Thursday, 19 March 2009

'What If?'s from WorldoHistory

As I was wandering around the internet (something I tend to do rather than surf) I came across an interesting list of counter-factual history questions from the WorldoHistory blog:

The blogger, G.H. Kanowitz, is a physics teacher but with a real interest in history. I assume G.H. is a man and is located in the USA, but I might be wrong about both of those things. Anyway, G.H.'s blog has lots of fascinating quizzes about aspects of history, but naturally my greatest interest was in G.H.'s list of counter-factual history questions. Despite it being posted in February 2007, I was the first person to make any comments, so if you enjoy counter-factual discussions go there and post some of your viewpoints. Some of G.H.'s questions I have covered here on this blog, but others I am keen to tackle in the future. For reference, G.H.'s questions are:

1. What if Alexander the Great had had an heir? What form would his Empire taken?

2. What if Hitler had died from a gas attack in World War I? Would Communism spread much quicker? Would the State of Israel been born?

I think the best view of a world in which Hitler died in 1918 due to war injuries can be seen in Stephen Fry's 'Making History' (1995), because though it envisages Hitler never being born, the outcomes of him being removed before he became politically active in the 1920s is pretty much the same. Fry sees a more effective nationalist leader coming to the fore in Germany and winning the Second World War and eliminating the Jews. Jewish emigration to Palestine, which was controlled by the British from 1919 onwards, was occurring in the 1920s-30s. It depends if Britain had been defeated or remained free to decide its own imperial policy. It is likely that in any world in which the Jews were persecuted by the Nazis (or a similar grouping) they would have permitted a state of Israel. It would have been different if a nationalist but not anti-Semitic government had come to power in Germany and had not embarked on war across Europe. This may have occurred as there were few people with the political and diplomatic skills of Hitler combined with his utter drives to destroy the USSR and the Jews. In this case, Israel would have been less likely.

Hitler's impact was to actually spread Communism further and quicker. Of course he killed many Communists and banned the German Communist Party but his attack on the USSR in 1941 meant that the Communists became some of the most active resisters across Europe, raising Communist Party membership in all occupied and Allied countries (including the UK, there were 2 Communist MPs in parliament 1945-50) and giving them a real standing in the post-war world. Of course the Red Army's occupation of Eastern Europe having pushed the Germans out of those states also forced Communism into those countries. Though Stalin let the Greek Communists be crushed by Anglo-American and Greek Royalist forces in the Greek Civil War. So, without Hitler and his desires for Europe, Communism would not have spread so strongly across Europe and the East European states would probably have instead remained with authoritarian dictatorships post-1945.
My views on the death of Hitler at later dates can be seen at:

3. What if the American Revolution [i.e. the American War of Independence for British readers] had failed? Would the U.S. be part of the Commonwealth today or would it have gained independence later? Would it still be a Superpower today?
My views on this are at:

4. What if Japan had defeated the U.S. in the Second World War’s Pacific Theatre? Would communism still have taken hold in China? Would the Soviet Union have emerged as a Superpower? Would the Cold War involve three parties instead of two?
On this one, I argued that the USSR was really a superpower even before 1939 and we had a Cold War of three superpowers: USA, USSR and China anyway. However, I feel Japanese victory in the Pacific War is certainly worthwhile exploring and whether then Japan rather than China would have become the third superpower.
P.P. 20/03/2009 - I have now tackled these issues at:

5. What if Alaska had never been sold to the U.S. by the Russians? How would this have affected Canada and the U.S.? What type of Cold War situations could have arisen in such a universe?
A discussion of this is in the Russian America section of:

6. What if Paganism had succeeded in halting the advance of Christianity in Europe? Would the Jews still have been persecuted? Would Europe been saved the ravages of religious war? How would Islam have spread with no large scale counter-balancing force?

7. What if the English had not defeated the French in Canada? Would a significantly larger portion of North America have become Francophone? How would this have changed the complexion of the U.S.?

8. What if Britain had been connected to Europe by an isthmus? Would the country have developed the Great Empire it once held? Would English been so universal a language? How dominant would the Royal Navy have been in power politics? Would Napoleon and Hitler have successfully invaded and conquered Britain?
I had a go at this one at:

9. What if the Ancient super-continent of Pangaea had not split apart? How would this have changed Power Politics assuming the development of modern countries?
My views on this can be found at:

10. What if males and females had equal physical strength? Would so many societies have been male-dominated? Would there be more or less strife? Would the population have increased by the large number that it has?

11. What if the Arabs had accepted the 1947 Palestine Partition Plan? Would an Arab state have existed in peaceful harmony with a Jewish state? Would the region be wealthier for it? Would the Arab-Israeli Wars that followed still have taken place?
I think this one is a non-starter. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians believe that they are entitled to this land and have been willing to fight incessantly to regain or keep it. The answer to this can be seen in the current conflicts between Israel and Gaza. Even over this strip of land there is constant fighting and casualties. Neither the Arabs (more widely, not just the Palestinians) nor Israel would have been satisfied with the plan. As was shown in the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, Israel felt it needed more land; the bulk of Arab states would not even consider recognising Israel until the Camp David talks of the late 1970s. I think without the conflict and beyond it, the Cold War, Israel might have been poorer because it would not have received all the aid that the USA piled into the country when the Arab states were being backed by the USSR. In the years 1949-73 Israel received $122 million per year and a total of $277 million in military aid up to 1971 followed by $1 billion in loans for military equipment 1971-3. These are figures from the Jewish Virtual Library so will be sympathetic to Israel's side of the story (they complain the Arab states received three times as much funding and from a range of countries). Since 1974, Israel has received $100 billion in assistance, with packages in 1979, 1985/6 (to help restore the Israeli economy after collapse) and 1996/7. From 1987-98 the country was getting $3 billion per year, then this was scaled down on request of the Israelis and by 2006 was $2.58 billion of which $2.2 billion was military aid. Now a peaceful Middle East would have obviously meant less need for military expenditure and for repair to damaged property, plus the impact of war casualties would have been reduced, but Israel is more likely to have developed simply into a fruit and tourism economy and would rather resemble nearby Cyprus (though its population is ten times larger) rather than the regional, industrial power it has become.
I think that all the wars we have seen would have taken place whatever was done. Even if Britain had decided not to create Israel in 1948 you would have had non-stop terrorist activity in the region from 1945 onwards probably to present day, just look at the experience of the 1930s-40s for the British rulers and the persistence groups wanting an independent state such as the Basque ETA movement. Peace would have been good for Israel (Greece has 3 million more inhabitants than Israel's 7.1 million, but a GDP of $314.6 billion compared to $161 billion for Israel) but it is unlikely ever to have happened.

12. What if the American political and economic experiment was copied in South America after many countries on that continent gained independence in the 19th Century? Would South America be a center of power today? Would the U.S. role in Western Hemisphere politics have been diminished? Would the South American countries eventually have united to form a Federation?

13. What if Genghis Khan’s hordes had reached Paris? How would this have affected European History?
A discussion of a very similar question is at:

14. What if the Magna Carta had never been signed? Would British Liberalism still have evolved? Would the country have been cursed by a greater degree of reactionary tendencies?

15. What if the Roman Empire never existed? Would Western civilization have been so pervasive?


yammerhant said...

The "What if Paganism had succeeded in halting the advance of Christianity in Europe?" made me pause for thought. I suppose the most prevalent faith in prechristian Europe was Celtic paganism (more properly "animism"), but we have no records at all from the Celts - not because they couldn't write, but because it was taboo. Our only information comes from Roman and early Christian authors who were not unnaturally biased against it.

But if they did manage to remain unchristianized, I believe that Islam would have appealed to what was essentially a quite warlike people, given the successful way in which Islam spread to various other pagan countries in Asia.

Given early Islam's favouring of learning and scholarship compared to the early Christians, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to envisage something like the Renaissance occuring eight hundred years earlier than it did.

Rooksmoor said...

Yammerhant, of course Paganism is a broad umbrella term covering a whole range of religions. The Romans themselves were Pagan for most of the life of the empire and their belief in Jupiter et al was very different from what the Celts or later the Saxons believed. Even when the Celts adopted Christianity, Rome-focused Christians dismissed Celtic Christianity and saw the Celtic lands in need of reconversion to 'true' Christianity.

I think there is an assumption that natural development is always towards monotheistic religions, though the endurance of Hinduism and Shintoism as religions for millions of people up to modern times, shows that this is not necessarily the case. I could easily see a kind of Shinto approach to religion with a lot of emphasis on local gods, in the way the Roman state religion took over local gods associated with a particular spring or other location.

I suppose that local religions were always likely to be subsumed beneath centralised ones just due to the manpower and the wealth of these large increasingly multi-national religions able to afford missionaries. Religions that eschewed written text would have held back the development of culture and it is interesting that what are termed 'the religions of the Book', i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the ones which have become dominant across Europe and neighbouring regions and in fact often feature the same people in their writings, though in very different roles.

Of course Islam was an expansive religion like Christianity and there are arguments that the presence of heretical like the Donatists in North Africa weakened Christianity's standing in the region and permitted a faster spread of Islam. As it was, most of Spain by the early middle ages was Muslim and for a few different battle outcomes much of Europe could easily have become Muslim. Yes, in what were seen as the 'Dark Ages' in Europe, the Islamic World, including most of what are now Spain and Portugal were experiencing a vibrant intellectual period.

I certainly do not think Europe would have been spared religious war. If you look at the divisions within Islam that have led to conflict I think we would have seen very little different to what was witnessed by Europe in the medieval and early modern periods with Christianity. Paganism might have been more accepting of differences, but all rulers love to have a moral argument for making war on other people and I think that that characteristic in people would not have been eliminated no matter what religion they were following.