What If Franz Ferdinand Had Lived?

Matthew Yglesias is worth reading for his political commentary but occasionally dabbles in (alternate) history as well. This week, he has a neat little alternate history in which Franz Ferdinand survives an assassination attempt in Sarajevo in 1914 and turns the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a liberal democracy.

Franz Ferdinand was a liberal who wanted to transform his empire into something of a federation. The Compromise of 1867 had given the Hungarians autonomy, but not the Croats, Czechs and other peoples of the Dual Monarchy.

Franz Ferdinand had less sympathy for the Hungarians, which actually works out in favor of the liberal outcome Yglesias envisages. Too strong a Hungary could have dominated a federation. What it needs to survive is balance.

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What If Poland Stopped the Blitz?

I’ve always been one to root for the underdog, and underdogs don’t come much more quixotic than the Poles at the start of World War II. I’ve always thought about doing a scenario where the Poles survive the German Blitz. I finally decided to do one.

Usually I restrict myself to one change. I tried that with this scenario and couldn’t make it credible. It takes at least three changes to give the Poles a fighting chance. (None of those changes are particularly unlikely, but I’ll admit that I prefer one-change scenarios.)

  1. A Polish secret weapon. Bazooka-type anti-tank weapons are invented in Poland in early 1937, about six years early and secretly, but widely deployed by 1939.
  2. A brilliant Polish aircraft designer does not die in a plane crash in the mid-1930s.
  3. Due to some sort of bureaucratic snafu, the German army is unable to completely reequip itself with a new version of its Enigma coding machines by September 1939.

Ironically, Polish survival might lead to Germany being first with the atomic bomb, and possibly to German world dominance.

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What If Callaghan Survived the 1979 Motion of No-Confidence?

There are few moments in history where you can pinpoint a single decision that brought about momentous changes as a direct result. Even when they are pinpointed, more often than not you find it is not so simple to change it. If a war or an election had gone the other way, it may seem like a single change, but it is so broad as to essential warrant hundreds if not thousands of little changes to actually happen.

Stanislav Petrov deciding not to report a nuclear alarm to his superiors that turned out to be a false alarm is one of these pinpoint moments. A few thousand voters in some marginal constituencies changing their mind thus altering the results of an election is less of a pinpoint and more of a pincushion.

Sometimes, though, an election result can depend on the decision of one person. In 1979, a motion of no-confidence in the Labour Party government led by James Callaghan was passed by a single vote, the resulting general election would be won by the opposition Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher. She would lead the United Kingdom as prime minister for eleven years and her party form the government for seven further years.

A single changed vote and the government would have survived the no-confidence vote… but would it have made a difference in the long term? There are numerous possibilities for the vote to be tied. What changes would they have wrought to the history of the United Kingdom if any of them had voted differently on the evening of March 28, 1979?

In a lot of examinations of alternate history, there is a temptation to try and just avoid the event altogether, but in the instance of a no-confidence vote in the Callaghan government it was perhaps inevitable without enough changes in the events of 1978-79 to stop the opposition from calling it.

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What If Hitler Had Gone for Moscow?

In the spring of 1942, Germany’s generals almost unanimously agreed that the Germans should renew their advance on Moscow. The Soviet counterattack in the winter of 1941-42 had pushed the Germans back somewhat from Moscow, but the Russian capital was still within German reach in the spring of 1942 — 100 miles away at one point.

Hitler overruled his generals. The Soviets had built up formidable defenses around Moscow. They had also concentrated an enormous number of divisions there, including the bulk of their armor. Hitler decided to emphasize the southern front in a quest for oil while running a disinformation campaign to keep the Soviet forces around Moscow pinned there. The generals felt that pushing into the Caucasus without destroying the Soviet army first was like putting your head in a noose. They were proven right at Stalingrad.

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Lost Empire of Tartaria

The lost empire of Tartaria is the most delightful conspiracy theory. It posits that a technologically advanced civilization spanned Eurasia and perhaps parts of North America until as recently as a century ago, when it was erased from history. What’s left of Tartaria are ornate and seemingly out-of-place structures, from opulent churches in Russia to the Shanghai Bund.

The theory stems from disappointment in modern architecture. We once had fabulous Art Deco skyscrapers, Beaux-Arts train stations and Second Empire post offices. Now everything is a glass-and-concrete box. What happened?

The theory is that Americans and Europeans didn’t build those monuments. They are the legacy of a Tartarian Empire that emanated out of Northeast Asia.

Are we supposed to believe that eighteenth-century mapmakers drew a vast “Tartaria” in that region out of ignorance? Surely not! Tartaria was real, and it was the most powerful empire of its time. The Great Wall of China was built not by the Chinese to keep the barbarians out, but by the Tartarians to keep out the Chinese.

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What If Germany Had Returned to War in 1919?

Germany’s World War I-era government collapsed on November 10, 1918. The armistice ending World War I quickly followed. From November 1918 through May 1919, Germany’s new civilian government fought a series of small-scale civil wars against German Communists.

Meanwhile, the victorious Allies were hammering out the terms of German surrender. They were harsh. The Allies presented those terms to German negotiators on April 29, 1919. The terms were published in Berlin on May 7, 1919. The Germans were furious, but by that time they didn’t feel that they had much choice but to sign. They signed the treaty a few hours before the deadline on June 24, 1919.

As Allied terms for Germany’s eastern borders became more apparent, some circles in Germany seriously considered going back to war, at least in the east. Cooler heads prevailed, and Germany’s border with Poland was temporarily settled through a mixture of plebiscites in some areas and small-scale wars between unofficial forces supported by the two countries in others. Germany actually didn’t do too badly in the border disputes. Some mixed areas went to Poland, but others went to Germany. Interwar Germany had quite a few Poles. 

What might have happened if Germany had gone back to war?

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What If Turkey Had Entered World War II?

If you look at a map of Europe and the Middle East, you’ll probably notice that two countries could have given Hitler access to North Africa and the Middle East without too much of a water jaunt. At the west end of the Mediterranean, Spain could have given him access to Morocco and then to the rest of North Africa. On the east end, Turkey could have given him easy access to the Middle East, then on to North Africa. German troops in Turkey could have pushed into Iraq, where Iraqi nationalists revolted against the British in 1941, then Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. They could have also pushed north from Turkey into the Soviet Caucasus region, going after Soviet oil that way rather than through the route which led to Stalingrad.

Both Spain and Turkey stayed neutral through most of World War II. I’ve seen several discussions of what might have happened if Spain had come in on the Axis side. I haven’t seen much on the potential roles of Turkey.

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What If France Had Started World War II?

It is hard to imagine France starting World War II. Its entire military strategy, including the construction of the formidable Maginot Line, was premised on fighting a defensive war. The only people who ever envisaged 1930s France as the aggressor were Nazi propagandists, and I doubt even they believed what they wrote.

To make the scenario remotely plausible, we probably need to start by changing the outcome of World War I. A more lenient peace that would have allowed Germany to keep its gains in the west, including Alsace-Lorraine and maybe Belgium, could have given the world a revanchist France in the 1920s, which in turn could have given way to a Weimar-like France in the 1930s with the far left and far right vying for power. Either could be motivated to start a war.

But such a France would not be allied to Britain, and such a war would not involve the United States. The outcome would almost certainly be French defeat.

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Anglo-Dutch Union

The year is 2039. Princess Catharina-Amalia, heir to the Dutch throne, has married Prince George of Wales, nine years her junior, creating a personal union between the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Two ambitious prime ministers propose to go further: unifying the kingdoms on the North Sea, thus making it possible for Britain to reenter the European Union by the backdoor.

It may seem far-fetched, but it almost happened before — thrice.

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