Dubious Pasts, Whimsical Presents: Alternative history and its misuse

History used to be full of battlefields, instead of being a battlefield itself, as the discipline has now become. The past, and the accounts of it, are continuously reassessed as new information becomes available, but the inclination now is to cherry-pick certain aspects, present/see them as per predilections, and ignore inconvenient facts.

The Crusades are an apt example — we tend to see them as a prime instance of religious conflict, ignoring the fact that while faith was, indeed, a key driver, territorial and other ambitions were also present.

The Christian and Muslim rulers, who fought each other so fervently, also happened to fight battles together against common enemies with as much gusto. As Amin Maalouf tells in his “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes” (1986), there was at least one example in this over two-century conflict where a Christian army and a Muslim force jointly took the field — against another Christian-Muslim combine.

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

As a celebrated and somewhat cynical observer and chronicler of such attempts once said: “Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should — in 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 to the history books whenever possible.”

That was George Orwell, who was painfully correct in certain things he predicted for our future based on the trends he observed — the watchful Big Brother, thoughtcrime, doublethink, and so on — in his essay “Notes on Nationalism”.

It must be stressed that this trend of a “fanciful alternative history” is different from alternative history, or counterfactual history, where some trained historians take one particular event — the absence or elimination of a particular individual, an order getting lost in transit, a decision not taken or taken late, and so on — to change it and fashion a parallel outcome of what could have happened. This is not as easy as it sounds — it needs 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 traction, with everyone trying to recast or interpret history according to their own beliefs. Let us see how this plays out in our focus area of books, especially in historical fiction.

In this trend, one particular country/kingdom/empire, culture, or political theory is favoured disproportionately at the expense of its contemporaries — say, Alexander the Great lived longer, Rome withstood the barbarians that led to its collapse, the Mongols managed to sweep away everything before them, the British Empire never lost North America and even extended farther into the hemisphere, the Confederacy was triumphant in the American Civil War, the Nazis won/won by developing nuclear weapons.

These fanciful accounts have some fundamentally implausible points, or they bring in extraneous forces — aliens, zombies, time travel — into the calculations. Most commonly, they show clear signs of favoritism towards their preferred country / kingdom / empire, culture, or political theory, and present the others as inexplicable bunglers / irredeemable villains.

And the other things that cause problems in countries / empires, such as supply lines, internal rifts / differences, resource crunches, outmoded ideas and mores and norms are conveniently overshadowed.

At this point, it must be said that this trend may not necessarily be a bad thing — some of these scenarios can be informative, entertaining, or have other intrinsic value. Both these types do require some willing suspension of disbelief but the plausibility cannot be dispensed with, nor can the shortcomings be wished away.

Let us check out examples of both — from the good to the bad (and very bad).

Orwell’s “1984” (1950) is one of the best examples of an intelligently plotted alternative history, while Len Deighton’s “SS-GB” (1978) — in prominence again due to the web series — is a chilling look at how Britain would fare if it had been conquered by the Nazis early into the Second World War, but the actual reasons why this happened have never adequately explained.

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

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

Leave alone its reliance on the questionable device of “All Germans Are Nazis” and stupid evil, it ignores that the alliances that would fight World War I were already in place and would not sit back to such a radical reshaping of the balance of power, such as taking over the US. And then,there is the matter of Britain’s Royal Navy, which would remain the world’s most powerful for another four decades at least.

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

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

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

Based on the premise of Britain declaring war on the United States, in the throes of its Civil War, it sees this somehow making the Union and Confederacy tying up to take on the aggressor — and even mounting a land invasion of the British Isles.

It only goes downhill from there — Britain is depicted as a Middle Ages-style monarchy rather than the parliamentary democracy it actually is, its military technology is half a century old, and British characters are shown as ridiculously and inhumanly stupid and evil. Americans, on the other hand, are all utterly heroic, enlightened and invincible — and have our times’ outlook on race and gender. There is much more, especially when it culminates in the US “introducing” democracy to the British.

Then, there is Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire” series, which sets out to answer something that may have perplexed historians for ages — or maybe not: how would the Napoleonic Wars have played out if sentient dragons were available to the various belligerents?

We learn in its nine novels, spanning “His Majesty’s Dragon” (2006) to “League of Dragons” (2016), that Napoleonic France, the premier European power, invades Britain, while Imperial China, the Incan Empire, and South Africa’s indigenous Tswana team up to drive out all probable colonists from Africa, and the trends that could have ensured the arrival of imperialism are squelched early. Of course, the dragons help.

There are many more and it may be so that some of these may appeal to someone. For the discerning reader, it is better to stick to proper alternative histories, like by Robert Cowley Jr, Niall Ferguson, and for the Indian context, Roderick Matthews’ “The Flaws In The Jewel: Challenging The Myths of British India” (2013), for its enlightening chapter on 10 alternative scenarios and their consequences.

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