Tuesday, December 11, 2007

History's Echo

‘What if…’? A question every writer asks in order to create. It’s usually followed by ‘and then…’.

As fiction writers go, Harry Turtledove comes to my mind when thinking of alternative history. He asked himself questions like: what if the Confederacy won the American Civil War (Southern Victory series), what if aliens invaded in the middle of World War II (World War and Colonisation series). And Robert Harris asked what if Nazi Germany defeated the allies in Fatherland; his answer is chilling.

In non-fiction, leading historians have asked the same question: What if JFK hadn’t been assassinated? (Camelot Continued by Diane Kunz in Virtual History ed. By Niall Ferguson) Or if the Japanese either invaded Pearl Harbour, or didn’t attack it at all? Or there was no American Revolution, or that the Brits won it? That the Gunpowder Plot succeeded, that Arch Duke Ferdinand and his wife weren’t assassinated or that the Black Plagues never arrived? Or even that the Dutch decided to colonise Australia rather than the English?

Any one of these can be described as a turning point in history. In each case, the world we live in would be a very different place.

How about if the Roman General, Varus, defeated Arminius? Rome hadn’t suffered such a defeat since Hannibal and his elephants three hundred years earlier. The consequences of Arminius’ victory echoed down history for centuries.

Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, a military historian of the last century, suggests that the defeat of Varus had far reaching consequences than Augustus demanding ‘where are my legions?’

For centuries, Arminius represented the pride of Germany; a statue of ‘Hermann’, as Martin Luther christened him, stands at Detmold in the Teutoborg Forest wherein he lured Varus and his legions to their deaths. Described as a brilliant tactician, Arminius was twenty-five when he destroyed Varus and kept the Romans out of that area of Germany until his death by assassination ten years later.

The Romans never really conquered the Germanic tribes again, and it is this that resonates through history because Arminius was used throughout history as a symbol of German nationalism.

Fuller postulates in his Decisive Battles: Their Influence upon History and Civilisation, that if the Romans had defeated Arminius, the Germanic tribes would have been totally incorporated into the Empire and ‘civilised’; no more inter-tribal conflicts. Pax Romana would have held sway and Europe wouldn’t have been plunged into the conflicts it subsequently had; that there would be no Kaiser Wilhelm, and no Adolf Hitler.

Personally, I wonder if another ‘Arminius’ wouldn’t have risen up to wrestle Germania from the grip of Rome. But, there again, history would have taken another dramatic turn.

The comparison, I suppose would be Roman Britain and what happened there some sixty years later. Of course, where Boudicca failed in Britannia, Arminius succeeded in Germania and history stands.

What a different world we’d be living in if the results were reversed?

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