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.
Atlantropa: The New Continent
Who Proposed It: Herman Sörgel
What It Was:
In 1920s Germany, the mood was grim. The loss of the First World War and the crippling Treaty of Versailles had broken Germany’s great power status, and the horrific left-wing and right-wing revolutionary violence had shaken the status quo to the core. But while others turned to Fascism or Communism to provide an answer, the young Bavarian architect Herman Sörgel had a different dream. Sörgel was an idealist in many ways. He believed in pacifism and pan-europeanism. He wanted to restore German greatness, but he also wanted to do it in peacefully, and in cooperation with the rest of Europe. And he wanted to do it soon. For the world was changing. According to Sörgel’s worldview, the planet was divided into three natural power blocs: the Americas, under the leadership of the USA, Asia, conglomerated into some sort of vague ‘Yellow Peril’, and Europe. But Europe was badly damaged by war and hopelessly divided by national hatreds. Worse, what world power Europe had was built on her far-off colonial empires, none of which Sörgel thought could survive the threat coming from Asia and America. To save his beloved continent, drastic action was necessary.
In essence, the Atlantropa Project was a public works program writ large. In the first stage, a massive hydroelectric dam would be built across the Straits of Gibraltar. Smaller dams would be constructed across the Dardanelles and between Sicily and Tunisia. Together, these would drastically reduce the input of new water into the Mediterranean Sea. Over the following decades, sea levels would drop drastically, hopefully eventually by about 660 feet on average. This would open up hundreds of square kilometers of land for development and colonization, as well as drawing Africa into closer connection with Europe. Though the water barrier would not be entirely done away with, it would be greatly reduced, and Sörgel envisioned direct railway connection between Berlin and Cape Town. In addition, the hydroelectric facilities at Gibraltar were projected to supply all of Europe with virtually free electricity.
Stage two would begin deep in the heart of Africa. More dams would be built on the Congo River, redirecting that mighty watercourse into the basin around Lake Chad. That would become the Chad Sea, a vast tract of freshwater covering much of modern day Niger, Nigeria, and Chad. Another new lake, the Congo Lake, would be created in central Africa. Eventually, the overflow from these massive endeavors would cut a channel through the Sahara and reach the Mediterranean. This would provide a deep-sea shipping channel all the way into the center of the African continent, as well as providing water for massive planned de-desertification projects that were intended to turn North Africa into a virtual extension of Europe.
Sörgel presented his plan as a panacea for all of Europe’s ills. The disunited nations would have to pool their resources together to construct such vast projects, putting aside their enmity. The construction would provide economic relief to Europe’s masses, and once Atlantropa was completed, the continent’s energy could be poured into developing the new territories rather than wasteful conflict. Africa would become completely integrated into the European system, supplying a steady stream of raw materials and foodstuffs to feed the industrialized North, which would grow rich and prosperous, forgetting earlier hatreds. And with the resources of the Dark Continent fully tapped, Sörgel had hope Europe could stand up to both the ‘Yellow’ and ‘American’ Perils.
Was It Likely:
Not very, but more than it should have been. The project become quite popular for a time in the 1920s and 1930s, especially among architects and engineers. But no government seems to have ever even thought of endorsing it. Worse, there was vehement opposition from Mediterranean countries that did not wish to see their coastlines cavalierly redrawn. The onset of Nazism redirected public interest and attention into Revanchist rather than Utopian schemes, and interest faded. (Though a clearly obsessed Sörgel did attempt to present the plan to the new German government after crossing out ‘Pan-European Unity’ and writing in ‘German Supremacy’ on the cover). The concept enjoyed a final and brief flowering in the late 1940s, when the Allies began looking at it as an idea for unifying and reconstructing Western Europe, but soon abandoned it as impractical. Herman Sörgel continued to advocate for it until his death in 1952, when he run down by a car while on his way to deliver a lecture on his vision.
What Would Have Happened:
It would have failed miserably. In theory at least, most of Stage One seems to have been technically feasible. Practical constraints however, were more limiting. The construction of the Gibraltar Dam alone was projected to take at least a decade, and to use virtually the entire world’s concrete supply! As for the total redrawing of Central Africa, I suspect that Sörgel & Co. would have found that the forces of nature were harder to control than they realized. Even, however, if all this was accomplished, the results would likely have been disappointing. The ‘New Territories’ exposed would have been salt-ridden and infertile, and it seems unlikely that the Greening of the Sahara would ever have been accomplished. Worse, the drastic drop-off in Mediterranean water levels would have caused severe flooding in the Baltic and the Low Countries.
Finally, there is one variable that Sörgel never seems to have taken into account: the Africans. The assumption seems to have been that with full economic integration into Mega-Europa, Africans would be content to serve as cogs in the new global order. That they would have been relegated to indefinite peonage does not seem to have concerned Sörgel, nor does the fact that by flooding several thousand square miles of Africa, he might cause severe disruption and chaos for millions of people. Generalized opposition to European rule in Africa would likely have erupted sooner. And with Europe now deeply invested in Africa and economically dependent on it, the counter-reaction would be far more severe. I suspect that even if the Project had created a New Continent, it would be one lit by fire and soaked in blood.
Roma Nova: The Marriage of Charlemagne and Irene
Who Proposed It: Charlemagne and/or Irene of Athens
When: 802 A.D
What It Was:
In the Year of Our Lord 800, a momentous occasion occurred in the city of Rome. Charlemagne, Charles the Great, King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, Overlord of all Western Europe, was crowned Emperor. For the first time since the abdication of Romulus Augustulus in 476 A.D, there was an Emperor in the West. The Roman Empire had been reborn. Or–had it? For Rome had never really died. When Odovacer deposed the last Emperor in Rome, he is said to have packed up the imperial regalia and sent it off east, to Constantinople. There, in the great city of the Bosporus Emperors still reigned over a powerful realm, and they too saw themselves as the heirs of the Eternal City. By the time of Charlemagne, the Eastern Empire was far removed from the heights it had reached under Justinian. But it still held sway over most of Greece and Anatolia. Charlemagne’s coronation made no reference to Byzantium, and this snub contributed to a general worsening of relations between West and East. After all, the Emperor of Rome could plausibly lay claim to being the predominant sovereign of Christendom. For the three centuries since the Fall, Constantinople had been sole source of legitimacy, at least in theory. Now Achaean claimed equality, or perhaps even predominance.
The situation was complicated by an unpleasant fact: Byzantium lay under the direct rule of a women. Irene of Athens had ruled the East since 780 A.D, initially in the position of regent for her son. But in 797, after numerous intrigues, she had cast him aside and assumed direct power, something unacceptable to many. As far as they were concerned, the Imperial Throne was vacant, and it might as well be granted to the master of Western Europe.
But while Irene’s gender presented problems, it also presented opportunities. In Medieval Europe, there is always one easy solution to a dispute: a marriage alliance. In 798, Irene had opened diplomatic relations with Charlemagne. The sources are unclear, but according to the chronicler Theophanes the Confessor, in 802 one of the two made a proposal of marriage. There is little known besides that it was made, that it did not occur, and that Theophanes claimed that one of Irene’s lovers had sabotaged the negotiations. But the implications are huge.
If the marriage was only intended to bring peace to a still unsettled relationship, it would still have immense importance if it was able to regularize the relationship between Imperial Rome’s two successor states. Relations between East and West would continue to worsen after the death of all the participants in this story. In the 11th century, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches would officially schism, and the geopolitical consequences of this remain relevant to this day along fault lines in places like the Balkans. Of course, the schism was mainly over the question of Papal Supremacy, but it was the Pope who had chosen to bestow Imperial Titles upon Charlemagne, an assumption of authority that many in the East did not take kindly too. The consequences of a modus vivendii being successfully negotiated in 802 are too immense to contemplate. But the real question hanging over us is: could they have successfully reunited the two halves of Europe? We don’t know if this was even contemplated then. But we can contemplate it now.
One of the biggest problems faced by both the Frankish and Byzantine Empires was their lack of a proper succession system. In the East, the glorious Roman tradition of constant military coups was carried on splendidly. (Irene herself was removed from power by a conspiracy of generals later that year). As for the Franks, they had an unfortunate habit of dividing their realms between all of their sons, who then spent the next few decades murdering each other. Charlemagne himself was spared this stupidity by the virtue of having only one surviving son, Louis the Pious. He, on the other hand, divided up the empire upon his death, and that’s where France and Germany come from. If Charlemagne had truly intended to amalgamate his imperium with Irene’s, then the influence of Greek and Latin legal scholars would undoubtedly have increased as Frankish and Roman law codes were reconciled. Would this be enough to have convinced Louis to institute primogeniture or similar system? Likewise in the East, would the Throne having the support of the Frankish army broken the independent power of the military? At the very least, it’s possible.
Was It Likely:
We don’t know how likely the marriage itself was. There’s just too few sources. It certainly seems plausible. But I suspect that it would not have resulted in anything more than a temporary detente between East and West. There was just too much difference between the two empires, culturally, linguistically, legally, and politically to allow easy conjoining. And though the full schism had yet to occur, the religious divisions were stark as well. Worse, given the best will in the world, we are discussing relations between two of the most civil-war prone nations in world history (probably). I find it hard to imagine any agreement lasting more than a decade or so before someone or other repudiated it.
What What Have Happened:
Most likely, whichever monarch left their nation to dwell in their spouse’s capitol would have been deposed as soon as they left. This was not an age in which there was much surplus of legitimacy. Still, they don’t call Charlemagne the Pater Europae for nothing! His reign was so consequential for the Europe that emerged later that even small changes in his rule could have major consequences. For example, let’s presume that an alliance was formed but that it only lasted until 814, when the Emperor died. Would the two realms have tried to link frontiers in the Balkans? Considering that the borders of the Carolingian empire in the Balkan peninsula appear to be roughly the border between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, further conquests by the Franks there could make quite a difference. Would the Franks have been willing to send troops to help defend the Byzantine border from the encroaching Abbasid Caliphate? Nothing in history is predetermined, is it possible that Turkey might never have become Turkish, that it might remain Greek to this day? Unlikely, but within the realm of possibility. And on another level entirely, what of the Carolingian Renaissance? What effect would an infusion of Greek writings and thought into the Royal Court have on the emerging modes of thought in the West?
But for the efforts of a jealous lover, we might have known.