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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Dreams of Arab Unity

Proposals for unification of the Arab world are more than a century old. Sharif Hussein ibn Ali of Mecca, the steward of the holy cities of Islam, was the first modern Arab leader who sought independence for his people from the Ottoman Turks.

The British, who at the time controlled Aden and Egypt, promised to support Hussein’s ambitions if he would revolt against the Ottomans during the First World War; a promise Britain infamously reneged on.

It would be the first of many disappointments for pan-Arabists.

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Mapping the Second World War in Africa

Following the Nazi conquest of Europe, the focus of the Second World War in the West shifted to Africa. Commonwealth forces joined with the Free French under Charles de Gaulle to drive the Italians out of East Africa and Cyrenaica. The war went so poorly for the Italians that Adolf Hitler had to send in Erwin Rommel, who managed to push the British halfway into Egypt before he was stopped.

The front switched back and forth several times, and for a while it seemed that the Axis might reach the Suez Canal, which would have put the British Empire’s supply lines in serious jeopardy. A decisive victory for the British at the Second Battle of El Alamein and American reinforcements in 1942 turned things around. The Axis powers were cornered in Tunisia, which would serve as a springboard for the Allied invasion of Italy.

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The Nazi Conquest of Europe in Maps

World War II started in 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and Britain and France declared war. But the Nazi conquest of Europe started years earlier.

In 1935, the coal-rich Saarland rejoined the Reich. The following year, Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles Treaty. Austria and what is now the Czech Republic were annexed in 1938.

At the height of his power, Hitler ruled an empire stretching from the Franco-Spanish border in the southwest to Svalbard (Spitsbergen) in the north to the Caucasus in the east. Here is a short history of how it happened — with maps!

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Ephemeral States of the Russian Civil War

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, many states were proclaimed in the territory of the former Russian Empire. Some were ethnic minorities looking for autonomy. Others were warlords claiming legitimacy through the veneer of a state. Others yet were proto-Soviet republics that were later incorporated into the USSR.

PisseGuri82” has created a beautiful map of these ephemeral states of the Russian Civil War.

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Countries That Almost Existed

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand proposed dividing up Belgium between France, Germany and the Netherlands. Heinrich Himmler fantasized about crowning himself regent of an independent Burgundy. The Allies in World War II had multiple plans for Balkan federation. Iraq and Libya both pushed plans for Arab unification.

The only things these schemes have in common is that nothing came of them. Belgium still exists. Burgundy doesn’t. The Balkans and the Arab world are even more divided.

What if history had taken a different turn? Here is a look at the countries that almost existed.

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