Tuesday, March 16, 2010

DBTL 76: Must Give Us Pause

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler died at birth, and where the Holocaust and World War II never took place. The Danzig War of 1936 - 37 saw an aggressive German regime under Ernst Röhm defeated by the combined forces of Great Britain, France, and Poland, and the three nations are now the dominant powers of Europe. Germany was partitioned, with the eastern half being annexed to Poland and the western half being organized by the British and French into two successor states, the Kingdom of Hanover and the Republic of Bavaria. Since then, the Germans have been at the center of a movement for a united Europe, leading to the establishment of a European Union with its headquarters at Magdeburg . . .

Magdeburg, Kingdom of Hanover
17 February 1975

"You know," said Count Edward Raczyński as he marmaladed a slice of toast, "I had the most peculiar dream last night."

"Oh, really?" Eric Blair answered around a last mouthful of scrambled eggs. "Did visions of sugarplums dance in your head?"

"Not quite," Raczyński said with a laugh. "Anyway, it's a little late for that sort of dream. No, I dreamt about a man who said he was the King of Poland."

The two men were breakfasting with the British delegation to the European Parliament. Blair had a standing invitation from his former countrymen to join them for their morning meal, and he availed himself of it frequently, claiming that nobody else in Europe knew how to fix a proper breakfast. "Coffee and pastries," he would declare, "are not breakfast."

Raczyński had acquired a taste for marmalade during his years at the Polish embassy in London, and he sometimes joined Blair. Being the senior delegate at Magdeburg, as well as a former President of the Polish Commonwealth, entitled Raczyński to a few unofficial perks, and crashing other delegations' canteens was one of them.

The canteen at the British embassy was a curiously shabby affair. For some reason, it had been located in one of the building's basements, and the metal tables and chairs looked as though they had been picked up at auction from a cheap cafe that had gone out of business. When the place was busy -- as it was now -- the din was terrific. Raczyński and Blair had to lean close together to make themselves heard without shouting, and in deference to their hosts, the two were speaking English.

"I've met at least half a dozen men in my life who claimed to be the King of Poland," Blair replied as he helped himself to an unhealthy-looking sausage. "And not all of them in Poland, either. One of them was actually descended from one of the elected kings, I forget which. And he didn't speak a word of Polish."

"Not all the elected kings did, either," said Raczyński, "rather like those early Georges you had in England. No, this one spoke Polish, or at least I dreamed he did -- and I don't always dream in Polish. But he had a definite German accent, and he said his name was Friedrich Hohenzollern."

"A Hohenzollern, King of Poland?" said Blair with mild surprise. "Now, that's just peculiar enough to be true."

"It's certainly food for thought," Raczyński remarked. "Suppose, for instance, that the Prussians had established a satellite kingdom in Poznan after the Third Partition, instead of annexing the area outright, and placed some Hohenzollern prince on the throne? In that case, I think, the Poles would have been a good deal less susceptible to Napoleon's siren song, with who knows what consequences for Polish history? Especially if Kościuszko could be persuaded to remain, and fight alongside the Prussians."

"Oh, no, not you too!" Blair said with a pained expression.

Raczyński did not have to inquire about the source of Blair's dismay. Ever since that American historian had published his mock history of an unsuccessful American Revolution, there had been an intellectual fad for uchronias, as they were known. Blair had made no secret of his detestation for the whole business. "Eric, I know you've got philosophical objections to the practice, but the rest of us find uchronia to be a harmless mental exercise."

"There are no harmless mental exercises," Blair said darkly. "All ideas are weapons. Anyone who claims otherwise is trying to deceive someone, either himself or someone else. All you have to do is look at the original uchronia, Louis Geoffroy's Napoléon apocryphe, to see that it's little more than wish-fulfillment fantasy coupled with a clandestine attempt to resurrect the Great Man theory of history."

"Are you saying, then, that there are no turning points in history?" Raczyński challenged the younger (though still elderly) man. "That it's all a matter of impersonal forces, that individuals can't make a difference? Take Professor Sobel's book as an example. Suppose Burgoyne had won the Battle of Saratoga? Wouldn't that produce a completely different history from ours?"

"No, it wouldn't," Blair said firmly. "Even if Burgoyne had beaten Gates, it would have made no difference. The colonists would have kept on fighting, and they would have won, because you can't rule a politically conscious people from three thousand miles away unless they're willing to be ruled, and the colonists weren't. Once they declared their independence, there was no going back. The British had to win every battle against the Americans if they wanted to remain in control. The Americans only had to win once, and then the French would come in on their side, and the British would be doomed. If it hadn't been Saratoga, it would have been another battle later on. It wasn't fortuitous, it was inevitable."

"And I suppose you would say the same thing about Stalin coming to power in Russia," Raczyński observed. "Suppose Stalin had died robbing a train? Would everything that happened after Lenin's death still happen?"

"It had to," Blair insisted. "Lenin's ideology demanded it. Everything had to be subordinated to control of the Party, and everyone who resisted had to be eliminated. And the very nature of the Party that Lenin created ensured that the most ruthless man would end up in control. Take away Stalin and someone equally ruthless would appear in his place and do the same things he did."

Raczyński knew better than to try to argue further with Blair. His socialism might have abated with age, but his utter conviction that he knew what was right remained as firm as ever. And, really, given how well that conviction had served his adopted homeland over the last forty years, how could Raczyński fault him for it?

So Raczyński did not mention to Blair the disturbing vision "King Friedrich" had given him of a Europe dominated by a still-powerful Germany, with Poland reduced to a mere satellite kingdom. Even more disturbing was the notion of how much more likely a German-dominated Europe was than the union of equals they were building here in Magdeburg. If Hindenburg and Ludendorff had triumphed over the Allied Powers in the Great War, or someone with more military and diplomatic skills than Röhm had seized power in the 1930s, it might well have happened. Raczyński himself might be dead or imprisoned, or at best living in exile in America like poor Kościuszko.

Dismissing these unfortunate alternative selves from his thoughts, Raczyński turned to Blair and said, "Speaking of deterministic forces, you and I have to prepare for today's meeting with those French agriculture officials."

"Oh, God, don't remind me," Blair muttered. "Why on earth did I ever accept this post?"

"I thought it was your deep commitment to the ideals of European unity?"

"Deep commitment to masochism, more like. At my age, I ought to be relaxing in a cafe in Barcelona, not arguing with bureaucrats in Magdeburg in the dead of winter."

"Maybe in an alternative world, you are," Raczyński chuckled.

"It's more likely I'd be long dead on a battlefield somewhere," Blair said gloomily. Then, peering around at the canteen in particular, and at the European Parliament in general, he added, "Which would still be an improvement over this place."

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