Magazine article Times Higher Education

Reality Trumps the 'What-Ifs'

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Reality Trumps the 'What-Ifs'

Article excerpt

Ascertaining the truth behind events is what matters, says Robert Gellately, not hypotheticals

Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History By Richard J. Evans Little, Brown

224pp, £20.00 and £14.99 ISBN 9781408705520, 5537 and 5544 (e-book) Published 27 March 2014

What might have happened if Britain had not gone to war in 1914 and Germany had won the war against France and Russia? Would there have been no Weimar crises, Hitler and Nazism, and no Second World War, with its long list of horrors? Moreover, would not Europe today look much as it does anyway, with Germany the dominant economic and political power? These kinds of counterfactual or hypothetical questions can sometimes be useful. Lately, however, they have become so popular that they form a genre all to themselves. Changing one among many political variables or key decisions, while assuming that an entire alternative chain of events would unfold as one might wish, may raise scenarios worth mulling over, but most historians are sceptical of going so far as to write an entire volume of "counterfactual" history. If some general speculations of that kind are not new to our time, since 1990 more "what if" stories have appeared as books, novels, documentaries and movies than in all the previous centuries put together.

The sheer volume of this material makes it impossible to overlook. Anglo-American writers appear to be over-represented in this field: to mention one example, they have produced 80 per cent of the "future fictions" that deal with Nazism, while Germans have put out a large portion of the rest. The creators want their efforts taken seriously, not written off as parlour games. Richard Evans takes them at their word and subjects the vast output to critical historical analysis. He presented the results in three instalments last year as the prestigious Menahem Stern lectures in Jerusalem, and he publishes them here, with some additions and afterthoughts, in a stimulating, thought-provoking and in places quite humorous book that will be of interest to professional and lay readers alike. The counterfactualists and their fans, however, will not be amused.

Evans' explanation for the imaginative turn to counterfactualism since 1990 is that several social, political and cultural changes came together. First, the great ideologies such as fascism, communism, socialism, Marxism and other doctrines that had dominated Western thought for so long, turned out to be fallacious, or as Evans puts it, "the isms all became wasms". Therewith, the old reliable teleologies vanished "and history became open-ended, freeing up a space for speculation about the courses it might have taken". At the same time, postmodernism emphasised the subjectivity of the historian, which in turn partly undermined or threatened to date the scientific search for objectivity. Evans approvingly quotes a 2004 comment from historian (and now Labour politician) Tristram Hunt, bemoaning the marginalisation of rigorous social history by the new cultural history, with the upshot "that what we are offered in the postmodern world of contingency and irony is a series of biographical discourses in which one narrative is as valid as another. One history is as good as another and with it the blurring of factual, counter-factual and fiction. All history is 'what if' history."

What are we to make of books such as Niall Ferguson's pioneering 1997 collection, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, or a similar 2004 effort by Andrew Roberts, What Might Have Been: Leading Historians on Twelve "What Ifs" in History? Evans maintains that these and other conservative writers, including especially British Eurosceptics, have had "more or less a monopoly" on writing these counterfactual accounts. He says the Right's "declared purpose is to restore free will and contingency to history and to reenthrone the individual actor in history too often studied in terms of impersonal forces". …

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