10 October 2013

Rewriting History

There is nothing quite like the lure of rewriting history, whether personal, national, or the world at large.  Back in my teaching days, one of the projects students were given was to choose from a list of pivotal points, write what really happened (so that I could know that they knew something about what they were about to mess with) and then what would have happened if...

Charles Martel lost the Battle of Poitiers in 732 CE against the Islamic Umayyad Dynasty, which was trying to move up from (current-day) Spain into the rest of Europe.

William the Conqueror had been slain by a stray arrow in the invasion of 1066.  Or pneumonia.  I wasn't picky. 

The Athenians had won the Peloponnesian Wars of 431-404 BCE.  (HINT:  for one thing, Socrates might not have been tried and executed.)

WWI - What if the French soldiers' mutiny of December, 1916 had succeeded?

WWI - What if Russia had stayed in the war under Lenin?

WWI - What if the United States had maintained its isolationist stance and never gotten involved in WWI at all?

WWII - What if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor?

WWII - What if Germany had never declared war on the United States?

WWII - What if Mexico had signed a treaty with Germany and declared war on the US?  (Germany actually pursued this.)

WWII - What if Hitler had not invaded Russia, but stuck with hammering England instead?

I had a lot more of these, and the students loved them.  I got some great papers out of them.  People are fascinated by what might have been.

And they're also fascinated with what might have been on the personal level.  We all know people who are trapped in the "what might have beens", longing, looking, wishing that somehow they could change the past.  This desire to change history is one of the reasons, I think, so many people find it so hard to forgive, and I'm not just talking about the big stuff - because what they really want is not an apology, but for whatever it is NEVER TO HAVE HAPPENED.  And that's impossible, unless the alternate universe theory is true, and even if it is, fat lot of good it does us in this universe.

And, let's face facts, we've all played the game (I believe) on the personal level.  What are the five things that you wish you could change about your past?  If five are too many, try three.  Or one.  What would that change about who you are today?  Would it be worth it?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I wish I had never started smoking (I'm proud to say that, as of this writing, I have been 3 years cigarette-free, which is still amazing to me).  I wish I had moved to that place, or stayed there, and a few other things I'm not going into here...  But then again (other than the cigarette thing), maybe not.

The truth is, I kind of like being my cranky, eccentric, bookaholic, mystery-writing, perambulating, muttering, sharp-tongued self.  I don't know that I'd trade it in on an alternate Eve.  But it's an interesting thing to think about.

PS - Which of the above historical "what ifs" would you have picked? 


  1. Good piece, of course there is a whole field of lit called alternative history abd some is very good, like Turtledove's Thens of the South.

  2. Thought provoking this morning, Eve, thought provoking.

    Most of my "what ifs" aren't historical, but if I had to choose one, I'd write about the US remaining isolationist.

    On a personal level, most of the "what ifs" come with side effects. What if I'd married someone else? The side effect would be that my two sons would be different.

    To quote someone I can't remember, "the saddest of these is it might have been."

  3. One of my favorite reads this year was the latest in Naomi Novik's brilliant Temeraire series: What if intelligent dragons had been involved in the Napoleonic Wars? As for personal what-ifs, I think they're a trap best avoided. What if I'd never married my first husband? I'd have avoided some grief 30 or 40 years ago, but I wouldn't have my glorious granddaughters, about whom I wouldn't change so much as an eyelash.

  4. Nice article! I think I previously mentioned in a post to a similar piece that a great read is Ward Moore's 1953 novel "Bring the Jubilee," It re-imagines the South winning the Civil War, and centers on the battle of Gettysburg.

  5. I too love what-if literature, if well done. I've mentioned before Len Deighton's "SS-GB." One of my favorite "what-if's" of all time is a comedy - James Thurber's brilliant short-short "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox." I highly recommend it: short, funny, and entirely possible...

  6. Hitler made two enormous strategic mistakes. There was no need for him to declare war on the U.S. after the U.S. declared war on Japan, and Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, cost him the war. (This is the fork in the road that in fact drives SS-GB, one of my personal faves, too, Eve.)

  7. I meant to point this out when we started talking about alt hist. It is brilliant and on point.



Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>