It’s only human to wonder how things might have gone differently. And historians, or history buffs, have spent an inordinate amount of time wondering how events from the distant past might have differed. From fictional works like The Man in the High Castle and Guns of the South to nonfiction essay collections like Virtual History and What If?, we’re obsessed with reexamining how history might have gone if the Battle of Gettysburg were waged differently, if Winston Churchill had died in a car accident before World War II or if Napoleon III had consulted with the ghost of Bonaparte before fighting Prussia. But few academic historians take the practice seriously; the celebrated E.H. Carr, for instance, dismissed counterfactuals as a “parlor game” that has “nothing to do with history.”
Certainly, alternate or counterfactual history can make for a fun conversation starter or an intellectual exercise. But pop historians like Niall Ferguson will often argue that it has legitimate value in analyzing the past. “The counterfactual method is to make assessments, judgments, about past decision-making,” Ferguson has argued. “This seems to me an extremely important part of the historian’s responsibility…It wasn’t simply about, so to speak, presenting the past and simply leaving the readers to choose. To my mind, once you’ve shown why this decision was taken and what the alternative scenarios were, it seems perfectly impossible to resist the temptation (at least I find it impossible to resist) to say, “Well, actually, maybe they chose the wrong one.”
Of course, there are several problems with this idea. For one, counterfactual history tends to focus on Big Picture events – battles, assassinations, accidental deaths of major figures – that play into Great Man views of history. You hear discussions about what might have happened if Alexander the Great fell at the Granicus much more often than about how prolonged drought contributed to Greece’s downfall. This neatly eradicates both long-term historical trends and everyday experiences. There is little place in counterfactual history for the peasant or factory worker, the small shopkeeper or artisan, the teacher or doctor, the housewife or professional woman, let alone racial and religious underclasses, unless their path happens to cross with Caesar or Hitler. And why you’ll occasionally read a scenario about a Mongol conquest of Europe, you’re not likely to find pieces about the Mali Empire enduring in west Africa, or the Nawab of Bengal winning at Plassey.
Richard J. Evans, who wrote an entire book criticizing the concept, points to another shortcoming such stories possess. Historians like Ferguson, Evans argues, use counterfactuals “to rewrite history according to their present-day political purposes and prejudices.” Thus Ferguson has long argued that the British Empire should have stayed out of the First World War, not for any humanitarian purposes but so that Britain could remain the world’s dominant power. For an author who has written multiple books on the inherent cultural superiority of the West and once called himself “a fully paid-up member of the neo-imperialist gang,” it’s not difficult to see what purpose such fantasies serve.
Similarly, Ta Nehisi Coates finds it telling what “alternate histories” popular writers revisit. Surely not everyone who wonders what might have happened if Nazi Germany won is a closet fascist; yet it’s hard to ignore how the triumph of fascism, the Confederate States of America and other reactionary movements tend to dominate our imaginations. It is not the question of what might have happened if the German Revolution of 1918-1919 succeeded in destroying the Weimar Republic that vexes popular writers, for instance, but how the Russian Bolsheviks might have been defeated, or how Chiang Kai-Shek could have vanquished Mao Tse-Tung, or if American politicians had ignored the Vietnam antiwar movement. In other words, if the Left hadn’t defeated the Right, how might things be better?
At the very least, Coates argues, such viewpoints evince insensitivity. It’s possible for a white history buff to view a Southern victory in the Civil War (ignoring how quickly racism was codified in the postwar South) as “the kind of provocative thought experiment that can be engaged in when someone else’s lived reality really is fantasy to you, when your grandmother is not in danger of losing her vote, when the terrorist attack on Charleston evokes honest sympathy, but inspires no direct fear.” Similarly, wargaming how Rommel might have defeated Montgomery or Paulus could have overrun Stalingrad is more fun if your ancestors weren’t targets of the Einsatzgruppen.
Rather than wondering if the Confederacy won the Civil War, Coates asks, “what if John Brown had succeeded? What if the Haitian Revolution had spread to the rest of the Americas? What if black soldiers had been enlisted at the onset of the Civil War? What if Native Americans had halted the advance of whites at the Mississippi? And we need not wait to note that more interesting than asking what the world would be like if the white South had won is asking why so many white people are enthralled with a world where the dreams of Harriet Tubman were destroyed by the ambitions of Robert E. Lee.”
Of course, it’s possible to make alternate histories that imagine, for instance, if the Aztecs defeated Cortes or to explore a Confederate victory and its legacy from the perspective of slaves. It’s even possible to write an essay pondering how the world would be different without potatoes. But these discussions tend not to appear in the more popular works of alternate history, which obsess over battles and political upheavals from the perspective of the powerful. If conterfactuals are to have any merit, they need to consider contingencies beyond the actions of Great Men and not just foster reactionary myths.