Should we care about what wasn’t there?

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Francesca Beddie

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

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