Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals

Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, edited by Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, is a collection of nine essays examining alternative outcomes of significant historical events. 

Perhaps the most interesting and important part of the book is Ferguson’s lengthy and detailed introduction in which he puts forward a rather convincing case for the validity of counterfactual history. Ferguson is a passionate critic of deterministic approaches to history. Not only does he reject the view that historical events must have been inevitable simply because they happened, he also sees the exploration of possible alternative outcomes as an essential means of understanding history.

He is careful to stress that these exercises in “counterfactual history” should not be confused with the kinds of alternative histories so beloved of science fiction writers. To be useful a counterfactual must be genuinely plausible. It must be an alternative that people at the time saw as not merely possible but quite likely. It’s not enough to ask what if Lee had won the battle of Gettysburg - to qualify as a useful counterfactual you would have to demonstrate that Lee’s victory had been not merely a possibility but had been seen by qualified observers at the time as a real possibility.

Some of the counterfactuals in this book are so intriguing, and so plausible, that I may well indulge myself by discussing them at greater length so expect some further posts on this subject.

The first of the counterfactuals in the book is contributed by John Adamson. He suggests that if King Charles I of England had won the Bishops’ War in 1639 his position would have been so immeasurably strengthened that there would have been no question of civil war. He further suggests that Charles not only could have won the Bishops’ War, he should have done so. In fact he goes so far as to suggest that the king had the war all but won until he lost his nerve at the critical moment and failed to fight the decisive battle he would certainly have won. Had he won this war not only would there have been no Civil War, it is highly likely there would have been no Glorious Revolution and a Stuart king might well be occupying the throne today.

J. C. D. Clark’s contribution explores the possibility that the American Revolution might have been avoided, with profound consequences not just for American but for European history (with the possibility that as a result the French Revolution might also not have occurred). 

Alvin Jackson speculates that Ireland could have been granted Home Rule in 1912 with the possibility that a great deal of subsequent misery might have been avoided.

Ferguson’s own contribution deals with the First World War and is a fuller version of his speculations in The Pity of War.

His idea is that there is no reason to assume that Britain’s participation in the war was inevitable. Had Britain not intervened it’s likely that the Central Powers would have won. Ferguson believes this might well have been a much happier outcome.

Andrew Roberts considers the question of a successful German invasion of Britain in 1940 while Michael Burleigh considers the possibility that Hitler might have won the war.

The least successful counterfactual in the collection is from Diane Kunz who deals with the alternative of President John Kennedy surviving the assassination attempt. She believes that had he survived he would now be remembered as a minor and distinctly mediocre president. She also suggests that nothing much else would have changed and that Kennedy would have involved the US just as deeply in Vietnam as did Johnson.

The two chapters that particularly interested me dealt with the Cold War. Jonathan Haslam asks if the Cold War could have been avoided while Mark Almond puts forward the theory that far from being inevitable the collapse of Soviet communism was in fact extremely unlikely. So unlikely that it could only have happened with a complete idiot in charge. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, such an idiot was available in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev. 

The book concludes with a witty and amusing afterword by Ferguson in which he constructs a complete (and clearly tongue-in-cheek) alternative history of the world from 1646 to 1996.

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