If this alternate history teaches us anything about our own timeline, it is that the Union victory was a heaven-sent blessing. The timeline Turtledove constructed on the basis of a CSA victory is a much darker and nastier place, but it is a very plausible and convincing counterfactual. If the South was able to justify slavery and Jim Crow, it’s not hard to imagine a CSA that loses World War I churning up a Hitler-clone with plans for a black Holocaust. Lincoln was right: The CSA had to be beaten to preserve the last best hope. ~Prof. Bainbridge
I should go easy on Harry Turtledove. He is the only man I know of who got a degree in Byzantine studies and then went on to become very successful writing fiction novels, proving that there is life after a Ph.D. in Byzantine history and offering hope to all graduate students who have chosen to teach in a field that is only slightly more popular in the United States than French New Wave cinema.
As a Byzantinist, Turtledove did a competent job translating into English an important section of the Chronographia of Theophanes Confessor, but then went on to fame and relative fortune as the author of a series of counterfactual historical novels that played out the consequences of a Southern victory in the War of Secession. Whenever people ask what I plan to do professionally, I say, of course, that I intend become a history teacher. Shortly after that fails to interest them, I will add: “Of course, Harry Turtledove became a novelist, so you never know….” But, for all that, I have never been moved to read his counterfactual stories, because they seem to be irredeemably unimaginative in their overall structure. As Prof. Bainbridge summarises well enough, Turtledove takes what actually happened in Europe from the unification of Germany through WWII, changes the names, identifies the Confederates with the presumed Bad Guys of our history and basically retells the same story, but with the CSA, not Germany, as the locus of all evil.
Thus the unimaginative creation of Jake Featherstone, who is Hitler with a drawl, and the de rigueur reprise of the Holocaust. There are, from what I understand, some creative touches as he is forced to rework the careers of some people and invent new characters for the new reality he is making, but from what I understand a lot of the same people wind up being part of his alternative history as were a part of our real history, when it is almost certainly the case that most of the people we’ve ever heard of in the postbellum world could have been entirely different people under vastly changed circumstances. But not for Turtledove. Even when something fascinatingly different is imagined to have happened (e.g., the CSA winning, the Bolsheviks losing, Archduke Ferdinand’s driver not going down the wrong street, etc.), nothing in world history will really change–the only difference will be a swapping of players and the retelling of the same, grim tale.
It doesn’t say much for Turtledove’s appreciation of causality or contingency that he could radically change the course of American history and come up with nothing more interesting than a rehashing of the Yankee progressive nationalist morality play we all learned as children: Union good, South bad, discuss. It also doesn’t say much for Prof. Bainbridge’s sense of history that he considers this simplistic attempt at counterfactual history to offer us a serious glimpse at the alternative world that might have been created by Confederate independence.
The wonderful thing about history is that the most unexpected things can happen, and the supposedly inexorable and driving forces that guide history in certain directions only appear that way from hindsight. The world, happily, did not have to be as it is today, which means that in the future it may develop along entirely different lines from any we today are able to imagine. For example, we may be demographically overwhelmed by the rest of the world, as current trends suggest, or there may be some surprising cultural revolution that fundamentally reorients Western societies.
No one knew, nor had any reason to suspect, that Wittenberg would lead one day to something called the Battle of White Mountain and that the war that followed would change the Christian world forever. Had anyone supposed that 16th century attempts at church reform might lead by a series of interlocking events to rationalism and skepticism across the entire Continent the Reformers might have done things differently. Had the Framers known what a colossal failure the Constitution would end up being, and what a terrible threat to liberty the federal government would become, they probably would have gone home and forgotten about the whole thing, or simply modestly improved on the Articles of Confederation as they were supposed to be doing in the first place.
Had the CSA won the War of Secession, we have no sure way of knowing what political, economic and cultural changes independence would have brought to the South, nor would we have any clear idea what the consequences would be for the North, but I wager that the results would be a lot more interesting than an armed frontier and a reprise of the politics leading up to and including the European war of 1914-1945. As for Prof. Bainbridge’s claim, “the South was able to justify slavery and Jim Crow, it’s not hard to imagine a CSA that loses World War I churning up a Hitler-clone with plans for a black Holocaust,” I don’t know where to start. One might start with the fact that CSA victory would have entrenched the planter class in power and the populist Jim Crow laws might not have been passed in the first place. The lack of a Reconstruction experience would be a massive change of Southern history, and it would be very difficult to gauge what would have happened had this occupation never taken place. One might also start with the query of why either the USA or CSA would involve itself in WWI at all, assuming that WWI unfolded in this new world more or less just as it really did. The CSA would have probably had no reason to get involved, and would probably have had the old Jeffersonian precedent of neutrality as its guiding star in foreign policy. One might wonder whether it would be significant for later history if the War of Secession ended in 1862 or 1863, rather than grinding on into the trench warfare phase of Petersburg 1864 and after. If the siege of Petersburg does not give an example of trench warfare, when and where does this kind of warfare first appear? One might also wonder whether the circumstances of a trans-Atlantic WWI would have vastly changed the nature of the conflict where there would not have been endless rows of trenches from Virginia to the Plains, which is stupid in a huge continent with lots of room for flanking operations, but the rise of maneuver warfare with cavalry over long distances and the development of a sort of defense-in-depth in the border zones. The possibility of WWI becoming a major naval war opens up, which in turn shifts the balance of forces firmly back in favour of the Allies, and so on. Any number of interesting things might have been different, so why is it that our imaginations are always forced back into the tunnel-vision of our hideous 20th century experiences? Fortunately, Harry Turtledove does not have the final word on what might have happened.