The Mail and Guardian asks a question that historians have asked for nearly a century: “What if things turned out differently?” EH Carr, a historian of Soviet Russia, spoke of what could have happened in history, instead of what really did happen. To EP Thompson, the author of The Making of the English Working Class, was a counterfactual speculation was “unhistorical shit”.
Other historians have admitted to being intrigued by the query. “The historian must constantly put himself at a point in the past at which the known factors will seem to permit different outcomes,” wrote Johan Huizinga. Hugh Trevor-Roper argues that it is important to understand that there are always real alternatives to any moment in history.
None of this argument stops fiction writers or the public. The possibility of Germany to win against Britain in the 40s is to be believed, in some degree, a vast collection of might-have-beens. As far back as 1964, the film It Happened Here by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollow. This raised an unthinkable thought that a collaboration could have thrived in a Britain controlled by Hitler. More recently, in a succession of novels which includes Robert Harris’s Fatherland, Owen Sheers’ Resistance and CJ Samsom’s Dominion, imagines a Vichy Britain during 1952 that would be ruled by Lord Beaverbrook and Oswald Mosley—follow the same theme.
The First World War has been a subject of less counterfactual speculation. Niall Ferguson was one of the expectations. He wrote an essay that considers the possibility that Britain could have stood aside from the European war in 1914. Ferguson was overeager to portray the Kaiser as the godfather of the later European Union. His account of the cabinet debates in 1914 was fascinating because Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government was easily decided to remain neutral—and they almost did.
With the 100th anniversary of the First World War approaching, 2014 is about to witness a lot of debates that dispute the correct forms of commemoration and if the war actually achieved anything. Currently, there is an argument that the war consisted of two mutually uncomprehending camps. On one hand, there are people who believe the war was “an unmitigated catastrophe in a sea of mud”. On the other hand, there were people who insisted that it was “about something”. Margaret MacMillian said that people on all sides believed there was a just cause. “It is condescending and wrong to think they were hoodwinked.”
There is speculation as to what that “something” that the First World War was about. Some say that the war was between empires, which of course, it was; however, one must remember to distinguish the difference between the two empires. This rarely happens in a debate because it is polarized between collective myths of national sacrifice and indiscriminate catastrophe.
The First World War ended in November 1918 because German armies surrendered near Compiegne. But it was plausible that it could have ended differently in 1918 if Lundendorff’s offensive on Paris and toward the Channel had succeeded. It almost did. The question remains, what would the 20th century Europe be like if it did?
Of course, it would have been dominated and shaped by Germany. But… What kind of Germany? Would it be the militant, conservative, and repressive Prussian power that Bismarch created? Or could it have been the Germany with the massive labor movement in early 20th century Europe? German history after 1918 would have been a competition between the two. No one can say for certain which result would have won out in the end.
One thing that could be said if Germany won in the end. The country would have imposed peace on the defeated allies at the treaty of Potsdam, and it would not have had the reparations and grievances that were generally inflicted by France and Versailles. As a consequence, the rise of Hitler would have been less likely. In any case, the Holocaust and the Second World War wouldn’t have happened. If the German Jews survived, Zionism may not have had such an international moral force that it claimed after Hitler’s defeat. As for modern history, the Middle East would be different too. This would be because Turkey would have been among the victors in 1918.
In the kaiser’s Europe, France would have been a more likely source for fascism—not Germany. With its steel and coal still within the hands of German-controlled Alsace-Lorraine, France’s military and the naval potential would have been contained. After a while, the defeated Britain would have seen their navy sunk in the Heligoland Bight and have been forced to cede their oil interests in the Middle East and the Gulf to Germany, and also would have been unable to contain the Indian Nationalism. The British Empire would have been rendered unstable. Today, Britain may have been as modest as a social democratic republic—much like a prince-less Denmark.
America could have very well become an isolationist power and not an enforcer of international order. Franklin Roosevelt would have solved America’s postwar economic problems in the 30s; but, he wouldn’t fight a war in Europe, even though he may have had to fight against Japan. The Soviet Union would have been a destabilizing factor, but they may not have invaded as they did in 1941. Also… If there was no Second World War, there may not have been a Cold War, either.
Although these are all just theories, we can see that there is some importance in the possible outcomes. Europe would definitely be different if Germany won in 1918. There could have been a darker and more repressed feel to Europe; however, there is a plausible cause for stating there could have been far fewer people dying in 20th century Europe. If nothing else, that is worth the speculation. The First World War may have been a “catastrophe in the mud,” but there is something more disheartening in all the lives lost due to the outcome. The outcome of the First World War certainly made an impact on the world. In 2014, we need to look beyond the rival perspectives and look at what possible end results lie in future wars.