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Cleopatra's nose

A deterministic view of history is a legacy of the Enlightenment which viewed society too as subject to universal laws. KAUSHIK ROY reviews a book which shifts the emphasis to chance and accident in human affairs.

WHAT would have happened if Hitler had alerted the panzers in Normandy when the Allies were landing on June 6, 1944? The Allied generals have privately admitted that for them it could have resulted in the "longest tragedy". A triumphant Hitler would then have been able to alter the course of history by transferring the bulk of the Wehrmacht in Russia. Such What-might-have-been-s seem to be endless in our 3,000 years of recorded history. This book collects 20 essays by British and American historians that demonstrate there is no "deterministic tendency" in human affairs. The notion in history-writing that historical events are "near-run things" and alternative possibilities always exist is termed as "counter-factual history". This genre of history- writing first originated in 19th-century Germany and its writers are known as the Aufklarers. Outside Germany, Aufklarers are categorised as the Anti-Enlightenment School. This is because they emphasise the role of chance and accident caused by unpredictable humans and challenge the "linear determinism" of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment's message was that the Universe could be understood through immutable cosmic laws that have universal validity. Then came Newtonian science with rules for analysing the physical dynamics of the Universe. These developments gave birth to Positivist history. The Positivists assume that the evolution of societies is susceptible to universal laws. They assert that the rise and fall of countries is dependent on long term structural forces. In their conceptual framework, human frailties matter little. The most blatant form of Positivism is Classical Marxism. In the Marxist paradigm, historical events are inevitable products of the interplay of socio-economic forces. Hence, its famous representative E.H. Carr abuses counter-factual history as "Cleopatra's nose theory".

However, with the rise of Quantum Mechanics and Chaos Theory, the concept of linear causality has been challenged. This has resulted in the replacement of the concept of linear progress with the notion of zigzag movements causing societal evolution. The edited volume under review reflects the rebirth of Aufklarer's mode of history writing.

That human strengths and weaknesses are the principal motors behind historical changes is the assumption of the essayists here. W.H. McNeill writes that the Assyrians were on the point of taking Jerusalem in 701 B.C. From the military perspective, the Kingdom of Judah was no match against the military might of Assyria. Had Jerusalem fallen, then Judaism would have been wiped out from the face of the earth. But Hezekiah, King of Judah, contaminated the water supply around Jerusalem. The Assyrian soldiers died in droves from infections drinking the poisoned water. With the Assyrian Army disintegrating, Sennacherib, the King of Assyria had to beat a retreat. Judah and Judaism survived.

Let us leap 2647 years forward to show how human agency could influence the trajectory of history. The year was 1946 and Chiang Kai Shek was winning against Mao's forces. Chiang's Nationalist forces, writes Arthur Waldron, was on the point of taking the last Communist stronghold: Manchuria. The lightly armed Communist guerrillas were no match against Chiang's battle-hardened soldiers who had been equipped by America. But suddenly the "halt order" came. The American general Marshall forced it believing that a negotiated settlement between the Communists and the Nationalists was possible. Marshall threatened to cut off aid if Chiang did not stop attacking the Communists. The net result was that the Communists rebuilt and regrouped their forces and attacked the Nationalists. By 1949, for Chiang, the game was up. Had there been no halt order in 1946, there would have been no Red China in 2001.

Unpredictable weather is another player in counter-factual history. Theodore K. Rabb, Professor of History at Princeton University, claims that in 1529 the Ottomans would have taken Vienna but for an unusually wet summer. Continuous heavy rainfall impeded the progress of the Ottoman army. The slush and mud prevented the Ottomans from dragging their siege guns before Vienna. By the time the Ottomans - without their guns - reached Vienna, the Europeans had concentrated a relief force. The Christian population of Europe would have been limited to the west of the continent, writes Rabb, had it not been for that unusual wet summer.

History seems to be a catalogue of human disasters resulting from an interplay between the unforeseen and the contingent. Cowley's book should force us to revise our sacrosanct assumptions. It looks more as if God does play dice and history to a great extent is a random roll of dice.

What If? Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, edited by Robert Cowley, London: Pan, 2001, p.xvi+ 395, 7.99.

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