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Past Tense

June 2024
7min read


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.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rough rule. In their recent The Two Georges, the actor Richard Dreyfuss and his collaborator, the very successful alternate-history writer Harry Turtledove, construct a “better” past in which the American Revolution never happened. In this improved America, slavery has been peacefully abolished by benevolent liberal British elites, popular racism is much muted (black Americans are a law-abiding, culturally conservative middle class), Richard Nixon is a much-detested used-car salesman, and only the bad guys—part of a terrorist, white-racist conspiracy—want an independent United States. While in real American history the paradoxes of the first and second Reconstructions have been intricate and sometimes harsh, the altered history of The Two Georges is one in which the American Dilemma is less painful: Slavery and its successor regimes have been effortlessly transcended, albeit at the price of democratic nationhood.

It is possible that for the authors our real history is too dispiriting; perhaps a past that must be revised is one that cannot be transcended. However, alternate histories are not necessarily inspired by dismay, as a look at some of the best of them shows, and while celebrity authorship has its charms, neither Newt Gingrich’s 1945 nor The Two Georges is among those best. What books are?

The more striking alternate histories are true novels, not prose descriptions of war games, and they rarely anatomize the point of divergence from our history. Some of the most interesting are meditations on the contingency of the history that produced our present. Over the last decade several have implicitly argued that the triumph of postwar American liberalism was by no means inevitable; they have done this simply by envisioning various very plausible pasts and the resulting presents. The best of these is the Anglo-Israeli novelist Simon Louvish’s The Resurrections, but at least as haunting is a trilogy by S. M. Stirling.

In The Resurrections Louvish imagines a history branching from ours when Hitler’s failed beerhall Putsch is followed by a successful Communist revolution in Germany and subsequently by Leon Trotsky’s victory over Stalin. Hitler and Goebbels flee to America, where the former becomes a nasty but essentially harmless isolationist senator from Illinois. In this universe World War II and its attendant catastrophes never happen, but with a meticulous logic Louvish produces a history very much uglier than ours. Mussolini’s is the most prominent fascist European regime; others prevail in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Greece, Spain, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria, pretty much where such regimes flourished in our history, but without a world war to sweep them away. Unweakened by a Second World War, the British Empire survives with a conscript army policing a score of brushfire insurgencies and joylessly keeping a precarious peace in its mandate in Palestine. But it is Louvish’s America, the scarred victor in a nuclear war with Japan, that most disturbs the reader. The uglier strains of 1920s and 1930s U.S. politics have produced a plausible political coalition of an isolationist Midwest and an anti-Semitic South. The most toxic American racial and ethnic politics flourish, nothing having been discredited by an Auschwitz that never was. Louvish reminds us that postwar liberalism was to a degree Hitler’s creation, and without its midwife might never have been born.

Few things date faster than visions of futurity, but we can learn a lot about the past by investigating its imagined futures.

S. M. Stirling’s Draka trilogy— Marching Through Georgia, Under the Yoke, and The Stone Dogs —is the most absorbing and disturbing alternate history I have read. Stirling’s branching point is an American Revolution protracted by Britain’s having adopted Ferguson’s breech-loading rifles and culminating with the fall of Canada to the revolutionaries, with British Loyalists relocating in the South African colony recently seized from the Dutch and renamed Drakia (after Francis Drake). Stirling’s “Drakians,” later the Draka, are demographically reinforced by two great refugee waves, first French royalist émigrés and then defeated American Confederates, and are intellectually reinforced by a string of illiberal nineteenth-century refugees—Carlyle, Nietszche, and so forth. Conquering Africa over the course of the nineteenth century and then, in World War I, the Middle East, they are an aggressive, populist-racist slaveholding culture. Marching Through Georgia begins with their opportunistic intervention in World War II; Under the Yoke is set in Draka-occupied Western Europe during the early days of the Draka’s cold war with the United States; and The Stone Dogs follows that cold war to an eventual hot war and a shocking Draka victory.

The victory is shocking in part because the wicked rarely prevail in popular fiction but also because Stirling’s Americans are a rather more attractive lot than the Americans of our history: Facing unabashed ideological racists, they are fervently antiracist; facing libertines and hedonists, they are sober, decent, and disciplined. Yet they are finally crushed and enslaved. Stirling’s Draka, drawn more from Tory Tidewater and harsh Piedmont than from Puritan and Whiggish New England or the Free-Soil Midwest, are a dark twin of our history’s Americans. They are in fact an Anti-America, a settler democracy and frontier society possessed of some of America’s historical virtues and many of its evils. Their social order, antithetical to all the political logic of modernity, must enslave all or be utterly destroyed. The trilogy is superb, an improbably fascinating achievement of what is dismissively called genre fiction. Its literary quality may be mixed, but at its heart is something very interesting indeed.

Very good alternate history can also be written as a sort of extended subversive joke. Kim Newman and Eugene Byrne’s Back in the U.S.S.A. imagines a Communist revolution in 1917 America while czarist Russia simultaneously achieves stabilizing constitutional reform. Back in the U.S.S.A. is hardly credible on the order of Stirling or Louvish, but it is often ingenious, sometimes very witty, and always diverting.

Few things date faster than visions of futurity, with the possible exception of “advanced” ideas; both betray their period origins as surely as does faked art. Confident eras tend to project a future that seems a logical extrapolation of their comfortable present: The Superman comics of the 1950s featured “aircars” that looked exactly like rocket-propelled Cadillacs, Victorian futures were steam-driven, 1950s American ones were happily nuclear-powered, and the bleakness of contemporary cyberpunk fiction is inscribed on silicon. We can learn a lot about the past—and the present—by investigating its imagined futures.

Some alternate histories will be flights from a future that looks grimly overdetermined, but others will flow from a broadening realization that the seductive logic of historical determinism was only a secularized version of the Enlightenment’s Providence. And some of the tales we find most enthralling will appear dull or grossly improbable to posterity. Stirling and Louvish are the best alternate history written for us because the history they imagine is eerily linked to the one we have suffered. It will not always be so, but no matter: Read them now.

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