Historical 'what if' can be fun for a moment

Jim Carnett
Refers to Book

Human beings exhibit a remarkable capacity for positing head-scratching "what ifs."

What if I'd been born in County Cork instead of Orange County? What if I stood 6-foot-5 instead of 5-foot-6? (Actually, I'm 5 8½.)

What if I had pipes like Pavarotti?

What ifs can be endless, and most are unworthy of serious consideration.

Yet, what ifs do contain a measure of legitimacy. What if such-and-such didn't happen decades ago, how would my life be different today? Or, what if I'd accepted that offer 10 years ago; where would I be now?

What ifs can be provocative.

Stephen L. Carter plants a monumental what if in his new novel, "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln." You've undoubtedly already guessed Carter's premise.

His book postulates the 16th president surviving John Wilkes Booth's April 14, 1865, assassination attempt. Vice President Andrew Johnson is killed instead. Johnson doesn't succeed Lincoln in governing this nation (badly, as it turned out!) during its painful Reconstruction. Rather, the Great Emancipator survives to accept a cruel twist of fate.

According to Carter's scenario, Lincoln is not hailed as a conquering hero after the war in either the North or South, but is vilified for "war crimes." Ex-Confederates and Democrats conspire to impeach him in 1867, and the nation is torn asunder.

Historical what ifs can lead us down fascinating wormholes.

I once read a novel that modified Gen. Robert E. Lee's strategy at Gettysburg in 1863, resulting in a Confederate victory in the battle. That reversal in south-central Pennsylvania would have changed American history forever.

I read another book that hypothesized a colossal change in human history as a result of Hitler winning World War II. The change was so profound that virtually all of human life on earth — no matter how isolated — would have been dramatically altered for decades to come.

In his new nonfiction book, "Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power," Andrew Nagorski tells a fascinating tale that I'd never heard before. It seems that in 1923, following Hitler's failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, the future führer of the Third Reich was tormented by doubts and depression. He contemplated suicide.

Oh, had he successfully acted on those impulses!

Nagorski reports that Helene Hanfstaengl, an American married to a Hitler crony, attracted the Nazi leader's eye. He developed an adolescent crush on her. During his moment of personal crisis, she wrested a gun from him before he could harm himself.

What if Hitler had carried out the deed? Would some 60 million lives have been spared between 1939 and 1945?

The possibilities are breathtaking. How incredibly different the world would be today had the focus of the world's most extreme cult of personality taken his life in 1923!

And yet, there's a troubling "other" side to this coin for me. Had Mrs. Hanfstaengl not taken the gun from Hitler, I'd not be here today. I'd never have been born.

My parents were brought together solely as a result of World War II. They were married and had me before the war's end. Had the war not occurred, they would never have gotten within a hundred miles of each other. They'd have gone on to marry different people and live different lives.

My father, a soldier stationed at Santa Ana Army Air Base, met my mother, a civilian employee at the air base, in 1943. Without a war, neither would have been in Orange County during the 1943-45 time frame.

Looking at the bigger picture, what are the odds that any of us on this planet today would actually have completed the magnificent journey down a human birth canal? Virtually zero.

How many myriad ancestors had to survive virulent childhood diseases, wars and pestilences in order for you to see the light of day? Answer: all of them who did. Had just one died prematurely of whooping cough, you wouldn't be here.

Life's a miracle. And its vagaries are too complex and confusing for this simple chap to figure out.

The one who created all of life says to each of us: "I knew you before I formed you in your mother's womb."

I find that amazing — and reassuring.