What if? How history could have been different

When I was a kid at school, I thought that history was a waste of time. What was the point of learning about stuff that has been done and cannot be changed? I could see the sense in understanding recent stuff, but all those kings and queens and battles …

As I have grown older, I have gradually understood how we can learn from history and avoid making the same mistakes. Often we simply repeat those mistakes anyway, but that is just human nature. Just recently I have been pondering how some recent history could have turned out very differently …

One of my favourite authors is Robert Harris. He is a professional historian, who writes novels. A particular aspect of his work, that I admire, is, even though he is writing fiction, he does detailed research and gets his facts straight. This cannot be said of a few other popular authors I could name! I always feel that I have learned something when I read one of his books. The first Robert Harris book I read was Fatherland, which is an alternative history book. It is set in the present day, but in an another universe where the Nazis rule Europe, as World War II turned out differently.

In 2011, my [now] wife and I went on vacation to Syria, which I wrote about at the time. I have great memories of that trip, many of which have come into sharp relief as a result of the heartbreaking events that have taken place in that country in the meantime. The current “troubles” really started about two weeks after we were there. Apart from the friendly people, fascinating architecture and history and breathtaking landscapes, I have a strong recollection of the “presence” of the country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad.

The guy’s image was everywhere. I have no insight into how he persuaded [or forced?] people to display posters etc., but whatever he did it was very effective. This effect – the continuous “presence” of an individual – reminded me of something. It was so similar to pictures I have seen of pre-war Germany, where pictures of Hitler were ubiquitous. I found this thought rather scary.

So, that was then. What about now? Syria is in turmoil with numerous people killed, even more people displaced and living under appalling conditions and much of the infrastructure destroyed. This is essentially due to the uprising of ISIS [or whatever you choose to call them – they do seem to have a bit of a branding issue], which has resulted in, what amounts to, a civil war. How is the West responding? The answer is mostly found in an alignment with Assad – helping to fight off ISIS. Remember, this is the guy who reminded me of Hitler …

Going back further into history – to the 1960s. At that time, the Bad Guys were the USSR. The West in general, but particularly the United States, were really scared about the spread of communism. Fortunately the result was the Cold War and not the devastation that would have resulted from a nuclear confrontation.

Step back another couple of decades, and the Bad Guys were the Nazis. But who/what were they dead scared of? The answer is the Russians and the spread of communism. Fortunately, the West had not built up a head of steam on its communism paranoia at that time, because, if they had, the obvious response would have been to ally with Hitler. Which brings me back to Robert Harris.

These thoughts were consolidated in my mind after a visit to the Jüdisches Museum [Jewish Museum] in Berlin. A fascinating place in numerous ways, but some of the exhibits [and the building itself] are very stark reminders of how badly mankind can behave given a good dose of dogma and paranoia instigated by a charismatic leader. Be careful who you vote for …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2015/09/04/what-if-how-history-could-have-been-different-2/