Should we care about what wasn’t there?
Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History By Richard J. Evans Hachette Australia, 205pp, $35.99 THE centenary of World War I is sparking a wave of commemorations and new history. It has also reignited the history wars, both here and in Britain.
Take commentary on the way Anzac Day is being celebrated and interpreted. In a recent article in this newspaper, commentator Nick Cater joined the critique of Anzac revisionism. One of his targets was Peter Stanley, the cofounder of Honest History, an initiative that aims to ‘‘call out any history that is tendentious, unjustified, exaggerated, distorted, partial or unbalanced’’. Cater called this condescending.
In Britain, the battle is divided on similar lines, with Richard Evans, an expert on modern German history, lined up against the Conservative government’s Education Secretary Michael Gove. Their disagreements on the nature of World War I and on the teaching of history have been frank and public.
Evans is also in dispute with more rightleaning historians, most notably Niall Ferguson, on the doing of history. In Altered Pasts, Evans sets out to show that Ferguson uses the counterfactual to support his own world view rather than to illuminate the past. At the heart
June 21-22, 2014 of these debates lies the question, ‘‘Can there be honest history?’’ Perhaps not; it is always subjective. Good history, though, is, to quote John Lukacs, a ‘‘construction that is not only dependent on but strictly, very strictly, circumscribed by what we actually and honestly know’’.
So where does this leave the increasingly popular type of ‘‘what if’’ or counterfactual history? That is what Evans asks in this book, which is an expanded version of his 2013 Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures.
It’s hard to imagine how the audience followed these talks, assuming they included the same prose, which sometimes descends into ornate, 100-plus-word sentences stuffed too full of ideas or polemic. And, given the very equivocal conclusion he reaches, one wonders why he bothered to turn them into a book intended for wide distribution.
The lectures trace the history of the genre. Evans thinks counterfactual history is primarily a form of wishful thinking, practised for the fun of it or as the basis of fiction or to construct retrospective utopias. He does have some time for economic historians who borrow the counterfactual as an explanatory tool about the contribution to development of a particular intervention.
The American historian Robert Fogel, for example, built a model to show what would have happened to the US economy if railways had not been built across the continent. This use of ‘‘what if’’ is more akin to the mind experi- ments and modelling used by military strategists, policy advisers and futurists to rethink tactics and improve decision-making.
For Evans that’s not the main game. He is interested in examining the way conservative historians use counterfactuals to build the case for free will and chance, as opposed to Marx’s idea that social and economic forces determine the course of history. His retracing of historiographical debates is for the specialists. Its crescendo is a detailed examination of how Ferguson and his colleagues misused the counterfactual in a 1997 volume of essays called Virtual History. The essays cover intriguing
Virtual History questions such as: What if Britain had stayed out of World War I? What if Germany had won World War II? How would England look if there had been no Oliver Cromwell? What if John F. Kennedy had lived?
Evans concedes that Ferguson’s instruction to his co-authors to only use alternatives that were actually considered at the time is the right approach to counterfactual history. This can help with the historian’s central task of explaining why things happened, which also involves explaining why others did not. But he argues Ferguson did not heed his own advice, succumbing to implausible speculation that
One of the essays in considers how England would have fared without Oliver Cromwell, here depicted dismissing parliament