Entry for the DBWI Writing Contest.
Hugo Eckener, the last president of the German Republic from 1932-1939, and foreign minister of the restored German Empire from 1940-1942. Those on the discussion panel included Terry Dove, author of Das International; Brian Simmons, author of Pax Europa; Frank Julian, author of Dai Nippon; Shelly Bailey, author of Madam President; and Hank Kent, author of The Dark Reich. At the heart of the discussion was whether or not the “great man theory” of history plays into counterfactual fiction, looking specifically at how Hugo Eckener affected world history and how greatly his absence would change history.
MODERATOR: Most historians would agree that Hugo Eckener had a profound impact on modern history. But just how deep was that impact? And what would our world be like if Mr. Eckener hadn’t had the impact he had on it? We’ll start the discussion off with Mrs. Terry Dove. Terry, in your book, you describe a pretty bleak outlook of a world without Eckener, do you not?
DOVE: Well, it isn’t exactly a world without Eckener. Just with him dying twelve years earlier, in 1941 instead of 1954. And it’s how he dies that in my book affects the outcome of events.
MODERATOR: Correct. You have Eckener dying in the Graf Zeppelin bombing in March of 1941 during the height of the Danzig Crisis.
DOVE: Right. In real life, Eckener was at a meeting with Danzig city leaders and was not on board the Graf when the bomb that was mailed to him exploded. In my book, the meeting is cancelled and Eckener is killed when the bomb goes off. As a result, Germany will end up sending troops to Danzig and eventually lead to war between the German Empire and Poland. The Soviet Union joins the war in 1942, and a stalemate develops.
MODERATOR: That is until you have the Soviets develop the atomic bomb decades before the weapon was actually created in real life. How do you justify that?
DOVE: Scientific papers from the time actually spoke of turning atomic research towards weapons. Luckily for us, there were no major wars going on at the time and when atomic research finally does get underway, the Germans focused on energy first. Weapons followed later. In my book, the Germans and Soviets both start working on the Atom Bomb in the mid-1940s, and the Soviets get it first because their major cities are far enough away from the fighting. The war is mainly fought in Poland and Germany, and Soviet cities are spared. This leads to the Soviets dropping the Bomb on Berlin in 1951, and from there Germany falls pretty quickly and Soviet communism spread into Central Europe.
MODERATOR: Mr. Brian Simmons, what do you think of those turn of events that Terry came up with? Your book, Pax Europa, takes a very different turn of events, does it not?
SIMMONS: Yes, yes it does. In Pax, Eckener doesn’t even get involved in the Imperial government. He declines the Kaiser’s offer and remains in Ecknerstadt with ZGI and builds airships until his death in 1954. And Europe does just fine without him. I’m not saying that Eckener wasn't a great statesman. He was. But I don’t subscribe to the Great Man theory. I think that the course of history would have stayed mostly the same. Possibly better, possibly a little worse, but very recognizable to today. Obviously, the further back in time a change occurs, the more bees there are to cause other changes and those changes eventually add up. But in a mere 70 years, I don’t think those changes would have been that drastic. The Danzig Crisis would have played out similar to OTL, and Germany and the Soviet Union would have faced off sometime in the mid-1950s with German victory.
MODERATOR: Now, in your book, it’s more than just a German victory over the Soviet Union in the 1950s, isn’t it?
SIMMONS: That’s correct. Without Eckener’s continued influence, the Imperial government starts a stronger, more aggressive rearmament in the early 1940s, and by the time the war comes they have a greater advantage. Plus, I have Stalin die earlier, of natural causes, so the leadership passes to Molotov, but Molotov doesn't have the support of Beria or some of the Army. Earlier leadership crisis equals earlier defeat, and this time more soundly, with no rump Soviet Union. A Russian Republic is established.
MODERATOR: Your book has done really well since its release this spring. Do you think that is because it creates a world where the Second Great War never happens, and with that conflict only having ended a year ago, some people see it as a way of escape from today’s realities?
SIMMONS: Oh I’m sure that has something to do with it. Never mind my writing skills (polite laughs from the members of the panel and the audience). I mean, that is part of what fiction is, an escape from our reality. And when I was writing that book, it was a nice escape at times, especially after loosing one of my nephews to the fighting on the Western Front in East Russia. In the world of Pax, there is no independent East Russia.
MODERATOR: That’s a good point. And of course, without East Russia or a restored Russian Empire, there is no cause for the outbreak of the recent war. Now Brian, I’d say that you are probably in the minority on this panel about the belief in the Great Man series. The gentleman sitting next to you, Mr. Frank Julian, certainly has a different view, right Frank?
JULLIAN: You could say that. Pax Europa is a good book, and no one can top Brian when it comes to research, detail, and authenticity. But I don’t agree that the course of history will keep going the same way regardless of who’s at the helm. And that’s definitely obvious in Dai Nippon. Just like in Terry’s book, Eckener is killed in the Graf bombing in 1941. Germany invades Poland, and war starts with the Soviets in 1942. However, unlike in Terry’s book, other western nations get involved, including the UK and France and eventually the USA. With everyone’s attention focused in Europe, Japan is free to expand with little stopping her. China falls, and several European powers sell their holdings to help finance the Polish War. Eventually the war in Europe comes to a less than satisfactory close, and at that point America and Japan go to blows. But with America being worn out from Europe, they don’t stand a chance. By the 1960s, Japan is the unchallenged power in the Pacific.
MODERATOR: Everyone I've talked to about your book loves that part of the story takes place in the restored Kingdom of Hawaii. And I personally like how you have that coming about locally, and it not being just a Japanese puppet, which is what I thought you were going to do when I first learned about Dai Nippon. Your book and Terry’s is a great showcase about the diversity in counterfactual fiction. You both use the exact same point of divergence, but come up with completely different scenarios. Speaking of unique scenarios, that brings us to Shelly Bailey and her wonderful book, Madam President. Shelly, how does Eckener fit in to your world?
BAILEY: Well, in the book Eckener is able to avoid some of his missteps in the later 30s and prevents the restoration of the German Empire. The German Republic remains in force, and Eckener actually gets reelected in 1938, and will serve as Germany’s president until 1944. One of the political fallouts of this will eventually be earlier women’s rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s that spreads around the world. The book focuses on the election of America’s first female president in 1968.
MODERATOR: I have to say this was one of the more unique outcomes of an alternate life for Mr. Eckener. Would you say that you subscribe to the Great Man theory as well?
BAILEY: Yes I do. The people in charge steer the way history goes. Now, the changes aren’t always super drastic, especially not at first. The closer to the change you are, the fewer bees have moved about differently, but eventually changes happen.
MODERATOR: That’s a good argument. Now the Bee Effect Theory has been mentioned several times during this discussion, and I think Mr. Hank Kent’s book, The Dark Reich, illustrates that theory, and it’s heavy application, quite well. Hank, what’s your take on Eckener’s importance.
KENT: Well, in my book, Eckener doesn’t run in the 1932 election, and the different outcome is quite drastic. Adolf Hitler, who in reality is little more than a footnote in history, would have likely beat Communist Ernst Thälmann, bringing fascism to power in Germany exactly a decade after it took power in Italy. Hitler and Mussolini team up, and then they both help Oswald Mosley take power in the mid 1940s, more than two decades ahead of OTL. Meanwhile, America starts putting more and more distance between itself and fascism, aligning itself more and more when the Soviet Union. The Dark Reich, which is the first book in a series of three, starts out in the mid 1960s as the world finds itself on the brink of a global conflict between the nations of the Right, which is most of Western Europe, and the nations of the Left, which is the Soviet Union, the United States and much of Latin America. Quite the departure from the normal scenarios with Eckener. Which in a way is strange, when you think about it. Eckener NOT becoming President of Germany in 1932 would have been the biggest change of all. Also, I have always found it odd that more counterfactual novels don’t have the USA drift into the USSR’s camp. I mean, the Socialist Party has been one of the strongest parties in this country for the past two decades, and it seems natural to me to see that shift to the left happen even sooner in Counterfactual novels, especially ones that have PODs set in the 1930s.
MODERATOR: You know, you bring up an interesting point there when you say that the most obvious POD with Eckener is to not have him elected President in 1932. Well, I have one for all of you that is almost never done in CF fiction. What if President Hindenburg hadn't died in February 1932? If he hadn't died, he would almost definitely have been reelected as President. What would have happened if his death were postponed until 1933 or 1934? Any takers on that?
KENT: Honestly, I think a world where Hindenburg lives another couple of years would probably resemble the world of my book. With more time, Hitler could build a stronger political base and likely gain the chancellorship under a second Hindenburg term. The Nazis were slowly but surely growing before Eckener and his administration cracked down on them. It’s conceivable that the Nazis could have had enough of a majority in 1933 or 1934 to put Hitler in as chancellor. I've heard arguments that this might have mellowed him, making him adapt to the democratic system to the point he would tone down his anti-Semitic and war mongering rhetoric, but I think he could easily retained his earlier fire.
SIMMONS: What Hank says is a possibility, but I’m inclined to disagree. I think that, the longer the democratic system remains in place, the more unlikely radical leaders could have gained control. Furthermore, by 1934, we are farther removed from the start of the Great Depression, and it is likely that things would already be on the mend and people would start tuning out the radicals on both the left and the right. In all likelihood, by 1934 the Nazis would have lost seats and be a minority party, maybe just above fringe level, and when the country voted for a successor to Hindenburg, more moderate voices have a better chance of being heard. And who knows, Eckener could end up being approached by the Centre Party and the SPD to run in 1933 or 1934 if Hindenburg died then instead of when he actually did.
DOVE: I actually read an essay posted online a few years back that posed pretty much this scenario. Hindenburg doesn't die in 1932, and is reelected defeating both Hitler and Thälmann. The Nazis gain a little in elections held in 1933, and Hitler is appointed as a senior member of the cabinet under Chancellor Otto Wels. In 1934, the Nazis loose seats and then in the summer, Hindenburg dies. The author then predicted that Wels would run for the President and win, again beating the Nazis and the Communists. Another moderate politician would become Chancellor, and Hitler might remain for another year or so in the Cabinet. But by the end of the 1930s, the Nazis would have lost enough seats in the Reichstag that Hitler was removed from government and the party breaks up in the 1940s.
JULLIAN: I think I read that same essay as well, and I’m not sure I agree. Remember, we are talking about a party that attempted to kill Eckener and succeeded in killing Otto Wels in the fall of 1932. People who are willing to do stuff like that will put up a strong fight, and I question whether or not they’d use any means necessary to make sure Hitler wins the next presidential election to fill a vacancy left by Hindenburg later in the 1930s. I've read most of Mien Kampf, Hitler’s manifesto he wrote in 1923. It took a life sentence in prison to break Hitler’s radical spirit. Anything short of that….I’m very skeptical. And I also don’t know that Eckener would have had as easy a time of it if he didn't run until 1933 or 1934. In those two years, the Nazis could likely have increased their base and be in a much stronger place to challenge Eckener’s election than they were in 1932.
This is just a snippet of the debate that went on during this hour and a half panel discussion that occurred at WTW 2006. The full discussion can be found online at wwn.wtwonline.usa/2006/panels, along with several other panel discussions that occurred, including a related topic to Eckener: the importance of Airships in modern aviation. In that discussion, several authors and experts discuss how the craft have impacted modern history, and try to figure out how their development could have gone differently.
-Hugo Tyler, Science Fiction Magazine, June 2006.
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Zach Anderson is studying to become a history teacher in Oklahoma. When he's not working on his studies, he likes to think about what might have been in years past, and when he gets a particularly good idea going, it will end up on his blog, the Weekly Chrononaut. You can find his biggest work, The Airship President and Legacy, a world where the airship survives, Hitler never comes to power, and where the Soviet Union crumbles in the 1970s, on that blog in addition to several other stories. He also posts on alternatehistory.com under the username Eckener.