5 Forgotten Moments That Almost Changed History Forever
We love us some alternate history, but it always comes down to the same tired old ideas. What if the South had won the Civil War? What if the Nazis had won World War II? What if the Nazis had won World War II and then somehow the Civil War? But history almost went in some much weirder directions. We demand to see the following scenarios inspire some fresh movies and video games. And we would also like some somber reflection on the fragility of human progress, if there's time. But mostly new Bioshock, please.
The USSR Was In Serious Talks To Join The Axis
At the start of World War II, the Soviet Union signed a neutrality pact with the Nazis, and then both carved up Poland. Then in June of 1941, the Germans went back on their word, because Hitler was definitely the kid on the playground who calls takebacksies. The two superpowers hated each other, so it was going to end in blood sooner or later, right?
Maybe not! Nazi-Soviet relations were complicated. They were never going to take a summer vacation together, but each knew that war would be devastating, and saw the world as big enough for the both of them. As late as May 1941, the Soviets were in serious talks to join the Tripartite Pact, Hitler's dictator fantasy league that already included Italy and Japan.
Stalin was so serious about staying on Hitler's good side that the Soviet Union helped Germany survive Britain's economic blockade by providing millions of tons of food, oil, metal, and other essentials. Those supplies gave the Germans the confidence to invade France, and then the Soviets saw their own resources used against them. So they didn't really swoop in to save the day so much as fix what they helped break, after which any mention of cooperation with the Nazis was quietly scrubbed from official Soviet history.
So why did the dream team collapse? Too many arguments about what kind of mustache was better? Probably, but there were two other problems. First, they couldn't agree on how to divide the big Risk board that is Earth, with Bulgaria, Iraq, and Iran being particular sticking points. That might have been resolved -- what's a little Bulgaria between supervillains? -- but Hitler had a huge hate-on for the Soviet Union that simply would not go down.
The German ambassador to Moscow told Berlin that an invasion would end in disaster, and that Stalin seemed willing to meet whatever economic demands Hitler made, so long as war was avoided. The German foreign minister and other pragmatic high-ranking Nazis were so strongly in favor of cutting a deal that they even conducted talks behind Hitler's back. They saw Britain as the true enemy, and feared that opening a two-front war would be their doom (spoiler: they were right).
For his part, Stalin seemed content to sit on the sidelines and watch Churchill and Hitler tear each other apart. But Hitler thought that the guy who was sending him free food was a jerk (pot, kettle, black, etc.), so lil half-stache responded with a giant middle finger and an invasion. If someone had been able to talk some sense into Hitler, the whole war could have turned out differently (uh ... probably worse). Although any scenario that involves talking sense into Hitler is admittedly a stretch.
Jamestown Was Almost Abandoned
In 1609, the struggling Jamestown colony was so short on food that people were eating dogs, shoe leather, corpses and, in one man's case, his own wife. There was a bad drought, their relationship with the Natives was falling apart -- it was not a good scene. The Virginia Company, which ran the colony, sent a fleet with food and more colonists, but a hurricane wrecked or waylaid most of that.
By June of 1610, the few dozen remaining survivors were ready to throw in the towel and head home, but another support fleet arrived with the colony's new governor, Lord De La Warr, and a year's worth of food. De La Warr made the colonists stay and resettle Jamestown, and soon had them building fortifications. By 1612, the colony started growing tobacco, which turned out to be more than profitable enough to keep them alive. De La Warr saved Jamestown at such a convenient moment that we would call bullshit if we saw him coming over the horizon in a movie.
Jamestown's true importance has long been debated, but it was an eventual success, and after a long string of colonial failures by the European powers, it became the launching point that spread them like a virus across the continent (along with actual viruses). Had Jamestown collapsed as well, it is conceivable that England would have given up on North America to focus on colonizing the Caribbean. At the very least, the Spanish and the Dutch would have had an opportunity to seize the Mid-Atlantic while England regrouped.
Again, this is all highly speculative (it's that kind of article!), but somewhere out there is an alternate universe where you're all reading Gebarsten.com and watching Zaterdag Night Live broadcasts straight from New Amsterdam. And to think that all Lord De La Warr got for saving America was one of the most forgettable states being named after him. Guess which one.
Lincoln Seriously Considered Shipping Slaves Out Of America
We're taught that Abraham Lincoln, known to history as the Breaker of Chains and Father of Stovepipe Hats, singlehandedly ended the Civil War, freed the slaves, and earned Daniel Day-Lewis his third Oscar. Except one of those almost didn't happen, and not because Joaquin Phoenix was superb in The Master. Lincoln was roughly as close to shipping all of the South's slaves off to another country as he was to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
Throughout Lincoln's career, he proposed the idea of "colonization," which would see slaves (freed or not) shipped to Africa, Haiti, or one of another half-dozen countries and colonies, all on the basis of his (then-common) belief that blacks and whites would live best apart. And this wasn't a private desire. It occupied space in his speeches, State of the Union addresses, and cabinet meetings.
Literally, the day before the Emancipation Proclamation was, uh, proclaimed, Lincoln approved a contract with Bernard Kock -- a sort of 19th-century venture capitalist -- to ship 5,000 African Americans to an island off the coast of Haiti, where they would be given jobs and Haitian citizenship. Lincoln is also on record as saying, "I can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the Negroes." Fearing a potential race war, Lincoln considered plans as far-fetched as sending 150,000 black Union soldiers to dig a canal through Panama, all while establishing a colony where their families could eventually join them.
Historians have long debated how much of Lincoln's thinking was motivated by a sincere belief that it was impossible for free black people to peacefully and successfully integrate into American society, and how much of it was mere political expediency, making an end to slavery look more attractive to conservatives. (If you ever find yourself annoyed by modern politics, remember that "Ship all the uppity minorities to another country" used to be the centrist stance.) There's also been significant debate over whether Lincoln was ultimately deterred from this by bettering his own racial views, or just stymied by logistical issues.
We're not qualified to solve historical debates unless they involve Batman, but either way, Lincoln was dabbling with the idea right up until he got shot. So you can thank John Wilkes Booth for this entry. (Not too hard, though.)
The Russian Revolution Almost Spread Across Europe
Russia's October Revolution, which toppled the Tsar and established the world's first communist government, actually happened in November. That's it. That's what this entire entry is about.
Oh, also it's generally assumed that the Russian Revolution was strictly, well, Russian. And that's not quite true either. Germany had one, and Bavaria and Bremen even declared themselves Soviet states in 1919. Both only lasted a month before the German government reestablished control, but tensions remained high throughout Germany over the potential for a complete communist revolution.
Hungary was also experimenting with communism like a freshman putting up a Che poster, and Italian workers started a solidarity strike which led to a period called the Two Red Years (the reaction to which prompted the infamous Oops, Now We've Got Mussolini period). A whole lot of people who had been fed through the meat grinder of World War I were in the mood to try something very different.
Meanwhile, Lenin and friends shocked the Western powers by unexpectedly winning the Russian Civil War, then shocked them again by not stopping their revolution at the border. Lenin wanted to push all the way into Germany to support a communist uprising in the birthplace of Karl Marx. And so, despite concerns from some Soviet leaders that they would overextend their supply lines and fail to inspire Western workers, the Red Army went on the march. And the first stop on the Communism World Tour was Poland.
To cram hundreds of years worth of complex history into a single sentence, Poland had just been reestablished as an independent country and was not in the mood to fuck around. Despite having an economy that could barely support a series of lemonade stands, Poland's attitude toward the Soviets was "Bring it, bitches," and thus began the Polish-Soviet War.
The battle-hardened Soviets immediately swept across the country with ease and pushed toward Warsaw, where the Poles were expected to face a backbreaking defeat that would serve as a powerful communist rallying cry. At the Battle of Warsaw, the outnumbered, outgunned, demoralized, heavily disorganized Polish troops ... absolutely crushed Lenin's ambitions with a huge victory, turning the tide of the entire war and radically altering European history. It was basically the military version of Rocky IV. And as thanks for halting the communist advance, Europe spent the next several generations telling dumb Pollack jokes.
A French Offensive Might Have Toppled Hitler In 1939
The most common narrative about the French in World War II goes that they were about as effective as throwing your grandpa into a Fortnite match. But they started on the attack thanks to the Saar Offensive, which saw 40 divisions march into Germany, all while the Nazis used the majority of their forces to pick on Poland (the Charlie Brown of nation-states).
France's goal was to reach the vaunted (yet mostly unfinished) Siegfried Line and test the strength of its defenses. French troops breezed across the border and strolled past the mostly abandoned enemy lines -- in one village, the grand Nazi war machine consisted of a single machine gun. Sure, the land was mined to all hell, but even slow progress is still progress. It looked like they could reach as far as the Rhine without true resistance, forcing Germany to go on the defensive. But after advancing only five miles in two weeks, they turned around and left like they thought Hitler was AFK and it'd be a dick move to take advantage of that.
Hitler gambled on leaving the west unguarded, because he believed that the French would be hampered by the old-fashioned strategic thinking of World War I (which called for slow, cautious offensives), as well as antiwar sentiment there (because those slow, cautious offensives had annihilated an entire generation). Gamelin, the French general leading the Saar Offensive, played into Hitler's hunch by interpreting the complete lack of resistance as some kind of trap, instead of accepting the more obvious explanation that maybe Hitler was kind of an idiot.
And so Gamelin retreated to the Maginot Line, where he informed the Polish government that his half-assed invasion technically upheld the terms of the mutual defense treaty France had signed with them, so good luck with the whole Nazi thing. Even other French commanders were frustrated by what they saw as the squandering of a massive opportunity. After the war, surviving Nazi generals speculated that a committed French invasion in 1939 could have defeated Germany in as little as two weeks.
Taylor Daine lives a slovenly life in the Midwest and tweets badly at @turtledovejones.
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