Hypothetical history (fun)

This blog is getting too political, and too serious. But History can also be fun. One way is to imagine ‘hypothetical histories’ – how we (or they) might have turned out if a key event in the past had not happened: if the Reformation had failed in northern Europe, for example; or Wellington had lost the Battle of Waterloo; or baby Adolf had choked to death on his first bowl of sauerkraut. A friend of mine, Chris Andrew, once devised a series of radio programmes along these lines – I think it was called ‘What If?’ ‘What if?’ history has become quite a novelistic genre: off the top of my head I can remember Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration (the counter-reformation has won, Harold Wilson is a cardinal); Robert Harris’s Fatherland (Germany wins World War II); a science fiction tale in which the Victorians have invented the atomic bomb; and another in which the Neanderthals managed to fight off the Cro-Magnons. (I’m sorry I can’t remember the details.)

Serious historians tend to scorn this sort of thing, and with good reason: it probably attributes too much agency to single events. If Hitler had died in infancy would everything have been the same but with no Nazism? Or might not someone similar have taken his place? How can we possibly assess the indirect side-effects of these ‘alterations’, complex and entangled as they would likely be? Would a Saxon England after a Haroldian victory in 1066 have been very different from how it turned out? (Norman culture was already spreading.) If Margaret Roberts had stayed on in Grantham to take over her father’s shop, isn’t it likely that some other leader would have taken Britain in the same disastrous direction as she did? And so on. As soon as you push on just a few moments beyond the supposed ‘alteration’, everything is unpredictable. So ‘hypothetical history’ is not of any very great value; except that it can remind us that alternative evolutions were and therefore are possible. Our history is not set in stone.

Still, it’s a diverting game to play, especially for world-weary historians; and yesterday a Swedish-American friend of ours, Per Kullstam, suggested another interesting scenario. We were discussing the Vikings, as Brits and Swedes often do; with me it usually starts with them castigating British imperialism (they know it’s my ‘subject’), so that I have to retaliate by reminding them of their own bloody past. (And no, I won’t accept that that was just the Danes and Norwegians, with the Swedish Vikings being the cuddly Social-Democratic ones.) I told Per about a recent British TV documentary purporting to show that the Vikings penetrated further into north America – ‘Vinland’: so perhaps warmer then? – than we had used to think. And Per came up with this idea: what if those early Vikings had succeeded in colonising the ‘New World’ then, and survived for longer, wouldn’t it have been better for European-Native American relations thereafter, with both civilisations being at roughly the same stage technologically when they met, so that the Europeans didn’t have the terrible advantage they later had of guns?

But then I thought: why did the Viking settlements die out in North America – as they did also, at certain times, in Greenland and Iceland? Could it have been that the Native Americans’ technology was superior to theirs (except, obviously, in boat-building) – only marginally, perhaps, but enough to make a difference? And then what about the factor of disease? This is now believed to be the crucial element in depopulating both the Americas from the 16th century onwards: diseases brought over by Europeans to which the latter had a natural immunity, but the Americans didn’t. That could have worked the other way around, too, with diseases indigenous to the voyagers’ new-found land wiping them all out. Maybe we’ll find out soon, if they can find some Norwegian bones up the Delaware.


Perhaps I should have a DNA test, to see if I have any Scandinavian ‘blood’. That would bring me closer to my neighbours here in Stockholm, and to Kajsa (though in her case the Swedish DNA has been defiled by Walloon). I wouldn’t be surprised. My family has mostly come from the east of England – part of Kung Knut’s old ‘Danelaw’. I can just imagine a marauding Viking warrior raping a fair young Anglo-Saxon maid a thousand years ago to give rise to the original Porter clan. That’s bound to have happened – albeit more consensually, we hope – on a pretty wide scale. Perhaps it’s the Viking DNA that made us Brits into imperialists. So that’s their fault, too.

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