World Wars Two

I’ve actually seen American history textbooks whose beginning-of-the-unit timeline says right there in print, “WORLD WAR II: 1941–45”. (The odd thing is that those same textbooks have to acknowledge that the war was already going on in 1940 so that they can teach Lend Lease and the Neutrality Act.) I would imagine there are Russian textbooks that say the same thing.  Most Americans, I think, know that by the time the USA joined, the war between Britain, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union had already been raging for years, but we can still shake our head at the insularity of actually telling children in history class that the war didn’t start until America entered in 1941, when it in fact had begun in 1939.

… Or had it? (Dunh dunh duuuuunh.)

I was a teenager when I learnt that Japan and China went to war with each other in 1937.  The expansion of the Asian war in 1941 to bring America and the British Commonwealth in on China’s side pretty closely parallels the expansion of the European war at the same time, with the Soviet Union and the USA being brought in on Britain’s side.  For China and Japan, 1937–45 represents a period of continuous conflict in the same way that 1939–45 does for Britain, Germany and Occupied Europe.  It bothered me that, though the two conflicts merged into a global World War II in December 1941, the name for the pre-1941 Asian conflict was “the Second Sino-Japanese War”, while the name for the pre-1941 European conflict is “World War II”.  English-language histories of the war would include the Phoney War and the London Blitz, but wouldn’t include the Marco Polo Bridge Incident or the Rape of Nanjing.

For a long time it didn’t seem to be such a big deal.  I would’ve liked the pre-41 European war to have its own name, but after Pearl Harbor, they both merged into a single global war, Axis vs. Allies, right?

… Or did they? (Dunh dunh duuuuuunh.)

Lately I’ve been thinking about how Anglo–Americentric it is to consider the Second World War a unified conflict after 1941.  Even leaving aside that there was no coordination between the European Axis Powers and Japan, we can still look at the three major Allied Powers: Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States.  One of the Allied Powers specifically.

After 22 June 1941, the war in Europe was fundamentally a war between Germany and the Soviet Union.  In terms of men and materiel involved, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Western Allies’ participation in the war—the North African and Mediterranean theatres, the strategic bombing campaign, the D-Day campaign—became peripheral, and there’s a real sense in which, in terms of the grand strategic outcome of the war, our central contribution was in how much we could handicap Germany’s war effort in Russia.  If the Wehrmacht had taken Moscow, or had won in Stalingrad and crossed the Volga and rolled into the Caucasus, and had been able to transfer its millions of soldiers back to the West, we can’t reasonably expect that we’d ever have been able to dislodge them from Europe.  Even during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944–January 1945, when the Germans pumped hundreds of thousands of additional troops into the Western Front in their last great push to turn back the British and American advance into Germany and knock the Western Allies out of the war, the total number of German troops fighting in the West was still just a small fraction of the number fighting against the Russians in Poland and East Prussia.  That’s part of why four million of the (very roughly) five million German soldiers killed in the Second World War died on the Eastern Front; it’s part of why four hundred thousand Americans and four hundred fifty thousand Britons were killed during the war, but twenty-seven million Soviet citizens were.

Whereas if we look at the Soviet Union in the Pacific War: Russia shared an extensive land border with Japan (the only one of the Three Powers to do so), by way of Korea, at that time an outright Japanese possession, and Manchuria, a Japanese puppet state since 1931; in Vladivostok, the Russians had a naval and air base within easy strike range of the Japanese Home Islands, far closer than anything the Commonwealth or the United States possessed.  The two countries rubbed up against each other so closely that they were literally athwart each other’s supply lines: Vladivostok thrusts into the Sea of Japan between Japan to the east and Korea and Manchuria to the west, while the Trans-Siberian Railway, Vladivostok’s link to the rest of Russia, actually runs through Manchuria.

And yet the Soviet Union and Japan remained at peace with each other throughout the Pacific War.  Indeed, out of deference to the Soviet–Japanese neutrality pact of 1941, the Russians actually interned British and American airmen who landed in Soviet territory after conducting operations against Japanese targets, just as would happen to belligerent airmen who landed in neutral countries like Switzerland or Spain (though the Russians usually permitted interned Allied airmen to “escape” after a given period).

(Someone’s going to mention that the Soviet Union did ultimately declare war on Japan, on 9 August 1945, three months after Germany surrendered and six days before Japan did the same, finally ending the Second World War.  The Soviet invasion of Manchuria of 1945 is an important event, and in fact I’m mentally drafting a blog post about it as I write this, but it had no effect on the outcome of the war on either continent and is irrelevant to the discussion here.)

Both the Soviet Union and Japan materially hindered their allies by refusing to go to war with each other from 1941 to 1945: peace along the Manchurian–Siberian border meant that Japan was freeing up Soviet troops to fight against Germany, while Russia was allowing Japan to divert all its best troops to the south to fight in China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands.

I just can’t see Europe and the Pacific as separate theatres of a single war when one of those theatres saw the Soviet Union locked in a death struggle in the bloodiest and most destructive war humanity has ever fought, while the other saw them remain at peace with the enemy for the duration.  It’s bad historiography.  It assumes that the Anglo–American experience, as the only two powers to conduct a unified war effort over both hemispheres, is the definitive one.

So I’m going to be calling them the Second World Wars.  Like “Napoleonic Wars”, that seems to me a good umbrella term under which to gather several separate conflicts which were clearly very closely related and overlapped considerably, but which did not share unified causes, participants, outcomes or even date ranges.  We acknowledge the separateness of, say, the Peninsular War, the War of the Fifth Coalition and the War of 1812, while also acknowledging how inextricably interlinked they are; we should be able to acknowledge the same thing about the wars in Europe and the Pacific.

The Second World Wars, then, to me include at least four conflicts: the European war of 1939–45, the Asian–Pacific war of 1937–45, the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39 and the Winter War of 1939–40. (Wikipedia’s article on the Napoleonic Wars groups the Anglo–American War of 1812 and the Latin American wars of independence as “subsidiary wars” of the Napoleonic conflicts, and I think that’s an excellent way to describe the Spanish Civil War‘s relationship to the war in Europe.)

And I mean, let’s be honest.  We all already think of the Winter War, or the Battles of Khalkin Gol or the Japanese occupation of French Indochina, as part of “World War II”, the cataclysmic period of global upheaval; they’re just not formally included in the definitions of the war itself.  By redefining the Second World Wars as an era rather than as a single conflict, we accord them a status we already know they should possess.


NO ONE EXPECTS … nope, sorry, wrong time period

I seem to be embarking on a reading kick about the Spanish Civil War.  Right now I’m reading Antony Beevor’s history of the war; then I’m going to reread For Whom the Bell Tolls, and then I’m probably going to read Homage to Catalonia.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War, ever since I first came to it by learning about the Condor Legion during my Red Baron phase as a teenager.  (The Condor Legion was commanded by Red Baron von Richthofen’s cousin, Wolfram.)  I got more fascinated when I got interested in the Peninsular War in high school.  I’ve always thought there was a strong parallel between the Peninsular War as part of the Napoleonic era and the Spanish Civil War as the supposed “dress rehearsal for World War II”.  On one level, both wars were vicious, vindictive fratricidal conflicts between Spaniards for the future of their country, but on another, the mightier European powers who were allied with both sides used the wars as a proxy in which to conduct their struggle for the ideological control of the continent.

One thing I’ve always found striking is the apparent invisibility of the war, at least to my demographic group (which I’m defining, here, as North Americans under the age of forty); as one friend said when I talked to her about this, “I’m honestly not sure I knew there was a Spanish civil war.”  (Or as Lisa said when I said I was reading about the Spanish Civil War, “Ooh, was that during Isabella and Ferdinand?”)

Not necessarily that we should all know the Spanish Civil War because of its geopolitical signficance, because, after all, while it’s a significant event in the leadup to the Second World War, it’s not actually the Second World War itself.  There have been lots of wars and, unless they have an interest in history, most people aren’t going to know very much about very many of them.  Though I do find it odd that most people apparently haven’t even heard of the name of the war, this war in which, after all, twenty-five hundred Americans, twenty-five hundred Britons and between one and two thousand Canadians travelled to Spain so they could fight on the republican side.

No, what surprises me is that the war is so apparently invisible despite the fact that it does have a clearly visible cultural significance to us.  The Spanish Civil War gave us Hemingway’s most famous novel (possibly except for The Old Man and the Sea) and Picasso’s most famous painting, which just got namechecked in last week’s episode of Mad Men.  It gave us the phrase “fifth columnist“.  Of course, Homage to Catalonia doesn’t have the iconic status of 1984 or Animal Farm, but I do think it’s Orwell’s best-known work after those two, and the first new thing that people who get interested in Orwell enough to look up his other work encounter.  The people at Saturday Night Live still consider “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” an iconic enough catchphrase that it got trotted out during SNL’s fortieth-anniversary special a few weeks ago.  Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda might not exactly be household names in the English speaking world (well, actually, Neruda might come very close to being a household name), but they’re not exactly people nobody’s ever heard of, either.

And I don’t know.  Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe everyone has heard of the Spanish Civil War, and has some idea of who the two sides were, and what it’s importance was to the culture wars that were going on in the 1930s between Nazism/fascism on the right wing and communism on the left.  But that’s not the feeling I get, and I just find it odd.


A hundred years ago today

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia; Friday will mark the hundredth anniversary of Serbia’s response, after which the outbreak of the First World War, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, became almost inevitable.  In terms of the ongoing four-year centenary of the war, then, we’re right now embarking on the very climax of the July Crisis.

The ultimatum and its response are the second-most well-known thing about the July Crisis, after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand itself (which didn’t in fact happen in July, but on 28 June).  So now, a hundred years and a few hours after Austro-Hungarian Ambassador Baron Giesl von Gieslingen placed the ultimatum on a table in the Serbian prime minister’s office because the Serbian finance minister, Lazar Paču, refused to accept it physically from his hands, I’d like to take a moment to examine them.

The received history of the July Crisis is that Serbia’s response to the ultimatum was one of almost total acceptance—that the Serbians capitulated on every point but one, and that Austria-Hungary’s decision to nevertheless break off diplomatic relations and mobilise their army is therefore proof that responsibility for the start of the First World War therefore lies with the warmongering, Teutonic leadership of the Central Powers and not at all with the Allies.

This is entirely false.

Serbia’s response was far more nuanced and far more equivocal than that:

The claim often made in general narratives that this reply represented an almost complete capitulation to the Austrian demands is profoundly misleading.  This was a document fashioned for Serbia’s friends, not for its enemy.  It offered the Austrians amazingly little.  Above all, it placed the onus on Vienna to drive ahead the process of opening up the investigation in the Serbian background of the conspiracy, without, on the other hand, conceding the kind of collaboration that would have enabled an effective pursuit of the relevant leads.

In this sense it represented a continuation of the policy the Serbian authorities had followed since 28 June: flatly to deny any form of involvement and to abstain from any initiative that might be taken to indicate the acknowledgement of such involvement.  Many of the replies on specific points opened up the prospect of long, querulous and in all likelihood ultimately pointless negotiations with the Austrians over what exactly constituted ‘facts and proofs’ of irredentist propaganda or conspiratorial activity by officers and officials.  The appeal to ‘international law’, though effective as propaganda, was pure obfuscation, since there existed no international jurisprudence for cases of this kind and no international organs with the authority to resolve them in a legal and binding way.

Yet the text was perfectly pitched to convey the tone of voice of reasonable statesmen in a condition of sincere puzzlement, struggling to make sense of outrageous and unacceptable demands.  … It naturally sufficed to persuade Serbia’s friends that in the face of such a full capitulation, Vienna had no possible ground for taking action.

In reality, then, this was a highly perfumed rejection on most points.

[All paragraph breaks in the above, except for the last one, have been added by me to make the passage readable on a computer screen.]

The myth that Serbia all-but-surrendered to Austria-Hungary’s demands is a comfortable one for us, because it allows us to construct a narrative whereby the Central Powers were set on war and we, the Allies, are aggrieved, attacked party (—a narrative we accept intuitively despite the fact that it was a terrorist attack upon Austria-Hungary that sparked the crisis in the first place).  But that’s exactly why it’s important for us to reject it, so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking of the outbreak of the First World War as an act of morality (with, of course, our side being the moral side) rather than seeing it as what it was, an act of (amazingly ill-judged, as it turned out) statecraft.

There are wars with a legitimate good side and bad side, but there are far fewer of them than we like to pretend (because we like to pretend that all of our wars were just wars), and the Great War isn’t really one of them.

Note that I am not attempting to relieve Austria-Hungary or Germany of responsibility for the outbreak of war.  It’s true that Serbia didn’t capitulate to Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum in the way histories often tell us they did; but that’s because the ultimatum was deliberately designed to be impossible to accept.  The Austro-Hungarian government wanted war, and they gave Serbia an ultimatum that they felt had to be refused.  The pro-war faction among the Austro-Hungarian government had ultimately won out because of the strong backing it had received from Germany, where the dominant voices were also pro-war.

But just as Austria-Hungary had German voices in their ears urging them to take a hard line with Serbia, so were Serbia and Russia buttressed in their resolve to oppose Vienna’s demands by France, whose foreign policy had for some time been controlled by the staunchly pro-war, anti-German President Raymond Poincaré.  Indeed, French foreign policy had long ago identified a Balkan crisis as their most likely opportunity to bring Russia into a war with Germany—it was felt that if France instead provoked war over a specifically Franco-German conflict, like possession of Alsace-Lorraine or a colonial dispute in Africa, then the Russians would be unwilling to come along with them.  The Central Powers were certainly guilty of warmongering in 1914, but just as much were the Allies.

The passage I’ve quoted above, discussing the Serbian response, is from The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark, which I recommend for anyone who’s interested enough in the outbreak of the First World War to already have a picture in their head of how it came about.  There are things in the book I’d need to read more about in order to accept them, like Clark’s statement that the Franco-Russian alliance was originally an anti-British, rather than anti-German, agreement, or that it was important to France and Russia to bring on a war in 1914 because the British Foreign Office was readying itself to shift Britain’s alignment away from the Entente and back to one of friendship with Germany.  And there are things that are usually taken as important factors in the buildup to the war (like the Anglo-German naval rivalry) that Clark, evidently feeling they aren’t important after all, simply doesn’t mention.  But the book is a thoroughly detailed, exceptionally well researched work of scholarship that went into a lot of details in areas I hadn’t known about before, and it left me thinking hard about a topic I thought I already had well hashed-out in my head.



Last week was Eurovision, always one of my favourite afternoons of the year.  Lisa and I were honestly really impressed with the music this year, at least in the final (I didn’t watch the semi-finals)—usually Eurovision manages to turn up ten or twelve solid songs that I like, but this year I’d say it was somewhere around twenty, out of twenty-six entries.  Even the UK had a strong song, and that’s not normally something I get to say.

That did mean there was a lack of gimmicky weirdness this year.  The closest we came to that was the buxom, revealingly-clad peasant girls Poland sent onstage to churn butter and wash clothes during their song.  But apart from that, every entry let its song do its singing.  (Yes, that means Conchita Wurst won on the strength of her song.)

So in the absence of oddity, I guess I’ll just be highlighting my favourite songs this year.  Well, I’ll start with Lisa’s favourite, which was Belarus.  Here’s “Cheesecake” by Teo:

I really liked Iceland, though I did understand immediately that it had no chance of winning.  Iceland has vastly different songs every year, but I’ve noticed that they pretty much always manage to come up with something that I like a lot.  I was torn here whether to use the song’s music video or else use the live performance.  I decided on the live performance, because I think it serves the song better, but if you like Aquabats-style low-budget enthusiasm, I encourage you to check out the video.  “No Prejudice” by Pollapönk:

But my favourite song—hands down, in a year full of great songs—was Spain.  I thought this was hauntingly beautiful, and honestly it had me from the opening chords.  Again I had a tough time choosing which performance to put here.  Ultimately I went with the live performance because I really liked the rainfall effect they created onstage (Boy asked if it was really raining inside the auditorium), but I did think that the dancing segments in the music video were pretty sexy.  “Dancing in the Rain” by Ruth Lorenzo:

And one last word, on the interval entertainment, while voting was in progress and while the votes were being tallied.  This is normally, you know, just something to watch for twenty minutes.  And I have to say, I think Eurovision hosts have a pretty tough job: they have to banter in English, not their native language, and they have to do it slowly enough for an audience, many of whom do not speak the language terribly well, to follow along.

This year the interval entertainment was genius, and it was made so largely through the comedic abilities of the hosts, especially Pilou Asbæk (who, Wikipedia tells me, appeared in The Borgias in 2013, though it doesn’t say in what role).  The Museum of Eurovision History skit and the ode to the number twelve were hilarious.

Until we meet again, in Vienna.


Eurovision 2012

Normally when I post about the Eurovision Song Contest, I highlight my favourite songs each year, because I get tired of people slamming the quality of the music.  (It’s not that I think people underrate how good Eurovision songs are; it’s that I think they overrate the product of the non-Eurovision, general music market by doing so.)  This year, for the record, my favourites were Italy (who might have been represented by the ghost of Amy Winehouse), Cyprus (with a music video that’s pure Mirror Mirror/Snow White and the Huntsman meets weird Balkan surrealism–my favourite part is the giant plastic fruit), Turkey (bad in all the ways that Eurovision is glorious in its badness–that is, bad and catchy and fun) and possibly Iceland.

But what really stood out for me with this year’s Eurovision wasn’t the good; it was the goofy.  So that’s what I want to highlight here–some goofy and good, some goofy and bad, but all goofy.

First, the goofy that everyone saw, because it came in second place–the Russian grannies singing “Party for Everybody”:

My other two favourite bits of goofiness, though, got eliminated in the semi-finals.  This first one, I’ll openly admit that I think it’s awful, but Lisa liked it so much that she made me add it to her iPod.  To be fair, I’m not really into rap in general, but you’d think that that could totally be overcome if the rappers are rapping in German and wearing designer suits while purple-haired girls in full body spandex dance on poles behind them, right?  Here, then, is Austria’s “Woki mit deim Popo”, which apparently translates to “Waggle Your Ass”, by the aptly named Trackshittaz:

And lastly there’s Valentina Monetta singing San Marino’s entry, which was originally titled “The Facebook Song” until Eurovision made them scrap the name because they thought it constituted a commercial advertisement for Facebook.  It does for social networking everything that “The Fast Food Song” did for fast food; it’s “The Social Network Song”:

As always, can’t wait till next year!


Aura of mystery

With all this research about Germany right after the end of the Second World War, one of the most striking and inescapable things about the period is the uncertainty that pervades it.  Everyone in Central Europe–both the native populations and the personnel of the four large Allied armies that were governing them–were profoundly aware of how little they knew about so much of what was going on in the world.  It filled their discourse and it was a huge factor in their actions.

It’s an atmosphere that I think is important to capture in the book–it created an underlying sense of doubt around literally any decision people made when trying to reconstruct lives for themselves.  But there’s a problem with that–all those great questions are questions to which we very publicly now know the answers.

A (very) abridged list of things we now know about 1 January 1946 that we did not know on 1 January 1946:

That Hitler was dead.
That Martin Bormann was (probably) dead.
That Adolf Eichmann was still alive, and on the way to fleeing to South America.
That Josef Mengele was still alive, and on the way to fleeing to South America.
That the Soviet Union would have the atomic bomb by the end of the 1940s.
That the bomb would come to be defined as a new class of weapon, and that it would not be used again, so that, for instance, North Korea was not subjected to an atomic bombing when she went to war with the Allies upon invading South Korea in 1950.
That by 1949, the three Western Powers would have merged their Zones of Occupation in Germany into a single joint zone (called Trizonia), then granted Trizonia independence as a new West German state.
That the Soviets would respond by creating a competing East German state out of their own Zone of Occupation.
That the inhabitants of the two heavily militarised German states would spend the forty years of their uneasy coexistence living under the cloud of knowing they’d be the first battlefield in the war between the Soviet Union and NATO that seemed the almost inescapable conclusion of the Cold War.
That within fifteen years, the two Germanies would be separated by a physical wall, and that siblings, spouses, and parents and children who lived on opposite sides of the wall would largely be left without the ability to see or communicate with each other for thirty years.
The whereabouts of billions of dollars worth of art, artefacts and currency that had been hidden or lost during the war.  (More billions of dollars worth of it is still missing.)  Much had been hidden by the Nazis–every year or so, we continue to get news stories of some of it being recovered–but other parts of it had been shrouded behind the Iron Curtain, such as Priam’s Treasure.

Trying to summon up that atmosphere is a tricky business.  Certainly the first step is highlighting the much more personal questions that people didn’t know the answer to–like whether missing loved ones were alive or dead; and if they would ever return from the liberated concentration camps, or from the detention camps in which the Allies held a huge number of Germans after the war, or from servitude in Siberia, or from the massive and bloody population shifts that both sides subjected millions of people to during and after the war.

But those local questions need to be compounded by the uncertainty that pervades the whole world in general, and doing so involves some fairly tricky manoeuvring.  “Is Hitler alive or dead?” or “Will all Europe be speaking Russian ten years from now?” are questions that could legitimately provoke suspense and unease in 1946, but to a reader in 2012 who already knows the answers, they’re much less so.

I toyed with the idea of having certain things turn out to be different in the book than is actually true (having it turn out in the book that Hitler is alive and in hiding, for instance), so that the reader then couldn’t be sure what they knew and what they didn’t, but ultimately I rejected that idea–I thought I’d be breaking too many readers’ suspension of disbelief if I did.

I got particularly resentful over Priam’s Treasure.  I want to include a lost Second World War loot, and Priam’s Treasure would have been perfect for my purposes–a priceless, high-concept hoard, that can easily be broken down into smaller, discrete units to use as currency.  Then I found out that it had been recovered in 1990, and that it wasn’t the Nazis who looted it.  I haven’t been able to find a replacement that works nearly as well.

(If anyone does have a favourite piece of Nazi loot that’s vanished without a trace, let me know.)

Of course, it’s true when writing of any historical period that you’re writing of a time about which we now know things that people didn’t know at the time.  But what sets post-war Central Europe apart, I think, is that it was a time when people were very much aware of how little they knew, and of how important the missing pieces of information were.


Nose to the grindstone

I’m now working in earnest on the next book, though I’m still in the research and outlining stage.  In a perfect world, I’d like to have myself a good, solid, rigorous outline before I start the first draft.

This one is a straight historical thriller, set in Berlin between the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War.  The working title is A Fistful of Sterling, but that really is, completely, just a title for personal use and not at all what I’m expecting to put on the finished first draft.  I’m pretty excited about the project right now (which is good, because it’s bad to be writing something you’re uninterested in) and have been doing a lot of reading about the place and time.

I guess if I’m going to keep writing novels about Berlin, I should, you know, visit the place someday.



I’m currently reading A Woman in Berlin, a diary kept by an anonymous Berliner as she lived through the city’s conquest and occupation by the Red Army in April through June, 1945.  There’s a lot in here to catch the attention, but one passage in particular that’s struck me:

I often find myself thinking about the fuss I used to make over the men on leave, how I pampered them, how much respect I showed them.  And some of them had come from cities like Paris or Oslo, which were farther from the front than Berlin, where we were under constant bombardment.  Or else they’d been in places where there was absolutely peace, like Prague or Luxemburg.  But even when they were coming from the front, until 1943 they always looked neat and well fed, unlike most of us today.  And they loved to tell their stories, which always involved exploits that showed them in a good light.  We, on the other hand, will have to keep politely mum; each one of us will have to act as if she in particular was spared.  Otherwise no man is going to want to touch us anymore.


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.


Euro visions

Yesterday was the grand final for the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest, and the first time Lisa has actually got to watch a Eurovision final; we hooked my laptop up to the TV and watched it live. Watching Eurovision is one of my favourite experiences–moving haphazardly from yet another bland, repetitive, relentless club/techno song; to some country’s ill-advised attempt to turn its quaint, charming folk music into a pop song; to one of the five or six genuinely good, captivating songs the competition somehow manages to throw up year after year.

Every once in a while Eurovision throws up a song that I could genuinely see getting airplay in America. This year that song came from Belgium: “Me and My Guitar” by Tom Dice. (Admittedly, that airplay would be on VH1 rather than MTV. (And yes, I just completely showed how of touch I am by speaking as if MTV still plays music.))

(If you’re reading this elsewhere and cant’ see the embedded video, you can find it at the original post):

My other favourite song this year was the Albanian entry, “It’s All About You” by Juliana Pasha. Like I referenced above, one of Eurovision’s biggest perennial problems is the profusion of relentless, soulless, instantly forgettable club music, from Eastern Europe and the Balkans especially. And yet Albania this year showed that you can do a song like that and yet still give that … that something that makes it catchy and memorable and enjoyable to listen to:

Right after the night’s final song was played, my immediate tweet was, “Favourite songs were Albania, Belgium and Germany, probably in that order.” And yet I did notice that, as I got up and headed into the kids’ room to do some parenting, it was the song I’d just declared my third-favourite, Germany’s infectious, physics-themed “Satellite” by the consummately adorable Lena, that I was singing to myself–and bopping along to, too. And that I’ve been humming ever since. I shouldn’t find it too much of a surprise, then, that it was “Satellite” that not only won yesterday, but won by the second-largest points margin in the history of Eurovision (and the largest points margin since last year!):

And lastly, a bonus song. Last year, Cyprus managed my favourite entry; this year, they produced Lisa’s favourite, “Life Looks Better in Spring” by Jon Lilygreen and the Islanders:


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