Mises Daily

A Case for Alternative History

The history that didn’t happen can be just as interesting as the history that did.

This article is a small example of its own topic. Except by chance, I wouldn’t now be writing it. Not finding what I wanted while browsing in our library’s magazine aisles, I came across mention of “uchronie“ in Le Nouvel Observateur. The philosopher Charles Renouvier chose this word as the title of his novel of 1857 and 1876; he coined it from Greek roots meaning “no time.” He was following the pattern set by St. Thomas More, whose Utopia derives from roots meaning “no place.” Utopia is a place that does not exist; uchronia is a time that did not exist. Uchronian works — to introduce the English adjective — are also called “what-if,” alternative, conjectural, or counterfactual history. They consider what would have happened if something else had chanced to happen.

Such works fall into two categories. The distinction is fuzzy but useful. Writings of the first kind, unlike actual history or a standard historical novel, are sheer fiction. They are not speculations about real events; they are stories that stand on their own. The Star Wars movies and Tolkien’s tales are good examples. Another is Islandia, a novel by Austin Tappan Wright, published posthumously in 1942. Wright describes events and personalities in a country on a fictional continent in the Southern Hemisphere before World War I. The people of Islandia, while highly civilized and advanced in philosophy and psychology, prefer their old ways, rejecting railroads and most other modern technology and narrowly limiting contact with the outside world. The reader (this one, anyway) drifts with the author into sympathy with the Islandian way of thinking.

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) projects an opposite vision, one intended as backward only in an ironic sense; it imagines a prosperous and happy socialist utopia of 2000. This uchronia actually exerted some influence in its time, converting many readers to socialism because they wanted to live in the world of Bellamy’s vision.

A less satisfying example of the first category of uchronian works is Hadrian VII (1904), a rather amateurish fantasy by Frederick Rolfe, the self-appointed Baron Corvo. Its hero is a frustrated would-be priest whom a deadlocked college of cardinals implausibly elects as pope, the second English pope in history. Pope Hadrian radiates his benevolence right up to World War I — or, rather, to its avoidance. His ministrations successfully adjust the world’s important political conflicts. This story also had real-world effects. The oddness of the book and its author inspired a famous work of literary detection, The Quest for Corvo (1934), in which A.J.A. Symons discovered how strange the “Baron” actually was.

The second (and my preferred) category of uchronian literature is more strictly what-if history. It concerns actual events or circumstances that might plausibly have been different. If: Or History Rewritten, edited by J.C. Squire (1931), samples the genre with stories by many writers. Phillip Guedalla supposes that the Christian Reconquista of Spain had somehow not gone far enough to absorb the Moorish Kingdom of Grenada, leaving it a power in international affairs into the 20th century and presumably beyond. Hendrik Willem van Loon supposes that the Dutch had retained Nieuw Amsterdam until, by a treaty with a curiously libertarian provision, it joined the United States in 1841. André Maurois supposes that Louis XVI had been firm enough to keep Turgot, his liberalizing finance minister, until and beyond 1789 (when the French Revolution began, in the real world), instead of dismissing him in 1776. Hillaire Belloc supposes that the cart that blocked Louis’s path when he tried to flee from France in 1791 had gotten stuck before reaching the crucial spot at Varennes. Emil Ludwig asks what if German Emperor Frederick III, liberal-minded and married to a daughter of Queen Victoria, instead of dying after only 99 days on the throne in 1888, had survived and exerted his moderating influence until 1914. Winston Churchill, in a double twist, writes as a historian in a world in which Lee had actually won the battle of Gettysburg and who speculates about his not having won. Milton Waldman supposes that Booth’s shot missed Lincoln. G.K. Chesterton imagines Don John of Austria married to Mary Queen of Scots; Harold Nicholson, Byron enthroned as king of Greece; and H.A.L. Fisher, Napoleon escaped to America and become a prosperous planter. Squire, the editor, postulates discovery of proof that Lord Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s works.

Such speculation need not be frivolity. Contrasts with what really happened can deepen our understanding of actual history and of theories of economics, psychology, political science, international relations, military affairs, theology, medicine, and even natural science as applied by decision makers of the past. History for us was the unknown future for them. And each of us has undoubtedly experienced choices in his own life very differently from the way in which a biographer would describe them. He would know the results; we didn’t.

One subcategory of conjectural history doesn’t much appeal to me. Like Guedalla’s Grenada scenario, it speculates about major trends or conditions that turned out different from the actual ones. What if the dinosaurs or the Roman Empire hadn’t disappeared? What if Europe had never discovered America? So sweeping a conjecture is unsatisfying because it focuses on general frameworks of history instead of particular events, ones that may have seemed unimportant in themselves but had major consequences. (Just what might have enabled Grenada to survive the Reconquista?) Likewise, it seems out of the spirit of the genre to use some event or nonevent as a take-off point for sheer fiction, as about Napoleon’s imaginary exploits in the New World.

Divergences between what did happen and what might have happened sometimes trigger momentous domino or butterfly effects. Several may particularly interest libertarians. What if the Civil War had been avoided, and with it the federal government’s domination of the monetary system? What if the Federal Reserve System had never been created? What if Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill had heeded warnings against returning Great Britain to the gold standard in 1925 at the no longer viable prewar parity? What if (as Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz have speculated) Benjamin Strong, governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, dominant figure in the Federal Reserve System, and a better intuitive economist than most of his colleagues, had not died prematurely in 1928? What if Harry Gunnison Brown or Irving Fisher had headed the System, or if his advice had prevailed around 1929? Would an ordinary recession have turned into the Great Depression, creating opportunities both for the New Deal and for Hitler? I think not.

But we can carry speculations further. What if Giuseppe Zangara’s shot at president-elect Roosevelt in February 1933 hadn’t killed Chicago’s Mayor Cermak instead? What if the United States hadn’t adopted the silver-purchase program of the 1930s, which benefited domestic silver interests but ruined China’s monetary system and thus improved the chances of the Communists? What if von Papen and his associates, early in 1933, had not expected to manage Hitler and make him a safe choice for chancellor? What if Hitler had decided to finish off England in 1940–1941 before tackling Russia? What if FDR, seriously ill, had died before the Yalta conference of February 1945 — or earlier, while Henry Wallace was still vice president? What if Hitler had died in the nearly successful attempt to assassinate him in 1944? What if Lee Harvey Oswald had proved a poor marksman at Dallas in 1963? How would Gerald Ford and the country have fared if he had not pardoned Richard Nixon? Or what would Nixon’s refusal of a pardon have meant? What if the tight vote in Florida in 2000 had gone the other way, as it might well have gone, were it not for hanging chads, misaligned ballots, and accidental votes for Pat Buchanan? A Gore administration would have been a disaster, but of a different sort from the disaster Bush brought us. And would today’s financial crisis be less or more severe if the rescue of Long-Term Capital Management, orchestrated by the Federal Reserve in 1998, and of other institutions before and later hadn’t worsened the dilemma of moral hazard?

Sure, history has its deterministic aspects; Marx stressed technology. But the possibilities inherent in many junctures of history discredit overemphasis on determinism and underline the element of chance. Suppose that Pontius Pilate had saved Jesus Christ, forestalling his crucifixion and the resurrection story. Would Jesus still have become the focus of a religion dominating, for good and ill, most of the Western world? Or would he have remained an itinerant preacher scarcely mentioned in the history of religion? Would one of the mystery religions of the Eastern Mediterranean have become dominant instead of Christianity?

“Contrasts with what really happened can deepen our understanding of actual history and of theories of economics, psychology, political science, international relations, military affairs, theology, medicine, and even natural science as applied by decision makers of the past.”

Consider an episode of British history. Queen Anne had 18 children, more or less, counting miscarriages and stillbirths as well as live births. If better medical care had managed to save even one of these potential heirs beyond Anne’s death in 1714, the Protestants of her family, the Stuarts (the Catholics among them being ineligible by law), would have retained the British crown. But Anne died without leaving a Protestant Stuart heir, so the crown passed to the distantly related House of Hanover. Hanoverians had very different interests and political traditions. It was among them that the British developed what came to be the characteristically modern party-and-prime-minister system. Would it have developed in a similar way under a Stuart succession?

Here we are speculating about the latent potential of people and movements that we can identify. But what about the multitude of what-if cases that never had a chance to come to our attention? Were it not for the accident of dying early, how many men and women would have survived to change the course of cultural and political history? This is a theme of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire,
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

Here, perhaps, speculation ceases with our lack of knowledge. But events that are too certain are not fruitful subjects of speculation, either. Historical struggles make poor examples of uchronia when the advantage was decisively on one side. They become more interesting when the details could easily have gone the other way. “My kingdom for a horse!” cries Shakespeare’s Richard III at Bosworth Field. To me, even more interesting than battles that might have gone either way are wars that might have gone either way — in the sense that they might have been avoided.

If American war hawks had not misrepresented the explosion of the Maine in Havana harbor in 1898, Spain might well have remained a substantial power; and the United States might have avoided its deeper colonial and geopolitical burdens. Suppose that hotheads had been less influential in Charleston in April 1861 or that Jefferson Davis had restrained them. The Confederates could have been more patient, not falling for Lincoln’s provocative move to resupply Fort Sumter. Without their firing on the fort, Lincoln could not have whipped up war fever in the North. How would a few more months or even years of a Union garrison in Charleston harbor have impaired Confederate independence, thus far succeeding? After all, the garrison had been allowed to buy supplies in Charleston even after secession. Neither side expected four years of tragic bloodshed. The issue of slavery might have been resolved at much less cost for either side.

France in 1870 is an example of not taking “yes” (compliance) for an answer. The Spanish provisional government had invited a Hohenzollern prince to become the country’s new king. The government of the French emperor, Napoleon III, objected; and the German prince, a member of the house then ruling Prussia, withdrew. Events could easily have stopped there, but they didn’t. Not content with this diplomatic triumph, the French foreign ministry tried to humiliate the Prussians further. It instructed the French ambassador to accost Prussia’s King William I at a spa and press for written assurance that no such candidacy would ever be renewed.

The king politely refused. Bismarck, the Prussian prime minister, published the king’s report of the episode after tendentiously editing it to give the impression to the French that the king had insulted their ambassador and to the Prussians that the ambassador had been impolite to their king. Empress Eugenie of France, a leading war hawk, expected that victory would further consolidate the Napoleonic dynasty. So the French enthusiastically let themselves be tricked into declaring war, even though they were militarily unprepared and lacked even adequate maps of the likely theaters of operations. Napoleon III lost his throne, the Bonapartist Second Empire collapsed, France lost Alsace-Lorraine, revanchisme emerged as a political force in France, and danger of another war developed. What if soberer minds had prevailed in the French government? What if the Spaniards had invited some non-German as their king in the first place?

As the end of the Second Empire hinged on chance, so did its beginning. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, as he was then known, staged a generally unforeseen coup d’état on December 2, 1851. His term as president of the republic (won by name recognition) would soon expire, and the constitution barred his reelection. Hence he seized power. But his cruel stroke might well have failed, and with it the train of events that led France and Germany to the wars of 1870 and 1914.

The Great War was a tragic and unnecessary modern turning point. Think of its consequences — economic, political, military, and psychological. In 1914 no power desired or foresaw a war so long and bloody. Although a complicated network of alliances did pose danger, events on the scale that later developed were not predicted. They did not stop with the armistice of 1918. World War II followed, largely as a consequence of and sequel to the first war. One of the causal connections was the fact that Germany’s defeat and the ensuing Treaty of Versailles gave Hitler material for domestic propaganda. But what if advice not to punish Germany so severely had prevailed at Versailles? Or what if Britain and France had acted decisively when Hitler first violated the treaty in 1934–1936?

The fateful significance of June 28, 1914 — the date when the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo and the curtain began to rise for the world conflict of 1914–1918 and then of 1939–1945 — led me, along with a friend’s young son who was accompanying me to a conference in Italy, to make a side trip to Sarajevo. There we saw where Gavrilo Princip stood when firing the shot that killed Franz Ferdinand — by a building where a laudatory commemorative plaque was subsequently mounted and a museum established. I wondered: What if the Archduke’s car had not made a wrong turn? What if Princip’s shot had missed, if even only by inches? An assassination attempt had already failed earlier the same day, just barely. This one might also have failed.

Still, the assassination did not make war inevitable. Suspecting Serbian complicity, Austria-Hungary sent Serbia an ultimatum imposing drastic conditions: it must collaborate in an investigation and suppress further terrorist agitation. Serbia came surprisingly close to agreeing completely; but Austria-Hungary, unwilling (like France in 1870) to take a near-yes for an answer, started a war, and alliances fed contagion. What if Austria-Hungary had been satisfied with the near-yes, or if Serbia had totally complied?

Beyond the questions it poses, conjectural history can contribute to understanding oneself as well as the roles of other people and of chance in human affairs. When I was in high school I bought Hugo’s Spanish Simplified and a few of the Haldeman-Julius Company’s cheap little books on religion and on the international language Esperanto. Miss Connor, my history teacher, steered me to the economics of Henry George and to a book about Italian history. These little episodes affected my later life in unforeseeable ways. Miss Connor was what we would now call an outspoken left-liberal; still, she was a conscientious and inspiring teacher. Without her influence, I might not have majored in economics in college and gone on for a PhD in economics. Meanwhile, the little Haldeman-Julius books aroused my interests in religion and in an international language, both of which I have discussed in Liberty (October 2007 and January/February 2008).

Perhaps most accidental, yet significant, was the influence of Hugo’s Spanish book. I went on learning Spanish, entirely without any formal classes. At Auburn University I joined the “Friends of Guatemala,” a dormant-then-resurrected weekly Spanish conversation group, the origin of whose name nobody could remember. All but two of our group’s members soon dropped out, but Luis Dopico and I carried on, eventually having our Spanish conversations at dinner once a week. I visited him once in his home city in Spain. He now lives in North Carolina and has dual citizenship. I talk with him by phone in Spanish for about an hour almost every Sunday, then for about 15 minutes in English with his wife, Stephanie Crofton. If I hadn’t been turned onto Spanish by Hugo’s book, I would never have made these two close friendships. This is a prime example of a microstochastic event — an instance of randomness on a very small scale — with major consequences for me.

And what if I had failed, like some of my colleagues, in a Japanese language course during the war? What if I had followed my father’s (bad) advice, offered because I had lost three years in the Army, to skip returning to college and go directly into the business world? What if I had not happened onto books by Ludwig von Mises in the Oberlin College library and by Wilhelm Röpke in a New York bookstore, works that greatly influenced my understanding of economics and of libertarianism or quasi libertarianism? What if I had chosen the problem of innovation under socialism as my dissertation topic in 1950–1952, instead of the other topic I was considering, “An Evaluation of Freely Fluctuating Exchange Rates,” which I did choose? (I know I would have had trouble finding much to say about innovation under socialism.)

What if I hadn’t taught at Texas A&M for one year and at the University of Maryland for five, making a few close friends at the two schools? A year in Maryland’s European program came at just the right time of my life. What if an article of mine had not brought me an invitation to move to the University of Virginia in 1957? By happening to take part in an Institute for Humane Studies program in the summer of 1981, I met a valued academic collaborator, Robert Greenfield. In 1984, the idea of buying a big house with a big mortgage as an inflation hedge tipped my agonizingly close decision toward moving from Virginia to Auburn University. (Yes, not only inflation but uncertainty about it can disrupt even personal planning.) Speculation not only about episodes in world history but also about turning points in a single life can make for lively but serious conversation — with others, and with oneself.

I’ve saved for last an example of uchronia that, for two reasons, is my favorite. Like many of the examples above and as best I can remember, I thought of it myself. More importantly, it is an extreme example of its type; arguably, it even bears on the philosophical issue of free will and determinism. Suppose that in 1818 Queen Victoria had been conceived as a male rather than a female. Her (or his) sex determination was surely a microstochastic event. Except only for this accident of sex, the crowns of Great Britain and Hanover would have remained united after the death of Victoria’s uncle, William IV, in 1837. Women could succeed to the throne of Britain, but the medieval Salic Law excluded all females from the throne of Hanover so long as any male heirs were to be found. So another of Victoria’s uncles, Ernest Augustus, became king of Hanover, separating the two crowns.

Now, if the new monarch of Britain had been a male, he would also have been king of Hanover. A kingdom in the heart of northern Germany sharing the same English-speaking, English-educated monarch with Great Britain would have greatly hampered Bismarck’s efforts toward German unification. The Seven Weeks War of 1866 (Prussia against Austria), having in its background the 1864 war of Prussia and Austria against Denmark over the north-German Schleswig-Holstein issue, might never have taken place. As its result, however, Hanover, an ally of defeated Austria, lost its independence in 1866 and was absorbed into Prussia. Without Victoria’s conception as a female, then, the wars of 1866 and 1870–1871, the establishment of the German Empire, World War I, and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 might never have occurred, at least not at their actual times and in their actual ways. Would our lives be different? It’s difficult to argue otherwise.

Small chance events can indeed sway history. This is how uchronia becomes reality.

Excerpted from Is the Market a Test of Truth and Beauty?, chapter 22 (2011), this article was originally published in Liberty 23 (September 2009): 31–34.

All Rights Reserved ©
Image Source: iStock
What is the Mises Institute?

The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

Non-political, non-partisan, and non-PC, we advocate a radical shift in the intellectual climate, away from statism and toward a private property order. We believe that our foundational ideas are of permanent value, and oppose all efforts at compromise, sellout, and amalgamation of these ideas with fashionable political, cultural, and social doctrines inimical to their spirit.

Become a Member
Mises Institute