More Alternate History! Huzzah!
For every decision made, there was an alternative. For every plan put into action, for every policy enacted or project begun, there was another option that was put aside instead. History is littered with the desiccated remains of these alternatives, each one bearing within it the seed of another history or timeline. Their details are unknowable, but we can often catch glimpses of what might have been. This of course is the basis of alternate history, one of my favorite genres of fiction. However, alternate history scenarios usually start from a new reality and work their way backwards to a divergent point in time that could have created it. ‘What if the South won the Civil War?’ ‘What if the Nazis won World War II?’ In this series, I’d like to do something a little different.
Instead of looking at different ways events could have turned out, I’ll be examining specific, concrete historical proposals that would have radically changed the direction of history but, for whatever reason, were never carried out. Each of these schemes were put forward at historical junctures, were examined and considered, and then–cast by the wayside. Usually for good reason, if I’m being honest. In today’s edition, we’ll be looking at proposals that were big, both in their execution and in their implications. I hope you find these as fascinating as I do.
An Excellent Book
This is not one of those blog posts where I astound my loyal audience with my feats of insight and original thought, this is one of those blog posts where I say “Hey! I read this book, let me tell you about it at great length”. I trust you will forgive me.
In my junior year at Brandeis University, I attended a conference on ‘World War One And The Aesthetics of Empire’. Held in an auditorium on campus, it was attended by a few dozen professors, graduate students–and I, the only undergrad to wander in. I had come because there was free food and a lecture on zeppelins, I ended up staying for the entire day because the first presentation, by Professor Erz Manela, completely changed the way I thought about the First World War. Later, I bought the book of essays that he based his lecture on (seen above), and was fully convinced. The idea he and his compatriots argue on behalf, sometimes called ‘The Greater War theory’, is deceptively simple. Contrary to what we all learned in school, WWI did not begin in August of 1914 and end on November 11th, 1918. Instead, it began in September of 1911 and did not conclude until July, 1923. Or rather, the global crisis of Imperialism that the First World War is merely the epicenter of began and ended on those dates.
I like this theory because I think it fully grasps the magnitude of World War One. This was not just a Great Power War like the Napoleonic Wars or the Seven Years War or the War of Austrian Succession, this was a cataclysmic crisis that shook Western Civilization to the core. No Great Power War before this had ended with the outright collapse of four of the world’s most dynastic empires or had so profoundly changed the global geopolitical situation. But I also like it because I think it speaks to a fundamental truth: between 1911 and 1923, there was pretty much constant warfare in Europe and the Near East. It seems almost silly to carve out four specific years from that decade of death and say “Here. These are the true war, nothing else is important”. But this post isn’t really an attempt to ‘prove’ the Greater War Theory–I don’t have the qualifications for that–it’s an attempt to explain it, to lay out what I think is is so interesting and important about it, and to draw out some of the implications. That said, let’s look at these thirteen tumultuous years in some more detail.