Changing the World: L’Hexagone

What they call France here is the land beyond the Loire, which to them is a foreign country.

Jean Racine, 1662

The year is 1941. The location a nightclub and gambling den in French Morocco. A group of boorish German officials are belting out a loud piano rendition of “Die Wacht am Rhein”, to the forlorn disapproval of the rest of the patrons. With the tacit approval of the proprietor, Paul Henreid instructs the house band to play “La Marseillaise”.

Such is the set-up for one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in cinema history, from the 1942 film Casablanca. The location of the scene, the nationalities and loyalties of the characters, and the time and place in history of the both the story and the film’s production all combine in those emotions. The anthems being sung by each nation’s citizens — France and Germany — are given new context amid global war and the occupation of the former nation’s homeland by the army of the latter.

Both “La Marseillaise” and “Die Wacht am Rhein” were originally written at a time of national awaking. In implicitly identifying their people with their nations, they implore the former to fight for the latter. It is no coincidence that both songs reference the Rhine River, long thought of as representing the natural boundary between France and Germany.

In our history, a powerful French state has been a near-constant of the European map since the Dark Ages. Modern-day France exists within the limits of physical geography. She is bounded by sea coasts and by the ranges of the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Jura mountains. Only her eastern frontier is less clearly defined.

But how inevitable is the emergence of this powerful, unified French state? Does geography make l’Hexagon inevitable? What limits does geography set for an alternate France?

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Changing the World: Unnatural Limits

If otherwise mountains had arisen, rivers flowed or coasts trended, then how very different would mankind have scattered over this tilting place of nations.

Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803)​

Last time we discussed whether it was by fluke or fate that a single United Kingdom had come to occupy the island of Great Britain. The UK being able to set most of her borders upon the shoreline has proven something of a geographic and historic advantage, one many other states and nations lack. What options remain for less blessed lands? Natural borders perhaps?

A “natural border” is a border between states that follows natural geographic features (rivers, mountain ranges, coastlines). But just how “natural” are natural borders? Say you’re creating an alternate-history map or else worldbuilding for a story or timeline: should the nations on your world map be created with semi-random borders in the interests of maximum divergence from our timeline? Or should their borders instead snap to natural features wherever possible — in effect converging to where these have occurred in our own history. Is there something inevitable about natural borders that makes them more likely to arise in any timeline? Does physical geography even hold so strong a control on borders in our own timeline?

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Changing the World: Continent Cut Off

Fog in Channel. Continent Cut Off

Apocryphal newspaper headline​

In the first article of this series, I introduced the concept of geographical determinism: the idea that the destiny of a people or a nation is set by its geographical situation. We know that alternate history is dependent on contingency — the idea that the course of history can be changed, either by conscious action or by the confluence of events. How then might these two concepts be reconciled? How can a timeline explore a divergent historical while still remaining bound by geographical constants?

In this second article, I want to explore an example of geographical determinism close to many of our readers’ homes; that of Great Britain as an island nation. (I should stress that the scope of this article exclusively refers to the island of Great Britain and not to the United Kingdom or to the island of Ireland. This is primarily for reasons of length, as the inclusion of Ireland would considerably complicate the subject.) What has being an island meant for Britain, as a concept and as a practical endeavor? How has being an island driven the unification of the many British nations into what is (for now) a single unitary state? And finally, what, if we understand these geographic influences to be constants, are the possibilities for alternative Great Britains?

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Changing the World: The Geography of Alternate History

In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)​

Alternate history is all about contingency. In layman’s terms, asking “what if?”

We look at what did happen historically and we ask “what if it had happened differently?” What if a certain famous battle had been won by the other side? What if a famous statesmen or politician had never been born? What if a great empire had never risen? When we ask these questions we instinctively understand the notions of cause and effect — one event drives another; actions have consequences. What happens in history is contingent upon what events happened before.

If you change the past, you change the future.

Alternate history is a rejection of historical determinism. For it to be possible for events to have occurred differently to those in our own timeline, history cannot be predetermined. If you set your point-of-divergence back far enough, nothing in history is inevitable.

But what if some things are? What if certain circumstances in history actually do make certain outcomes inevitable, or at least highly likely? How might the deck be stacked in favor of our timeline, and what does this mean for alternate history and for the stories and timelines we want to write?

In this series of articles I’ll be exploring the concept of geographical determinism as it can be applied to alternate history — and specifically how physical geography influences the course of history.

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