November 13, 2005
Turtledove on Rails, or, Some Thoughts on Alternative Histories
To start with, I must confess that I am a complete sucker for alternative histories, and have been so at least since I read MacKinlay Kantor’s If The South Had Won the Civil War when I was about 12. Like many in the blogosphere, I am currently wading through Harry Turtledove’s own take on that scenario, and have just recently finished his latest volume in that series.
As I have been working through it, I have been having various thoughts on both the subject of alternative history as a practice, and on Turtledove’s scenarios in particular.
Before I go any further, it’s important to remember one thing: alternative history novels are, above and beyond anything else, novels , and not essays on counterfactual history. That is to say, they may set forth a coherent, well-researched, plausible scenario of how things might have gone if only the horse had not lost its shoe, but they must obey the dictates of plot and narrative. I suspect that, if authors made full disclosures on the whys and wherefores of their craft, we would find many a counterfactural outcome done merely to rescue the lead character from an awkward plot corner into which he had been written. Better to change the outcome of a battle than to have to rewrite the whole damned chapter. Be that as it may, we can never assume that a particular turn of events in a novel stems from a deeply-held theory about history rather than a short-term narrative requirement.
Secondly, and perhaps more to the point, when somebody comes along and lays out an argument for why the author’s scenario is less likely (as I am about to do with Turtledove) than the commentator’s, they cannot claim to have proven their point, or disproven the author’s. Uh, none of this actually happened . It’s speculation, all of it, and history has had enough strange turns of events, hanging on strange coincidences and improbabilities, that there’s no way to say for certain that one turn of events is impossible, so long as it doesn’t require a violation of the known laws of physics (as does Turtledove’s Guns of the South ).
With those caveats, here are some thoughts on Turtledove and alternate history. Fist of all, for those who aren’t familiar with the series, he has constructed a multi-volume, multigenerational series of novels in a universe in which the Confederacy gained momentary military superiority over Union forces early on, in 1862, and, holding Washington under their guns, and with the help of British and French pressure, forced the Lincoln government to accept Southern independence. Unresolved issues lead to a second round of fighting in the 1880s, which also brings in British and Canadians forces, and results in another humiliating defeat. This sequence of events triggers off a general militarization of the North American continent, with the US, the CSA, and Canada all arming and fortifying heavily, adopting general peacetime conscription, and creating professional General Staffs on the Prussian model.
The rival North American powers become locked in to the European alliance structures, with the US becoming an ally of Wilhelmine Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the Confederacy allying with Britain, France, and Russia. Thus the Sarajevo assassination of 1914 also becomes the starting bell for a dragged-out knockdown W.W.I land war with heavy casualties in North America, ending with a negotiated victory for Germany and the US in 1917. The Confederacy, having grown complacent from its easy victories in the 19th Century, loses substantial territory to the US, and suffers a catastrophic series of socialist rebellions by the black underclass, legally released from slavery as a condition of British help in 1862, but kept in near-slave conditions of subjugation.
Thus shorn of its territory, shaken in its social assumptions, and easy prey to a myth of being stabbed in the back by its black underclass, the CSA gradually comes under the control of a Hitler-type figure, Jake Featherstone, who uses anti-black sentiment and resentment against the peace terms to . Featherstone and his Freedom Party eventually seize control of the Confederacy, and instigate the Second World War. At the same time they accelerate the use of concentration camps for blacks, and gradually drift into a Holocaust-type “final solution”, deporting and gassing back populations. The current volume of the cycle ends with a Stalingrad-analogue battle set in Pittsburgh. Presumably, future volumes will take the story up at least to the end of the war.
As an alternative historian, Turtledove has a number of virtues, and these place this series well above much of the neo-Confederate nostalgia exercises that abound in American Civil War counterfactuals. His choice of a departure point for his alternative history, in 1862, is in my eyes more probable than the frequent romantic choice of an alternative outcome for the Battle of Gettysburg. By July 1863, too many events had been set in train, particularly the Emancipation Proclamation, which had meant that Confederate independence could only come at a price the Confederates had, as a whole, demonstrated that they were not willing to pay.
The second virtue of Turtledove is his observation that a North America divided between hostile rival powers would be likely to be drawn into the European balance-of-power system. I find this quite probable, especially when Anglo-French intervention was crucial to Confederate independence right from the start, piling up a certain obligation on the CSA. This power system then creates an automatic ratchet effect driving the USA and CSA further apart.
The third virtue of Turtledove is his depiction of the plasticity of the Anglosphere’s state-nations, although he does not use that terminology. The independent states of the Anglosphere, although sovereign nation-states for the purposes of international law, do none of them meet the sociological definitions of nation-states. The Anglosphere is a diverse but related common cultural area, divided by history and happenstance into what are better thought of as state-nations: human communities that see themselves as nations because they are states, as opposed to nations that have gradually acquired state forms. Had the Confederacy won independence, in would have taken its place within this continuum of state-nations.
Few of the inner-Anglosphere demarcation lines make sense on purely economic terms -- North America divides through the middle of its historical industrial heart and lungs, the Great Lakes zone, because it formed a convenient border for the negotiators of the Treaty of Paris. If the British Isles were divided into nations on economic grounds, surely lowland Scotland, Ulster, and northern/midlands England would be one state, and southern England another. Eastern Australia and New Zealand together make a more natural unit than do Eastern and Western Australia, linked across a wide desert only by an economically insignificant railway line. Auckland is as close to Canberra as Kalgoorlie, and substantially closer than Perth or Darwin.
This economic incongruity in sometimes recognized, but it is then argued that cultural commonalties make the lines significant. Yet if the proverbial creature from Mars were to be given the sociological data from an Anglosphere social model in a blind form, and were told to divide this area into several independent entities, it is very unlikely that it would run a border along the 49th parallel, while leaving the Mason-Dixon Line unmarked.
What is left is the stuff of state-nations: those artifacts that emerge from actions of governments. Frenchmen and Germans know what distinguishes their nations: different languages, foods, architectures, values, behaviors, ways of thinking. Each nation has experienced several radically different styles of government and political institutions over the past two centuries, but throughout that time, the underlying national characteristics have remained remarkably similar. Americans, Canadians, Australians, and Britons have the opposite experiences: their political institutions have evolved steadily along parallel lines of continuity, while their material cultures have had substantial (and increasingly converging) commonalties. When asked what distinguishes them from the other Anglosphere nations, usually the answer points to a state institution or politically-sponsored custom: the Crown, the Flag, the Constitution, the US Marines or the RCMP, established Church or First Amendment, the NHS or the public school district. What holds each Anglosphere country together is, ultimately, their willingness to believe that, for example, a Maine-stater has something in common with a Texan that they do not have in common with a Nova Scotian. Because they believe this, they do, and therefore over time the people of Maine have acquired one set of associations, memories, and identities while the people of Nova Scotia have another. Had the Confederacy won its independence, this process would have worked to separate Texans from Maine-staters mentally.
Because German ideologues like Herder and Fichte have been so successful in promoting the meme of the "authentic" organic nation, people are sometimes reluctant to conclude that they belong to a state-nation rather than a nation-state. This only demonstrates the power of imported foreign memes to confuse people as to the nature of their own societies, and the virtues thereof. State-nations are perfectly good ways to organize society, in many ways better and more flexible than nation-states. The natural affection and patriotism citizens of state-nations feel are in no way less valid than the sentiments of citizens of nation-states; perhaps even more so, for they admit the possibility of valid choice of citizenship in a way that organic nation-state theories do not. It is only those who long for a mystical union with a paternal entity from which they can receive the moral substance of their life who would find the state-nation unsatisfying, and it is for this reason that generations of continental European observers have found the state-nations of the Anglosphere disappointing or lacking.
Given these virtues, then, what do I find less convincing about Turtledove’s alternative history? There are two areas of disagreement. One is about how things would have likely turned out, given that I accept Turtledove’s setup for purposes of argument. The other lies in Turtledove’s overall approach. As with most binary divisions there is a zone of overlap in the middle.
Regarding the first area, I think, given Turtledove’s original assumptions, his history is quite plausible from 1862 through the 1880s, including the US-CS-British/Canadian war. However, I find the developments after that event begin to pile up credibility problems. Although it makes sense that the British would want an alliance with one of the North American powers, after that point in history, it makes more and more sense that that one power should be the USA rather than the CSA. Lord Palmerston was the author of the famous quote that Britain had no permanent allies, just permanent interests. And by the 1880s Britain’s interests lay in stretching quite finite peacetime financial and naval manpower resources to cover a wider and wider set of responsibilities, while facing a growing number of rivals.
In our universe, the British had made their fundamental decision not to treat the US as a serious military rival back around the turn of the century. In facing the growing German naval challenge, they had to decide how much of a Navy they could afford -- resources were quite finite. They concluded that the British political system could not support the budgetary burden (either in higher taxation and/or sacrifices in other areas) to create and support a Navy that could fight the US and the Germans both. This meant that they had to remain at peace with one of them, even at the cost of conciliation of disputes. Put that way, it was a no-brainer to pick the US as the party to not fight.
Another major consideration was the existence of Canada as a hostage to US military power -- fortifying Canada and creating a naval force on the Great Lakes (most annoyingly, entirely non-fungible to other potential theaters) would have run the cost of preparing for conflict up enormously. All the money spent on deterring Germany could be put into the main home fleet, completely fungible assets. Also consider that the British investment in the US was huge by that time a war with the US would involve risking that investment to confiscation and/or destruction.
The roots of the Anglosphere were already in existence by 1890. Both the US and Canada had built the heart and lungs of their industrial capabilities in such a way as to require an undefended and undefendable border. US-UK affinities were such that the US was (and remains) the UK's primary financial destination, and the US's primary external financial source. Neither Brits nor Americans have ever liked paying any more taxes than absolutely needed, and preparing for an unneeded US-UK war was just not on the agenda. US and UK politicians made noises about it from time to time, but no serious plans were ever laid for it on either side.
Now, in Turtledove’s universe, every one of these considerations would have driven for a British flip-flop from supporting the CSA to supporting the USA, somewhere between 1880 and 1900. Such a flip-flop was entirely within historical experience, the prime example being Britain’s flip-flop from a pro-German to a pro-French policy in that same period of time. And there was a much longer history of antagonism between Britain and France than between Britain and the US, even in Turtledove’s universe. Whatever assets the CSA could bring to bear could not offset the particular costs of of Britain and Canada fighting a land-naval war with the US.
Turtledove has the Canadians putting up with high taxes, conscription, and maintenance of a huge military-naval establishment. But in fact the Canadian economy of that day would have been very hard-put to pay even a portion of the cost of fortifying itself against an American attack -- the burden would have fallen mostly on an ever-more-stretched UK. James McCormick’s previous posts have detailed how the Canadians in our universe have always disliked even a mild tax burden for peacetime defense, and nothing in Turtledove’s universe would have been sufficient to reverse this.
Similarly, from the US viewpoint, a US-British alliance against the Confederates would have made much more sense than a US-German alliance against the CSA, Britain, and Canada. It would have permitted the luxury of fighting a war on one front, and concentrating all effort against what would psychologically have been the main enemy --the CSA. It would have protected the industrial capacity of the US against interdiction of its critical iron ore supplies in wartime -- almost certain to be severed in a war with Canada. It would have open the gates to full access to British capital, something that Germany was in no position to replace.
Ironically, Turtledove has the Germans teach the US military proper operational analysis and logistical planning as their alliance unfolds -- but the first generation of bright young West Pointers to apply these tools would have seen the obvious solution staring them in the face. (That would have made a good short story right there -- perhaps an old German watching his US protégé gradually coming to that conclusion, and having mixed feelings of professional pride and nationalistic regret.)
Finally, in a USA-CSA rematch in 1914, the Confederates would have had powerful incentives to keep Britain and France neutral against them, as Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the British and French West Indies would have been convenient bases for a blockade of the Confederacy, and probably seaborne raids and incursions into Confederate territory. Cuba (a Confederate state in Turtledove’s universe) would have been cut off and vulnerable to invasion. Altogether, a USA-British alliance against the Confederates would have made so much sense to both Yankees and Brits that it is hard to see Britain clinging to a costly and vulnerable alliance with Richmond.
Of course such an alternative alternative history would not have permitted Turtledove to unfold his story as he would have liked, and therefore the authorial imperative had to prevail. But this leads to the final, and major dissatisfaction that I have with Turtledove’s series -- its implicit theory of fascism.
If one takes the underlying assumptions of the series seriously, and not merely as an authorial convenience, what we have is a theory of fascism that hold that the rise of a fascist movement and state, and an event equal to the Holocaust, could have happened in any modern state that had suffered a traumatic military defeat and had a scapegoatable ethno-racial minority. Turtledove constructs his alternate history from the Confederate defeat in WW1 on an almost-exact parallel to the defeat of the Second Reich and the rise of Hitler. It is such an exact parallel that if the reader knows the basic chronology of those events, he can pretty much predict what’s going to happen in each chapter. It’s like seeing a new production of a Shakespearean play you already know well; you go to see how they’ll do it, not what will happen. This is Turteldove on Rails, an approach that has both strengths and weaknesses. (You can compare Turtledove on Rails to Turtledove in Free Flight, as it were, by reading a book like Ruled Britannia, which has none of these issues. Personally, I think the latter approach makes for more interesting alternative history.)
In reality, there are many reasons to suspect that a world such as Turtledove posits would not have produced the outcome he depicts. A defeated and revanchist CSA might have been (and probably would have been) nasty, but I think it’s quite unlikely it would have been anything like a close parallel of Nazi Germany.
First of all, the theory of organic nationalism from whose roots National Socialism emerged was something quite specific to continental Europe and the romantic cult of the State that flourished there. It is quite significant that neither this cult of nationalism nor the subsequent cults of fascism that flourished in every Continental nation ever took root in any English-speaking country. Even hard-core republican nationalists in Ireland were still more akin to jacobin civic republican nationalists than blood-and-soil fascists. Even in gritty, war-disillusioned depression-era Britain, the Mosleyites, enjoying a charismatic leader and large amounts of secret Italian funding, never gathered more than a pathetic scrap of hangers-on mostly there for the free food. (I have discussed this question at more length in two articles archived here -- scroll down to the title “Where Have All the Fascists Gone?”.)
Furthermore, it is hard to see American Southerners putting up with the discipline and subordination of individual desires that lay at the heart of every fascist movement. The Ku Klux Klan, for all of its racism and violence, never displayed even a scrap of devotion to Fuhrerprinzip, or any desire to create a totalitarian state, nor even much of a welfare state. Like most Southern populist movements, their goal was a racial caste democracy that could hand out occasional spoils to the boys, with the lottery of the civil court system to spread wealth around a bit. Nasty, yes. Violent, yes. But fascist, no, unless we are to strip the term “fascism” of any kind of historical referents whatsoever. Fascism is not just a synonym for nastiness, it is a specific phenomenon with a time, a place, and a history. If we are not to do its victims a final disservice, we must understand this history in order to avoid any further recurrence of anything like it.
Finally, one of the motivations for the Nazi scapegoating of Jews wa the desire to plunder the substantial wealth the European Jewish communities had achieved since emancipation. Looting this wealth created a substantial source of wealth the Nazis could use to reward their followers. The black communities in Turtledove’s universe had even less wealth than blacks had in 1940s America in the baseline universe -- in fact the only way Southern whites could profit from them was to use their labor, of which killing them en masse obviously deprived them. Turteldove does make the point that agricultural automation was reducing the South’s dependence on black labor, but in fact that effect wasn’t really felt much until the 1950s and 1960s. The trouble with a close parallel between the situation of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany and the blacks in Turtledove’s alternate Confederacy is just that the situations of both the majority and minority communities in both bases were quite different.
Finally, I have a few random points in which do not pretend to argue that my version is more or less likely than Turtledove’s -- they are just whims. One is that Turtledove has baseball never taking off as a national sport in either the USA or the CSA, but having football taking its place. I think it would have been more fun (and maybe more likely) to have baseball continue to become a national sport in the North, while perhaps seeing cricket (which had been roughly as popular as baseball in the US until after the Civil War) take off in the South, perhaps as a result of the British-CSA relationship between the 1860s and the 1880s. Some of my friends who follow both cricket and baseball swear that Ty Cobb would have made a great cricket player. Well, maybe.
The other point is that Turtledove has his Confederates and Yankees continue to use the terms “South” and “North” as synonyms for their respective countries, at least occasionally. I would suspect that after a generation or two, “Northerner” in the CSA would have become a description of a Virginian, while “Southerner” in the USA would have become a term for a Marylander, once each side had absorbed the psychological reality of Confederate independence.
All told, I continue to read and enjoy Turtledove’s alt history, whether on rails or in free flight. Maybe I’ll get around to writing some myself one of these days -- I have a few alternative histories outlined in the back drawer. And I’ve just finished both volumes of John Birmingham’s Axis of Time series, which, since it assumes time travel, is in a different category from the works discussed here. I’ve enjoyed it greatly, so I may post a few comments in it in the near future.
And after all, it’s alt history, so who knows -- maybe it would have played out exactly as Turtledove wrote it. Short of paratime transport, we’ll never know.
Posted by James C. Bennett at November 13, 2005 05:08 PM
A couple of quibbles. First, I think the northern/southern nomenclature would have remained. Furthermore, I think both countries citizens would have refered to themselves as Americans (Geo. Washington was on the CSA seal after all); Southerners probably would have referred to norhterners as Yankees, though.
Also, I seriously doubt the CSA's ability to build a serious economy after the collapse of it's slave structure. It was essentially oligachical and that did not start to change until reconstruction, without which the change probably wouldn't have come, even with the collapse of the slave economy. More likely it would have come to resemble the economies of the caribean and Latin America. Such an economy could not long compete with the industrialized north. Now, perhaps more ingenuity and entrepreneurialism would have surfaced as the plantation economy started to falter, but this would've only come after economic set-back.
Indeed, after the end of reconstruction, serious economic change and development did not come to the south until several decades into the 20th century.
In the Turtledove alt-history, the black population was kept in a state of quasi-slavery, which probably would have kept the economy afloat long enough to transition. But there were also substantial non-slave sectors of the Southern economy even before 1860.
As one whose great grandfather fought for the Confederacy, I am sure that the proper term would have been "damnyankees", as any good Rebel should know.
In line with your questioning the alliances, It would seem to make a more plausable arrangement to have the CSA align with Germany, which would provide them with a major industrial partner, and one whose elitist authoritatian predispositions would also be a pretty good match. Then too, perhaps the idea of a "final solution" would also be compatible between them.
I tend to think that the US would have been more likely to align with Canada, perhaps becoming a more northerly USA in the final analysis, probably without as much of a French influence.
It's also interesting to contemplate what the effect might have been on the westward expansion, and what the position of Spain might have been in these scenarios.
“…they may set forth a coherent, well-researched, plausible scenario of how things might have gone if only the horse had not lost its shoe…”
Do I detect a subtle reference to Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail, which pits the Confederation of North America (green in this map) against the United States of Mexico?
Mr. Hollywood wins a prize chevaline! Indeed, For Want of a Nail has got to win some kind of history/economics geek prize for obsessive-compulsive construction of alt-history. My reactions to its universe were, firstly, that the British government was a bit too hands-off North America in the post-reconciliation period after Saratoga, and second, that the integration of the Anglo Texans and Mexico went way too smoothly. I won't bore the rest of the blogosphere with a detailed elaboration of these critiques. However, if you want a very detailed alt-history of a world in which the American colonists (most of them) and the Crown reconciled, without any pretense of plot or character, Sobel's your man.
alternative history novels are, above and beyond anything else, novels , and not essays on counterfactual history.
A place that _tends_ to be closer to the later than the former is the newsgroup soc.history.what-if (FAQ.)
Plausibility is what brings most respect, and some wonderful pieces of writing have been/are being produced.
I disagree with none of what you say; Turtledove's "North America" series IS somewhat unlikely.
However, I do quibble with your quibble regarding England's siding with the CSA. Near as I can rememeber from nine books back, the USA basically had torqued the English off so badly that they were almost EAGER to leap into the Civil War with both feet on the side of the CSA.
Nations may not have friends, only interests, but they DO have enemies. Even if it isn't always in their best interests, sometimes leaders can't afford to be 'friends' with other countries.
My opinion only, nothing more. I can't wait to start reading "Days of Infamy," which just came out in paperback. Of course, Turtledove's "WorldWar" series (and it's sequel series, "Colonization" and the sequel to THAT, "Homeward Bound") is the superior of the two big ones... even if it IS completely sci-fi, not really alt-history.
Unless little green lizards really DID interfere in WWII and I missed it?
I had some other problems with the Turtledove series
1) The US seemed to just roll over and give up in the second conflict. I don't really see that happening.
2) The rebel slaves seemed to embrace socializm in a remarkably unaltered form. Generally societies alter foreign ideologies substantially if they embrace them at all--German versus Russian versus Chinese Communism for example. I think that the slave experience and the cultural background of the slaves would lead to some kind of home-grown black movement that would probably take elements of European isms and turn them into something distinctly African-American. I think that would almost have to happen for slaves to embrace the ideology in large numbers.
Came over from Instapundit.
I have read almost all of the US/CSA alt-history. I have not yet read Return Engagement or Days of Infamy. In general, I have found his prescription for alt timelines plausible. That's all you need for alt-history -plausibility, not iron clad documentation. The plausibility starts to slip a bit as the characters of the Second World War, such as FDR, start appearing the script. I was also ticked that Churchill was content to ally with the CSA. I would hope that Winston'snoble nature might find it impossible to ally itself with a system such as the CSA. Churchill would have depised both Featherston and the socialist blacks.
The direct, smothering allusions to fascism tend to drag on a bit, but that is allowable since the Nazis are such easy targets for fiction and non-fiction. I might tend to disagree with this site's claim that fascism is a Europe only sort of phenomenon. At the core, was fascism really that different from any other totalitarian system from the French Revolution forward? The core message is that man's nature is the same and tends to brutality under most circumstances.
I will add that one of Turtledove's masterstrokes in teh whole affair is his depiction of blacks as persecuted minorities in a North that lost the Civil War. I find that sadly plausible.
I think my biggest gripe with the series is the excrutiating pace of the narrative. Jumping from one storyline to the next is starting to drive me crazy. Some of the characters are really irritating.
Plot and story concerns do tend to distort the flow of things quite a bit. Turtledove, I sort of liked, but found a lot of his stuff to be a bit selfconciously dramatic, at the expense of plausibility, but then I have found the same to be true of a lot of alt History stories. I like reading Non-Fictin history, becase it is usually filtered facts and incidents to fit into a narrative form, but because it's a true story, there is a lot more leeway about events. I don't know, maybe there might be some way to "game it out" and then go back and write anarrative about some fictional event gamed, but then framed in an entertaining narrative.
Also Huey P. Long would be the model of a Southern Populo-socialist dictator, and the style would be "antebellum" rather than "Mythic Machine Age".
Two quick points:
1.) German naval power was always subject to German bases all being located in the North Sea. Barring a 1940-like French collapse, the Brits could have kept the Germans bottled up and still been fairly free to fight the US Navy. And in fact Turtledove has essentially that scenario take place. Both sides make greater use of submarines, especially the Confederacy, but the Imperial Navy doesn't make much of an appearance once war breaks out
2.) I'm not sure that an alliance with the US (especially a US that would seem at the time to be terminally weak on the battlefield) would make any more sense for the British than an alliance with Germany. They may actually have preferred the Germans more with a restless north America at their back. You could see it as something of a tossup, where one alliance would quiet the western hemisphere, while the other would quiet the European theater. I would think they'd likely choose the German alliance though, given the (at the time) huge preponderance of military power located in western Europe.
3.) (ok, that's more than 2 points) Turtledove is always on rails. If you read his fantasy series', you find that he shoehorns anything and everything into either the civil war or world war 2 timelines. I wish he would move the quality/quantity slider further towards innovative counterfactuals.
Also submitted that the fascist persecution of Jews in Germany had far deeper and older roots than the racism in the South. Antisemitism is a deep-rooted prejudice, something that dates back to the times of ancient Rome and was a status-quo feature of medieval Europe.... it was no great feat for Hitler to arouse hatred against the Jews among people who had despised the Jews for millenia anyway.
Also, the racism of the KKK against blacks was motivated towards a dream of resubjugation of an "upstart race;" whereas hatred of the Jews was motivated, direcly, by a desire for their annihilation.
And anyway, much of the bitter racism one saw in the South could be traced back to the humiliation of the defeat in the Civil War--- which in Turtledove's books didn't occur.
I think one of the other points that Turtledove is making is that, all in all, Confederate victory in the Civil War would have lead to an (even more) dystopic 20th century; without the intact US to rescue Europe from the Kaiser and the Fuhrer, things go nastily downhill with no good end in sight.
Did you hear? The character of Sam Carsten gets sun-burned easily?
Lots of good points in the comments. On one of the main issues, which is the improbability of Britian maintaining an alliance with the CSA after 1880-90, you've got to go back and look at the situation from the standpoint of a military planner. British planning for a war with the US meant keeping considerable assets in the Pacific, where the US could build ships but the UK couldn't, keeping a main battle fleet within a few days' steaming of the US East Coast, probably at Halifax, and, most vexing, keeping four whole sets of completely non-fungible naval assets on the Great Lakes, where a few mines could keep them bottled up for the whole war. Running the Detroit River alone would have been as hard as forcing the Dardenelles. And although they might have risked being able to bottle up the German High Seas Fleet and still have assets to fight the US in the Atlantic, in the real world they considered that possibility and wouldn't buy it. Public opinion might have been running against the US in the 1880s in Turtledove's univrse but never as much as the Brits despised the French, and they flipflopped on the French alliance soon enough. This is alt-history, so nothing is really impossible, but probability is heavily loaded against the Brits being willing to invest in what was needed to fight the US in the early 20th Century, given their real-world behavior.
And as for Winston Churchill, there might have been such a named person in Turtledove's universe, but he wouldn't have been anything like the one in ours. Jennie Jerome wouldn't have married Lord Randolph Churchill at all, or if she had she'd have been in a much different social position as almost an enemy alien. Winston wouldn't have had the benefits of political tutoring by a New York City machine boss. That's too far down the line from the point of departure for the same person to exist. For that matter, Oswald Mosley (who Turtledove has in Churchill's government) wouldn't have had his first wife's American fortune to bankroll his career, because Cimmie Curzon's father probably wouldn't have married an American heiress or have become Viceroy of India. Not only would the US and the CSA been greatly different places in Turtledove's univsrve, but Britain would have been different as well.
I enjoyed HT's World War series, but I could never get caught up in the long alt.civilwar story.
For a more free-form offering, I really liked "The Two Georges", which looked at the consequences of the American Revolution being defused by reconciliation (the title refers to a painting of George Washington meeting George III, which symbolized American submission to the crown, in this alternative world). Extrapolating that deviation from history into the 1940's, he projected a remarkably different and quirky, but quite interesting, world.
I don't find the Turtledove books plausible at all because of the original premise: The South wins a victory in 1862 that threatens Washington. It would not have been reasonable for Lincoln to surrender the Union because of the threat of the loss of one city, even the capital. That's the fantasy of many would-be conquerors but even Hitler in 1940 didn't conquer France when Paris fell: He had to wait until the surviving French forces in Vichy surrendered.
The North never fully mobilized for the Civil War. At the same time men were dying on the battlefields of Shiloh and Gettysburg there werw football matches between Harvard and Yale. The North had twice the population of the South and most of the industrial capacity of the Union. Even forced to fall back from Washington, Lincoln would have relocated the capitol to New York and prosecuted the war from there. A threat of British intervention would have enraged the North beyond all bounds and energized them to mobilize twice as much, twice as fast.
The time for the Confederacy to win the war was 1861, not 1862. The first battle of the war at Manassas was a clear victory for the South and only their incompetence kept them from occupying Washington. Lincoln wouldn't have been able to rally the North and probably would have been forced to resign, leaving the Presidency in the hands of the Southern-sympathizing Andrew Johnson. There would have been a negotiated dissolution of the Union and the two countries would have muddled along in competition for Western lands for a few more years until another war broke out, this time with the North fully mobilized. They would have overrun the South easily (again, twice the population, most of the industrial base, and this time with no undefended capital in embarrassing proximity to enemy forces).
Imagining the South as victors is romanticizing a nasty and brutish bungh of racist thugs who only seceeded because they didn't want to pay taxes.
Upon graduating from college I moved from my home in Tallahassee FL to Alexandria VA in the early 1990's. Several of my friends asked why would I want to to move "up north"? No kidding.
>It would seem to make a more plausable
>arrangement to have the CSA align with
Well, but then Turtledove wouldn't have been able to get the cheap ironic thrill of having "the Union", i.e. us, be allied with Germany. From what I've read of Turtledove's books, cheap ironic thrills are the order of the day. (Along with eating cats and a weird obsession with schtupping pregnant women.)
>If you read his fantasy series', you find that
>he shoehorns anything and everything into
>either the civil war or world war 2 timelines.
Exactly. I've read five different Harry Turtledove books and they're all the same damn book.
Orion, minor quibble--Hannibal Hamlin was Vice President in 1861.
If you want another interesting (chilling) view of an alt-USA read Decades of Darkness at
The point of deparature is the death of Thomas Jefferson in late 1808 which leads to the War of 1811 and the secession of New England from the United States with Britsh assitance.
The results are interesting...
Wonderful! Even more fun to read than Turtledove!
Actually, I think Turtledove's earlier 'fantasy' world, Videssos, based on early medieval Byzantine Empire, are far better than his recent alt-history stuff. But then that was his area of study.
But the newer stuff must sell, because he's writing so much of it.
Good comments. I too enjoy Turtledove but the "on rails" approach is distracting sometimes. Another thing that is sometimes frustrating is the slowness of plot developments, does he really have four books worth of plot? On the other hand, that could be a strength, he is depicting accurately how slowly history does change.
A minor quibble with this observation:
"Similarly, from the US viewpoint, a US-British alliance against the Confederates would have made much more sense than a US-German alliance against the CSA, Britain, and Canada. It would have permitted the luxury of fighting a war on one front.. Ironically, Turtledove has the Germans teach the US military proper operational analysis and logistical planning as their alliance unfolds -- but the first generation of bright young West Pointers to apply these tools would have seen the obvious solution staring them in the face."
Makes logical sense, but Prussia/Germany's abilities in analysis and planning has never extended to making sure they didn't fight more than one enemy at a time. Frederick the Great really should be known as Frederick the Lucky, Prussia only survived the seven years war because the Empress Elizabeth died. Bismark was the only Prussian leader who thought in terms of one war at a time, and the army ended up rebelling against
his influence The Schlieffen plan was really a mad concept, compared to the much saner option that should have been obvious -- do anything to avoid fighting a war against both France and Russia. But the General Staff had nothing except the Schlieffen plan.
Any fantasy writing or rebuttal has to be taken with a bit of cynical amusement.
The only way the CSA would've won is if the Prussains (somehow united earlier), Portugese, and/or Spanish had entered to upset the balance and the British (upset from 1812 and immersed in their own conflicts (in europe) would not balance the power on the side of the Northern US.
The only way that outsiders could've change was to break the US on the confererates embargo. AND I think it woul've led to an isolated state or two like Texas , Oklahoma, New Mexico...possibly) uniting to form an independent country. Texas still is the only state to have been an independent country and remains the only one with the right to succeed the union even today.
The problem was also logistics. The south (outside of river travel) had few methods of efficent transportation and shopping delivery ports (many of their ports were shallow or at extreme locations far away. SO the lack of transport meant that the Northern US would've eaten them up in a ground war.
WIth the change in the war, also changes the concept of modern warfare, since the Civil war is the first "modern war" (rapid fire guns, metal plated ships, submarines, gorilla warfare, air baloons dropping bombs & observing movements). SO any change may have also changed war tact methods.
If it had happened, the Northern Us would've been Isolationist and the southerners would've been drug in with supplying raw goods to France & England.
Since WWI is often looked as a stalemate the isolationist US would've probably made it less the advantage of the ENGland/France at the end.
WWII would'vd started sooner, and the seperation of North south would've delayed the development of the BOMB making the Germans and Japan having the bomb to use.
This would lead to WW3 between Japan and Germany over the spoils of war, the US and CS! WWI, II, III would've led to emancipation in the same way as England and Spain.
One of the main themes that Turtledove is working with is the impact of racism on American history. The "Racial Question", after all, is what really makes the USA distinct from Canada or Britain and has dominated American history and politics since independence. It's a theme he's visited elsewhere (notably in his alt-history "A Different Flesh")
Even though Turtledove follows too closely the "script" of Hitler and the Holocaust, what he is saying about the possibility of a Holocaust style genocide in the USA is a little too possible. Even today, given the 'right' mix of circumstances (a major military defeat, an economic collapse, etc.), it is not inconceivable that some demagogue or other would start scapegoating Black Americans -- and eventually end up committing attrocities against them. And a great many 'good' Americans might stand silent.
To me, that was what was most disturbing about these novels (and about discussions regarding them); the horrible realization that 'it' can happen here.
Most counterfactuals and alt-histories are meant to say something profound about our world today and this, I think, is what Turtledove is saying here
Let's look at what really happened.
Tzarist Russia acted to prevent aglo-franco intervention. A major warship was stationed off New Yerk and in San Francisco bay by Russia, which notified England and France, that if naval action hostile to the US took place, the Russian ships would join the fight in support of the US, England decide that a war with Russia would be unmanageable, and told France she would not join in intervention.
These "what if.." scenarios should also provide for a Euripean war.
Although the Germans rather sucked at big-picture strategic thinking, except for Bismark, their operational analysis was first-rate. In the Turtledove universe West Pointers were trained in this analysis. However, the US decision-makers were, unlike their German counterparts, in no mood to be arrogant. The Germans had just won three in a row, against Denmark, Austria, and France. The US had just lost two in a humiliating manner and 1812 was really nothing to brag about, except for New Orleans which was a one-off. Only the Mexican War had been a real clear-cut victory and that was mostly a Southern war on the American side (it can be thought of as the war the South won.)
So the US would have been in a more realistic frame of mind than the Germans. As for the British, they were far more pragmatic than is generally understood -- Americans had bought into the stereotype that the Brits were both arrogant and stupid, but that doesn't stand up to analysis. Remember that in the real world the British Admiralty cancelled all wooden ship orders in progress the next day after they received reports of the Monitor-Virginia battle. This is a record for adaptability that very few (any?) modern defense bureaucracies can match.
Have you read John Birminham's Weapons of Choice novels? Carrier task force dropped into the Battle of Midway...interesting read.
Good points all...I first noticed the "Turtledove on Rails" syndrome in his novel "In the Presence of Mine Enemies": once you realize that the new Fuehrer is actually Gorby and the Gauleiter of Berlin is actually Yeltsin, the rest of the book becomes d***ed dull.
Surprising that he has gotten so lazy in his success. Well, perhaps not so surprising: bet certainly disappointing.
I'm intrigued that the Japanese navy doesn't get mentioned in these speculations. They smoke the Russians in 1905 and Britain effectively divides the world's oceans in half with them. If there's a major war going on in North America in 1914, I would think that the most powerful fleet in the Pacific is going to have something to do with it.
I also don't buy the idea that the loss of Washington City is decisive. Washington is just where the War Dept. telegraph lines happen to end. The food comes from Ohio, the rifles come from Massachusetts and Connecticut, the steel comes from Pennsylvania, the Monitors come from Brooklyn, the President comes from Illinois, the VP comes from Maine, and the Sec of State comes from NY. The HQ of the US Army is in West Point in 1860 and the Naval Academy is in Newport, RI in 1861. The attack that takes Richmond and makes Lee surrrender comes from the south supplied by water through City Point, VA. Apart from sentimental value, DC is just where they store the monuments. After all, the British had burned it just 48 years earlier.
Regarding foreign intervention, I think people tend to overestimate the support for the South in Britain and they underestimate Lincoln and Seward's appreciation of the need to keep Europe out of the war. Most people are not aware that when the British sent troops to reinforce Canada during the Trent Affair in December of 1861, they were unable to land in Canada because the St. Lawrence was frozen, and so they were disembarked in Portland, Maine and sent by train courtesy of the US Government. That illustrates both the logistical difficulties the UK would have had operating in the North Atlantic, and how far Lincoln was willing to go to avoid a second front. (By the way, the 15-inch guns we put on the Penobscot River to protect Bangor, ME from British ironclad warships in 1863 are still there and still pretty impressive. I have a photo of my wife inside the barrel of one of them. Three shots from the 15" guns of the USS Weehawken were all it took to make the ironclad CSS Atlanta surrender. HMS Warrior is an impressive ship, but her armor was thinner than the Atlanta's and her draft is too deep to get up the Potomac.)
Finally, if I were being harassed by Britain and France, I'd be making nice with Vienna. Austrian wars bracket the American Civil War, first in 1859 and again in 1866. Stiring up the Hapsburgs would keep a lot of Europeans' attention in their own back yard. I also don't think there's much support for the CSA in Prussia. Native Germans make up the second largest block of immigrants in the Federal army after the Irish, with over 200,000 serving. The US consul in Berlin actually had to put up a sign on the front door that said in German, "This is not a recruiting station."
Yes, Presence of Mine Enemies is a particularly rail-bound Turtledove. Although the appearance of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair is amusing. But Turtledove is good on "easter eggs', as the appearance of Pancho Villa (referred to only by his real name) as vice-president of the Confederacy in the civil war series demonstrates.
I would say that Ruled Britannia is an example of Turtledove in free flight, however. He can do it when he wants to.
Paul K's comments are all quite reasonable points. I think the real reason a loss of Washington might have caused the Union to pack it in would have been political, not military. It could have disheartened the Northern population enough to deprive Lincoln of the Congressional support needed to continue fighting.
Conversely, if Lee had taken Washington and Lincoln had been able to carry on the war anyway, that might have disheartened the Confederates. They would have started to wonder what if anything would have been enough to force the Union to concede.
I also agree that Britain was not nearly so pro-Confederate that it would have gone to any great lengths to force recognition. There were also powerful pro-Union elements in Britain.
The "time of troubles" Videssos books are also rail-bound, it's just that so few people know Byzantine history that these Videssos books seem fresh and interesting. =)
I read Days of Infamy but found it heavy going, perhaps because the Turtledove style is now so familiar that it's getting stale. Cast of thousands, Winds of War format, same old same old, yadda yadda yadda.
Speaking of alternate Civil War stories, I really like the 3 volume series by Newt Gingrich and William Fortschen: Gettysburg, Grant Comes East, and Never Call Retreat. Lee wins at Gettysburg, but still can't capture Washington, then wins another big battle but still loses the war.
Jim, I see your point that the bright West Pointers might have understood the big picture that their German instructors never could have. This would add another dimension to your story idea, not only are the Germans torn between pride in their students and nationalistic regret, but also professional regret, "how could I possibly have missed something so obvious".
First, "damnyankee" only applies to those of my "countrymen" who come South and don't go back.
That said, I like Turtledove. I buy his books eagerly. (You're welcome, Harry.) But I, too, really, really hate the "rails" syndrome. I hope that the Great War series ends with some sort of Confederate victory. Not because I like the Freedom Pary or condone its policies, but because it would be different. If the series follows the rails of our timeline, how dull is that?
Oh, and a British invasion, D-Day style, to liberate Canada would be a fun way to end the series.
I am a follower of both the alternate Cival War series as well as the Lizard series and I have had some qualms about the scenarios in both. However I think you have a seriously good point about the emergence of the Anglosphere and where interests would lay.
In that context however I will also note that Mr. Turdledove did a serious woops in one of the alt WWI books. He has a submersible captain saying that at least chlorine is something he didn't have to worry about. Chlorine in fact is, bigtime, something a deisel / electric submarine has to worry about. DC current and seawater get together and the sodium chloride (salt) in the water will split, emitting chlorine gas. In the sealed confines of a submarine hull this is very HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH. I recall reading a book by one WWII US sub commander who said that they were more afraid of chlorine than being depth charged.
While not as blatant, using a sub for riverine warfare is likely not viable. This was done during the rebellion of the Black Americans segment. Subs are very underpowered for their weight and have a very deep draft, both of which would make them very poor choices for brown water service.
Well, that's one of the hazards of writing an almost-encyclopedic scope novel cycle about dozens of different areas of warfare. You can guarantee that you'll get some of the details wrong.
When I read Turtledove's TL-191 series, I thought the setup was perfectly reasonable. The U.S. got stabbed by Britain and France, so their continued enmity seemed normal. But after reading your article, I am convinced by your analysis.