What If? 50 Ideas for Alternate History Scenarios

Need some inspiration for an alternate history scenario? Need a point in time for your alternate timeline to diverge? Here’s a list of 50 questions to excite your imagination, invalidate your history textbooks, and infuriate your stuffy childhood history teacher.

What if…

  1. What if Charles Darwin had sought political office?
  2. What if the Ottoman Empire had succeeded in capturing Vienna in 1529?
  3. What if Queen Elizabeth I had never been born?
  4. What if King Henry VIII had been impotent?
  5. What if the Russian “October Revolution” had failed?
  6. What if there were no such thing as horses?
  7. What if the US had received advanced intelligence about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor?
  8. What if Boudica (Boadicea) had won the Battle of Watling Street?
  9. What if the Vikings never went viking and just stayed at home instead?
  10. What if Neanderthals had not become extinct?
  11. What if all human lifespans were limited to 35 years?
  12. What if everybody in the world had the same skin tone?
  13. What if the Black Death had never occurred?
  14. What if all humans were vegetarians, having never evolved the ability to digest meat?
  15. What if the Nile River had dried up thousands of years ago?
  16. What if there was no oil in the Middle East?
  17. What if Earth had a habitable twin planet instead of a moon?
  18. What if the ancient Greeks had discovered a naturally formed wormhole to another world?
  19. What if the Romans never converted to Christianity?
  20. What if the British Empire had invaded and conquered China?
  21. What if Australia had been discovered and colonized by the Japanese?
  22. What if the entire continent of South America had been united under the flag of the “Bolivarian Republic”?
  23. What if the Aztecs had defeated Cortez?
  24. What if Alfred the Great had died in a cake-related fire, causing England to remain divided into separate kingdoms?
  25. What if Henry VIII’s first son (to Catherine of Aragon), Henry, had lived to adulthood?
  26. What if Henry VIII had stayed married to Catherine of Aragon?
  27. What if Napoleon had succeeded in invading Russia?
  28. What if the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic had killed 50% of the world’s population?
  29. What if WWII had ended with nuclear attacks on Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich, as well as Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Osaka?
  30. What if the Australian Aborigines had developed a civilization as technologically advanced as those of the Western World?
  31. What if a spate of alien visitations had made the world aware of life on other planets as early as the 13th Century?
  32. What if the renaissance sparked a popular movement to reunite the Roman Empire?
  33. What if Napoleon defeated the armies of the Seventh Coalition at the Battle of Waterloo?
  34. What if Christopher Columbus never sailed west, and the Americas weren’t discovered until several decades later?
  35. What if Genghis Khan had died in infancy?
  36. What if the RMS Lusitania was not sunk by a German U-Boat in 1915?
  37. What if a large-scale slave revolt in the 1700’s led to the establishment of a united Caribbean nation governed by former slaves?
  38. What if President John F Kennedy survived the assassination attempt?
  39. What if President Abraham Lincoln survived the assassination attempt?
  40. What if “The Babington Plot” succeeded in assassinating Queen Elizabeth the First in 1586?
  41. What if the Confederate States won the American Civil War?
  42. What if Otto Von Bismark failed to unite the German states in the late 1800’s?
  43. What if the French decided not to sell the Louisiana territory to the USA?
  44. What if the Allies invaded the Japanese mainland at the climax of WWII?
  45. What if Hitler had decided not to invade Russia?
  46. What if Alexander the Great had lived to a ripe old age?
  47. What if the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had failed?
  48. What if the Vikings successfully colonized the east coast of North America?
  49. What if Russian Tsar Peter the Great was killed by the Streltsy during the Moscow Uprising of 1682 (aged 10)?
  50. What if the Ottoman Empire had decided to stay out of the First World War?

    Written by Mark Ball. With special thanks to David Ball.

  • Leonardo Faria

    “What if King Henry VIII had been impotent?”

    His offspring was by sir John Falstaff. The chambermaids used to hear Anne Boleyn laugh all the time late at night.

    • I wonder if the US would just occupy it anyway, seeing that France was on its way down, and to prevent Britain claiming it. Or did they respect the French too much for that?

      • Leonardo Faria

        Who knows? Hard diplomatic nut to crack. But La Marseillaise sung in Cajun style was a big temptation to invade the dominion.

        • Just curious, what is wrong with Cajun?
          Is there a certain preconception perhaps?

          • Leonardo Faria

            They tried to replace fanfares with yodel and somehow it didn’t work.

            • So how many times have you been in the USA, particular in any of the southern states? Have you some sort of experience that makes you think Cajun people yodel?
              Or did you base that on prejudgement?
              Didn’t you state in previous posts how unbiased you are?

            • There’s nothing wrong with yodelling. It’s a very effective means of long-distance communication.

            • It was invented by a Swiss Mailman – he got his toe caught between the spokes of his bicycle going downhill

            • michael pulleine

              why arent you listening mark!!!!! ive been yodeling for days but you keep ignoring me!!

            • What have I missed?

            • Not much, Michael was yodeling Beethovens 5th while making a handstand. Problem was the world milk production went sour. Cheese production is up .and the Mongols considering Emus to ride

            • michael pulleine

              nah, they decided to settle with riding siberian tigers instead, also, emus are Australian, the mongols never went to Australia.

            • michael pulleine

              HAHAHAHAHA YOU FELL INTO MY TRAP! NOW I SHALL PARALYSE YOU WITH MY YODELING AND RECITE VOGON POETRY TO YOU FOR ALL OF ETERNITY MUAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

            • Leonardo Faria

              Of course Cajun people yodel, as it is a typical vocal technique in cow-boy and Cajun music. Today it is no longer used and sounds old fashioned, though the twang (Willie Nelson’s pet technique), with its forcing vocalic sounds of the high register in the nasal cavities in quick leaps it’s likely to draw its origins, almost in part, from yodel.
              Here’s an example of Cajun yodeling

              Besides, as I find repelling your quarrelsome attitude and your penchant for personal assaults I hope you don’t mind if this is my last reply to you.

            • michael pulleine

              will you ever smoke weed with willy again?

            • Leonardo Faria

              Nope, I’m a scifi guy and am all for a good colored fancy Jefferson Starship trip, but Willy told me he wouldn’t touch any of it.

            • michael pulleine

              i think it was the other way round

            • Great news then. No I don’t mind at all.

      • Kirov

        I would guess we’d have tried to take it anyway. We went to war with Mexico for similar reasons, and we had been at war with France before.

        • Leonardo Faria

          From a quick plunge in the Internet University I gather that Jefferson wasn’t much interested in Louisiana, but was mightily interested in New Orleans, as it controlled the access to the Mississippi river. However, Napoleon’s plans for that territory were a pain in the back to Jefferson, but when the deeply indebted France (the US was a big creditor) sensed the smell of dollars the deal was cut very soon.

      • Elizabeth Buchan-Kimmerly

        France was in a state of turmoil certainly, but was not then (or now) on its way down.
        The French Empire did concentrate in Africa rather than the Americas. The countries I can think of offhand that were run by France in the 19th and 20th centuries include Egypt, Morocco, Upper Volta, Afars and Issas, Congo, Niger , Mali, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Burundi,Cameroun, Cote d’Ivoire. I’ve probably left some out and double-teamed a couple in there. My knowledge of African nations is philatelic.
        SouthEast Asia also had an strong French presence. The area was known as Indo-Chine and today as VietNam.

    • Elizabeth Buchan-Kimmerly

      Your geography is off on that one. The colony of Upper Canada (now Ontario) is between the two. http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/namerica/cauplwlg.gif

  • Steven Lyle Jordan

    “What if President John F Kennedy survived the assassination attempt?”
    “What if President Abraham Lincoln survived the assassination attempt?”

    What I always wonder about is: What if the successful assassination of Kennedy and ML King (not to mention the last 50 years of American history) resulted in an amendment to the Bill of Rights banning private ownership of firearms in the US?

    • Oh boy…Politics again.

      Of course all guns need to be banned, then all knifes. Don’t forget to ban rocks and clubs. But put up more security cameras and facial recognition. Why not a hotline where you can toll free denounce yoiur neighbor, because you saw him read a book that is not safe and therefore banned.
      I know its for the children and anyone objecting is against the children.

      Do you know why the 2nd amendment was deemed so important that it was place right after the 1st?
      I mean do you really know and why the reason has not changed ?
      Just asking…

      From the way this question is formulated I know where the wind blows.

      And I expect a lot of finger whacking and high brow comments.

      So I close my comment with a quote:”He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither. People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.

      While knowing most of the ones reading it here, have no idea what it means or signifies.

      • Maybe we should ban talking about firearms, just to keep the peace 😉

        • Well I do have to say that was one of the wittiest replies I read. Maybe that fine British humor is in their DNA.

        • Steven Lyle Jordan

          You’re right: No room in your list for politics. Let’s limit our conversation to alternatives that don’t have any real consequences, guys.

          I know: What if dandelions were green, and blended in with the lawn?

          What if John Lennon had done a 15th album?

          What if “Muppets” was spelled with a silent “N”?

          • Sorry Steven,
            I would love to engage in a political conversation with you, especially since 99% of the “what if” scenarios are of historic political nature.
            However it seems, at least to me that we are on different sides, opposite sides even in terms of political opinions.
            While I am certain we could engage in a heated, but objective; conversation. Previous experience seemed to indicate that the climate and environment of this venue lack the maturity or perhaps moderation.
            Should you wish to expand on your initial comments and perhaps project your views. I will glady participate.

            • Steven Lyle Jordan

              Thanks for the offer, but all my questions have been answered.

          • What if dandelions were green, and blended in with the lawn? Bees would be unable to find them and thus not aid in the reproduction (fertilization) and doom the dandeloins existence and give raise to a plant able to attract insects
            What if John Lennon had done a 15th album?
            Then his widow would be even richer
            What if “Muppets” was spelled with a silent “N”?
            Then Jim Hanson might had a speech impairment

          • Lol. Sorry Steven, just hoping Vanessa won’t get riled up and start firing her riffle into the air 😀

      • michael pulleine

        i would like to point out that it would be quite an interesting thing to think about, i know i promised not to talk about politics but im not attempting to start a debate i’m just stating some facts, in Australia and England gun laws are restrictive, no automatic or semi-auto weapons here, i dont know about england but i’ll just assume that two nations with nearly identical cultures, political systems, religeous beliefs and language would develope similar laws to each other, anyway, im pretty sure that both countries turned out pretty well, please dont consider this an attempt to discuss politics, but i still would like to say that i have, in fact canvassed for political signatures, studied the history of australian politics and read articles reflecting the beliefs of both major parties and minor parties, formed my own opinions based on evidence and have decided to stick in the left of the spectrum. i suppose im not a socialist but a pseudo leftist, i absolutely hate capitalism but it’s better than the other alternatives.
        and we wouldnt want mr jones to come back would we?

        • James Hutchings

          Can anyone tell me (not an American) why the 2nd Amendment seems to be taken to refer to guns, but not other weapons such as grenade launchers, when it refers to “arms”?

  • Kirov

    Didn’t the US actually have some notice of the attack on Pearl Harbor? I had heard that the planes were spotted on radar, but radar was so new at the time and nobody expected the attack, so the operator didn’t call it in. No idea if that’s actually true, though.

    • Jonathan Booe

      The planes were spotted on radar. The guy who spotted the blips first checked the machines to make sure there was no malfunctions. Then he called his CO. unfortunately, the Brass was expecting a flight of US Bombers that morning and dismissed the radar blips. Japan had warned the US roughly 30 minutes before attacking. However, they sent the message to Washington DC. By the time Washington got the warning to Pearl Harbor, the attack was already underway.

  • jezzagreen

    The back-story for “One Shoe Tale” is the Hungarians winning the Battle of Mohacs, so no Ottoman occupation of Hungary, and no Austro-Hungarian empire either.

  • Jack Hemsley 1

    My favourites are: 6, 10, 11, 12, 17, 20, 21, 22, 30, 31, 34, 35, 38, 39, 41, 47, and 48.

  • What if there were no such thing as horses?
    We would have tamed cows to ride – Brings a whole new meaning to : Cowboy .

    • Not really, I don’t follow football.
      Would the Mongols still acheive so many military victories riding on oxes?

      • I don’t know, but the Battle at Stirling might have looked different…or the US cavalry would be the US Bovinery – With the added bonus – Milk at every charge
        I have no clue about soccer either, but I know my brother follows European soccer

        • Camels would have been used a lot more widely

          • I use camels every day..Oh wait I actually burn them…;)

            • What?! That makes you sound like a maniac! 😀

            • Uhm ,, you know there is a brand of cigarettes called Camels. To make them produce the desired smoke, one needs to burn them. …;-)
              No life Camel has been hurt.

    • michael pulleine

      and the communist quiz show would be identical but in german!

  • michael pulleine

    what about a universe in which:

    Immanuel Kant was a real pissant

    Who was very rarely
    stable.

    Heidegger, Heidegger
    was a boozy beggar

    Who could think you
    under the table.

    David Hume could
    out-consume

    Schopenhauer and
    Hegel,

    And Wittgenstein was
    a beery swine

    Who was just as
    sloshed as Schlegel.

    There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya’

    ‘Bout the raising of
    the wrist.

    SOCRATES, HIMSELF,
    WAS PERMANENTLY PISSED…

    John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,

    On half a pint of
    shandy was particularly ill.

    Plato, they say,
    could stick it away;

    Half a crate of
    whiskey every day.

    Aristotle, Aristotle
    was a bugger for the bottle,

    Hobbes was fond of
    his dram,

    And Rene Descartes
    was a drunken fart: “I drink, therefore I am”

    Yes, Socrates,
    himself, is particularly missed;

    A lovely little
    thinker but a bugger when he’s pissed!

  • michael pulleine

    henry VII was impotent, he had had six wives and barely any children…

    • He certainly wasn’t impotent. He had 10 children, but most of them died during infancy.

      • Elizabeth Buchan-Kimmerly

        Tanya Huff has written a series of books in which one of Henry VIII (8th) ‘s illegitimate children, Henry FitzRoy, becomes a vampire and is living in Toronto , later Vancouver, as a romance writer.
        The series was made into a TV program Blood Ties in 2007.

    • Elizabeth Buchan-Kimmerly

      Impotent means unable to perform sexual intercourse.
      Infertile means unable to conceive children.
      And for women, barren means unable to carry a pregnancy to term.

      An impotent man could be fertile but would need artificial aid to conceive.

      Well, play his part in conception to be pedantic.

  • michael pulleine

    i wish there was more to do with Napoleon, he really is interesting, i was thinking of writing a short story (of course the pun is intended) about a universe in which Napoleon had access to highly advanced alien technology, allowing him to win the battle of the nile with his use of steampunk weaponry and machinery (yes… he will have a massive blimp)

  • Lief

    What I heard was that they had a new guy on the radar, and he said he heard something, but his superior said it was just static or something

  • Iron Legionnaire

    Number 10 is really great

    • Iron Legionnaire

      We already share the Earth with other species that, through relatively minimal evolution, could very well develop their own civilizations: the most prominent of which being the dolphins and whales. The only thing that dolphins biologically lack that we have to our advantage is opposable digits. Dolphins and whales have the greatest capacity for self-awareness and compassion of any animal known on Earth (three times that of humans). It’s unbelievable to think that we share the Earth with species that experience so much more than we can imagine. I think it really helps to put humans in our “place” when it comes to recognizing the phenomena of the natural universe and our relationship with them. I highly recommend viewing BBC Earth’s “Ocean Giants” documentary series of three episodes to fully grasp the intense wonder of these creatures.

      Other highly intelligent species on the Earth include some species of tropical birds, parrots in particular, apes, cephalopods, jumping spiders (maybe these guys aren’t building civilization anytime soon, but perhaps eventually), and, perhaps the most intriguing, prehistoric raptors.

      As for Homo neanderthalensis, having a subspecies so similar to us in consistent shared habitation would create a lot of interesting dynamics as Homo sapiens interact with Neaderthals. Some neanderthals would be enslaved, some trained as warriors, others might be incorporated into human culture as they learned from and perhaps expanded upon human values and developments. I can imagine ethnic distribution of human and neanderthal being very hard to distinguish. In fact, it has been theorized that prehistoric humans and neanderthals not only fought, but also lived in the same communities and generated offspring that shared DNA. It is now known that human DNA contains something like ~5-8% Neanderthal DNA (don’t quote me though). So in a world where Humans live alongside Neanderthals (and share more DNA), it’s not a matter of two separate species, but two different human ethnicities which would make for some interesting combinations with the ethnicities we know today. Imagine descendants of Neanderthals and East Asian Humans, or Australian Aboriginals, or South American Aztecs. How would modern international communities be different? How would the UN function? at some point, it all boils down to an infinite series of question after question, all of which cannot truly be answered, but which provide a platform for us humans to really stretch our minds and ponder the significance of our particular shard of reality.

  • Iron Legionnaire

    Number 17 is such a huge change that in order to alter the creation of the Earth this way you would need to go back very far in our solar system’s origin. Keep in mind that our solar system has orbited numerous times around our galaxy.

    • Iron Legionnaire

      . . . so only traveling in time might put you in a region of space not connected to the location of the early Earth. One theory is that time travel is almost synonymous with space travel, and that the two are so connected that traveling back in time, for example, also shifts location accordingly.

  • Iron Legionnaire

    Numbers 34, 14, and 48: North America was not “discovered” by Columbus or anyone since the first paleolithic peoples who crossed the land bridge between Northeast Asia and what is now Alaska, following migrating prey. The credit of Columbus for the discovery of anything is rife with ignorant bigotry since the people who lived where he explored were definitely capable of advanced thought and culture just as well as humans from developed nations; the fact that these peoples were less technologically advanced than the likes of Columbus gives him no right to invade, pillage, enslave, murder, conquer, and otherwise incriminate himself, and get away with honor in American history and culture. The pioneer we idolize and remember as the first explorer to discover the American continent hit the plate hundreds of years after the vikings did, and thousands upon thousands of years after Native Americans made homes from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn.

    Here’s a thought: if humans were vegetarians, they would have no motivation to follow the herds across this land bridge, and thus many areas of the world would remain unseen by humans for much longer. The major human migrations would occur with drought, or lack of vegetation. This is certainly not a comprehensive description about entirely vegetarian humans. For one, early humans would not have formed the same relationship with wolves who learned to nip scraps of meat from human camps. Additionally, the act of hunting active prey drove and honed human skill and innovation in the early stages of advancing hunter-gatherer societies, and perhaps enhanced our climb in intellect and technology to where we stand today. In a world where people ate only vegetable matter and no meat, the pace of human development would be slower, more relaxed. At this point in time, the majority of humans in this alternate reality might be more like the Native Americans, living in balance and reciprocal synergy with their natural environment, but with scientific, cultural, economic, religious, etc. advancements occurring in a more gradual pattern. This graduation would enable humans to learn from nature over time in ways that escape us in our fast-paced, overcrowded version of Earth.

    Number 48 is a very interesting idea, since an established Viking nation on the East Coast of North America could make for an entirely different modern world. First of all, the native peoples already living there would most likely encounter conflict with the Vikings just as with settlers from our timeline. Supposing that explorers from Europe discovered the region to be inhabited by Vikings, we may have seen a similar Columbus-like invasion and extermination of the Vikings (but who knows? maybe the Vikings could fend off the invaders?). Inland from the coast would likely remain dominated by Native American Indians, as the Vikings were at their strength as a maritime people. However, if Vikings successfully colonized the coast, as this alternate history suggests, then they very well may have been able to find ways to expand their territory further inland. Zooming ahead to the future might be very bizarre, since a nation descendent of Vikings could develop in regions of what is, for us, the United States. Whatever version of the United States might develop in similar comparison around the Viking nation would be unrecognizable, due to the difference in geopolitical and geostrategic motivation for the migration of people from Europe to America.

    This is very fun, thank you for sharing this list of alternate history ideas! 🙂

  • Thank you all so much for the positive feedback. It’s great to know I’ve got so many cogs turning.
    But as somebody pointed out somewhere on Facebook earlier, ideas are easy, developing an engaging narrative is the real challenge. If any of you manage to create an engaging story based on any of these ideas please send it to me and I’ll see about putting it on the site.

    More alt-history to come…

  • Iron Legionnaire

    BTW if you look up Neaderthalensis on google images, you’ll find what resembles unfiltered stereotyping of Neanderthals, just as you might see if Neanderthals were genetically prominent in humanity.

    • Elizabeth Buchan-Kimmerly

      Current thinking seems to go that almost all humans currently living have some Neandertha DNA. The exceptions, and thus the only true and pure homo sapiens, are sub-saharan Africans.

  • michael pulleine

    what if the roman empire didnt fall? (this isnt in the list)
    the roman empire would either:
    A) grow intellectually stagnant, never innovating as innovation is not required
    B)fall at a much later date, proving to be even more catastrophic

  • What if the Confederacy had won? I suppose that could be answered in a number of ways, depending on whether one considered how history is currently written is accurate. History isn’t just written by the victors, but its simplified to teach children the lessons the victors want taught. Slavery was an issue in the war, but it wasn’t the reason the South seceded. But that doesn’t jibe with the narrative the victors wanted to push.

    What if the Romans had not “converted” to Christianity? We know that science was developed as a result of the application of Aristotle’s observations by Christians who believed in a rational God who commanded His children to understand His creation. We know that modern ideas of individuality stem from the theological notion that we stand alone before God to answer for our life, as oppose to the Roman, dyadic worldview which saw others in terms of what group they belonged to (a worldview shared by about 90% of the world today.)
    These are some good questions!

    • James Hutchings

      “Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
      Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, 1861.

      • “[T]he contest is really for empire on the side of the North, and for independence on that of the South, and in this respect we recognize an exact analogy between the North and the Government of George III, and the South and the Thirteen Revolted Provinces. These opinions…are the general opinions of the English nation.”
        London Times, November 7, 1861

        “The Northern onslaught upon slavery was no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern states.”
        Charles Dickens, 1862

  • Elizabeth Buchan-Kimmerly

    Number 13 is The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson.

    • DP

      no , it would be the opposite: in Years of Rice and Salt (great book, btw), the Plague completely wipes out western civilization. this scenario implies no back death at all.
      in this scenario, the most immediate impact would be that de-population of europe does not occur, and with much more abundance of peasant’s cheap labor, there could’ve been a significant expansion of medieval societal standards, with prolongation of Serfdom for a much longer time.
      the overpopulation might also have had ‘foreign policy effect’, with a stimulation of outward-bound adventures, such as more frequent and massive crusades (and thus possibly more effective) and a earlier push across the atlantic to discover new lands to inhabitate.

  • Elizabeth Buchan-Kimmerly

    Number 3- If Elizabeth I had not been born,but the other children had survived, on the death of her brother, Edward, Mary Tudor would take the throne, which is what happened anyway.
    On Mary’s death, the throne, now firmly Catholic once more, would pass either to the Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, or to her son James VI of Scotland, which is what happened anyway, but there would have been strife between the Spanish influences brought in by Mary Tudor, who had a Spanish mother and a Spanish husband, and the French whose Auld Alliance with the Scots would become of great importance under Mary Stuart.
    The important point is that England and Scotland would still become a United Kingdom, but it would be a Catholic kingdom.

  • Aaron Davis

    No. 17 is basically Mondas.

  • Donald MacCuish

    To twist #38 & #39 around: What if the assassination attempts on any other president had succeeded? Jackson, Ford, Reagan, etc.

    What if the Treaty of Versailles was actually negotiated with the Germans (in reality it was not) and the terms were far more fairer that both sides could be happy with and therefore doesn’t necessarily give rise to Hitler and the Nazi party?