What about writing an alternative ‘what if’ history…

16:07 08 February in ARTICLES, In English, PUBLICATIONS

Todays ZamanToday’s Zaman | 08 February, 2010 |  


Most people do not engage in the mental luxury of speculating upon what the world and their country would be like if history had gone a little differently, i.e., if history had taken a course different to that which it did.I find it extremely rewarding to engage and stretch our powers of imagination in speculating on alternative historical scenarios by posing fictitious questions.

Alternative history is a subgenre of literary fiction, though it often uses the tropes of science fiction and historical fiction set in a world in which history has diverged from the actual history of the world. It is related to, but distinct from, counterfactual history — the term used by some professional historians when using thoroughly researched and carefully reasoned speculations on “what might have happened if…” as a tool of academic historical research.

Even small differences in the initial conditions of a deterministic complex system can lead to large differences in outcomes, so the hypothesis that history could have been substantially different is not so unreasonable.

Let us make no mistake: The intention here is not to develop a revisionist history and provide ammunition to those opposing camps who cannot agree on the true interpretation of what really happened in our past and how they impact how we identify ourselves today. “Alternative,” “virtual” or “counterfactual” history is a form of history which attempts to answer “what if” questions. It seeks to explore history and historical processes from the point of view of extrapolating a position in which certain key historical events did not happen or resulted in an outcome that was different to that which did in fact occur.


What if the world… Writing an alternative history can help us a great deal in stretching the limits of our imagination and in better comprehending the “other” side of the coin. It is also useful in inspiring us to imagine the turn of events in the future. This should be used as a brainstorming exercise in schools to stimulate the students’ creativity. Let us first begin with a couple of the “counterfactual” questions related to world history.

What if:

  • Alexander the Great had not died so young but had, instead, carried on his conquests?
  • Attila the Hun was able to capture Paris?
  • the Andalusian civilization were to continue in Spain, and the Franks lost to the Muslims at the Battle of Tours in 732?
  • the Native Americans had won the Indian wars and kept their land, and the South won the Civil War and the American Revolution failed to occur?
  • the Black Death of the 14th century had killed 99 percent of the people in Europe and over the next seven centuries, China and the Islamic world came to dominate the planet?
  • Napoleon had turned away from Moscow before the disastrous winter of 1812, and without the severe losses that he suffered was able to conquer all of Europe and the Middle East?
  • the provisional president of China Gen. Yuan Shikai actually had declared himself emperor in 1916 and successfully launched a new dynasty?
  • Lord Halifax had become the prime minister instead of Churchill, and the Japanese kamikazes had not attacked Pearl Harbor?
  • US Treasury Secretary Morgenthau had implemented his plan for post-World War II Germany that involved turning it into a pastoral state with not enough industry to threaten anyone again?
  • Mussolini had stayed out of the war and Hitler had actually been killed by von Stauffenberg’s bomb?
  • Addis Ababa was a lively and cosmopolitan capital city in the highlands of the Italian East African Empire since the conquest of Ethiopia in 1935-36?
  • Mrs. Thatcher had been forced to resign after Argentina won the Falklands war?
  • the Air France aircraft carrying Ayatollah Khomeini from his exile in Paris to Tehran had been downed by Iranian missiles?
  • Saddam Hussein had been assassinated in July 1982 near the town of Ad Dujayl during fierce gun battles between Baathist security personnel and Al-Daawa fighters?


What if Turkey…

The foregoing questions are ones that quickly spring to mind. Suppose we develop a similar “what if” line of thinking about our own history?

What if:

  • Turks had remained in Central Asia and continued their shamanistic beliefs instead of embracing Islam?
  • the Byzantine emperor had in 1071 won the Battle of Malazgirt, which opened the gateway to Anatolia?
  • the Ottomans had been able to surmount the gates of Vienna in 1683 and advanced to the heart of Europe?
  • Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror had been successful in marching into the depths of Italy and captured Rome?
  • This son Cem Sultan had dethroned his brother Bayezid and taken power in İstanbul as the first Catholic sultan?
  • the British flotilla, managing to win the Dardanelles campaign and sailing to Black Sea waters, had been able to help the anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia?
  • Germany had won World War I together with its ally, the Ottoman Empire?
  • Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had not been permitted to sail to Samsun as an army inspector or had been assassinated en route to Ankara by British agents?
  • Enver Pasha had replaced Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as the leader of the national resistance to occupying forces?
  • republican Turkey had preserved the caliphate (and become a sort of Vatican for the Islamic world) or attempted to develop its political system under a monarchic democracy as in the United Kingdom and most Scandinavian countries?
  • Col. İsmet had been defeated in the İnönü battle and been taken as a prisoner of war to Athens?
  • Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had turned Turkey’s face to the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East instead of to the West after the War of Independence?
  • Russia’s Stalin had secured strategic bases in İstanbul and Eastern Anatolia after World War II?
  • the Turkish Armed Forces had occupied and annexed the entire island of Cyprus in 1974?
  • the military coup d’état had not taken place on Sept. 12, 1980 and Turkey had acceded to the European Union as a full member back in 1983?
  • Syria had not responded positively to Turkey’s ultimatum to expel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan from Damascus?
  • the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government had allowed US troops to be stationed along the southern borders and opened a front against the Saddam regime from Turkish territory?


By examining accounts of what did not happen, we can better understand the significance of what did and prepare for the uncertainties of the future. Such an exercise is within the powers of imagination of most of us.

May I kindly invite interested readers to reflect on similar “what if” historical accounts which they believe could have affected the course of Turkish history and share them with me, as a first step towards developing Turkey’s first alternative history book.

*Mehmet Öğütçü is a Mülkiye, London School of Economics and Collège d’Europe graduate, a former Turkish diplomat and a senior Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) staffer.