Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Second World War

This blog is about me reading or rereading Poul Anderson's works but I sometimes read other stuff and mention it here to compare it with Anderson. I have just attended a book launch for A People's History of the Second World War by Donny Gluckstein.

Anderson's fiction is full of history though usually further back than WWII. However, some Time Patrolmen visit London in 1944 and another reflects on how easy it would be for a time traveler to delete that war from the timeline by preventing the conception of Adolf Hitler. (Stephen Fry wrote a novel about this but, as usually happens, I disagreed with his logic of time travel.)

The first thing to say is that words, whether historical or fictional or both historical and fictional, are abstractions and simplifications from a concrete and complex reality. "Concrete" does not mean "solid." Reality as experienced comprises solids, liquids, gasses, energy and mental states. These last, even if grounded in mass-energy and organism-environment interactions, have distinct properties and can be imagined, even if not experienced, as existing separately.

"Redness," a single property abstracted from many objects, is an abstraction whereas an object, comprising a totality of properties, is concrete. The "concrete" object might be a particle whose properties do not include that directly perceived tangibility and impenetrability that we call solidity. Also, objects of experience include mirages, holograms and imaginings and thus are a broader category than material objects.

To verbalize any aspect of reality is to abstract some of its properties as against others and is thus also to simplify but we know this and should not be misled, especially not by basing our understanding of the War on reading a single book which, in any case, necessarily quotes from many others. Anderson's fictional accounts of wars convey something of their horror and complexity. His characters sometimes die horribly while also continuing to have different perspectives on conflict.

According to this new book by Gluckstein, there were effectively two Second World Wars. Politicians and generals fought to maintain the social status quo (Churchill wanted a thousand year Empire!) and afterwards to redivide the world among the newly dominant powers (no longer including Britain after all) whereas many people on the ground, for example in the resistance movements, fought for a better world, in fact achieving for example an end to colonialism and a British National Health Service (with Churchill out of office). European Communist Party members schizophrenically fought both Wars, expressing the aspirations of their people while serving the cynical power politics of Stalin's foreign policy.

Combining Anderson and Gluckstein, I envisage a group of time travelers doing more than merely preventing Hitler. Let us imagine:

an early defeat of the pre-Nazi Freikorps by their political opponents;
continued social transformation in Germany;
fewer hostile military interventions destroying the already small industrial base of the new Russian Republic;
German support for that Republic;
preservation of democracy combined with social transformation in Russia;
no Naziism, Second World War, holocaust, nuclear weapons, Middle Eastern conflicts, local dictatorships strategically supported by contending superpowers or Russian bureaucracy destroying democracy to re-industrialize but bankrupting itself with the arms race;
no subsequent War on Terror;
thus, a peaceful twentieth century (after the Great War).

But, having failed to achieve global peace in the twentieth century, let us build it in the twenty first!

2 comments:

  1. Hi, Paul!

    While I've not read the book you mentioned, I have read Churchill's six volume history of WW II.

    Frankly, I disagree almost entirely with the kind of "social change" you want. Because I do not believe it will lead to true liberty or freedom.

    Far better for Tsarist Russia to have stayed out of WW I and continue to rebuild herself internally along the lines laid down by the reforms of Peter Stolypin and Count Kokovtsov (see, for example, Edward Crankshaw's book THE SHADOW OF THE WINTER PALACE).

    Far better for the victorious powers at Versailles to avoid grievously enraging and humiliating a great power like Germany. Including forcing on her the Weimar Republic. Churchill believed preserving the German monarchy under Wilhelm II's grandson would have been a far better policy. Which, btw, is kinda what the US did in Japan after WW II.

    And so on and on! You already know I consider socialism a false and unrealistic notion, so I'll stop.

    In this blog I have noticed how you focus largely on Poul Anderson's novels. And books "fixed up" to be novels. But, you don't seem to comment often on his short stories. Or collections of Anderson's stories. It might be a good change of pace to comment on the stories in collections like SPACE FOLK or ALL ONE UNIVERSE.

    Sean

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  2. Sean, thank you for your alternative vision of a more peaceful 20th Century, starting with Russia staying out of the Great War and continuing with a more conciliatory settlement after that War.

    Interesting point about short stories. I will respond in a post rather than a comment.

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