Alternate History Book Reviews

Source Material (Good Histories):

Why The Allies Won

By: Richard Overy

This is a fascinating book for people who are into World War II alternate histories. It has unique insights on the big picture of how the war went in every chapter. It points out why an Allied victory was not inevitable, then it points out the factors that went into making an Allied victory possible.

Some key points:
- The Germans started effectively organizing industrial production in occupied Europe at least six months too late for them to have a chance at victory. By the time they got surges in production of for example fighter planes, the Allies were in firm enough control of the air that the bombing could prevent the German economy from reaching it's full potential, though it still kept growing in spite of the bombing.
- German tanks like Tigers and Panthers dominated tactical situations on the battlefield, but they created production, logistical, and maintenance nightmares.
- Low German production of trucks undermined their mobility and sapped the power of the panzer divisions.
- The Germans intended to bring a new generation of piston engine aircraft into production around late 1941/early 1942. All but one of those aircraft failed to live up to expectations and ended up being produced in very small numbers if at all. German aircraft production was hurt badly by this fiasco because production of older aircraft had slowed to make the switch over. Then production ended up being switched back to the older aircraft. Overy claims that the failure of these programs was due to the guy in charge of aircraft design.

I've been studying World War II in depth for more years than I would like to admit to being alive, but I came away from this book with a fresh perspective and many ideas for alternate history scenarios.

Guns, Germs, and Steel

By: Jared Diamond

This book takes on an even bigger question than why the Allies won World War II. It asks, and does a very good job of answering the question: Why did technological civilization develop when it did and where it did? To phrase the question another way, why did Europeans come over and settle North and South America and Australia, rather than the other way around?

The author says that the root cause was that the Middle East had a better set of plants and animals to domesticate--more large grained grasses, and more large grass-eating animals to domesticate. Once those crops and animals were domesticated, they could spread through a large section of Europe and Asia without having to adapt to very different climate conditions. That gave Eurasia a 5000 year head start over the most advanced areas of Mexico and Peru in the development of villages and then cities.

The Indians had to work for thousands of years to develop crops like corn to the point where they could support the kinds of dense populations that came much earlier and easier in Europe and Asia.

Eurasia was close to 10,000 years ahead of Australia, though the Aborigines do appear to have been headed in the direction of agriculture. Eastern North America had its own independently developed agriculture, but the plants involved had very small seeds to start out with, and had enough other drawbacks that societies never developed urban civilizations based on them. Most of the native crops of Eastern North America were eventually replaced by corn and beans from Mexico.

Between 700 and 1200 AD, corn became a major crop in eastern North America. At the same time, Indian populations grew quickly, and politically and culturally sophisticated cultures like the Mississippian mound builders grew up in some places along the major rivers. Those Indians were starting along the road to civilization even further behind Eurasian civilizations than the Indians in Mexico and Peru, around seven thousand years behind the Europeans in terms of their development of towns and cities.

The book makes it very clear that given the plant and animal resources, Indians and Aborigines were quite capable of developing rapidly. The problem wasn't the people or the underlying culture. It was the resources that those people and cultures had to work with.

The book bring up one more fascinating point: If a human culture is sufficiently isolated from other human cultures, it can lose parts of its technology base that other cultures consider essential. The author points out that aborigines in Tasmania lost the technology necessary to fish. The Australian aborigines may have had, and then lost the bow-and-arrow. Very small projectile points which are usually associated with bows and arrows appeared around 4000 years ago, spread over a substantial part of the continent, then disappeared. The aborigines did not use bows when the first European settlers arrived. The small projectile points aren't conclusive, but they make it very possible that bows were adopted, then abandoned.

This book tackles one of the biggest issues in history, and does a very good job of dealing with it. As a result, it automatically brings up literally dozens of what-ifs. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the broad sweep of history.

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