Sunday, 22 June 2008

When Counter-Factual Becomes Controversial

It is a rare event when people playing around with counter-factual, what if? history provoke much interest in the popular media. To some extent this is because it often needs at least a decent knowledge of the real history to understand the divergence. This was why the movie 'Fatherland' (1994) which envisaged a Europe in which the Nazis won the Second World War went straight to video in the USA and similarly, 'C.S.A. - The Confederate States of America' (2004) disappeared without a trace in the UK, I cannot even find it in DVD stores. So counter-factuals in the popular media tend to attract only limited interest among the small, if not insignificant fans of such fiction and movies, who are often into science fiction too, so are semi-marginal to mainstream culture. It is rare that much interest is evoked.

A few years ago, probably around the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1995, I read an article, I believe in the 'Daily Mail', a very populist-nationalist UK newspaper I tend to avoid, but anyway it had an article written as if reporting the news for that day in 1995 in a world where the UK had been defeated by Nazi Germany and the leading members of the Royal Family had Germanicised names and so on. No-one asked how they dare do that, it was taken as a bit of fun and a reminder of what could have happened and why we should remember to be grateful for those who had fought and died 1939-45.

When I was growing up I remember an advert in the early 1980s which showed the UK's flag, the so-called Union Jack, but with the corner quarter with a hammer-and-sickle on a red background so making it appear that the UK had become one of the states of USSR (all the Soviet republics, places like Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Estonia, etc. all had their own flags with a hammer-and-sickle but with different symbols as well presumably to be flown at cross-USSR events). It was challenging, but no-one kicked up a fuss about it. Being a young counter-factualist I cut it out and kept it, I should have held on to it until the age of scanning as I can find no example of it online, so had to make my own one which you can see below as an illustration.

Whilst searching for this I did find a US version probably making a similar point. Anyway, this was released as an advertising campaign at the height of the Cold War (the period 1979-85 is often called the Second Cold War as it followed an era of detente), when most of us thought there would be a Third World War and many Britons anticipated a Soviet invasion, but there were no calls to ban the advert or boycott the company. People accepted it for what it was, an advertisement and something thought provoking. There was even a TV series called 'Comrade Dad' (I think 1986) where the Soviets had invaded sealing all the UK leaders in their nuclear bunkers and setting up a Soviet state in the UK.

Flag of the Soviet Republic of the British Isles (c. 1983)

Flag of the USSA?

However, a counter-factual advertising campaign by the Swedish company Absolut, who makes spirits, notably vodka, has triggered a mass of complaint in the USA and you can find it wall-to-wall across US blogs and it seems to have damaged the company in the USA despite the fact that the advertisement was aimed at Spanish-speaking countries in Central America plus Mexico (which people tend to forget is actually in North America and is now part of North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) with Canada and the USA).

What this has revealed is both the arrogance of the US public but also their incredible sensitivity. I attended a talk a couple of years ago when the speaker reminded the audience that, even today, most US citizens subscribe to the view established in the 19th century, that the USA has a 'manifest destiny', in other words, it was always fated to be the leading liberal democracy in the world and play out the role that it is doing at the moment. Of course, as most people know, especially those interested in counter-factuals, the USA could easily have ended up very differently to how it has and in fact it was almost chance and then later lots of money, that meant the USA is the shape and size that it is now. As I have noted on previous blog postings the area of the USA could these days cover easily 3-4 sovereign states, possibly ones where French, Dutch, Spanish or Russian was the predominant language. It was only by a close vote that the USA did not have German as an equally recognised language to English for official documents.

Internally, as I have noted before, you may have ended up with a native American state or a Mormon theocracy or a whole host of states which do not exist. The border with Canada could be very different, let alone that with Mexico. However, of course to the average US person all of this is rubbish and the USA was always going to be the strength and size that it is now. More than that, to say anything different is to be offensive and to open yourself to attack. The campaign by Absolut has triggered more reaction in the USA than any other counter-factual I know. Let us have a look at it as it is very pictorial.

Original Absolut Advertisement, April 2008

The message is simply, that Mexico rather than losing the territory it did after 1836 simply held on to it. This would have left it in control of Texas and states across the South-West to California. This would give it the current US states from West to East: California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma. Of course, many of these states have a high Hispanic population anyway. If we look at maps from 1835 we find this is really what North America looked like at the time, anyway, though with the Americans also claiming control of what is now British Columbia in Canada.

North America in 1835

However, clearly to say that this is possibly how North America could have turned out is apparently incredibly offensive to Americans in a way that actually puts them in more of a bad light than if they accepted it. (It reminds me of what I wrote a few months back in the posting ‘Denying the Counter-Factual’:  In this posting I outlined how a computer game permitting ‘what ifs?’ of the Second World War would not accept a Japanese invasion of the USA as feasible but a German invasion of the UK was seen as fine. Compared to Mexico, the USA remains an incredibly wealthy and powerful country; surely they could accept a little joke or speculation, graciously. Someone at Absolut could have gone further and used a 1783 map instead. However, I feel that somehow the USA would have engineered a war against Mexico or Sweden as the result of their fury of a contemporary map created on the basis of this one:

Actual North America, 1783

The reaction from the USA to the Absolut advert has been vigorous. They have indulged in counter-factual maps by the dozen, somehow seeking to get back at the original advertisements. However, these do two things, either demonstrate the racism which is clearly inherent in the outlook of so many US citizens and also continue with the myth that the USA has been the defender of the whole globe for democracy when, for decades, they have been propping up dictators all over the world.  Remember Saddam Hussein was supported and armed by the USA until they tired of him.

USA's Iron Curtain

This is not actually far from the truth of what goes on along the border with the USA anyway. Their border patrols constantly police a barren border to stop people coming into the country and supplying the cheap labour that the USA still seems to want despite its economic troubles. Despite both countries being in NAFTA there is not free movement of labour between them or with Canada (the quota of Canadians allowed into the USA is 80,000 per year and it is always over-subscribed). Of course you can easily view the map the opposite way to the US creator did, and that is the Mexicans getting so annoyed about elderly US people crossing the border to make use of Mexico's cheap, efficient socialised health service because health care and dentistry in the USA is so expensive that it is outside the reach of millions of US citizens. At the US-Mexican border you can see queues camper vans of elderly Americans trying to get across the border to exploit the Mexican health service. Maybe one day, Mexico will say enough is enough and bar them.

American Formal Imperialism Goes Mad

This one is a simplistic come-back at the original advertisement and shows none of the knowledge of history of that one. Mexico has done nothing bad in this campaign, it did not encourage Absolut to draw up maps of it still controlling more of North America. In fact if the USA had wanted this model then they probably could have done it in 1850s or the 1870s. They may have achieved it as early as 1846 when the French were trying to turn Mexico into their colony. The USA would rather have a poor weak neighbour to its South than invade and run it as a colonial territory. This model would also ensure as is beginning to happen now, that Spanish would be the predominant language of the USA, unless whoever produced this map envisaged mass cultural processing of the Mexican population.

Greater Texas

People with regional interests seem to have got on to the bandwagon, with a semi-comic one of an expanded Texas. I doubt any history behind this has been thought through but one could envisage Mid-West states in the 1840s adhering to a confederation sponsored by Texas. Of course Texas had to yield much of its land to the North and West on joining the USA anyway.

This one taps into the surprisingly enduring affection among many Americans for the CSA. Interesting to note no West Virginia, presumably it would have been reabsorbed by Virginia as part of any peace treaty with the USA. Interestingly, the CSA in this seems to have no effort to expand West as it could have done after 1865 (New Mexico did not become a state in the USA until 1912) and Oklahoma was not organised at the time at all, so I would have expected to see the CSA farther West.

Modern Day Confederate States of America

Now, there are spin-offs from the first advertisement which have been taken up by others who have been keen to emphasise what they see as the USA's central role in defending democracy in the World. Most crudely, in the first we see the assumption that a smaller USA would not have been in a position to send troops into in North Africa in 1942 and Europe in 1943. Of course with far less of a Pacific seaboard the smaller USA may have become more sooner involved in Europe and perhaps it would have been the Mexicans fighting the Japanese over economic penetration of China, the Philippines and other Pacific islands.

Greater Deutschland

This makes numerous mistakes. Outside what he saw as Greater (ethnic) Germany and its colonies in eastern Europe, Hitler (like Napoleon) always preferred puppet states to annexation, so it would be unlikely that he would have annexed all these lands and certainly would not have bothered with Spain, Portugal and Italy all difficult countries to fight in and friendly to Nazi Germany anyway. Like the planners of 1914, he also accepted the need for 'windpipes' in war and this is why plans for the invasion of Switzerland were dismissed and there was no attempt to conquer Sweden though after the relative ease of Norway it would have been even easier to take Sweden and its invaluable iron ore.

All of modern day Poland has been annexed on this map, but there has been no attempt to go farther despite the Baltic States and the Ukraine being seen by Hitler as natural settlement areas for the Germans. This suggests, maybe, an inconclusive war with the USSR which led to the Germans taking the rest of Poland but being kept out from going farther. Interestingly, all of North Africa is outside German control, even though the UK has been conquered. Perhaps the Americans hold it. The USSR was always interested in Libya after the war, so perhaps, by invading through Turkey they have swept through the Middle East and North Africa taking these lands from Britain, France and Italy while the Germans were preoccupied elsewhere.

This one is more subtle and is more realistic. What we see is that the 'Nordic' areas have been annexed to Germany, so absorbing Denmark, the Netherlands and all of Belgium, though taking in Slovakia (which was a puppet state during the war) as well as Bohemia-Moravia. The pinky areas of the Baltic States and Belarus are presumably the areas being developed for German colonisation in the short-term.

The darker brown countries seem to be German allies, though in our world northern France and Norway were under German military occupation in a way Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria were not until near the end of the war. The paler brown ones such as Serbia, Montenegro, the Ukraine, Greece, Turkey and Spain were different to each other in our history. Why there has been intervention in Spain and Turkey I do not know, perhaps these are countries being economically exploited by Germany. The Serbia in our world was run by the military, Turkey was neutral as was Spain though under Franco sympathetic to Germany. This map suggests Serbia is a puppet state, but not an ally in the way Norway, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia are shown as being. Finland and Vichy France in blue are presumably not hostile to Germany but not allies either and that is close to reality. Interesting are the neutral states of Switzerland, the area around St. Petersburg and the Crimea, the latter two presumably as a result of the peace treaty between the USSR (seen in mid-green) and Germany.

Countries in white are true neutrals - Eire and Sweden. Italy retains its hold on its gains in South-East France, Corsica and Greater Albania. Libya is not shown on the map but we can assume Italy has held it and has possibly taken Egypt from the UK.

Of course, what this map completely neglects is that without US and UK intervention in Europe especially from June 1944 onwards, the centre of Europe most likely would have come under Soviet control. From 1943 the USSR was beginning to roll the Germans back across Central Europe. Whilst they may not have wanted to go beyond the Rhine, if D-Day had failed, it is generally accepted that Germany would have come under total Soviet control and that Communist parties certainly in France and Italy where they were very strong anyway would have come to power, most likely in Greece too. So, if this world is based on a weaker USA because half of North America would be Mexican then it is likely the hammer and sickle would dominate the centre of this map rather than the swastika.

Palestine Resurgent

Another twist on a smaller, weaker USA is the fate of Israel. In this one it no longer exists. This one is rather harsh on the Jordanians assuming that they would have been absorbed into a larger Palestine, which at times in the 1970s might have appeared to be the case. I assume this map suggests the weaker USA could not fund and arm Israel during its wars of 1948, 1967 or 1973. If it had come about from the British selecting a different option either in 1919 or in 1948 then you would expect to see a stronger Jordan (given it has long been a UK ally). It might be doubtful whether Israel needed such US support anyway to win, but, again, of course, many of these maps are based on the assumption that without a strong USA the world would be a very different place and, for some people, a worse place. This map might also be the outcome of something like the Jewish homeland in Alaska which has been discussed before on this blog.

Now, there have been a few counter-factual maps that seem not to extend from the original one showing a smaller USA, but have got on board with the 'Absolut' trend of varying pictures of the world.

Anti-Muslim Immigrant Map

This one seems predicated on the basis of fear of immigration, especially of people from a Muslim background. It shows England/Wales/Scotland as North Pakistan, though immigration from Pakistan is at an all-time low. Similarly immigration from Turkey to Germany is overshadowed greatly these days by immigration from eastern European countries now in the EU. Indonesian immigration into the Netherlands similarly does not appear to be on a great scale, and the country takes immigrants from many countries, personally, I have noted in particular from Vietnam. Albanian immigration into Italy is long-standing, but again these people are weak in society and not in a position to challenge politically. Italy economically penetrating and dominating Albania as it did in the 1930s might be more of a feasible development. The revision of the reconquista to restore the Moorish Emirate seems very unlikely, and if so, then surely Portugal would be there too. The Chechens are certainly in no position to control Russia.

Other, less xenophobic situations, shown are the reunification of Ireland which currently might be more certain but steps in that direction remain slow. Austria-Hungary, presumably from the economic penetration of Hungary by wealthier Austria, again, might be feasible, but unnecessary now that both are part of the EU, they do not need such formal control. The British taking over the Balearic Islands, is fun, but actually it is the Germans who own far more property on the islands than the British, though they do make up a large slice of visitors. Why Bosnia has become a sultanate and Poland gone back to being a principality (surely it would be a kingdom?) is not explained or clear, especially given the lack of monarchs in North African and Near Eastern states, you have to get to Jordan to find one. Overall, this may be from a US perspective that sees Europe as 'soft' on Islamist terrorism. Of course France has been very strict in Francifying immigrants and keeping religious dress out of public life, so this can hardly be seen as 'soft' they just did not want to be involved in a foolish war in Iraq which had nothing to do with terrorism or Muslim fundamentalism.

Persistence of the Abassid Caliphate?

My medieval Middle Eastern history is quite weak but this looks like something along the lines of the Abbasid Caliphate of the 9th century but without its expansion into central and western North Africa, it is closer to the extent around the mid-7th century CE, though constrained by modern state boundaries, they clearly did not think they could let Libya on board or reconquer down the Nile. This state, of course, with the oil and military power it would possess would be very powerful in world affairs but face immense internal turmoil between the Turkic groups, the Arabs and the Iranians, plus language challenges, as most people in these states know Koranic Arabic, but Turkey speaks Turkish and Iran, Farsi. Also the difference between say Istanbul, Cairo, Lebanon, Dubai, Baghdad, Jeddah in themselves and, then, against say rural Yemen, would be immense, so these divisions might severely weaken the state on world scene.

Persistence of Western Roman Empire and Byzantium

Now, if some of these maps lack knowledge of history others have a perceptive grasp. This one seems to see the persistence of the division of western and eastern Roman empire in 395 CE. However, with some oddities. Despite presumably a Christian Roman empire, Islam has come to Spain, maybe following a Roman crusade to recapture the land or possibly it was bought by the Roman empire, which in its earlier history was quite renowned for tolerating numerous religions. England has been lost to the Roman empire, but, as happened in our 11th century, has become united with Denmark. We believe that the Romans penetrated farther into Germany than we once thought but lost most of it by the first decade of the 1st century CE, but here the Roman Empire has remained across Germany with the states beyond its borders evolving into ones similar to what we have today such as Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Baltic States and Russia.

On this map, Byzantium never fell or was never weakened and it faces the Assyrians rather than the Seljuk Turks. Armenia seems unravaged by Turkish or Mongol incursions, suggesting that things in Central Asia have been more divisive with the steppe tribes in-fighting preventing them coming West.

Presumably in this world there have been no 'dark ages' and Roman civilisation has continued to prosper. Would it still be a world of slavery or would technology have advanced? This might be a Europe with rich ancient culture but technology of the middle ages. Would Latin and Greek be the linguae franca of much of the world?

Persistence of Canaan

This sees the persistence of Canaan from the Biblical times, probably in existence as early as 2350 BCE. Now, this may be an anti-Jewish map or certainly anti-Zionist as Jews perceive Israel as a sanctification of Canaan when it became their homeland. Now in the USA there is a lot of protest when any public person has a map which does not show Israel on it, despite it having been out of existence for millennia. So, I would take this one as suggesting, probably from an Arab perspective, that it would be better if Jewish involvement in the Middle East had not come about. That would not have eliminated the Jews as a people and we might see another part of the region as being Israel, possibly on the Arabian peninsula or in Iraq. Of course, to say such things is in itself painfully controversial as in Jewish and, thus, Christian faith, the land of current Israel was designated for the Jews by God. So, this one, possibly superficially bewildering for many people goes could prove to be the most controversial of all, going to the issues around the states of Israel and Palestine and their perceived origins in ancient history.

Overall it is quite outstanding that an advertising executive could promote such a reaction to counter-factual scenarios. However, as is often the case, they tell us as much about ourselves, especially contemporary US, Arab and Jewish sensitivities as they do about the history. In my view, US hysteria about the original advertisement suggests they need to grow up and recognise that you can indulge in questioning. To be so hostile to a single map that was not even aimed at the US market, suggests an incredible sense of weakness and a stunning arrogance that your truth is the only truth and beyond that it should not even be questioned or explored. That is as anti-intellectual as the non-democratic regimes the USA prides itself on overthrowing.
Victory of Nazi Germany


MCG said...

You reminded me of Kim Newman & Eugene Byrne's "USSA" alternate history stories, about a US which underwent a communist revolution in about 1917. No map in the book; I should cook one up just for the fun of it. The stories have only been collected in hardcover, sadly, but they're a lot of fun if you can live with the authors' constant namechecking of famous people both real and fictional.

Rooksmoor said...

MCG, thanks for pointing these out, despite my interest in counter-factual novels, I had not come across these. I know it was a kind of popular 'what if?' in the 1980s to consider a Communist USA but typically after a Soviet invasion. I will hunt these out. I have always been pretty impressed by Kim Newman's work.

If you do produce a map, I would love to see it and link to it. Regards, Rooksmoor.

Rooksmoor said...

People interested in the USSA novels, might like to check out:

Apparently Newman & Byrne are now working on novels about Britain occupied by the Nazis.

Rooksmoor said...

There is a single novel, 'Back in the USSA' (1997) which includes all the USSA short stories.

The Nazi-occupied Britain novel is 'The Matter of Britain'.

Mitch said...

I wrote to Eugene Byrne after I followed up that link about The Matter of Britain. I said to him he might think of doing something about Fascist Britain rather than yet another story of Nazi occupation. I pointed at your His Majesty's Dictator and also mentioned the Inferno story from '70s Doctor Who. Anyway this is what he wrote back -

Thanks for the feedback (we get about one email a year from the alternate history site). To be honest, that project is sort of on hold, possibly indefinitely due to lack of publisher interest.

Some interesting ideas there, although personally I've never much liked the idea of Britain as a military dictatorship because it's not an idea I can take particularly seriously. I can see a Britain which in extreme circumstances is run by an authoritarian oligarchy with the army as one of its pillars of support, but not yer classic dictatorship. Same with fascism really; Mosley and his Blackshirts never had any serious prospect of even coming close to power. The BNP nowadays is a far greater threat precisely because it looks like a political party rather than a bunch of strutting uniformed prats.

Anyway, fingers crossed that Matter of Britain finds someone to publish it one day, and thanks again.

All the best, Eugene

- Thought that might interest you.


MCG said...

Belated comment-on-the-comments:

Have a look for "The Summer Isles" by Ian Macleod; it's set in an honestly fascist Britain with a Mosley-type figure. The backstory has Britain being defeated in WWI.


Rooksmoor said...

MCG, thanks for that. I will follow it up. I could not believe I was the only person who had thought to do a novel about a British defeat in the First World War. I will add the book to my birthday list which is always full of 'what if?' books for my family to track down for me.


Anonymous said...

Why your page colors are white on black? It is hard to read.

Rooksmoor said...

I am a Goth and monochrome is an important part of Goth identity. When I started this blog 5 years ago there was a limited range of styles you could use anyway. In addition, I started using computers in a time when you could only have text green on black or white on black, so it is the style that I am most used to seeing. If you cannot read it, I suggest you copy the posting that interests you and post it into a Word document where you can read it with any colour, background, size or font that you like.