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Alternate History

Article about: During the past ten years a somewhat intellectual game of second-guessing has become a popular line of reasoning among people who for some reason are not satisfied with how things actually w

  1. #1

    Default Alternate History

    During the past ten years a somewhat intellectual game of second-guessing has become a popular line of reasoning among people who for some reason are not satisfied with how things actually worked out. They are very serious about their efforts to tell history in a "different" way, and they call it "Alternate History." I first ran into the growing phenomenon about ten years ago when I was a member of an author's panel on writing military history for publication, and a member of the audience asked me if I had ever considered writing an Alternate History. He asked the question as though there was/is a useful alternative to what actually happened. I told him the thought has never entered my mind because what is--is. It is absolutely impossible to go back and change what has already happened. In short, in my opinion, there is no such thing as an Alternate History.
    I agree that historians, working with primary material, might arrive at different conclusions as to why something happened the way it did, or they might posit what might have happened if something else had happened to change the outcome. But to go from acknowledging the obvious fact that a different cause-effect relationship might have, with varying levels of probability, produced an entirely different outcome, to a position that the questionable outcome is actually history, is playing at "ifs." If wishes were horses, all beggars would ride. But the truth is wishes aren't horses and beggars generally don't ride.
    As I see it, the problem with the people who pursue these Alternative Histories is that they equate what might have been with a certainty of what would have happened. They are, in that sense, the same as the conspiracy theorists who see all cause and effect results occurring in a linear fashion that result in a predictable and utterly certain final outcome.
    Let me give you an example of an historical premise that might lead one into the area of Alternate History. It is a matter of historical record that the Entente Powers defeated the Central Powers in World War one, and both the act of fighting the war and its outcome resulted in previously unimaginable social, political, and economic changes. But would those changes have occurred if the war had ended differently, or would Europe had continued on as before, the Kaiser in place, social structure basically unchanged, and the Communist Revolution crushed?
    I would like to hear from Forum members about how they view Alternate History. Is it a useful tool for understanding what actually happened or is it another form of science fiction, or just plain fiction? If you feel Alternate History has value as a historical research tool, please explain how that is so. I will tell you in advance that though I might not agree with you, I will carefully read what you have to say. This Forum is as much yours as it is mine, so whatever opinion you hold, it has a right to be stated and listened to.
    The only thing that I ask is that you stick to the topic of Alternate History, which offers an enormous arena for discussion, and avoid restating the many current conspiracy theories that are not only an entirely different topic, but are often assertive and confrontive. Dwight

  2. #2
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    I think it can have relevance to an academic study of history. To put it in algebraic terms, you might say that if you divide a and b, the answer will be x. Likewise, if you multiply b by x, the answer is a. Showing what might have occurred if something had happened differently can explain why that event was so important to history as it really happened. Mostly, though, I think it's fiction or science-fiction, meant to entertain rather than teach. One of its more common uses in fiction seems to be allegorical in nature; that is, meant to show how different or similar our society is to an historical one that is regarded either as 'good' or 'bad.' For example, an alternate history in which Germany wins World War II might be used to show how similar (in the author's mind) Hitler's society would be to the modern world.

  3. #3

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    Erno: Those are interesting points and the use of relative similarities is a valuable historical tool. I suppose if one posited that had Germany defeated Britain in 1940-41, by any means, the current world society would be more similar to that of Germany. The vehicle for that supposition would be how the US culture was essentially forced on to the rest of postwar Western society and to some degree Asian society. I don't really buy it for several reasons, but it would make for an interesting discussion. But it still would not be historical in nature and would fall more into the category of Social Science, that dreamy discipline--if "discipline" is an accurate term to use--in which there is no correct or incorrect answer to anything. In my mind, the whole business of playing "what if" is entertaining and comes closer to having historical significance when the subjects are battles, technology, and industrial capacity. But when someone tries to create a scenario based on purely human and political issues, the discussion loses any use as a historical tool because the variables are so many, so unpredictable, and utterly subjective. I'll give you an example of a possible discussion. After my book Find and Destroy: Antisubmarine Warfare in WWI came out, I wrote an article for MHQ, The Quarterly Journal for Military History (Spring 2003) in which I suggested that Germany actually lost WWI in the first six weeks of the war when the U-boats failed to attack the cross-channel traffic carrying the BEF to France. That's a highly debatable subject that rests heavily on technological issues, notably the overwhelming tactical superiority the U-boat enjoyed over all forms of surface-borne counter-measures, which in a word were nonexistent in a practical sense. But the other side of the coin is the degree to which the discussion would have to include the impact that the massive loses of life among the troops who were torpedoed would have on the British population. And there the discussion becomes highly subjective, though none the less interesting. Those sorts of issues are what make war gaming fun, interesting, and enormously popular. Thanks for your post. Dwight

  4. #4
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    Quote by drmessimer View Post
    Erno: Those are interesting points and the use of relative similarities is a valuable historical tool. I suppose if one posited that had Germany defeated Britain in 1940-41, by any means, the current world society would be more similar to that of Germany. The vehicle for that supposition would be how the US culture was essentially forced on to the rest of postwar Western society and to some degree Asian society. I don't really buy it for several reasons, but it would make for an interesting discussion. But it still would not be historical in nature and would fall more into the category of Social Science, that dreamy discipline--if "discipline" is an accurate term to use--in which there is no correct or incorrect answer to anything. In my mind, the whole business of playing "what if" is entertaining and comes closer to having historical significance when the subjects are battles, technology, and industrial capacity. But when someone tries to create a scenario based on purely human and political issues, the discussion loses any use as a historical tool because the variables are so many, so unpredictable, and utterly subjective. I'll give you an example of a possible discussion. After my book Find and Destroy: Antisubmarine Warfare in WWI came out, I wrote an article for MHQ, The Quarterly Journal for Military History (Spring 2003) in which I suggested that Germany actually lost WWI in the first six weeks of the war when the U-boats failed to attack the cross-channel traffic carrying the BEF to France. That's a highly debatable subject that rests heavily on technological issues, notably the overwhelming tactical superiority the U-boat enjoyed over all forms of surface-borne counter-measures, which in a word were nonexistent in a practical sense. But the other side of the coin is the degree to which the discussion would have to include the impact that the massive loses of life among the troops who were torpedoed would have on the British population. And there the discussion becomes highly subjective, though none the less interesting. Those sorts of issues are what make war gaming fun, interesting, and enormously popular. Thanks for your post. Dwight
    Yes, alternative histories seem to be used mostly for the purposes of entertainment, but at the same, I think they could and do sometimes provide a vehicle for understanding actual history.

    Thanks for your interesting reply and the thread concept in general! I will enjoy reading what others have to say on the subject.

  5. #5

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    Not much to add to the above posts.

    Personally, I don't read a lot of alternate history material, but I really enjoyed Harry Turtledove's World War series. Going beyond "simple" alternate history, this series is about an alien invasion hitting earth during WW2 and the world-changing military, political, cultural, scientific and economic consequences:

    Worldwar series - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    http://www.sfsite.com/~silverag/worldwar.html

    I also found Robert Harris' Fatherland to be of interest. The film version is pretty decent, as well:

    Fatherland (novel) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

  6. #6

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    Hi , a very interesting thread and while I myself am no academic I do find from a military "planning" point of view the alternative outcomes of events quite interesting. While that would obviously not be alternative history as such, I do feel that the recording of all potential outcomes(as best as man can achieve) does hold interest in the post event evaluation and historical record. Just my two bits if it makes any sense! Leon
    "Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut." Ernest Hemingway

  7. #7

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    A very interesting subject to discuss. I cannot really see how you can separate the 'what ifs' in battle from the 'what ifs' on the political and social side of the coin.

    Take for example the battle of the Somme. The preparation for the battle was probably about as good as it could have been when you take into account the technology available at the time. What if the British had used different tactics when they went over the top? What if they had advanced in short sharp rushes under cover of a creeping bombardment instead of walking across? What if they had managed to break through on the first day and advance a considerable distance? What if the battle of Messines ridge had been timed to coincide with the battle of the Somme? Maybe the war could have been ended a lot sooner.

    If the war had ended sooner, then maybe the Americans wouldn't have entered the war. Had the Americans not entered WW1, the political climate in USA may have been a whole lot different than it was, and they just might have sided with Britain sooner just prior to the outbreak of WW2. If the Germans had seen that the Americans were prepared to stand by Britain before war was actually declared in September 1939, then just maybe Hitler would have withdrawn his armies and WW2 might have been avoided.

    If WW2 had been avoided, there would have been no break-up of Europe. There would have been no need for NATO or SEATO. The British wouldn't have had a standing Army (BAOR) in Germany. The government would have felt able to cut back on defence and use the money saved for other projects. Just maybe the Russians would have seen this as an opportunity to advance their own political agenda and invaded western Europe. All this might have come about if the Great war had ended sooner.

    And as an afterthought, it just might have affected this forum too! Would anyone be collecting Nazi era items if there had been no WW2?
    Author of... 'Belfast Diaries: A Gunner In Northern Ireland'... 'A Tough Nut To Crack: Andersonstown.. Voices From 9 Battery Royal Artillery In Northern Ireland'... 'An Accrington Pal: The Diaries of Pte Jack Smallshaw, September 1914 To March 1919'.

  8. #8

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    Quote by HARRY THE MOLE View Post

    And as an afterthought, it just might have affected this forum too! Would anyone be collecting Nazi era items if there had been no WW2?
    No. But a lot of people would be wearing them.

  9. #9

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    I enjoy alternate history for entertainment value, and also to imagine what the world today would be like had certain events, such as a German invasion of Britain, taken place. Apart from that, I think it needs to be handled with caution. I see people getting sucked into realms of fantasy fairly regularly in seminars.

    On two separate occasions at two separate universities I have heard people rattling on about how IF Germany had been able to develop atomic weapons and IF they had been able to build gigantic bombers and colossal troop carrying aircraft then they would have been able to invade the US and win the war.

    My answer always is, but they didn't. Anyone who knows anything about the Second World War knows that the likelihood of such events occurring by 1946 or 1947 was very slim indeed given Germany's political and economic climate. In my opinion alternate history has no real place in academic study.

    Cheers.

  10. #10

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    I totally agree with you. It is interesting to speculate. But alternate history shouldn't even be classed as history. It is purely a debate about what could have been. If it hasn't happened it can hardly be called history can it? Its almost as bad as revisionist history, and this is where it gets murky. Revisionist history claims what did happen didn't - such as mass extermination. And alternate history tries to show what might have happened if what did happen didn't!
    Author of... 'Belfast Diaries: A Gunner In Northern Ireland'... 'A Tough Nut To Crack: Andersonstown.. Voices From 9 Battery Royal Artillery In Northern Ireland'... 'An Accrington Pal: The Diaries of Pte Jack Smallshaw, September 1914 To March 1919'.

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