Past Tense


People have been writing alternate history since at least the early nineteenth century, but for most of that time it was a tiny subgenre of popular fiction. Now it’s being produced in industrial quantities. If you use to browse books by category, you will find more than twenty best-selling titles, and the best Web site on alternate history, Uchronia, lists thousands. Many nations have produced it; one of the first was France (a novel written in the immediate aftermath of Waterloo celebrating a Napoleonic world-empire), and today the franchise has expanded to include British, German, Japanese, Swedish, Italian, Brazilian, Finnish, Polish, Russian, Hebrew, and Spanish examples. Americans, however, write most of it.

While professional historians have traditionally been scornful of alternate history, with the decline of historical determinism some academic historians have also embraced the genre. Virtual History, a highly successful collection of what the academy now calls “counterfactuals,” recently published in Britain, was partly inspired by the Cambridge sociologist Geoffrey Hawthorn’s 1991 book Plausible Worlds, which very carefully worked out three alternate histories and was probably the first serious attempt to move such speculation out of the philosophy departments and into the social sciences since the 1970s, when Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman explored the economic contours of a hypothetical America industrialized without railroads.

While an alternate history is any narrative extrapolating fictional events from a branching moment of possibility, few contemporary efforts take a close look at the point of divergence itself. The books that do are mostly ventures in technical military history—detailed speculations in which the Normandy landings fail (Peter Tsouras’s Disaster at D-Day) and the projected German invasion of England in 1940 succeeds (Kenneth Macksey’s Invasion: The Alternate History of the German Invasion of England, July 1940, among others) and so forth. These books are in some ways bastard descendants of Sir Edward Creasy’s Victorian classic Fifteen Decisive Battles and its innumerable imitators, which, by identifying battle as the crucial event that determined a Whiggish history in which Progress triumphed, opened up the logical possibility of key battles’ going the other way. Indeed, the genre has had an affinity for military history since its beginnings.

People who lose critical battles will always be tempted to speculate on things coming out the other way. Much of the current alternate history flows from the defeated German generals of World War II, whose unreliable and self-serving but extraordinarily influential memoirs—books with titles like Lost Victories—tended to insist that they could have won the thing if only that idiot Hitler hadn’t cramped their style. Winning the war, of course, meant beating the Russians, and the alternate history derived from this memoir literature has given rise to a tenacious set of myths: The invasion of Yugoslavia cost Hitler six weeks of spring campaigning and thus Moscow, and victory, in 1941 (in Russia, those same six weeks saw the Rasputitsa, that period of rain—unknown anywhere else in Europe—so heavy it makes roads actually disappear); the Germans were undone by an unpredictably ferocious winter (in fact, the Russian winter of 1941–42 was almost precisely average); Hitler critically delayed war-winning mass production of the ME262 jets by insisting that they be designed as bombers (there were endless problems building the planes’ engines); had Hitler not diverted the panzers into Ukraine in July, the Wehrmacht could have taken Moscow (it’s not likely, and in any case Moscow is not victory, as Napoleon discovered); the Luftwaffe could easily have won the Battle of Britain and spearheaded a successful invasion by altering (or not altering) its strategy or tactics; and so on, right down to the spring of 1945.

Much of the recent literature flows from the self-serving but influential memoirs of defeated German World War II generals.

One difference between American and other alternate histories is that foreigners tend to Utopian scenarios, Americans to dystopian ones. It seems that less happy histories produce happier alternate histories. Since the 1930s highly regarded Polish fiction has imagined pasts that produced a less precarious present, and nowadays Israeli writers construct pasts in which either Labor or Likud acted differently at some critical juncture, with a more attractive contemporary scene as the result, while contemporary Russians, freed from a theology of historical inevitabilism, conceive vastly different Russian histories, most of them pointing to a present less grim than the one in which they are mired. The Japanese write novels in which they win the Pacific war- and in real life, more disturbingly, teach their schoolchildren history in which Japan is the victim of unprovoked American aggression and China a reluctant beneficiary of pan-Asian generosity.