In 1521, Vasco Núñez de Balboa made the first Spanish sighting from the east of what would come to be known as the Pacific Ocean. The journey had been arduous through jungles and across mountains, and interrupted by attacks on locals to gather gold and pearls, but it came to an end with a celebrated connecting point to fill in another empty space on their globes.
Twenty years before, on Columbus’ third voyage, it had first become clear that there was a good deal of land unknown to Europeans still separating them from the coveted trade of the “South Sea” near India and China. Ferdinand Magellan would show that there was a long way around it by sailing south and that the world could be circumnavigated (at least, the few survivors of his crew would be able to do so). The Northwest Passage, the dream of many explorers, would prove out of the question due to the Arctic ice.
It would be an infuriating problem that would remain for the next 400 years: how to get quickly across the thin strip of land connecting North and South America while dividing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans?
The simple answer is: build a canal.
Continue reading “Crossing the Isthmus: Alternative Canals of Central America”
To protect Northwestern Europe from rising sea levels, two scientists — one Dutch, one German — have proposed enclosing the North Sea.
In The Northern European Enclosure Dam for if Climate Change Mitigation Fails, Sjoerd Groeskamp and Joakim Kjellsson call for one dam closing the almost 500 kilometers (~300 miles) between Scotland and Norway, and another closing off the English Channel.
“See this as a warning,” Groeskamp, who works for the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research,” told The New York Times.
What we’re saying is: Here’s a plan, a plan we don’t want. But if we end up needing it, then it’s technically and financially feasible.
He and Kjellsson write that a Northern European Enclosure Dam (NEED) would be “one of the largest civil-engineering challenges ever faced.”
It’s not a new idea.
Continue reading “Dam the North Sea”
On June 14, 1941, German commanders amassing their forces on the Soviet border received the message “Dortmund”. The name of the city on the River Ruhr was the prearranged codeword that the final preparations for Operation Barbarossa were to begin as a prelude to the commencement of the invasion of the Soviet Union. From this moment on, there could be no turning back. This was the culmination of months of German planning and preparation, and more than a decade of ideological conditioning on behalf of the Nazi regime. It was to be the crucial step in the Nazi plans for European, and eventually global, dominance, yet in retrospect many have argued that it was Hitler’s greatest folly.
In this series, I’ve contemplated how changes in German and Soviet strategy could have altered history and the fortunes of each side, but now that we’re at its end I’d like to finally consider what might have happened if instead of the “Dortmund” message the German commanders at the front had instead been sent the codeword “Altona”, the signal indicating that Barbarossa had been canceled, or at least postponed.
It’s difficult to imagine such a scenario. Hitler had talked of invading the Soviet Union as early as 1922 and had been discussing it as a military reality since the summer of 1940. However, the actual planning for Barbarossa only began in December 1940 and prior to that it might have just been possible that Hitler could have been persuaded to pursue different goals, at least as a prelude to his eventual ambition.
To find out why this might have happened, we need to go back to a train journey undertaken in the autumn of the previous year, one that would shape the course of European history.
Continue reading “When the World Held its Breath: Altona”
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?
Continue reading “Changing the World: L’Hexagone”
For Germans awaking on the Sunday morning of June 22, 1941, the news that their country was at war with the Soviet Union was delivered to them with the usual bombast and lies of Nazi propaganda. They were told that this new war was not an invasion but a preemptive strike, one necessary to deal with the “Soviet Russian-Anglo-Saxon plot” to destroy Germany that was nearing completion. In his statement that morning, Adolf Hitler spoke with great indignation at fictional border violations by Soviet aircraft and scuffles between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht prompted by Soviet aggression and how, as he always claimed, he had done everything to try to preserve peace.
The German people were used to rolling their eyes at this sort of fabrication and, although it has unfortunately endured in some corners of conspiracy theory and the far right, the “Soviet offensive plans controversy” has been universally dismissed by all credible historians. Germany had been actively preparing to invade the Soviet Union since December 1940, it had been a dream of Hitler’s for decades. The notion of the German attack being a preemptive strike is rather easily debunked.
Likewise, there’s no real evidence that the Soviet Union was preparing to attack Germany in the late June of 1941. Indeed, their preparations for a defensive war were being hobbled by a leadership that was desperate to try and avoid any military build-up that could be construed as a “provocation”.
But it’s hard not to wonder whether or not they should have.
If the Soviets had struck before the Germans were ready to launch their own invasion, might they have managed to destroy the German threat and end the Second World War before it had reached its crescendo?
The Red Army’s most famous general seemed to think so.
Continue reading “When the World Held Its Breath: First Lightning”
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?
Continue reading “Changing the World: Unnatural Limits”
Now that monuments to the Confederacy have been torn across the United States, non-Americans may be wondering why the country honored a rebellion in the first place.
The reason is the “Lost Cause”: an extensive mythology developed in the aftermath of the Civil War by Southern artists, authors and politicians, which denied the true cause of the conflict (slavery) and idealized the Antebellum South.
The best-known example is the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind, which was based on a 1936 novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell. But there were many more books, magazines, poems, songs and statues that promoted the Lost Cause. Cities, streets and military forts were named after Confederate leaders. The Confederate battle flag was incorporated into the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi.
The goal was to give defeated white Southerners a new sense of pride and purpose and roll back the emancipation of freed slaves.
Given how omnipresent the Lost Cause was in Southern art and literature, and how widespread Confederate nostalgia remains, it can seep into our alternate histories if we aren’t careful. So let’s take a look at what the Lost Cause is and how it can work, so we know what to avoid.
Continue reading “Lost Cause: Genre Trope to Avoid”
As Barbarossa began, Soviet troops at the front were often asleep.
When the Germans struck, their stocks of ammunition and fuel were low without any preparation for a fight and the stockpiles available were often either destroyed or captured within the first days of the conflict. The Red Air Force planes were arranged in neat rows for the Luftwaffe to destroy, leading to over a thousand planes lost on the ground. For the first week of the war, the Soviets lacked any form of centralized high command; a situation further exacerbated by lines of communication having been disrupted by the invasion and often non-existent with a lack of access to adequate codes meaning that the railway telephone was often the only link between the troops on the ground and the leaders of the Soviet state.
It was in this environment that desperate counterattacks were ordered up and down the front, all of which inevitably failed. Soviet formations instructed to attack were often unable to discern which direction they were supposed to be attacking toward, or, in the words Red Army Captain Anotoli Kruzhin,
Not [able] to find where the enemy was positioned, but Soviet units, — their own army!
The Red Army was like a blindfolded boxer with one arm tied his back, flailing around and desperately throwing punches at an experienced opponent, unable to land a significant blow or even to see where he should be aiming.
These failures made a catastrophe in the first weeks of the German-Soviet war an inevitability for the Red Army, but to what extent could their performance have been improved had they been allowed to prepare?
The answer, ironically, lies in the reason for their lack of preparedness.
Continue reading “When the World Held Its Breath: Fixed Bayonets”
Fog in Channel. Continent Cut OffApocryphal 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?
Continue reading “Changing the World: Continent Cut Off”
To the student of history, the premise of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle (2015-19, our review here), based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name, isn’t easy to accept. The United States, in the real world an industrial titan and the “Arsenal of Democracy”, is defeated in World War II and replaced by two Axis puppet states. The show justifies its alternate history with a favorite dieselpunk trope: Nazi superscience. Specifically, the “Heisenberg device” atomic bomb, which is used to decapitate the American leadership in Washington DC in December 1945.
The “history” of Nazi-ruled America is more credible. Institutions like the FBI neatly fold into the New Order. Former soldiers, like John Smith (Rufus Sewell), join the SS. Jews and other undesirables, including the mentally and physically disabled, are exterminated with little resistance.
One political aspect of the show which was very much on-point came late in Season 3, when (spoilers ahead!) the recently crowned Reichsführer, Heinrich Himmler, observes the celebrations of a Jahr Null, or Year Zero, in an alternate 1963.
Continue reading “Year Zero in The Man in the High Castle”