Doubtful pasts, fanciful presents: alternative history and its abuses

By Vikas Datta

History was once full of battlefields, instead of being a battlefield itself, as the discipline has become. The past and the tales of it are continually re-evaluated as new information becomes available, but the tendency now is to select certain aspects, present/view them according to predilections, and ignore inconvenient facts.


The Crusades are a good example of this – we tend to think of them as a prime example of religious conflict, ignoring the fact that while faith was, indeed, a key driver, territorial and other ambitions were also present.

Christian and Muslim leaders, who fought each other with such fervor, also fought battles together against common enemies with equal enthusiasm. As Amin Maalouf recounts in his “The Crusades through Arab Eyes” (1986), there was at least one example in this more than two century conflict where a Christian army and a Muslim force jointly took the ground – against another Christian-Muslim coalition. .

History is never as black and white as it is usually painted, but that doesn’t stop some people from trying to do that for their personal/political reasons.

As a famous and somewhat cynical observer and chronicler of such attempts once said: “Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be changed. He spends part of his time in an imaginary world in which things go as they should which, for example, the Spanish Armada was a success or the Russian Revolution was crushed in 1918 – and he will transfer fragments of this world in the history books whenever possible.”

It was George Orwell, who was painfully right in some of the things he predicted for our future based on the trends he observed – watchful Big Brother, thoughtcrime, doublethink, etc. – in his essay “Notes on Nationalism”.

It must be emphasized that this tendency towards “fantasy alternative history” is different from alternative history, or counterfactual history, where some trained historians take a particular event – the absence or elimination of a particular individual, an order that gets lost in transit, a decision not made or made late, and so on — to change it and shape a parallel outcome of what might have happened. It’s not as easy as it looks – it requires a rigorous approach and a deep understanding of cause and effect.

History, academic or popular, or on Whatsapp, is likely to remain contested, as the fringe community of revisionist historians gains ground, each trying to recast or interpret history according to their own beliefs. Let’s see how this fares in our area of ​​interest in books, especially in historical fiction.

In this trend, a particular country/kingdom/empire, culture or political theory is disproportionately favored over its contemporaries — say Alexander the Great lived longer, Rome resisted the barbarians which led to its collapse, the Mongols succeeded in sweeping away everything before them, the British Empire never lost North America and even expanded further into the hemisphere, the Confederacy triumphed in the American Civil War, the Nazis won/won by developing nuclear weapons.

These fanciful tales have fundamentally implausible points, or they introduce alien forces – aliens, zombies, time travel – into the calculations. More often than not, they show obvious signs of favoritism towards their favorite country/kingdom/empire, culture or political theory, and present others as inexplicable blunderers/irredeemable villains.

And the other things that cause problems in countries/empires, such as supply lines, internal divisions/differences, resource shortages, outdated ideas, mores and norms are conveniently eclipsed.

At this point, it has to be said that this trend isn’t necessarily a bad thing – some of these storylines can be informative, entertaining, or have some other intrinsic value. Both of these types require some willful suspension of disbelief, but plausibility cannot be removed, nor can gaps be removed.

Let’s see examples of both – from good to bad (and very bad).

Orwell’s “1984” (1950) is one of the best examples of cleverly plotted alternate history, while Len Deighton’s “SS-GB” (1978) – again brought to the fore thanks to the web series – is a chilling look at how great Britain would be had it been conquered by the Nazis at the start of World War II, but the real reasons why this happened have never been explained in a meaningful way. adequate.

A better, but equally dark look is offered by CJ Sansom’s “Dominion” (2013), who is otherwise known for his Elizabethan-era thrillers, set in the 1950s of a Britain that surrendered to the Germans shortly after the fall of France. .

And then, on the other hand, there is “1901” (1995) by Robert Conroy, which tells us of a German invasion of the United States in the eponymous year, after Washington refused to share its newly acquired territories wrested from the Spanish Empire to the Kaiser The Germany of Wilhelm II.

Not to mention his reliance on the dubious device of “All Germans are Nazis” and dumb evil, he is unaware that the alliances that would fight World War I were already in place and would not back down from such a drastic overhaul of balance of power, like taking over the United States. And then there is the matter of Britain’s Royal Navy, which would remain the most powerful in the world for at least another four decades.

Conroy went on to sketch what would have happened if Britain had intervened in the American Civil War in “1862” (2006), “1945” (2007), where Japan refuses to surrender after the bombings of Hiroshima. and Nagasaki, “Red Inferno: 1945” (2010), where the Western Allies and the Soviet Union begin to clash in the final days of World War II, and “Castro’s Bomb” (2011), where the leader Cuban seizes Soviet nuclear bombs during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

You can understand some of them from the fact that most of them were published only electronically.

Harry Harrison’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” trilogy (1998, 200, 2002) elevates it to another level, or depth, rather.

Based on the premise of Britain declaring war on the beleaguered United States, he sees this somehow forcing the Union and Confederacy to come together to confront the aggressor – and even organize a land invasion of the British Isles.

It only goes downhill from there – Britain is portrayed as a medieval-style monarchy rather than the parliamentary democracy it actually is, its military technology is half a century old, and British characters are featured as ridiculously and inhumanly stupid and diabolical. Americans, on the other hand, are all utterly heroic, enlightened, and invincible — and have our age’s take on race and gender. There is much more, especially when it culminates in the United States “introducing” democracy to the British.

Then there’s Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire” series, which aims to answer something that may have puzzled historians for ages – or maybe not: how would the Napoleonic Wars have unfolded if sensitive dragons were available for the various belligerents?

We learn in his nine novels, ranging from “His Majesty’s Dragon” (2006) to “League of Dragons” (2016), that Napoleonic France, the first European power, invaded Great Britain, while Imperial China, the Inca Empire and South Africa the Tswana natives team up to drive out all likely settlers from Africa, and tendencies that might have ensured the arrival of imperialism are quickly snuffed out.

There are many more and someone might like some of them. For the discerning reader, it is best to stick with appropriate alternate histories, such as by Robert Cowley Jr, Niall Ferguson, and for the Indian context, “The Flaws In The Jewel: Challenging The Myths of British India” by Roderick Matthews (2013), for its illuminating chapter on 10 alternative scenarios and their consequences.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

Source: IANS

Doubtful pasts, fanciful presents: alternative history and its abuses

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