What if Hitler had decided to postpone his invasion of Russia in 1941 or had been successful in defeating Stalin before the Russian winter hit hard? Would we all be speaking German now? If the famous Cold War game of chicken between Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis had gone differently, would the probable resultant global nuclear war have reduced the modern cities of Moscow and New York to Chernobyl-esque wastelands?
History would seem in many cases to balance on a knife edge, which ‘counterfactual history,’ the study of alternative scenarios and outcomes, allows us to explore. Importantly, counterfactual history tends to surround key events, often military, such as President Truman’s decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan, or the Cold War as mentioned. To do this on a smaller, personal scale we would probably end up asking things like “What if I hadn’t have had come to York,” or “What if I had left school at 16” or whatever and probably go a bit mad.
Of course there are those who argue that the practice of counterfactual history is in essence, bad history. Famously, the British historian E.P. Thompson described counterfactualism as “Geschichtswissenschlopff,” the beautiful German word with the not so beautiful translation of “unhistorical shit.” I’ll not go into too much of the complicated theoretical debates surrounding counterfactualism, but in basic terms historians like Thompson would see the possible outcomes surrounding an event like WWII as irrelevant, they simply didn’t happen and we should move on.
This view, I will argue, is unnecessarily negative. Counterfactualism can do more than offer head-scratching alternate realities, it gives historians a great tool in their analysis of the past. Two great articles in the journal “Historically Speaking” written by Jeremy Black and Richard N. Lebow explore this. Firstly, as Lebow describes, counterfactuals are an important part of the thinking behind government policy. The famous example is the experience of Chamberlain’s failed appeasement of Hitler during the 1930s and the possibility of Hitler having been restrained if Britain and France had been more aggressive in rhetoric, which had an impact on the aggression of the Churchill-era.
Secondly, counterfactuals allow us to better understand our present situation by creating better awareness of how this present came about. In discussing how easily full scale nuclear war could have broken out during the course of the twentieth century with the probable devastating effects of this, we can question whether modern scientific discovery have been solely a force for good (a debate for another article).
Obviously counterfactual history is complicated and historians who view it in a positive light also disagree in how it should be used, but I hope I have at least given you a general idea of why it is a valuable tool and not simply imaginative speculation to discuss with your grandmother over sunday roast.
If you’re a history nerd like me or just generally interested, here are my references and some interesting reading:
Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, ed. Niall Ferguson (Several what if scenarios eg. Hitler winning WWII, Kennedy living, communism not collapsing). ISBN 978-0330351324 Richard Lebow, Good History needs counterfactuals, in “Historically Speaking,” (More theoretical)
Jeremy Black, Counterfactualism Defended in “Historically Speaking,” enter link description here(Same as above)
What if the Germans had won the First World War?