The history essay: the past that never was
What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo, Franz Ferdinand had survived in Sarajevo or Hitler had never come to power? Counterfactual histories are all the rage – but their historical value is questionable
A new historical fashion has come to the fore since the mid-1990s. Proponents and practitioners call it counterfactual history: alternative versions of the past in which one small alteration in the timeline leads to a different outcome from the one we know actually happened. Starting with the pioneering and still unsurpassed Virtual History, a collection of scintillating essays edited by Niall Ferguson in 1997, an unceasing stream of books and essays has appeared.