Friday, February 13, 2015

Alternate Histories Of The 20th Century

It was Oswald Spengler who got me thinking about the things which led to this recent blog post about the Imperial election of 1519 and also to this one, about early 16th-century Europe more in general. I was flipping through the Untergang des Abendlandes when I came across, on pp 192-3 of this edition,

a passage which is silly even by Spengler's standards: first the assertion that Columbus had very nearly made his famous voyage of discovery for the French instead of for the Spanish; then, the assertion that if Columbus had sailed for the French, Francis I would, without question, have been crowned Holy Roman Emperor instead of Charles I of Spain becoming Emperor Charles V, and then some absurdly specific pronouncements of the differences in history which the different outcome of the Imperial election would have caused, such as different, French styles of diplomacy dominating the age instead of the Spanish diplomacy, and different, French wars happening instead of the Spanish wars which did happen, and that we would think of French people who had never been born instead of Philip II, Alba, Cervantes, Calderon, Cervantes and so forth; and finally, that the "inner logic" of the age, which had to find its "ultimate expression" in the French Revolution -- "or an event of analogous content" would not have been affected by any of this.

Yeah! Spengler could really talk some mess, he was a thoroughly un-profound person who managed to pass himself off, for a while at least, as one of the deepest thinkers of the 20th century. But what he wrote is interesting. It just doesn't have much to do with the original, groundbreaking study of history which Spengler claimed it was. It's alternate history, which is not a study of history, but a genre of fiction.

Sometimes the difference between a deep novelist and a silly historian is very simply that the novelist freely admits that what he is writing is fiction, and the historian doesn't admit, or, worse, doesn't even realize that he's writing fiction. I'm not saying that Spengler could have been an interesting novelist, I'm saying that he was, and that it's a real shame that his work is considered to be non-fiction. That has only added confusion to a world which already contains much too much confusion.

Many books have been written about Jesus. They're all fiction. I myself have written one of them, a novella. The less-deluded and/or more honest among those of us who have written such books have admitted that we were writing fiction. It's not just that no one knows enough for sure about Jesus to fill even a short book -- we don't know anything for sure about him yet, not even whether or not he existed.

So, I sometimes imagines alternative scenarios of the 20th century. Mostly ways in which less war might have occurred. I have no idea what, if anything, is actually to be learned from such fantasies:

I've spent quite a lot of time imagining the Allied invasion of Anzio in World War II going much differently. I imagine General Patton in charge of the invasion instead of the General Lucas who was its commander in real life, and squandered the tremendous opportunity gained by the Germans having not noticed the invasion at all and having practically no troops in the area. Instead of moving quickly from the beachhead, expanding it and taking as much territory as possible before the Germans reacted, Lucas inexplicably stayed on the beach offloading equipment for two days, until the Germans had the beach surrounded, and the Allied troops there were sitting ducks and were slaughtered.

Lucas sounds like a quartermaster to me. My alternative version of events begins with someone convincing Eisenhower, before the invasion, that Lucas is all wrong for the job -- that he's a quartermaster, not an invader. This insight allows Eisenhower to transfer Lucas without hurting his feelings: he says to Lucas: "There's been a change of plans: our warehouses and depots in Naples are in a disastrous state. It's a huge clusterfuck, supplies aren't moving at all. It's imperative that things change down there immediately, and you're just the guy to go in there and kick some ass and get everything organized. We'll have Patton or somebody do the Anzio landing." Calling it a "landing" instead of an "invasion" to stay as close as possible to Lucas' mindset and ward off any clue he might have that any of this has to do with a weakness of his.

So, Patton lands on January 22, 1944 and immediately zooms off toward Rome, 30 miles away. Instead of the Germans holding Rome until June as they did in reality, Patton takes the city in the early morning of 24 January. In reality, with the Allied troops stuck in Anzio, the abbey Monte Cassino, in a pass in the high mountains mountains to the south-east of Rome, was where the Allied advanced was held for months and tens of thousands of Allied soldiers died. In my alternate version, after Rome is taken, the Allies quickly surround Monte Cassino by occupying the width of the Italian penisula west to east to Monte Cassino's north. The abbey is completely cut off from all supplies and reinforcements on February 8, surrenders on February 14, and a domino effect of Allied momentum and German surrenders accelerates until German soldiers in Berlin rebel and kill Hitler and Germany surrenders before the D-Day invasion can even take place.

Another alternate history does away with World War II altogether, by completely changing Hitler's personality. After World War I, while Hitler is spying on radical groups for the German army, one of which groups in real life he would join and which would eventually become the Nazi party -- instead of all of that, he happens to meet a theatre troupe, falls in love with an actress, becomes an actor, shaves off the moustache ("I don't think it looks good even on Chaplin," his girlfriend and co-worker says), and the exposure to the theatre melts his icy heart, love and tenderness drive out the rage and hatred which were there, WWII never happens.

Or we could go back further and do away with both world wars: instead of assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess Sophie, which led to World War I in real llife, Gavrilo Princip, aggrieved at Austria's domination of the Balkan Slavs, misses. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie are unharmed. Princip is not executed because Franz Ferdinand himself, after much exertion, convinces Emperor Franz Joseph to spare his life. Franz Ferdinand visits Princip in prison. Often. Princip notices that the Archduke has become thinner. "I hope it's not because you've fallen ill," he says politely. "No," Franz Ferdinand replies,"I've been exercising more and eating more sensibly. Having come so close to being killed and survived, I felt as if I'd been given another chance at life. I've given some very serious thought to what I want to do with what time I have left." "And why did you give me another chance?" Princip asks. "Because," the Archduke replies, "I felt that there was enough good in you that it would be wrong to completely give up on you. And also because I feel that the enmity between your people and mine must end. We both want life to improve for the Serbs, don't you realize that?" Princip doesn't believe anything the Archduke says for a while. But gradually he sees an earnest man grappling with monstrously huge matters of politics, where before he had only seen a monster. He's moved to much more comfortable quarters, and he and the Archduke, to the amazement of the world, become friends. Years later, after the Archduke has become the Emperor, Princip is freed. Franz Ferdinand oversees the gradual and peaceful dismantling of the Empire, letting the various Southern Slav nations become states of their own.

All the tremendous energy which was spent in the world wars in real life, and all of the ingenuity which went went into developing ever-deadlier weapons, in my fictional version goes instead into peaceful exertions in science and engineering and the arts. In real life Ferdinand Porsche made a hybrid-electric car around 1900; in my fictional version, plug-ins have largely replaced gasoline-burning cars and airplanes, and coal-and-oil burning ships, by 1920. By 1925, between wind, solar, tidal and geothermal power, there is scarcely any demand for petrochemical fuel anymore, neither for vehicles nor factories nor to heat homes. The air becomes cleaner, the climate doesn't destabilize. The Black Hills of South Dakota remain un-strip-mined. Communism spreads, peacefully. The Internet is in hundreds of millions of homes and offices by 1940. By 1960 there is no longer any need for currency, and human hunger and homelessness are no more. By 2015, some of the brighter chimpanzees and gorillas have begun to write and publish books.

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