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Quick thought: Alternate history and historical contingency

In Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle, the Axis powers have lost World War II and the former United States is occupied by Nazi Germany (in the east) and Imperial Japan (in the west), with a demilitarized zone in the middle. In this alternate-reality 1962, the Japanese have established their Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, while the Nazis have committed genocide in Russia and Africa and are sending space missions to the moon and Mars.

The Man in the High Castle is a story of historical contingency. Although it is often tempting to think of historical events as inevitable, they usually are not. It was not inevitable that the Allies would win World War II, or that they would win in the way that they did. There were many possible outcomes.

Dick shows this by introducing an alternate history novel within his alternate history novel. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by an author in the demilitarized Rocky Mountain States, narrates an Axis defeat, but not what actually happened in our world. President Roosevelt does not seek reelection for an unprecedented third term in 1940 (as he did in real life), but instead he is succeeded by Rexford Tugwell, who cunningly saves the US fleet from destruction in Pearl Harbor and leads the country to victory against the Axis. At the end of the war, Adolf Hitler Is tried and executed (rather than committing suicide in his Berlin bunker).

Some of Dick’s characters doubt the possibility of an Allied victory in World War II, but we the readers know that it was not only possible, it happened in real life.

Remodeling Nehru’s house

In the three years since I did a little of my dissertation research there, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in New Delhi has become the subject of controversy over plans to remodel the museum or its surrounding grounds.

As much as I like NMML, I grant that the museum could use a good remodeling. It is housed in Teen Murti Bhawan, a British-era mansion that was originally built as the Commander-in-Chief’s house before independence, and after independence served as the official residence of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. After Nehru’s death in 1964, the house was converted into a museum rather than serving as the official residence of subsequent Prime Ministers.

Backside of Teen Murti Bhawan.

Backside of Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bottom floor of the house has exhibits about Nehru’s life and the independence movement. It is a standard textbook-style narrative, and it is quite unengagingly presented with black-and-white photographs and hard-to-read text in English and Hindi. The upper floor has some preserved rooms, including Nehru’s office and the bedroom where he died. The rooms are certainly interesting too look at, but they are not in the best of condition. I remember seeing water damage on the ceiling in one or two of them.

View of Nehrus office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

View of Nehru’s office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bedroom that Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi used when she stayed at Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bedroom that Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi used when she stayed at Teen Murti Bhawan.

Surreal Lok Sabha replica, with trompe-l'oeil walls, mannequins of MPs, and spots on the benches for real people to sit too. I really hope this is preserved in any remodeling of the museum

Surreal Lok Sabha replica, with trompe-l’oeil walls, mannequins of MPs, and spots on the benches for real people to sit too. I really hope this is preserved in any remodeling of the museum.

The house is located on a large landscaped estate, which also includes a research library, a planetarium, and a medieval hunting lodge that was incorporated into the site plan when the mansion was built.

SLV-3, India's first satellite launcher, on display next to the planetarium at Teen Murti.

SLV-3, India’s first satellite launcher, on display next to the planetarium at Teen Murti.

Proposals to remodel NMML go in two different directions. One direction is modernizing the existing displays but keeping the nationalistic, Nehru-centered narrative intact. This is outlined in a document posted on the NMML website, “New Design Plan for the Nehru Museum,” from September 2015. The black-and-white photographs and hard-to-read text will go, to be replaced by touchscreens.

The other direction for remodeling the museum is completely overhauling it to honor all prime ministers, not just Nehru. This seems to be favored by the current ruling party, the BJP, which has made it a point to play down the legacy of Nehru.

From what I can tell, the proposals have reached a compromise of sorts, with Teen Murti Bhawan set to stay as it is and a national prime ministers museum to be built somewhere else on the estate.

These proposals to remodel Nehru’s house are at their heart political, but I would like to look at them from a historical perspective—or rather a historiographical perspective, which means how history is interpreted.

I don’t know enough about the national prime ministers museum proposal to comment on it, but from studying the “New Design Plan for the Nehru Museum,” I feel that it has missed an opportunity to reinterpret Nehru and his legacy in an appropriately critical light. As is it now, there is no room in Indian popular discourse for a critical discussion of Nehru. He can be either all good or all bad, and the debates about remodeling NMML fall into these predictable ruts.

Like every leader in the history of this planet, Nehru left a mixed legacy. This legacy should be open for interpretation, but it shouldn’t be inevitably polarized. Like many leaders of his time, Nehru promoted industrial growth and democratization at the expense of minority communities. He proudly trumpeted anti-colonialism but refused to criticize Soviet interventions in eastern Europe. He claimed to believe in democracy and self-determination but took a firm line on Kashmir and brutally suppressed an insurgency in Nagaland. This ambiguity in Nehru’s legacy needs to be taken seriously, not papered over by heroizing or villainizing narratives.

But isn’t it inevitable that a museum dedicated to one man’s legacy would portray him as a hero? I argue that it is not. As an example to the contrary, consider the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, USA. As president of the United States from 1963 to 1969, Johnson had as mixed a legacy as Nehru. He promoted civil rights legislation and social welfare programs known as the Great Society. But he also escalated the the American war in Vietnam, a war that left over a million people dead. The LBJ Library does not softpedal Johnson’s role in escalating the war.

The same approach can and should be taken for a remodeling of NMML. Nehru’s contested legacy should be acknowledged and explored in the museum dedicated to him.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President and First Lady Johnson in Washington, DC, March 1966.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President and First Lady Johnson in Washington, DC, March 1966.

A Consolidated B-24 Liberator from Maxwell Field, Alabama, four engine pilot school, glistens in the sun as it makes a turn at high altitude in the clouds.

The Little Big History

What stories matter in history? If you had posed this question to a historian in the United States or Europe a hundred years ago, he probably would have told you in a roundabout way that only the experiences of white men mattered—more specifically, powerful white men. Historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, almost to a man (and they were all men), only studied the lives of kings, prime ministers, presidents, senators, and generals; or great artists, great thinkers, great industrialists, and great inventors. These historians didn’t pay any attention to the common man and woman, because these people simply didn’t matter in their worldview.

This sort of thinking about history seems silly and old-fashioned now, as well it should. All people are a part of history, not just the white and powerful, and their stories deserve to be told too. One outcome of this contemporary understanding of history is a profusion of books, movies, and museums about minority experiences—for example, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum of Chinese in America, Roots, and Hidden Figures. Another outcome is the rise in popularity of genealogical or family history research. If all people’s experiences are a part of history, then one’s ancestors are a legitimate subject of research, even if they were not powerful or influential.

Even though they are studying the past, family history buffs don’t really have the same objectives as historians. The job of a historian is to ask questions about the past—not only what happened, but why. (“History” comes from a Greek word meaning inquiry. The discipline of history is not, and has never been, just about facts.) Historians need to make connections from event to event, to understand why something was important. For family history researchers, significance is a given: this person is my ancestor, therefore he or she is important. Because family history isn’t exactly history as historians understand it, I prefer to use the term family heritage instead.

There is a genre of historical writing that discusses people who may not have been important in their own time, but their experiences can be used to draw broader lessons about the period in which they lived. This is known as microhistory. When written well, microhistories can be good reads that teach you about much more than the small event that is their main subject matter. (That not all microhistories are this well-written is not a valid reason for condemning the genre as a whole, as some of my classmates did in grad school.)

One excellent microhistory is Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, by Scott Reynolds Nelson. The author takes a well-known but little-understood folk song and uses it to discuss convict labor and industrialization in the post-Civil War American South. The results of archival research are interspersed with accounts of the author’s travels to the places where John Henry lived, worked, and died. I have read more books about convict labor than I would care to count, but this is the only one I keep thinking about long after I read it.

Another great microhistory wasn’t even written by a historian, and it is on its face a creative nonfiction biography. But Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, is about more than just one man’s sensational life story. Hillenbrand uses Louis Zamperini’s experience of capture and imprisonment by the Japanese to illustrate the experiences of thousands of Allied prisoners of war in the Pacific Theater.

Can family heritage buffs learn something from the microhistory genre? I hope they can. If I were not a member of my own family, I wouldn’t care about the stories of, say, my Austrian immigrant ancestors who settled in Colorado a hundred years ago. But I would be interested to know how their experiences of migration, acculturation, and ultimately assimilation reflected broader trends in the lives of European immigrants in rural America at the turn of the twentieth century.

(Header picture: B-24 Liberator bomber in flight over Montgomery, AL. USAF photo from Wikipedia.)

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