Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History, by Richard J. Evans

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

March 27, 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.

Counterfactual history done in such broad strokes ‘allows historians to rewrite history according to their present-day purposes and prejudices’

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”. Those intentions might sound reasonable enough, although when Professor Evans puts the results through an unremitting test, he gives failing grades to the lot.

Indeed, he takes delight in targeting history professors who have wavered from the path into counterfactual territory, and relishes poking holes in the work of Ferguson, not only the edited volume Virtual History but also his provocative, scholarly and compellingly argued 1998 monograph The Pity of War. Evans reprimands everyone and concludes that such work is unhelpful and misleading. On this analysis, the “what if” accounts often read more like “if only” hypotheticals, and sometimes merely wishful thinking. Counterfactual history done in such broad strokes, Evans maintains, “allows historians to rewrite history according to their present-day political purposes and prejudices”. He rejects altering the past along these lines as unconvincing on a number of counts: for stretching probabilities to the breaking point, for being poorly done, or sometimes even for not following the guidelines that Ferguson and others established on how to write satisfactory counterfactual history.

A much-explored scenario in the recent flood of literature and in the media is what would have happened if the Nazis had won the Second World War. Evans trudges through numerous movies and novels, none of which he likes very much. At times he sounds like a realist standing on stage pointing out the various inaccuracies and improbabilities to a flustered director and the actors in a play. He might well agree, of course, that we still have to leave room for the possibilities of learning about the past, besides getting the facts straight.

Historians frequently use at least short-term, as opposed to more extended, counterfactuals to analyse all kinds of happenings, most obviously to weigh the decisions of leaders at key turning points. For example, by briefly posing a counterfactual, we can bring out what was at stake in October 1941 when Stalin, hiding in a bomb shelter, attempted to offer Hitler generous peace terms, by which he would concede all of European Russia west of the Ural Mountains. As we know, at that moment, Hitler was at the pinnacle of his power, and would have none of it. However, only a few months later in December, the Red Army held Moscow and began to push back. At that time, Hitler could have withdrawn, and Stalin might still have agreed to a draconian peace. Nevertheless, the German leader in his hubris would not consider ordering a retreat, and the already horrific struggle in the East quickly descended into further mass crimes and genocide.

We weigh the significance of such decisions by considering hypothetical scenarios, just as we commonly evaluate other choices, for example, Stalin’s resolve in 1948 in declining the US offer of Marshall Plan aid. The Cold War was partly under way, but what if Stalin had accepted the funds? The Soviet peoples were experiencing famine and were far from getting over the ravages of war, and the country could hardly afford an arms race. (For a new perspective on their everyday deprivations, see Donald Filtzer’s 2010 book The Hazards of Urban Life in Late Stalinist Russia: Health, Hygiene, and Living Standards, 1943-1953). Yet Stalin turned down the aid; his great crime was to put his political principles before the welfare of the people. Readers need to learn about the significance of such choices, and the historian can bring that out by briefly discussing the hypotheticals. The mistake would be to extrapolate too far into the future and imagine a very different post-war world, without a Cold War. On balance it would seem that historians have their work cut out for them, namely to convey the full drama and excitement of what really happened in the past, or else, as Evans warns, we surely will face more counterfactual fantasies and “history lite”.

The author

“The first historical fiction I read was Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, which conjures up the past in such a vivid way that it made me want to study history rather than English or languages,” says Richard Evans, Regius professor of modern history and president of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

“I read the big historical novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which he thought were more important than his Sherlock Holmes stories but which are now forgotten; at university I read some of the real historical books on which his novels were based, and found them more exciting, so I gave up historical fiction; it’s not really for grown-ups.”

At school, Evans recalls, “I won prizes for most non-scientific subjects, though not the divinity prize (it still rankles, although it may have something to do with the fact that I submitted an essay arguing in favour of atheism).”

As a young scholar, the first major award he received was the Wolfson Foundation History Prize, in 1988, for Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years, 1830-1910, his first major book. “At that time there was no award ceremony; I just got a cheque in the post. Nowadays the Prize has more publicity, and I am now one of the judges.”

As a University of Oxford undergraduate, Evans was, he confesses, “a swot, obsessed with history and not much else”. His career as an academic would eventually take him to “the other place”, Cambridge - a development that was, he quips, “great, because Oxford is still full of people who knew me as an undergraduate”.

He continues: “I’m very fond of both places, and of my old Oxford colleges, Jesus and St Antony’s, and I go back fairly frequently. They are both collegiate universities that set great store by building academic communities, though the colleges have more power in Oxford, while the history faculty in Cambridge strikes me as being more cohesive. There are advantages in living in a small market town rather than in a much larger, partly industrial city, but Cambridge struggles to find accommodation for its growing numbers of graduate students, and has decided to build a whole new village on the northwestern outskirts of the city to accommodate them. Both Oxford and Cambridge are great institutions and I’m proud to be associated with them.”

Evans lives in the President’s Lodge at Wolfson College with his wife Christine, their sons Matthew and Nicholas, “and our chocolate brown labrador, Tuppence. It’s a five-bedroom 1930s house with its own driveway on to Barton Close and a gate into the college. All heads of Oxbridge colleges are contractually obliged to live on the premises, and it’s really lovely to be part of the college community in this way.”

Evans was knighted in 2012. He recalls: “It came as a tremendous shock when I opened the letter; hard to keep it secret for six weeks until the official announcement. The big day at the Palace was wonderful; the Queen was presiding and we had a few words; I was able to bring my wife and two teenage sons. For the boys, though, the highlight of the day was provided by Kate Winslet, who was also receiving an honour - they managed to get themselves photographed with her in the Palace forecourt after the ceremony.”

Knighthood does have its ups and downs: according to Evans, “The biggest irritation is provided by the very high proportion of people, British as well as foreign, who address me as Sir Evans. Most of the time you can’t use the title (forms to fill in have spaces for Mr, Dr, Professor etc, but not Sir). But if I do use it in a restaurant or hotel I definitely get better service!

“Most of the time I don’t mind if people don’t use it, but of course getting knighted for services to scholarship was a wonderful accolade, not just for me but also for Cambridge’s history faculty and the historical profession as a whole - it’s good to see historical scholarship recognised in this way.”

Of his academic protégés, Evans says, “I’ve supervised nearly 40 PhD students in my career, and the early ones are no longer young - two of them are professors at British universities - but I’m proud of all of them and derive enormous pleasure from seeing them make their way in the academic world. It’s a lifetime commitment, of course; I still find myself writing references for scholars whose PhD theses I supervised 30 years ago, and make sure I read their books when they’re published.”

If a good fairy were to offer him the gift of a skill or talent, Evans says, he would opt for “the ability to play the piano really well, not just average for an amateur”.

Karen Shook

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 March 2014

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