Kevin Carson Reviews The Churchill Memorandum

Sean Gabb. The Churchill Memorandum (Lulu.com, 2011).

Although I don't write about it much, I'm an alternate history geek.

I've got a whole shelf of them, ranked according to what genre fans call the "Point of Divergence" (POD). Among my favorites are Harold Waldrop's Roll Them Bones, which starts from the premise that Rome lost the Second Punic War and Mother Carthage inherited the Hellenistic culture of the East, and Poul Anderson's short story "In the House of Sorrows," which posits that Jerusalem fell to Sennacherib and that the fall of Rome and the Dark Ages occurred without the Church to preserve classical culture and literacy.

My favorite of all time is probably Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch. In that story our own timeline is the result of historical engineering, undertaken by scientists from the original timeline in order to avert the catastrophe in which their history culminated. In the original timeline, Columbus' life's work was traveling among the royal courts of Christendom whipping up support for a new Crusade to smash the power of the Turk and liberate Constantinople and Jerusalem.

With the discovery of the New World delayed by almost a century, a Mesoamerican people managed to supplant the Aztecs (much as the Persians did the Medes) and reinvigorate their dying empire. They expanded to incorporate a people far to the northwest whose smiths were quickly advancing from copper smelting to working with iron, and another people on the Caribbean coast who were developing the first true ships built on a keel. Equipped with firearms and gunpowder, whose secrets they tortured out of the first shipwrecked Portuguese crews.

But the most popular points of divergence, by far, are the American Civil War and World War II. The Churchill Memorandum, by Libertarian Alliance Director Sean Gabb, falls under the second heading. In his alternate timeline, Hitler died in a car wreck in the Spring of 1939 and was succeeded by Goehring.

Goehring quickly instituted a revisionist version of National Socialism. Among the more unlikely "revisions" was the announcement that the general hostility toward the Jews was all a "misunderstanding," and that National Socialism properly understood opposed only the big international financiers -- who were no longer a threat in any case.

During the Polish crisis Goehring and Chamberlain sewed up a stable peace which amounted to a de facto condominium between Germany and the British Empire. The pact guaranteed the independence of France and the Low Countries, in return for a free hand in Eastern Europe. Stalinist Russia and Japan, as second-rate powers, rounded out the balance.

The main unknown was the United States, which the Germans feared would tip the balance toward the British Empire. Hence the Chamberlain-Goehring agreement included a secret codicil, key to the cloak-and-dagger plot, which guaranteed geopolitical stability by removing America as an independent force in world politics. The British arranged the assassination of FDR, followed by a succession of other presidential assassinations, finally resulting in a coup which established a sort of deranged fascist regime under Harry Anslinger (just Google the name). America at the time of the story's setting was an authoritarian hellhole, completely withdrawn from the rest of the world.

At the time of the setting, twenty years after the POD in 1959, Nazi Germany's government pursues what we would regard as a neoliberal agenda, with Mises and Hayek dominating the Cabinet. Britain is under a Conservative government, with what would be regarded as relative economic freedom in conventional politics (although without such obviously central prerequisites to genuine economic freedom as a land reform based on thoroughgoing attention to the principle of justice in acquisition). As a result, technology has advanced at a much faster rate in the Empire than it did in our timeline. Casette recorders and cheap home energy generators are common, and electric cars have mostly replaced the IC engine. That old alt hist standby the airship makes its appearance as the primary means of long-distance travel -- quite plausible, given the unlikelihood that jumbo jets would ever have come into existence absent a superpower arms race. Germany is a sponsor of the Jewish Free State in Palestine against Britain's protectorates in the Arab world.

The plot centers on a scheme by Harold MacMillan and Communist Party chief Michael Foote to track down and publicize the Churchill Memorandum, and thereby expose the secret skullduggery between Goehring and Chamberlain which is at the foundation of the geopolitical order. Their hope is that public outrage in Britain will lead to a rupture with Germany, that a revanchist movement in America will lead it to reenter world politics on the side of the new Labour coalition, and that Britain will be thrown into the arms of Soviet Russia. With the British war against Germany that is likely to ensue, in alliance with Russia and America, MacMillan and Foote intend to restore the "progressive" course of history which was thwarted by Chamberlain.

I've had my issues with Dr. Gabb in the past over his view of the beneficence of the British Empire. Frankly, if our only choice is between benevolent British imperialism and the kind of "liberation" promoted by American Cold War policy, it's a pretty dismal prospect.

But what I find especially appealing about the story -- aside from an afficionado's curiosity about how an alternate timeline turns out -- is its treatment of power. There really are no good guys. The world order enforced by London, no matter how much less of an evil Gabb considers it, is built on betrayal and murder. Chamberlain removed America as an inconvenience, in the process handing over its entire population to totalitarian rule, as casually as most of us would swat a mosquito.

Perhaps most intriguing is the way that, with all the major actors and world powers reshuffled like the bits of colored paper in a kaleidoscope, the lines of political power automatically link them together in the same way that an arc of electricity in a lightning bolt follows the shortest path. In a radically different world, with radically different alignments, political leaders and states nevertheless gravitate toward power just as water flows downhill. This is a universal law of history that seems to hold regardless of which specific figures are in power, so long as power exists at all. So long as political power exists, it will be abused by those who hold it in the interest of aggrandizing their own power.

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