The Magazine

History As It Wasn't

What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? What if Cleopatra had had an ugly nose?

Nov 27, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 11 • By DAVID FRUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

And yet despite all these wise admonitions, people continue to engage in just the sort of speculation Croce and others condemn. They use it as a teaching device, to jolt people out of the complacent assumption that events had to happen as they did: The British historian Conrad Russell has a marvelous essay about how, if the wind had not abruptly shifted in 1688, the Glorious Revolution would have failed and a Catholic king would have been preserved on the English throne. At still other times it serves a moral purpose, prodding us to appreciate the importance of individuals in history: What if the car that struck Winston Churchill when he looked the wrong way before crossing Fifth Avenue in 1931 had killed him? Alexis de Tocqueville warned that because men in democratic societies feel themselves to be small and weak, they are dangerously tempted by explanations of historical events that stress inevitability. Alternative history at its best can encourage us to appreciate the daunting contingency of history -- and the supreme importance for good or ill of individual moral choice.


This point is effectively made by the best of the essays anthologized in Ferguson's book, Mark Almond's "1989 Without Gorbachev." With bitter irony, Almond argues that we do indeed owe the end of the Cold War to Mikhail Gorbachev. "After generations of dullard apparatchiks had safely guided the Soviet Union to super-power status, it was the bright-eyed Gorbachev who grabbed the steering wheel and headed straight for the rocks." Repression could still have worked in the mid-1980s, and would have found no lack of apologists in the West.


Gorbachev's perestroika, by contrast, wrecked the stagnating Soviet economy while his glasnost discredited his regime. "Gorbachev's belief that a relaxation in international tensions was in the Soviet Union's interest was profoundly misplaced. Only the 'two camps' division of the world provided the kind of global scenario in which such a strange animal as the Soviet economy could function." Had Gorbachev only held on a little longer, he would have discovered that ideological help was on its way.


The long march through the institutions of post-1960s pacifism and fellow traveling combined with nuclear panic was just about to reach its goal. It was only the surprising and total collapse of Communism . . . which brought much of the Western intelligentsia to admit that the Right had been correct. . . . Had the Wall stayed up, much of the Western elite would have remained oblivious to Communism's failings, moral as much as material, for at least another generation.


But alternative history is seldom at its best. More often it turns into heavy-handed academic drollery -- like the 1932 collection If It Had Happened Otherwise, in which (among other heavy-handed drolleries) Benjamin Disraeli becomes grand vizier to a rejuvenated Muslim kingdom in Spain. Or else into ponderously detailed constructions of imaginary societies -- science-fiction without the robots and deathrays -- as in Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail, a prolonged counter-history of a world in which American independence was snuffed out at the battle of Saratoga in 1777.


And of course, sometimes it back-fires altogether. Reading through many counterfactual histories, one tends to find reinforced one's Tocquevillian feelings of inevitability. In Robert Cowley's What If? The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, another recent anthology of hypothetical history, Alistair Horne considers how history might have been altered had Napoleon halted his career of conquest after the Peace of Tilsit in 1807. But to suppose that Napoleon could have somehow quit the roulette table while he still held all his winnings is to endow him with a personality entirely different from the one he actually had -- and such an unnapoleonic Napoleon would never have adventured the first profitable spin. And even if Napoleon could have gotten a grip on his egotism and refrained from starting further wars himself, his empire was so ruthless, exploitative, and menacing that sooner or later the Russians, Austrians, and British would have resumed the war against him.


As for the old chestnut about Napoleon winning at Waterloo, not even Horne can bring himself to believe it. "There were vast fresh forces of Russians, Austrians, and Germans already moving toward France. A second battle, or perhaps several battles, would probably have followed." And behind these battles would have been the strangulating power of the Royal Navy and the superior financial resources of a Britain already embarked upon its industrial revolution.