Dreaming up ‘history’ can help us glimpse the future

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The value of counterfactual history lies not in the questions it raises about the past, but the questions it raises about the present and future, and in the reminder that there is nothing inevitable about the world we observe.

From the poolside, Menton, southern France

Last week, I described how the people of Menton rose up in 1848, Europe’s year of revolutions, and threw off the yoke of Monaco. In the 1860s, a decade that consolidated the map of Europe, they dissolved their tiny state and became part of France.

In a free vote, they would probably have joined Piedmont and Liguria and become subjects of Victor Emmanuel, king of Sardinia.

But they were pawns, sacrificed in a much larger game played by Camillo Cavour, the Sardinian prime minister. His mission was to reunify Italy and, with the capture of Rome in the 1870s, he would make Victor Emmanuel the first king of Italy. However, Cavour needed French support in a war against Austria to secure the Habsburg territories south of the Alps. The quid pro quo was the secession of Nice and Savoy to France, which created a modern border with limited historical or geographical logic.

If Cavour was the statesman of Italian reunification, Giuseppe Garibaldi was the soldier: but Garibaldi was born in Nice and represented that city in the Sardinian parliament. To gain Italy, Cavour sacrificed the most beautiful part of the Riviera coast and accepted the language of Tuscany as the language of his new Italian state.

It could so easily have been different. Without the political ambitions of Cavour, and the romantic visions of Garibaldi, there might have been a modern state of Piedmont. Its capital would have been Turin, its language French.

Piedmont might have stretched from Mont Blanc to Nice, from Val d’Isère to Genoa, slightly larger than Switzerland in population and slightly smaller in land area, with mountains and beaches. A mix of Swiss efficiency and Italian flair: one of the richest and most beautiful states of Europe.

The dream could have developed if Bismarck had not reunified Germany and if Westphalia had broken free of Prussia. The area that became West Germany after the second world war might have become a constellation of smaller, liberal democratic states: Württemberg as north Switzerland to Piedmont’s south Switzerland, industrial Hanover, bucolic but ultimately booming Bavaria.

No doubt Russia and Prussia would still have fought, no doubt the disintegration of the Austrian empire would still have led to troubles in the Balkans: but these conflicts would have not spread to western Europe or the US. If there had been no Second Reich, there would have been no Third Reich and no Hitler; and without a unified Italy, there would have been no Mussolini.

Something like the European Union might have come into existence half a century or more earlier than it did: a loose association of small states with relatively liberal arrangements for trade and capital movements. Visualise today’s EU without Britain, France or Germany. An organisation controlled by Dutch and Piedmontese, Danes and Catalans, a liberal United States of Europe, far more cohesive and effective than the EU we have.

Counterfactual history is a poolside pursuit: what would have happened if General Burgoyne had prevailed at Saratoga, Hitler had invaded England, or Lenin’s sealed train had stopped at the wrong station? The value of counterfactual history lies not in the questions it raises about the past, but in the questions it raises about the present and future, and in the reminder that there is nothing inevitable about the world we observe.

The establishment of large states in western Europe in the 19th century, associated with assertive nationalism, was a self-reinforcing process: states needed to be large and aggressive to achieve the military power to dominate the world.

That era of European history ended in death and destruction: and the future can look more like the hypothetical alternative that Cavour sacrificed for a greater Italy.

And so I dream on, imagining the fast rail and road tracks and tunnels from Nice to Turin and Genoa that would have linked the major cities of Piedmont, bringing their art treasures and shopping facilities, beaches and mountains, industrial clusters and financial centres within an easy day’s return journey from Menton.

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