The Armchair General: Can You Defeat the Nazis?

John Buckley, Century, £14.99

KEN BELL goes on the counterfactual offensive

Many historians like to say that counter-factualism is a waste of time, at least until the port has been around the table twice and then they tend to become as keen as the rest of us on the what if game. John Buckley’s The Armchair General is probably one of the best examples of counter-factualism I have seen in a long time, probably because he sticks as closely as possible to either what happened, or to what we think would have happened had things been slightly different.

Buckley takes eight major events from the Second World War and sets the scene for each of them in turn. Then, the reader has to make a choice from two options that are presented to him. Depending upon his choice, he then moves to another section of the book, where that scenario plays out and further options are offered.

Let’s take the aftermath of the Norway Debate in May 1940 as a case in point, as it is the first chapter in the book. Chamberlain has won the debate, but with a party that is badly split. Playing the role of David Margesson, the Tory Chief Whip, you take soundings and find that Winston Churchill and Lord Halifax are the two favourites to succeed him. Labour will not form a coalition under Chamberlain and lean towards Halifax, but will accept Churchill. Who do you recommend?

If you choose Halifax then the possibility of Italian mediation would probably have come into play. The war would end with a British defeat, but the army would have been allowed to leave the continent in good order and with all its equipment intact. Germany would probably have taken back the African colonies that she had lost in 1918 and possibly Malta would have gone to the Italians as a reward for their efforts at peace. All this would have amounted to a defeat, but not the end of the world, and a lot of people in Britain would have been happy enough to take the deal and ignore future events in Europe.

On the other hand, if you opt for Churchill, then your options can lead you to the actual historical outcome, but that is far from certain. The other option is based on the fact that Churchill was afraid that Halifax might have resigned as Foreign Secretary and taken Chamberlain with him to form a peace faction unless peace feelers went out. In reality that did not happen, but had Halifax threatened it unless he could at least explore the Italian option he would have probably got his way. In this version that is exactly what he does so we head towards a mediated peace brokered by Italy.

The really engaging aspect of this book is that by keeping to what we know about these events the younger students of history will be encouraged to see that historical outcomes are the result of the decisions that were taken by real men. Those men were often acting with unclear information against a backdrop of real pressure to come up with something.

It would have been very easy for Professor Buckley to fall into what I call the fantasy trap of the counter-factual game and go off with ludicrous flights of whimsy. Sir Winston Churchill as a writer did that with a piece that speculated on what might have happened had the Confederacy won the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. He started by allowing General Lee to abolish slavery in the new republic, an utterly risible thought. Buckley keeps to the conservative options at all times, which makes his work very credible indeed.

The Armchair General takes the reader from May 1940 to the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Some chapters are more complicated than others, with the one devoted to the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa being a case in point. As part of the Soviet leadership do you remove Joe Stalin? If you keep him can Moscow be held? That section was one that I really enjoyed as the reader gets to play an NKVD officer, and I have always thought that I would have been rather good at that role.

The whole book is similarly great fun, based on solid research by a professional historian. I enjoyed every minute of it.

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