Being a keen enthusiast of all things military, and an avid reader (at least one likes to think so), I’m not exactly difficult to buy for when it comes to birthdays and Christmases. A book about tanks or knights or war in general, and I’m going to be a fairly happy chappy. So you can imagine my excitement last Christmas when I was presented with a number of book-shaped presents. Overall I got a pretty good haul: there was a couple on Arnhem, one on burning down Washington DC and one on firearms of the 20th century. There was however one book which both bemused and intrigued me from the moment I unwrapped it.
The book is entitled “What If? Military historians imagine what might have been” (2nd ed, London, 2001) and is a collection of essays compiled and edited by Robert Cowley, the American-born military historian who founded the journal MHQ. Contributors to the book include John Keegan and Geoffrey Parker –so surely this must be a work of credible and insightful intellect? Alas, the cover of the book swiftly puts down that thesis. Dominating the cover is a picture of Adolf Hitler, arm outstretched in salute. Flying over his left shoulder is a group of Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters. Yes, the ones used by Americans in Vietnam. Wait, it gets better. Stood one side of Hitler is a group of advancing Japanese soldiers, who I would guess are from the late 19th century, and to Hitler’s right are a handful of soldiers fresh from the late seventeenth century. Suddenly I’m not feeling that optimistic about this book…
“What If?” is a prime example of counterfactual history, a branch of historiography in which historians speculate as to what may have been if a certain event in history had not happened/happened differently. One such example from the book looks at the question ‘what if D-Day failed?’ Apparently it would have resulted in atomic bombs being dropped in Germany, resulting in a vacuum in central Europe which would have been filled by the Red Army and the Anglo-American alliance, who would have undoubtedly clashed. Then, in the summer of 1945, Stalin would have invaded and occupied Japan. Oh, and NATO would never have been formed. Would that really have happened had D-Day failed? Stephen E. Ambrose thinks so, and it certainly is a possibility, but it is one of many, and that’s the thing about counterfactual history – its one great big grey zone.
The world of ‘what if’ has unlimited possibilities, and it’s surprising that Hollywood hasn’t leaped upon the concept to create a plethora of real far-fetched blockbusters. That said there are some examples that come to mind. “Jack Boots on Whitehall” (2010), a satire that was released in October looks at the question ‘What if the Nazis had taken London?’ It also portrays Hitler in a dress, Churchill blasting away on the front line and Nazi legionaries, but we’ll glaze over that bit. One example from the realm of video games is “Turning Point: Fall of Liberty” (2008), in which Churchill dies in 1931, resulting in the eventual invasion of the USA in 1953. It’s intriguing stuff, even if it is only one of many possible outcomes. Steven Spielberg is rapidly running out of real historical events to butcher, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before we see Russell Crowe playing a disgruntled American soldier as he fights the Soviets in 1950 for control of India, out for revenge against the Commissar who butchered his old platoon, causing him to be demoted (not that Crowe has been typecast).
So is counterfactual history of any use to us? Surely it’s just historians indulging in a bit of fantasy, creating completely fictitious and sometimes very tenuous strings of events? Whilst that may sometimes indeed be the case, I don’t think you can apply that to all instances. There are many instances where the historians have carefully analysed all the factors in order to put forward a plausible scenario based on changing a single variable. To analyse a multitude of factors in such detail is a difficult skill to master, and it seems to me that practising it by writing counterfactual history is a pretty effective way to refine that skill. Go on, give it a go. Pick a historical event you know fairly well, change one thing about it and use your knowledge to create a plausible alternative chronology. Just don’t go overboard and claim that had Catherine of Aragon had had a son, Hitler never would’ve been born. That’s just silly. When you’ve come up with a theory, send it in (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll put the best of what I get up here on the blog. Who knows, maybe we could publish our own book of counterfactuals!