Wegierski: Alternative History

Mark Wegierski looks at the science fiction subgenre of uchronia or “counterfactual history” and its possible conservative/traditionalist aspects.

Alternative history (popularly called “alternate history”) is sometimes termed “uchronia” or counterfactual history. It is important to remember that alternative history pertains to events that are in the past at the time when the narrative is being written. So, for example, the 1920s projections of Hugo Gernsback about the 1980s cannot be properly termed as being alternative history – even though his vision of the world of the 1980s is much different from what has actually occurred.

The subgenre of alternative history is not especially relevant to traditionalism in its most prominent examples. Among the most common types of alternative history are the “Hitler Victorious” scenario, which obviously portrays a horrific world. The most prominent work of this type is probably Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) (now a prominent U.S. television series).  Since virtually everyone today is in agreement with the most vociferous condemnation of Hitler and Nazism, such writing is not deployed politically today.

However, there is not even today total agreement about what is considered by many to be the unredeemable evil of the Old South. Most treatments of “Dixie Victorious” have also tended to portray a Southern victory in the American Civil War/War Between the States, as leading to an awful future. Some exceptions to this trend are seen in Sheldon Vanauken’s The Glittering Illusion (1985), and in Winston Churchill’s famous story, “What if Lee had not won the battle of Gettysburg?” Churchill tended to project the South’s victory as leading to outcomes that would be congenial to both conservatism and old-fashioned liberalism. Vanauken hypothesized that a victorious Dixie would have joined the British Empire, the eventual result being a quick Allied victory in World War I, and with a more traditional modernity following in its wake. It is usual for conservatives to suggest that slavery would have been relatively quickly abolished in the South, and that Black-white relations would have actually been better without the association of Black advancement with triumphant Northern aggression. The notion that, in the wake of a Southern victory, slavery would actually rapidly disappear in the South, is not very popular today. The allegedly near-Auschwitzian character of the actual South of the 1950s (let alone of the 1850s!), has been massively stressed in left-liberal rhetoric, especially since the 1960s. The alternative-history television series proposed by the producers of The Game of ThronesConfederate – was likely to have portrayed the South after successful secession as a nightmarish, American Third Reich. It would probably serve a similar function in pop-culture to Margaret Atwood’s dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale, now also a major television series.

Keith Robert’s Pavane, which portrayed England centuries after the successful landing of the Spanish Armada, was obviously none too cheerful.

One critical turning point was the English Civil War. Had Charles I won that conflict in some fashion, how might have subsequent history turned out differently?

Another obvious possible turning point would be the dethroning of James II in 1688-1689 – which might not have happened if the so-called “Protestant wind” had not blown to successfully convey William of Orange’s fleet to England.

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

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

The premise of this alternative history appears to be sociologically and historically ridiculous, as the historical Loyalists were clearly mostly whiggish gentlemen and placid farmers, not proto-Nazis. Had the Loyalists gone to the Cape Colony, the society there would have probably emerged as being more similar to Canada in our own timeline. Indeed, the Boers would have had less influence given a larger British population, and the period of an “apartheid” South Africa might well have been entirely avoided.

Other authors have examined the premise of a British victory in the American Revolutionary War.

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

In their writing of alternative history, conservative-tending writers are casting about to try to find some set of historical circumstances – apart from the abominable alternative of the triumph of Hitler — that could have forestalled the subsequent rush into a near-dystopic late modernity.

It would seem that writing about various scenarios of “Hitler Thwarted Earlier” would be of considerable appeal and interest to conservatives. Had Hitler been thwarted earlier, presumably much more of the older European order would have survived, especially in East-Central Europe. Some authors, however, have voiced the negative conclusion that, had Hitler and Nazism not arisen in Germany – or been quickly defeated by a more determined France and Britain — the Soviet Union would have come to dominate most of the world. This seems like a dubious premise.

It is also highly dubious to claim that if only Poland had given Danzig (Gdansk) to Hitler, world-history would have taken a better course, as has been recently argued most prominently by Pat Buchanan. The territorial appetites of Hitler and Nazi Germany were virtually limitless in the East, and Hitler in the diplomacy of the pre-war period could continually be seen making ever newer demands, while solemnly declaring these were his “last” claims. The suggestion that Hitler would have been content with Danzig requires a huge amount of credulity in the supposed good faith of a supremely vicious, amoral, genocidal tyrant.

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

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

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

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

It may also be argued that the huge isolationist influences in U.S. politics and culture (which, in August 1939 to June 1941, were also actually reinforced by American Communists) played a highly negative role in keeping America disengaged from Europe, at a time when such engagement was most profoundly needed. To have become engaged in Europe in this era was not American imperialism or adventurism; it was the salutary defence of a shared and increasingly beleaguered Western civilization.

Mark Wegierski

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