Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Guest Post - Hendon Air Disaster

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History with input by Robbie Tayor, Philip Ebbrell, and Allen W. McDonnell.

Sep 15, 1938-

A Lockheed 14 Super Electra departed Hendon Aerodrome carrying British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on his ill-fated flight to Munich. Tragedy struck when a mechanical failure occurred with the plane only 200 feet off the ground. The right wing dipped, sending the aircraft into a sharp turn, causing it to slow and lose lift, resulting in a rapid descent. It crashed into a nearby field, killing all on board.

The British government was facing a unique crisis of confidence even before the Hendon Air Disaster. Having never flown in an aircraft before, Chamberlain was taking a unique set of personal and political risks in agreeing to meet Adolf Hitler. He considered this absolutely necessary because the unchecked rise of Fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain threatened to sweep away British influence on the continent and beyond. His previous activity in no way prepared him for the challenges for this role, causing growing tension in his cabinet. By now, members of the Tory Caucus were entertaining serious doubts about his appeasement policy, causing the recent resignation of Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden.

Chamberlain was personally leading the diplomatic mission because this troubled great office was the political hot seat seeing a rapid turnover of university-educated individuals ill-equipped to form a foreign policy under extreme circumstances. Not only had the European security structure collapsed, but the victor powers were weakened by economic depression and war weariness. A strategic pause to re-arm would only allow Germany to grow in strength as well, and the necessary choice of engaging Stalin was politically unacceptable to the Tories. Eden's successor at the foreign office was his de facto deputy Viscount Halifax, the former Viceroy of India, and current Leader of the Lords. Having personally met Hitler, he strongly believed "we ought to get on good terms with Germany." In addition to these unique insights, he had the natural authority of an aristocrat aided by his immense height. Like Chamberlain, he wanted to deter further German aggression, but he was personally inclined to fight even though the mood of the country was strongly against it. Memories of the Great War remained strong; only five years earlier, the Oxford Union Society had presented a motion that "This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and country."

Chamberlain had only been considered to be a placeholder to take the Conservatives to the next general election after Stanley Baldwin stepped down in the wake of the abdication crisis. His natural successor at 10 Downing Street would likely have been Samuel Hoare but he was strongly disliked by the right wing for his involvement in the Government of India Act and his part in the shameful Hoare-Laval Pact that ended the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. It was Halifax that led demands for Hoare's resignation, and Eden strongly supported this move believing Mussolini to be an untrustworthy gangster without gestures of good faith on his part. And so, with Eden out of office, Halifax emerged as the senior figure in the party even though as a peer he was not a member of the House of Commons. Also working in his favour was the active support of the King George VI who distrusted Winston Churchill and other Tories for their role in the abdication crisis.

Great Britain stood at a crossroads. The Empire, the Class System, and the Monarchy overshadowed the interests of a divided country, with a revitalized Labour Party under Clement Attlee ready to take office. Being desperately short of political allies, Halifax had to listen to the advice of Hoare. In their discussions, they returned to the cornerstone of foreign policy that the dictatorships' very separate interests could be teased apart. Despite the circumstances of the forced resignation, Halifax had broadly agreed with Hoare's strategic approach but rejected his approach as "too much like the off-the-stage arrangements of nineteenth-century diplomacy." The new prime minister quickly realized that an accommodation with Fascist Italy was the only way forward because Mussolini also feared subordination to Hitler's Germany. Rather than following in Chamberlain's steps, he exploited this opportunity by flying to Rome instead for a fateful meeting with Il Duce. This ultimately would grant Italy wide scope for expansion in the Mediterranean that would not lead to an Empire Reborn, but at least keep Italy within the a proven security structure, the so-called Stresa Front with Britain and France.

The promise of self-determination for the three million German people living in the Sudetenland was justifiably consistent with the principles of the Treaty of Versailles, at least on paper. In a joint communiqué from Rome, Mussolini and Halifax would demand a plebiscite accompanied by robust guarantees for the rest of Czechoslovakia, an artificial state created from Habsburg lands. The man of the hour, Halifax would gleefully arrive in Hendon promising "peace in our time," although his wiser French counter-part Daladier would return to buoyant crowds in Paris and famously soliloquy "Oh, the fools!"

Italy's subsequent neutrality regarding German war efforts would remove a wheel from an axis on which the world might have turned. As Hitler and Stalin deeply distrusted each other, the war in the East started early with the Soviets thinking they had better move first and Stalin having won the border war with Japan and ended the Great Purge. This Soviet-German War would exhaust both sides until the final victor was too weak to go on with conquest.

Author's Note:

Chamberlain completed the trip, returning to London with the mistaken belief that he had obtained a breathing space during which agreement could be reached and the peace preserved.

The role of Halifax is famously explored in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day, his policies are summarized in a TV broadcast in 1939. His conviction to fight collapsed during the Battle of France. With the Allies facing apparently catastrophic defeat and British forces falling back to Dunkirk, he favoured approaching Italy to see if acceptable peace terms could be negotiated. He was overruled by Churchill after a series of stormy meetings of the War Cabinet. From 1941 to 1946, he served as British Ambassador in Washington.

Provine's Addendum:

Though Britain, France, and Italy watched violence in the east and west with the Spanish Civil War at last proving a fascist victory, their empires were not immune. Italian East Africa, recently established after the Second Italo-Ethiopian War that had worn out the first Stresa Front, faced numerous rebellions that eventually evolved into a third war. France saw similar internal struggles in Africa, but their greatest threat proved to be encroaching Japanese influence on their holdings in Indochina. Britain devoted huge resources to repress independence movements in India. Attempting to reinvigorate their position near the Suez Canal also, leaders brought a new wave of encouragement to the 1917 Balfour Declaration for a "national home for the Jewish people" within the British Mandate for Palestine. Jewish people fleeing the increasingly oppressive regimes in Germany and other parts of Europe flocked to the region, sparking strife with Palestinian locals. "Peace in our time" proved hardly universal, and world leaders held their breath to see where the next great war would begin.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Guest Post: King Victor, House of Hanover

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History co-written with Allen W. McDonnell.

18 June, 1853 - King Victor celebrates Waterloo Day

Regiments of the Royal Armies of Britain and Hanover celebrated Waterloo Day by marching down the Mall from Buckingham Palace to Horse Guards Parade for an inspection by their new Commander-in-Chief, King Victor.

His Imperial Majesty had willingly accepted the post following the Duke of Wellington's death the previous September. Ironically, Wellington's Anglo-Allied army of 1815 had been predominantly German-speaking (and victory delivered by the Prussian Marshal Blücher), a glaring fact hidden by this impressive demonstration of British militarism. The other European monarchies had traditionally enjoyed a more authoritative role and, as a consequence this demagoguery and martial power play, sharply raised eyebrows around the world. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a turning point for the nineteenth century. At thirty-four, King Victor had already ruled for sixteen years, and yet the sweeping changes of the Victorian Era really began to rapidly accelerate after Waterloo Day 1853.

It was fortuitous that a big part of the Industrial Revolution occurred during his reign at a time when Great Britain was increasingly looking to military application. The subsequent rise of an Anglo-Hanoverian super-state was largely the result of the king being an enthusiastic proponent of the Anglification of several important colonies including South Africa, Kenya/Uganda highlands, New Zealand, British Columbia, Falklands Islands, and Patagonia. These colonial leaders emerged at the foreground of the festivities for the Diamond Jubilee, celebrated after Victor surpassed his grandfather George III as the longest-reigning monarch in British history.

The origin of these visiting luminaries was particularly noticeable because many were Hanoverian subjects and sponsors. The underlying significance was that Europe had reluctantly accepted the so-called "four Germanies" solution. This Anglo-German arrangement suited the super-state but was less enthusiastically embraced by the Hohenzollerns in Prussia and also Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who sought a German Confederation to counter-balance British hegemony. They also dreamt longingly of a "place in the sun," while Anglo-Hanoverian politicians scoffed at a return to the Holy Roman Empire dismantled by Napoleon prior to Waterloo.

Due in part to these rising tensions, the twentieth century promised to usher in an era of unprecedented change. King Victor passed away on 22 January 1901. By the time of his funeral, the United States had eclipsed Great Britain, and German nationalism was on the rise. With these dual threats on the horizon, it remained to be seen whether Britain could continue to rule the waves.

Author's Note:

In reality, Prince Albert declined to accept the post of commander-in-chief because he felt that his fit place was to be always near the queen - that he ought to identify himself with the Queen, with her position and with her interest. Due to the Salic Law preventing a woman from ascending to the Crown of Hanover, Ernest Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland became king following the death of William IV. This ended the Personal Union. The prime ministers of all the self-governing Dominions were invited to London for the festivities of the Diamond Jubilee.

Provine's Addendum:

The Hohenzollerns chafed for over a century at the British-Hanoverian connection foiling their aspirations of a union of German-speaking peoples led by Prussia. After making extensive gains in the east and building a camaraderie with Russia, Prussia at last came to war against the Austrian Empire to the south, ironically over the question of Schleswig-Holstein in the north. The war quickly turned in Prussia's favor, but Hanover, fearing an even stronger Prussia on its borders, sabre-rattled with threats of joining Austria's side. If not for the masterful diplomacy of Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Duke Ernest II's younger brother, the whole of Germany might have fallen into war. Instead, the borders were redrawn with the four powers: Hanover in the northwest, Prussia in the middle and east, Austria in the southeast, and the Bavarian-led German Confederation in the southwest. Some historians wonder if an earlier war at this time might have stopped much of the bloodshed in the coming Great War.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, each portion of German-speaking peoples moved in different directions. Hanover grew closer as a part of the British Empire, becoming a vital port and center of manufacturing. Prussia attempted colonial ventures in Africa and the Pacific but found itself constantly short of manpower needed for widespread settlement, though it maintained its prominent place in European affairs, building a formidable alliance with Russia and France and later Italy. The Austrians felt their empire begin to crack, soon sharing rule as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The German Confederation attempted to remain neutral, though it was clear war would soon again tear apart the continent.

The Great War began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, setting off a powder keg of complex alliances. Eventually the sides formed up with Prussia, France, Russia, and Italy on one with Serbia and Britain-Hanover, Austria Hungary, and Japan on the other. The war spilled over into the Balkans, often studied as more of a parallel war, with Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and the Ottoman Empire. Even nations that attempted to remain neutral like Belgium and the German Confederation were soon occupied. Both sides appealed to the United States for aid, which it supplied to Britain-Hanover before confirming its neutrality as the war proved in favor of Prussia and its allies despite Britain's major victories in French and Prussian colonies.

Terms for surrender in the Prussian-led treaty negotiations were harsh for the losers. Austria-Hungary was broken up, and the rump Austria itself was forced along with Hanover into the expanded German Confederation. This congress that was majority-ruled by Prussia thanks to its local population, making leaders glad few had left for the colonies the century before. George V balked at his title as Duke of Hanover making him, King of the United Kingdom, fairly subservient to the Kaiser in German matters. The issue proved minor, however, as issues overseas increasingly demanded British attention, primarily the independence movement in India. Prussia finally found itself as the unquestioned central power of Europe, although the dream gradually evolved into a nightmare as the linguistically similar "empire" proved to have vastly different political ideals, leading to violent revolutionary movements throughout the coming century.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Berlin-Shandong Railway (via Moscow and Beijing)

This post was inspired by a tweet from The Alternate Historian.

After war games proved the effectiveness of defensive combat, including trenches to resist artillery bombardment, Generaloberst Helmuth von Moltke the Younger presented a new plan of battle against France to Kaiser Wilhelm II. Its predecessor, the Schlieffen Plan, had been devised in 1905 in which defensive lines would hold the anticipated French invasion into Alsace and Lorraine while an offensive force moved through Belgium to encircle the French army. In the years since the original plan, the Entente Cordiale between France and Britain had proven strong, and the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 meant that any war in Europe would likely have two fronts for Germany. Rather than attempting to beat France first, Germany’s leaders sought to hold the west and focus on conquest of the less-developed east.

War came in 1914, and von Moltke’s plan went into action. France launched its Plan XVII, racing into German territory with five armies on August 14. The First and Second Armies had retreated back to their original organizing groups by August 20, and the others followed suit within a week. As Germany recognized Belgian neutrality, Britain became divided on whether to support France. Finally Parliament declared war as treaties demanded and a token expeditionary force crossed the Channel while the navy began a blockade, beginning the long Battle of the North Sea as U-boats and British warships hunted one another.

With the bulk of its forces on the Eastern Front, the German armies quickly gained ground. The Russian army had been improved since the Russo-Japanese War, but it was no match for the largesse of the German forces, as shown at the Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914 where the Russians felt ten times the casualties as the Germans. Within two years, German lines drew near to Moscow, and riots among the populace over food shortages and in the army over ammunition shortages only weakened things further. An attempt by the French and Russians to bring Romania into the war in 1916 as a new ally proved disastrous with defeat for them, too, just a year later. In 1917, a revolution declared a Russian republic. Feeling their ally was no longer able to fight and having seen terrible casualties with no gains for three years outside of seizing colonial land in Africa, France and Britain sued for peace in 1917. Germany continued pushing eastward, reinstalling the Russian monarchy with fourteen-year-old Tsar Alexander IV as a puppet.

Britain and France returned to their overseas empires, but Germany took up new interest overland in the vast Russian Empire. Existing railways across Siberia and along northeastern China technically connected Berlin to its colony at Kiautschou (Chinese: Jiaozhou), but it was a disconnected route since the Russian rail gauge was different. While Germany and China both used the 1,435 mm international standard gauge, Russian rails used the 5-foot (1,524 mm) gauge. This meant that cargo and passengers heading east from Germany would need to stop at the border, change trains, travel across Siberia, and stop to change trains again after Vladivostok. German officials were well aware of the problem: the gauge difference had slowed down the German advance since they were unable to link captured railways to move supplies forward more speedily.

Exerting pressure through the Tsar, Germany pushed for Russian rails to join the international standard. The first replaced-rail connected Berlin and Moscow, which had become the legislative capital of the nation while Alexander IV was kept in Petrograd. Rather than waiting for the route through Siberia to be replaced, German investors decided to build a new southern route. The line traveled south from Moscow to Astrakhan near where the Volga empties into the northern Caspian Sea. From there it ran east across Kazakhstan, through the Dzungarian pass, into the Gobi Desert, following much of the traditional Silk Road. From there, it linked with established railroads to Peking (Beijing) and the other 400 miles to Kiautschou.

The world marveled at how quickly the railroad was built, largely thanks to German press notices and patriotic films. Workers in the United States had built nearly 2,000 miles of rail with the Transcontinental Railroad in six years, while it took ten years to build the 5,800 miles of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the Manchurian route with the Amur route completed in fifteen years later. At only 4,700 miles, the new route was considerably shorter (especially since it was another 830 miles to Peking from Vladivostok), allowing for speedy flow of goods and passengers between Europe and the Republic of China. The rail line was called a new axis upon which the world would spin.

Along with German economic influence came political influence. Germany quickly outpaced other European empires’ attempts at swaying opinion in Asia, and China soon became a close ally with Berlin. Britain maintained a few long-lease ports, using them as stepping stones to affirm an alliance with Japan to secure a counterbalance with Germany’s growing power. Analysts feared that the next war would be truly a World War, perhaps even drawing in nations from the Western Hemisphere such as the United States or Brazil.



In reality, von Moltke continued with the Schlieffen Plan, though he was criticized as being too timid about its execution. Railroads would indeed link Europe with China through Central Asia, although the Cold War limited much of the expansion until the 1990s. Since then, the “New Silk Road” has grown substantially, especially after China’s Belt and Road Action Plan announced in 2015.

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