What if Napoleon Hadn’t Lost Europe and Other Questions of Alternate History

How the 200-year-old literary genre reflects changing notions of history and society

Napoleon Invades Russia
What if Napoleon hadn't stopped at invading Russia and instead created a world under French control? Granger Collection

Across pop culture, history is being unraveled and remade. There’s the post-World-War-II dystopia that emerges from a triumphant Nazi Germany in the TV show “The Man in the High Castle” (based on a Philip K. Dick book of the same name). There’s the furor that erupted in 2017 over a proposed HBO series called “Confederate,”currently in limbo, which imagined an America in which the Confederacy successfully seceded from the Union, and the NBC show “Timeless” spends most episodes exploring “what if” scenarios in American history like “What if women never achieved the right to vote?”.

Meanwhile, fiction writers have penned novels on variations of history stretching from a world in which the black plague killed 99 percent of Europe’s population, making way for a Muslim empire (The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson) to what would’ve happened if Franklin Delano Roosevelt hadn't been elected to a third term at the dawn of World War II (Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America).

“Prior to 1960, we can identify perhaps 20 [alternate history novels] through the extent of Western literature,” writes Catherine Gallagher, a professor of English literature at Berkeley. “Since 1960, almost 300 have been published in English alone, more than half of those appearing since 1990.”

Although there’s disagreement on the defining characteristics of the genre—Does it includes time travel stories? Is it a genre outside of science-fiction?— works of alternate history share one core idea: real events transpired one way, but this tale is going to reimagine a pivotal historical moment, changing everything that came after.

As Elisabeth Wesseling, a professor of literature at Maastricth University, writes, “Alternate histories are inspired by the notion that any given historical situation implies a plethora of divergent possibilities that far exceed the possibilities which happened to have been realized. From this point of view, the progress of history appears as a tragic waste, not merely of human lives, but of options and opportunities in general.”

Much as the emergence of science fiction in the 19th and 20th centuries betrayed society’s unease with new scientific innovations, the first iterations of alternative histories, which emerged in this same era, reflect the dramatic upheaval taking place in the real world. As monarchies toppled and democratic movements flourished, philosophical questions about history, and whether humans have the ability to influence it, permeated the literary world.

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The written record of regret for lost opportunities begins in the early 1800s, with British writer Isaac D’Israeli penning an essay titled, “Of a History of Events Which Have Not Happened.” Though not a work of fiction, D’Israeli did formally examine counterfactuals to understand how we conceive of and record history. This examination of the discipline was part of a broader wave of secularization in the humanities. Until this period, theologians used counterfactuals only as a way to prove God’s goodness, and Divine Providence—the deity as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all goodness. Religion permeated history, and when considering the existence of evil, they could also argue that things might have been much worse if God did not arrange matters as he did. But D’Israeli wanted to abandon the religious tradition and turn to secularism. As Gallagher writes in Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction, “Counterfactuals teach D’Israeli not about the nature of God, but about the nature of history itself, which follows no pattern of reason and arises out of a complex variety of causes.”

D’Israeli came to his conclusions thanks to the astonishing transformations of the era. The 1789 French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars that followed utterly altered Western Europe, writes European historian Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. Those events proved the power of individual actors to effect change.

“It is no coincidence that early writers presented the French Revolution as the supreme bifurcation point, for no other event signaled to the same extent that humans make history, and they can either perform this successfully or botch the job,” Winthrop-Young writes. “Whether writers express regret over what could have been or relief that things didn’t turn out worse, the genre is written in the shadow of Bastille.”

Following on the tail of these academic questions came what is often considered the first alternate history novel, Louis Geoffroy’s Napoléon et la conquête du monde (Napoleon and the Conquest of the World). The 1836 story retraced the period from 1812 to 1832 and imagined a world in which Napoleon had successfully defeated Russia, and then gone on to establish French rule over the entire planet. The pivotal moment of separation between reality and alternate history came with Napoleon’s decision in Russia, with the alternate version having him push on rather than retreating.

But it wasn’t only military campaigns that inspired writers of the 19th century—it was also social context of the world around them. Explorers of the American continents sent back reports of the great achievements of unknown civilizations like the Inca and the Aztec. Novelists took the question a step further, creating undiscovered worlds on parts of the map that had yet to be filled in. Jules Verne imagined dinosaurs and enormous humans living underground in Journey to the Center of the Earth, while H. Rider Haggard created a lost civilization in King Solomons Mines. The fantastic genre flourished from the 1870s to the 1930s, according to Winthrop-Young, but after that point, too much of the world was known for such speculation to seem plausible. Yet there remained a solution.

“When space fails, time comes to the rescue,” Winthrop-Young writes. “It is no coincidence that the decline of the Lost Kingdoms, Lost Races novel coincides with the rise of Alternate History.”

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If the French Revolution and Napoleon’s subsequent conquest first opened the door to questions about what might have been, World War II, and more specifically the horrors of the Holocaust, produced a vacuum of longing for how tragedies might have been averted. Once more, cataclysmic events upended how humans viewed history. But this time, the questions that resulted weren’t only how the war could have transpired differently; now there were new questions about how humans might have behaved in more morally appropriate ways in the past.

“Out of the Nuremberg trials grew the unprecedented legal principle that citizens could claim reparations for injuries inflicted by governments, including their own,” writes Gallagher, referring to the German agreement to compensate the State of Israel and victims of the Holocaust monetarily. Additionally, South Africa has made reparations to victims of apartheid crimes, and American universities like Georgetown have offered preferential admission to descendants of slaves. Suddenly alternate histories included worlds where the Holocaust was prevented, the Aztecs defeat conquistadors, Native American nations develop alongside a much smaller United States, and the raid on Harper’s Ferry succeeds, creating a new nation named Nova Africa.

“These counterfactuals obviously support the historical reparations efforts, since they provide evidence that alternatives to unjust actions and policies were practicable,” Gallagher argues. “And only if such options were available could the historical actuality be judged not only regrettable but also, in various versions, culpable.”

The deluge of historical examination via alternate history novels has continued unabated into the 21st century, and grown so much that annual awards now recognize the best of the genre. Whether authors make arguments that changes to history could have resulted in a modern utopia or dystopia, all seem eager to delve into the historical record in search of opportunities to break it.

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