possibility.
If you only read one alternative history novel this year that takes place in a world where Britain and Nazi Germany made peace with each other, you should of course read A Traitor’s Loyalty. (Or at Barnes and Noble. Or on Goodreads.) But if you read two such books? Well, I’ve recently read one that I’d like to submit for consideration.
Farthing is a 2006 novel by Jo Walton set in a world in which Rudolf Hess made a much more successful flight to Britain in 1941, leading to a peace settlement before either the Soviet Union or USA entered the war.
Conventionally in an alternate history novel, the action focuses on the part of the world that is most drastically different from our own. Harry Turtledove’s The Two Georges is about a world where the Americans lost the American Revolutionary War, so it takes place in North America (a British dominion), rather than in Britain or France or Senegal. If you’re writing a Nazi-victory alternate history and you want to set it in one of the Allied countries, you have the Nazis conquer that country–like in SS-GB (set in Nazi-occupied Britain), It Happened Here (Nazi-occupied Britain), The Man in the High Castle (German- and Japanese-occupied America) or “The Last Article” (Nazi-occupied India). If you’ve created a world where Germany has instead made peace with the Allies, who have remained democratic societies, you’re going to set it in Germany or German-occupied Europe, like in Fatherland, “Ready for the Fatherland” or my own A Traitor’s Loyalty.
But Farthing is a book where Britain made peace with the Germans, escaped defeat, preserved democracy. In the book’s world, Nazi Germany is ruling Continental Europe, implementing the Holocaust, and fighting an endless war with Soviet Russia–but the book takes place in England. It’s presented as a Christie-esque English country manor murder mystery, set in 1949.
And that means that the changes it presents are far more subtle and gradual than you’ll see in a standard alternate history novel–a society that, confronted with a victorious right-wing dictatorship twenty miles away across the Channel, is quite understandably drifting toward the far right itself. Moves to turn the British class system into a legally-enshrined caste system. The reversal of the progress made by socialism, and a regression to where socialism is once again being seen as borderline treasonous. (In real history, 1945-1950 was the period of Britain’s first true socialist government.)
And most jarring–and most effective–to the modern reader is the anti-Semitism. It’s a rise in cultural sentiment against Jews, a greater willingness to express anti-Semitic views openly, an amplification of the idea that it didn’t matter if they’d been born and raised in London, Jews were still foreigners. It’s so terribly English, because (at least until the attempts of the book) it’s been accomplished without violence. And it’s the cultural movement that has cleared the way for political leaders to begin attempting anti-Semitic political programmes.
The book, as with any book, isn’t perfect. For a story that spends eighty per cent of its time dealing with members of the aristocracy, it’s a shame that several of the arcane complexities of the aristocratic system get fumbled. (The author, for instance, has baronets as members of the House of Lords.) But it’s a very different spin on Nazi victory than I’ve found before.
There are two sequels, Ha’penny and Half a Crown, which I’ll be moving onto. I’m looking forward to them.
The Zero Hour
Words yesterday: 2594
Words total: 42,888
Time spent writing: 1pm-3.30; 9pm-10pm
Reason for stopping: Picking Boy up from the school bus; Lisa got home
Darling: A string of Russian obscenities unraveled off her tongue.
Words that boggled Word: stationmaster’s, submachine, snuck, railyard
New words used today: captor, inscrutable, pothole
Sunday afternoon at Dragon*Con, I went to a panel entitled “Alternate History and Marxism”, on which were Eric Flint and SM Stirling. It was a fascinating panel–Flint and Stirling are pretty much polar opposites on how sympathetic to Marxism they are (Flint is an avowed Marxist), but they were both united in that they had no patience for any attempts to introduce pretension into the discussion.
After the panel, I immediately headed downstairs to the toilet. As I was coming out, I saw both Stirling and Flint coming down the stairs toward me. It should, of course, had occurred to me from the moment I saw both men’s names on the panel description, but it wasn’t until that moment coming out of the toilet that I finally had the thought:
I need to ask at least one of these to blurb my book.
And … I couldn’t. I froze. And then I walked past them.
Maybe it would’ve been different if I’d had the forethought to consider this beforehand. Maybe if I’d had a day or two to psych myself up, I’d have been able to walk right up to them. But as it was, at that moment, I just got too intimidated.
In January, Stirling is scheduled to be the guest of honour at MarsCon, which I’m hoping to attend. I couldn’t do it on an instant’s notice; maybe I can do it on four months’.
This weekend I finished up the new draft of Inheritance for my agent, so until there’s any more work to do on that or I hear from my editor about A Traitor’s Loyalty, I’m effectively without anything I’m supposed to be working on right now, though I do have another thriller manuscript due in a year.
For the past month or two I’ve been working on alternate history ideas. I seem to keep flipping back and forth between three or four different points of departure–the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War and the First World War.
They’re in various states of progress. I have almost a whole novel outlined (in my head) for the Civil War, though it’s requiring a lot of research into topics I don’t really know all that much about. I’ve hit on a really fascinating vein in the Napoleonic Wars world. (It has to do with how the United States gets affected.) And while the First World War AH is proving frustratingly unwilling to unlock a specific story, I still think it remains the most fertile for producing a world that can tell lots of stories.
I feel … itinerant at the moment. I suppose it’s a good idea not to get too attached to anything before I have rewrites to do on A Traitor’s Loyalty, but I’d really love for one of these ideas to grab hold of my imagination and refuse to let it go.
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 really like alternate history, both as a fiction genre and as an intellectual exercise. The first novel I wrote, in fact, is an alternate history, taking place in a Europe where Nazi Germany won the Second World War. My secret (and totally not going to happen) fantasy about my career as a novelist is that I shift alternate history from the Science Fiction/Fantasy section to the general Fiction shelves by writing alternate history novels that are simply conventional novels–spy novels, mysteries, political thrillers–that just happen to take place in worlds whose histories and cultures have developed differently from our own. As an intellectual exercise, I think it’s a great way to learn about history that forces you to really examine both accepted wisdom and your own preconceptions about a topic.
My favourite alternate history scenario is probably having Britain and the thirteen colonies avoid the Revolutionary War, so that the colonies continue their adherence to the British Crown. (It’s closely followed by a scenario having Germany win the First World War.) I think it’s rich in possibility for the creation of a world and a society that looks distinctly different from our own, and–done properly–confronts a lot of myths and half-truths most Americans firmly believe about their history.
I also think it’s a woefully underserved point-of-departure amongst alternate history enthusiasts. Nazi Germany victorious or the Confederacy winning the American Civil War–they’re alternate history’s most common topics by far, yet either one requires a multiplicity of unlikelihoods to come to pass. And yet the same people who have the Wehrmacht thrusting confidently across the English Channel to occupy London, or Britain and France interceding on behalf of the slaveholders to dictate peace to the Union, treat the American Revolution as a foregone conclusion and laugh off reversing it as if it’s simply too far outside the realm of possibility to plausible.
And yet nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it’s the Revolution that in fact looks implausible, except for the fact that it did indeed happen. For the colonies to have been driven to a point that they felt they could only preserve their British liberties by breaking with Great Britain required an exceptional amount of pigheadedness on both sides, as well as marginalising the highly prominent and extremely well-regarded leaders on both sides who advocated conciliation, and was in no small part a byproduct of political manoeuvrings at the British Court that really had nothing to do with the American colonies. And once the war actually started, the Continental Army had to defeat an opponent who outclassed them in every facet–in training, in equipment, in leadership.
But as much as I’m fascinated with the world this scenario creates, when I look at it with a novelist’s eye, it’s one that doesn’t have much source of conflict or drama. So I’ve looked for ways to add such conflict and drama. One possibility I really like is to change the outcome of the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War* so that France retains possession of Canada (which in the eighteenth century included the Ohio Country, that portion of the United States between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River), instead of that area being conquered by Britain. Not only would this put a hostile foreign presence on the colonial frontier, thereby giving the colonies a good reason to want to stay under British military protection, but it would also allow me to explore another society that got nipped in the bud, French North America. For French government in Canada and Louisiana didn’t follow the pattern of European settlement and displacement of the native population like the British and, later, the Americans did. Rather, the French established their control of the region with a string of military and trading outposts along the waterways of the St Lawrence Valley, the Great Lakes, and the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, then left the American Indian population mostly in peace.
About a week ago I bought Birth of America II: Wars in America, a strategy video game dealing with the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. It’s a fun game, well worth what I spent on it.** And it got me actively interested in the French and Indian War. So over the past few days I’ve read Walter R. Borneman’s The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America. And of course, I’ve constantly been on the lookout for a way to reverse the war’s outcome and keep the French in North America.
And what I’ve learnt is that it is really hard to get the French to win the French and Indian War. Because the first three years of the war are a series of unmitigated disasters for the British (British here including the American population of the thirteen colonies).
And it’s not like it’s simply one bad event that leads to another bad event that leads to another bad event. On each of the three separate fronts on which the war was fought during this period–the Ohio frontier, the upper Mohawk valley in upstate New York, and the shores of Lake Champlain–each encounter between British and French forces sees either a piece of intensely stupid judgement by the British or American commander, which then leads to an easy military defeat at the hands of the French, or else we have a military defeat at the hands of the French, which is then compounded into an even worse disaster when the British or American commander reacts with consummate stupidity.
Honestly, it’s such a ridiculously one-sided series of events that if one were to write it as fiction, it’d be hopelessly contrived. So already, in the real history of the French and Indian War, things go about as well as any Frenchman could possibly have dreamt in 1754, and still the war ends with the French evicted not just from North America in its entirety, but also from all their colonies in the Caribbean, in West Africa and in India. All that really changes, when the tide starts to turn in 1758, leading into 1759 and the British Army’s Annus Mirabilis or Year of Victories, is just that the British troops and their commanders start displaying basic competence.
Alternate history fans all know the genre’s cliche premises–German victory in the Second World War and Confederate victory in the American Civil War being the chief offenders–and we’ve all become very good at listing off all the reasons why you really have to push against the tide of history in order achieve any meaningful change in those periods of history. But rarely have I come across a topic in history where the tide seems to be this overwhelming.
*The French and Indian War was the war of 1754-1763 between the British and French colonies in North America, fought along the Appalachian, Great Lakes and Lake Champlain frontiers. It was part of a larger global conflict, the Seven Years War (1756-1763) between Britain and Prussia on the one side, and France, Russia and the Holy Roman Empire on the other.
**Which, for the record, was $25, since it was discounted fifty per cent. I’m not sure it has the depth to be worth full price, $50.